End of an era at Notre Dame

Posted: Thursday, December 02, 2004

Every fading dynasty gets more desperate the further the memories recede, and it turns out Notre Dame is no different.

So Ty Willingham was informed Tuesday, with three years left on the biggest contract in school history and three less-than-satisfying seasons behind him, that he wouldn't be around to see his first recruiting class graduate.

The decision to fire Willingham was made by the university's higher-ups, after what was reported to be an emergency meeting of the university's board of trustees. Exactly what the ''emergency'' was remains a matter of some speculation. But it fell to athletic director Kevin White to explain why, for the first time in school history, Notre Dame chose not to honor a commitment to its football coach.

''From Sunday through Friday our football program has exceeded all expectations, in every way,'' White said at a news conference. ''But on Saturday, we've struggled. We've been up and down and sideways a little bit.''

If you're searching for a post-mortem to the Willingham era, you won't find a more succinct one. Off the field, he was nearly flawless. On it, the ''up'' was a stunning 8-0 run Willingham produced at the start of his stay in South Bend; the ''down and sideways'' covered just about everything since.

His teams went 21-15 and lost big games by lopsided scores, the kind of record that would have drawn a pink slip at more than a few traditional football powerhouses, much the same way Nebraska ditched Frank Solich last season and Florida canned Ron Zook with a few games left in this one.

Notre Dame used to pride itself on not being part of that crowd. The Irish made a point of keeping underwhelming Gerry Faust and overmatched Bob Davie for all five years of their contracts. Now, there's no pretending otherwise.

All the other things that made the Irish special once no longer apply. A program that has collected more national titles than any other hasn't brought one home in 16 years and hasn't seriously contended since 1993. It's been 17 years since a Heisman Trophy was added to the display case. And now patience, always in short supply at Notre Dame, has evaporated as well. That makes the Irish less special still.

To be fair, Willingham knew what the bargain was when he signed on. He knew that waking up the echoes was a lot tougher trick now than in the days when Rockne, Leahy and Parseghian managed to pull it off, especially if he was going to do it while running a clean program.

The only part he got right was that last one. And even that didn't count for much when rivals like Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and Pete Carroll at Southern California were recruiting circles around Willingham and returning their programs to national prominence in less time, all the while steering clear of trouble. They weren't hampered by the tough academic standards that apply at Notre Dame, but Willingham arrived there fresh from a stint at Stanford, where the standards are tougher still.

For all that, there is still no tougher job in the game than the one Willingham had until Tuesday. The Irish are the only team in college football with a few million unpaid consultants and their own network TV deal. When he showed up on campus, the program was still reeling from the embarrassment caused by George O'Leary's padded resume.

Based on Notre Dame's history, and despite the alumni who began nipping at his heels once the magical 8-0 start yielded a 2-3 finish in his first season, Willingham had every reason to believe he'd have more time. Enough time, at least, to put his recruits, his West Coast offense and his philosophy in place. That was before the board of trustees called an emergency session the emergency apparently caused by reports that the game's hottest young coach, Utah's Urban Meyer, was being seriously courted by Florida.

Meyer is a former Irish assistant and a bona fide offensive genius, a qualification that the higher-ups at Notre Dame apparently believe will get him into the living rooms of all those skilled passers and catchers who crossed Notre Dame off their recruiting lists years ago. Of course, they believed the same thing about Willingham just three years ago.

Meyer, whose Utes are 11-0 and ranked No. 5 in his second season, thinks he knows what he's getting himself into. He has a clause in his current deal that allows him to leave for Notre Dame without a buyout.

''I have great respect for that university. That's the reason it's in my contract,'' Meyer said after practice Tuesday. ''I think a lot of people look into it more than what it is.''

Maybe so. But the last guy who had the job thought the same thing, and look where he is now.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

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