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Three and out

Irish's lack of fight, Meyer's availability ultimately cost Willingham

Posted: Tuesday November 30, 2004 8:30PM; Updated: Tuesday November 30, 2004 8:30PM
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Tyrone Willingham
Too many lopsided losses eventually cost Tyrone Willingham his job.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

In the hours after Ty Willingham was fired by Notre Dame, ESPN News analsyst Trevor Matich (who looks, by the way, as if he could bench-press the entire College GameDay cast) implied something was askew about Willingham's firing. Noting the Irish wins over a pair of top 10 programs (Michigan and Tennessee) this autumn and the fact that other ND coaches had struggled in their third seasons without being fired, Matich wondered aloud "if there isn't something else going on here."

I'm not sure what to infer from what Matich said, but here's what I know: Two of Notre Dame's previous five coaches before Willingham, Gerry Faust and Bob Davie, did struggle in their third seasons. Davie went 5-7 and Faust 7-5. Neither improved significantly in the two more seasons they were allotted and, in retrospect, perhaps the university should have pulled the trigger on their tenures earlier.

The other three coaches -- Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz? Each won a national championship in his third season in South Bend.

Ty Willingham was not fired because he failed to win a national championship. Ty Willingham, who by every account is a man of impeccable integrity and character, a man possessed of both wisdom and intellect, was fired because 1) under him the Irish no longer had any fight and 2) Notre Dame did not want to miss out on a chance to hire Urban Meyer .

It wasn't Willingham's 21-15 record that did him in so much as the manner in which Notre Dame so often lost the past three seasons. The Irish have lost by 30 or more points 20 times in their more than 118 seasons. Five of those 30-point losses occurred during Willingham's tenure. Holtz and Devine, for the record, never lost by that many. Parseghian did so twice, and one was the infamous Anthony Davis game in which USC rallied from being down 24-6 to winning 55-24. Faust lost by that margin only once, his final game, the 58-7 beatdown at Miami.

For those of who attended Notre Dame and regularly check the "Cannot Attend" box on invitations to weddings that take place in autumn (unless it's specified in the invite that a big-screen TV has been secured for the reception hall), the past two seasons have been especially ignominious (see, I attended a bastion of academia!). The 38-0 shutouts by both Michigan and Florida State in 2003, for example. Or the trio of 31-point losses to Southern Cal. The eight losses by three touchdowns or more.

You can make the argument that Notre Dame does not have the talent to match up with those teams, and maybe you're right. But the margin of those losses suggest something more insidious than a disparity in talent; those routs suggest that as a team (not as individuals, but as a team), Notre Dame lacks strength of character. And that flaw goes back on the coaches.

September 9, 2000, was my lowest moment as a Notre Dame fan and alum. The top-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers invaded South Bend and so did their fans. So many alums had scalped their tickets to Husker fans that Notre Dame Stadium became a sea of red. The rest of us were a sea of red faces. It was embarrassing. Or ignominious. I was ashamed for Notre Dame and not one member of that football squad could have failed to notice that, by and large, their fans had sold them out (not the students; Notre Dame students are loyal to the nth degree; they're even holding a rally for Willingham on Wednesday on the steps of the administration building).

But here's the thing. Anybody could see that Nebraska had more size, and had so much more speed, and they also had that year's Heisman Trophy winner, Eric Crouch. But the Irish, under Bob Davie, fought. They played every down as if it was the game's most crucial play and took Nebraska to overtime. The Huskers eventually won on a brilliant bootleg by Crouch, but here's the other thing: Afterward I remember feeling tremendously disappointed that we'd lost. Four years later, had the Irish taken Southern Cal to overtime last Saturday night, I imagine Notre Dame students and alums might even have toasted one another. That's how far the program has fallen.

Bob Ryan said on ESPN's Around the Horn that this "will once and for all prove that Notre Dame is just like everybody else" (Ryan, like Mike Lupica, attended Boston College; someone call me the first time either of them say something halfway complimentary about ND). A few other ESPN analysts suggested that the Irish just can't stack up with the nation's top schools in terms of talent.

I've heard all this before. During my freshman year, 1984, the Irish finished 6-5 before going to a bowl. That's the same record they have now. Let's take a look at that underwhelming Irish offense, which then, as now, is shouldering most of the blame for Notre Dame's woes:

• At tailback, Allen Pinkett, who would become the school's all-time leading rusher (Autrey Denson broke Pinkett's record more than a dozen years later) and play in the NFL

• At quarterback, Steve Beuerlein, one of those guys whose first name might as well have been "Much-maligned". Beuerlein just retired from the NFL THIS YEAR!

• At tight end, Mark Bavaro, who would become an All-Pro and win two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. Bavaro, by the way, was the spitting image of current Irish tight end Anthony Fasano.

• At split end/flanker, Tim Brown. He would win a Heisman and is still playing in the NFL.

(The current Irish? Darius Walker is solid at tailback; Brady Quinn, with some coaching, will probably leave South Bend as the school's all-time leader in most passing categories. Fasano is Bavaro re-born. And wideout Marcus Stovall, a 6-foot-5 senior-to-be who has yet to play to his potential, was compared to Randy Moss when he came out of high school.)

But even with that talent, the '84 Irish were average at best under Faust. In college football, one dynamic coach can make all the difference. Lou Holtz proved that. For one half last Saturday night in Los Angeles, so did Ty Willingham. Who, if they watch the Irish play regularly, witnessed the first quarter of Notre Dame-Southern Cal and didn't ask out loud, "Where has that been all year?" The Irish executed, they played with purpose and they took the Fight right at Southern Cal.

