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Last four games vital for Willingham

Andrew Soukup | Friday, November 7, 2003

Tyrone Willingham won’t be judged by what Notre Dame has accomplished during the first eight games of the 2003 season.

It is instead the manner in which he leads his team through its final four games of the year that will leave a lasting impact on Irish fans.

Despite what Willingham accomplished last season – taking a 5-7 team and turning it into one that started the season 8-0 – the odds were certainly against him in 2003. He faced a schedule that would make any program in the nation weak in the knees. Recruiting gaps left him woefully thin at key positions. The offense didn’t seem quite ready to generate touchdowns by the bunches.

Those factors gave Willingham every opportunity to blame a 2-6 start, the worst in 40 years, on a series of enormous challenges.

But he didn’t.

“Excuses aren’t solutions,” the Irish head coach said earlier in the week.

So Willingham, in lieu of passing the buck, unfairly shouldered the blame himself. And by doing so, he helped draw the ire of Notre Dame fans with itchy trigger fingers.

When Willingham arrived at Notre Dame, he promised his focus was to win immediately, not fall into a rebuilding plan that would take four or five years. That meshed nicely with the expectations of Irish fans who believe the head coach, the athletic director and the University president should be fired if Notre Dame doesn’t win a national title.

Willingham, with his 8-0 start, had Irish fans convinced he was the real thing. He won with players he didn’t recruit. He won with a tough schedule. He won despite players’ struggles grasping game plans.

So when Willingham started to lose despite facing similar conditions, trigger-happy fans assumed it was his fault.

Notre Dame’s head coach entered this season in such an unenviable position he might have wanted to bolt back to Stanford and the land of low expectations. His subsequent refusal to point fingers left room for people to point fingers at the coaches.

To some extent, criticism of the coaching staff is justified. In his 21-game tenure at Notre Dame, Willingham-coached teams have lost four games by 30 or more points. Bob Davie only lost one game by 30-plus in five years. To put that in perspective, Willingham-coached Notre Dame teams have roughly a 20 percent chance of getting beaten by 30 points when they take the field.

There’s also consistent mistakes that crop up game after game – mistakes that should be corrected early in the season, but continue to plague Notre Dame in critical situations. Twelve men on the field after a time out. An offensive line that holds opponents so much its members should switch to defense. Receivers who play hot potato with passes. Cornerbacks who are out of position.

It’s easy to point fingers at Willingham for Notre Dame’s dismal start. It’s also ridiculous.

Willingham needs more than a year and a half before fans can decide if he is another Lou Holtz or a Bob Davie. He needs to be given the opportunity to recruit his players. He needs time to show that his inconsistency as a head coach – he only had four winning seasons in seven years at Stanford – is the result of a lack of talent at Stanford, not an inherent coaching flaw.

That’s why Willingham’s personal string of Judgement Days starts against Navy. He may say that Notre Dame is heading in the right direction, but blowout losses to top-10 competition aren’t what fans define as returning to the nation’s elite.

In order to show that Willingham does indeed have Notre Dame “pointed in the right direction,” as he said last week, the success of Notre Dame over its last four games of the season – when Notre Dame has nothing to play for but a good start for next year – will show how much of an effect Willingham can have on Notre Dame’s future success.

Because if hell freezes over and Navy beats Notre Dame for the first time since the Hugh DeVore era, all bets will be off.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Andrew Soukup at asoukup@nd.edu