SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Notre Dame mishandled the firing Tyrone Willingham as football coach and is not doing a good job in its search for his replacement well, board of trustees member Dave Duerson said Friday.
Duerson, a former defensive back for the Irish and the Chicago Bears, told Chicago radio station WSCR-AM there are bigger problems at Notre Dame than the football team’s struggles.
“With all the other things going on at the university, the least of the problems was wins and losses,” he said. “There’s greater dissension in some other things at the university that need to be corrected and dealt with.”
Duerson said he could not be more specific because of his obligations as a trustee. The Associated Press left a message seeking comment Friday at Duerson’s home Lincolnshire, Ill.
Duerson said trustees were not consulted — but should have been — before Willingham was fired Nov. 30 after the Irish went 21-15 in his three years as coach.
“As we all see, it’s left quite a black eye on the university,” Duerson said. “It should have involved the entire board. We should have at least been involved in the discussion instead of the blind-sided nature in which it was handled.”
Duerson is the second high-profile university official to speak out against the firing. The Rev. Edward Malloy, retiring as university president on June 30, said he not only was opposed to the firing but was embarrassed by the school’s decision to depart from its normal practice of giving a coach five years.
University spokesman Matt Storin said Friday there was disagreement over the decision to fire Willingham.
“But I can tell you that the university administration is strongly united in the search for a new coach and we’re nearing the conclusion of that process,” he said.
He declined comment on other remarks by Duerson, saying he had not heard them.
Duerson said he did not think race was a factor in the firing of Willingham, the first black head coach in any sport at Notre Dame.
“But let me put it this way, it was more difficult to get Ty hired,” said Duerson, who also is black. “That was where race was an issue.”
Duerson also questioned those in charge of the search for a new coach, saying they are the same group responsible for hiring George O’Leary three years ago. O’Leary was fired after five days, when the school learned he lied on his biographical background, and Willingham was hired.
Duerson said O’Leary was not on the school’s A-list. He said the school had targeted then-Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden, then-San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, Oregon coach Mike Belotti and Willingham.
“O’Leary was not on our hit list. Ty was. I got a phone call, we all got a phone call, meet us in Atlanta, we’re making a hire. That’s how that occurred,” Duerson said.
He also questioned the direction of this year’s search. Athletic director Kevin White and incoming university president, the Rev. John Jenkins, flew to Utah last week to meet with Utes coach Urban Meyer, but he accepted the Florida job.
The school reportedly has met this week with former Irish quarterback Tom Clements, now the Buffalo Bills’ offensive coordinator, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, a Notre Dame alumni who did not play college football, and Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache, a former Irish assistant.
Lingering questions were answered emphatically by the 2012 team, but 2013 is an all-new season that brings all-new question marks. Brian Kelly feels fairly confident his offense is in a great position to take a step forward, but to do that, they’ll need the services of some under-the-radar players.
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