But then, in the third quarter, they either 1) got cute or 2) failed to make plays. The timeout before the trick play in which Carlyle Holiday threw to quarterback Brady Quinn? Even Dan Fouts, on ABC, noted that you might as well send a telegram to the defense. My ND buddy Smoron noted later that, even though Brady Quinn was standing out of bounds, at least he was open, and besides, how can you blame a guy for wanting to get close to the USC Song Girls? I replied that it was emblematic of Holiday's career that, even though Quinn was open and out of bounds, Holiday overthrew him.

Later that period, Southern Cal faced third down and long (and, if you've been watching ND the past five years, you know that's when the Irish are most vulnerable) and for once Notre Dame actually forced Matt Leinart to toss an incomplete pass. But wait. Noseguard Derek Landri was offside. So the Trojans got another crack at third down, and this time Leinart hit Reggie Bush on a flareout. Bush sprinted to what the kids call "the house." And the game, and Willingham's career in South Bend, was suddenly over.

Winning football teams make plays. That has little to do with talent. Two plays before Pitt's winning touchdown pass earlier this month, a Notre Dame defensive back let a sure interception flutter through his hands. Two weeks earlier that same DB got burned on Boston College's winning TD pass. Meanwhile, in between those losses, Notre Dame traveled to Knoxville and won. The Irish might not have done so if the defense hadn't knocked Erik Ainge out of the game on the last play of the first half, and that wouldn't have happened had not the Notre Dame linebacker, Brandon Hoyte, rushed all-out on the play as if he were the BiPolar Express. Little plays like that make all the difference.

A few other points:

• "The great programs," as Woody Paige said on Around the Horn, "can always return." He's right. Southern Cal and Oklahoma were long-dormant, tradition-rich programs at the dawn of this century. The Trojans were 31-29 in the five seasons before Pete Carroll was hired in 2000. The Sooners were 12-22 in the three seasons before Bob Stoops was hired in 1999. Five weeks from now they may very well play against one another for the national championship.

• Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White all but admitted that Notre Dame places more emphasis on winning on the football field than in the classroom. "From Sunday through Friday our football team has exceeded all expectations," White said during Tuesday afternoon's news conference -- and that would be cool if ND were a MAC or C-USA school used to playing weeknight games. "In fact, it's never been better."

Willingham's dismissal is proof that despite assembling a program whose players represent the university proudly in terms of academics and overall citizenship (that is, not busting caps in other people at off-campus bars, parties, etc.), if you don't win, you cannot stay. At a school that purports to place academics and ideals above all else, you might say that the administration's actions today reek of hypocrisy. They do. But this is nothing new. Knute Rockne and George Gipp never graduated HIGH SCHOOL, and they were admitted to Notre Dame. The former at least made himself into a student, but Gipp was never more than a ringer when he played for the Irish.

• Many an analyst has already said or will say some variation of what Jim Donnan said on ESPNews Tuesday afternoon: "[The Irish] just don't have enough speed to compete at a national level." What you won't hear any of them say is what former Heisman Trophy winner and Golden Domer Paul Hornung said eight months earlier: "We must get the black athlete if we're going to compete."

In terms of units, Notre Dame's offensive line, its defensive front seven and even its offensive backfield are above average. The defensive front seven, in fact, were often awesome, especially at rush defense. Where the Irish are lacking is defensive backs and speedy wideouts.

Notre Dame's speediest receiver this fall was wideout/white-out Matt Shelton. One safety, Tom Zbikowski, is also Caucasian. While no TV analyst who wants to keep his job will dare say it, Hornung was correct to a degree. It's cynical to think that you cannot find great African-American athletes who cannot also compete in the classroom, but it's equally naive to think that the best college football programs in the country are not looking for African-American athletes to fill their two-deep charts in their defensive secondaries. Or let me put it to you this way: When was the last time you saw a Top 25 school whose four DBs were all white?

It's interesting to note that the best defensive back at Notre Dame during the Ty Willingham era, All-America safety Shane Walton, originally matriculated at Notre Dame on a soccer scholarship. Walton, who is African-American, walked on to the football team of his own volition.

Whenever I hear analysts cloak their verbiage while suggesting that Notre Dame lacks speed, I always wonder why they don't ask the obvious follow-up question: WHY? The answer may be something that nobody wants to deal with candidly.

• Offensively, Notre Dame never developed an strong identity under Willingham. In a loss to Purdue last season Brady Quinn attempted something like 60 passes (in just his second start). The following week Julius Jones set a single-game rushing record. It seemed as if the Irish rarely ran traps or even counters on running plays.

If you want to succeed at Notre Dame, you have to be able to run the ball between the tackles. That is exactly what the Irish did on their opening drive versus Southern Cal, arguably the offensive high-water mark of Willingham's tenure. What does it say about ND that senior tailback Ryan Grant came within six yards of being only the second rusher to gain 100 against Southern Cal in the past two seasons? To me it says that the O-line at ND prefers pancaking defenders to blocking for quarterbacks making three-step drops in a West Coast offense.

• Finally, it IS deplorable that there are only two African-American head coaches in Division I-A. But to play the race card and suggest that Notre Dame dumped Willingham because of his race is unfair. Notre Dame hired Willingham. His demeanor, somewhat aloof and often taciturn, was unlike that of Parseghian, Faust and Holtz. In fact, in demeanor Willingham was more akin to Devine. Devine received far more criticism and much less support in South Bend than Willingham has. Most of us were rooting for Ty; not because of his race but because of his integrity. But if you honestly think the Irish would be better off three years from now with Willingham than with Meyer, you haven't been watching Notre Dame football of late.