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Irish fire Willingham after three seasons

Posted: Wednesday, December 01, 2004

SOUTH BEND, Ind. Notre Dame's return to glory under Tyrone Willingham was brief. Too brief.

That's why he was fired Tuesday after just three seasons at Notre Dame the shortest tenure of any full-time coach since Hunk Anderson was there from 1931-33.

''We simply have not made the progress on the field that we need to make,'' athletic director Kevin White said. ''Nor have we been able to create the positive momentum necessary in our efforts to return the Notre Dame program to the elite level of the college football world.''

The school thought they found the perfect coach during Willingham's first season. He got off to an 8-0 start the second best start in school history and after a suprisingly easy victory at Florida State, the Irish, at No. 4, had their highest ranking in eight years. Then they played Boston College.

Fans wearing green ''Return to Glory'' T-shirts flooded Notre Dame Stadium, and the Irish wore green jerseys for good luck. The Irish lost 14-7, though, and the glory days were over.

The Irish went 2-3 their last five games that season, including a 28-6 loss to North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl. They went 5-7 last season, losing by 30 or more points to Michigan, Florida State and Southern California.

This season the Irish pulled off upsets of Michigan and Tennessee but also were beaten badly by USC and Purdue. They also lost games they were expected to win against BYU, Boston College and Pittsburgh.

''We've been up and down and sideways a little bit, a little bit inconsistent,'' White said. ''I think the program is closer than when he arrived. I think we were making progress, by in my view and in the view of the university, we just didn't make enough progress.''

Players were considering whether to play in the Insight Bowl on Dec. 28, and White said he didn't know who would coach the game. Notre Dame accepted the bowl invitation Sunday.

White said he met Tuesday morning with Willingham to tell him he was fired, then both met later with some players to tell them.

Players were stunned.

''I think it's a shock to everybody,'' tight end Jared Clark said.

Other players declined comment, but were clearly surprised and saddened by the announcement.

''As a player, you think it's our fault. We didn't get the job done,'' Clark said. ''I think coach Willingham was a great coach, and I enjoyed playing under him.''

Notre Dame officials said Willingham had decided not to speak publicly Tuesday about his firing.

White praised Willingham's handling of the team, especially the Irish's strong academic record.

''From Sunday through Friday our football program has exceeded all expectations, in every way,'' he said. ''But on Saturday, we've struggled.''

The timing of Willingham's ouster broke with recent Notre Dame practice that even gave struggling coaches Gerry Faust and Bob Davie five seasons to prove themselves.

''If it says anything, it's an underscore of the notion that football is very important at Notre Dame and the competitive expectations are not downwardly negotiable,'' White said.

Notre Dame hired Willingham, the first black head coach in any sport for the Irish, from Stanford to replace George O'Leary. The former Georgia Tech coach resigned five days after taking the job because he lied about his academic and athletic achievements on his resume.

With Tony Samuel fired by New Mexico State and Fitz Hill resigning from San Jose State last week, there are now only two black head coaches in Division I-A: Karl Dorrell at UCLA and Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State.

Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association, said he was disappointed with Notre Dame's decision.

''In three years, I think he has done everything, short of winning a national championship, and I don't think he inherited national championship talent,'' Keith said.

So White, who conducted the searches that led to O'Leary and Willingham being hired, said he would set out Wednesday in search of a coach.

One coach certain to be mentioned as a possible replacement for Willingham is Utah's Urban Meyer, a Notre Dame assistant from 1996-2000. The Utes are 11-0 and ranked No. 5 in their second year under Meyer.

, who has a clause in his current deal that allows him to leave for Notre Dame without a buyout.

Meyer wouldn't say whether he'd be interested if Notre Dame called.

''I have great respect for that university. That's the reason it's in my contract,'' Meyer said after Tuesday's practice. ''I think a lot of people look into it more than what it is. I'm sure that this is going to spark a lot of discussion, but I'm just trying to get a team ready to play in a bowl game.''

Other possible candidates include California's Jeff Tedford, who has had success at a school with high academic expectations, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who was hired as head football coach at Maine in 1990 by White when he was athletic director there, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, whose name was mentioned prominently in the Notre Dame search three years ago. He grew up in South Bend and his father was an Irish assistant under former Irish coach Dan Devine.

Notre Dame has won eight AP college football national championships, more than any other school, with the last in 1988 under Holtz. Players from the school have won the Heisman Trophy seven times, also the most in college football, with the last one being Tim Brown in 1987.

But the Irish haven't won a bowl game since ending the 1993 season ranked No. 2 after beating Texas A&M 24-21 in the Cotton Bowl. Since then, the Irish have lost six straight postseason games and haven't finished a season ranked in the top 10 since 1993.



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