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Undesirable Irish

Why Notre Dame has become the worst job in college football

Posted: Saturday December 4, 2004 3:33PM; Updated: Saturday December 4, 2004 9:59PM
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Tyrone Willingham
Tyrone Willingham didn't live up to the standards of Notre Dame's boosters -- but did he have an impossible task?
AP

Notre Dame finally has its national title: the worst job in college football.

No computers were needed to determine this championship. No polls, late-game rallies or controversial calls.

The Fighting (for Their Dignity) Irish earned their place atop college football's role of iniquity when they were spurned in their lame bid to lure Utah coach Urban Meyer to South Bend to replace Tyrone Willingham, the first coach in Notre Dame history fired before the end of his initial contract.

I wasn't the only one who struggled to stifle a chuckle upon hearing Friday that Meyer had stunned the Arrogant Irish by accepting Florida's seven-year, $14 million offer to coach the Gators rather than return to Notre Dame, where he was once an assistant.

In fact, I thought it was mighty funny. Notre Dame, You've Been Sacked!

Meyer's move made me think of the spiritual mantra, with a bit of a twist: God truly don't like ugly. And you can be sure that the ugliness perpetrated by perhaps the most famous Catholic college in the nation was not lost on Him.

Make no mistake: What happened at Notre Dame this week was Ugly.

Notre Dame officials and (let's be real here) its boosters fired Willingham after only three seasons because he could not morph the Irish into USC, Oklahoma, Auburn or even Utah. Willingham represented the Irish with passion and pride. His players, by Irish AD Kevin White's own accounting, were wonderful young men who achieved unprecedented results in the classroom.

But on Saturdays they were, well, Stanford. And at Notre Dame, that simply isn't acceptable. The Irish still fancy the notion that they should be perennial national title contenders (they haven't won since 1988) with an engraved invitation to a major bowl game (they haven't been to one since 1993) each season.

Well, this is the cold, hard truth, Notre Dame fans: Those days are buried alongside Knute Rockne and Dan Devine.

Meyer made the smartest call of his career, because Notre Dame will never again be a regular contender for the national title. And let's stop blaming the school's high academic requirements. Sure, the school's admission standards are a barrier for many of the nation's top athletes, but a surly admissions officer isn't even one of the top three reasons the job is the worst in college football.

The primary culprit is the Irish's schedule. In the BCS era, an undefeated record does not guarantee an invitation to the title game (See: Auburn, Utah and Boise State), and a single loss (Cal, Texas) can make you Team Irrelevant. Notre Dame plays the toughest schedule in the nation, and will do so at least until 2008, the last season for which its schedule is already locked in. Next year, four of the Irish's first five games are on the road, at Pittsburgh, Michigan, Washington and Purdue. Then they'll face USC at home. Season over.

The second reason is the one Notre Dame officials and boosters seem most delusional about: Notre Dame just simply isn't Notre Dame anymore. It's no longer the Holy Grail of college football. Talented young men no longer dream of representing the Golden Dome and following the legacies of the Four Horsemen and the Joes, Theismann and Montana.

Blue-chip players dream of competing for conference titles. That's not happening at Notre Dame. It's happening at places like Purdue, Wisconsin, Cal, Florida, Auburn and even Boise State.

They dream of playing close to family and friends, which helped schools like Virginia Tech, Iowa and LSU retain home-grown talent and achieve respectability. South Bend? Please.

The third reason Notre Dame has come to this place was ignited 13 years ago when the school signed NBC to be its exclusive football broadcaster. Most TV deals are struck with conferences, allowing teams to share the television revenue and the pressure to produce solid ratings. As an independent, the Irish signed a deal that allows them to pocket all the revenue (variously reported to be $9 million annually). But it also puts the ratings burden squarely -- and solely -- on Irish shoulder pads.

It also places another "player" among those pressuring Notre Dame to be winners again: television.

Last December, NBC re-upped with Notre Dame, signing through 2010, despite seeing the ratings for Irish games plummet from an average of 6.2 million households in 1993 to just 2.63 million homes last season. Whether network officials grumbled this fall isn't known, but the potential impact of diminishing ratings could not have been far from the minds of those who decided Willingham's fate last week.

Upon announcing the new deal last year, NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol said: "With Tyrone Willingham, the football program is in the right hands. He embodies Notre Dame's core values, and his leadership, character and drive assure Notre Dame's return to its traditional place among the elite national powers."

OK, Irish, now what?

Roy S. Johnson is an assistant managing editor for Sports Illustrated. His "Pass the Word" column appears on SI.com every Friday. Catch Johnson on CNN Headline News every Thursday at 3:40 p.m. ET.

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