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Only winning can unite the Irish

Andrew Soukup | Friday, April 23, 2004

Let’s take a moment to review what happened after a season where the Irish lost four games by more than 25 points, lost more games than it won for the third time in five years and experienced a high-water mark by kicking a game-winning field goal to beat Navy.First, a group of alumni sent a letter to the University’s Board of Trustees strongly criticizing the management of the football program. This was later followed by a response from Notre Dame’s Monogram Club, which essentially said that everybody should stay quiet and keep problems in the proverbial Notre Dame family.Then, Paul Hornung infamously said that Notre Dame needs to change its admissions standards to admit “the black athlete” the Irish need to win, forgetting that the Irish have more blacks than whites on their roster. His comments were followed by Dave Duerson, president of the Monogram Club, ignoring his own advice about keeping things in the family by saying Hornung should be fired from his radio position during Notre Dame football games.Ah, the joys of an off-season when Notre Dame is struggling. We haven’t had one of these this juicy since Notre Dame hired a guy named George O’Leary.Yet amidst all the criticism, ducking of responsibility and ridiculous claims lies two common threads.People want Notre Dame to win a national championship. And Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship for a long time.The Irish are in the midst of one of their longest national-championship droughts in school history. And for a program that defines itself by the numbers seven (Heisman Trophy winners) and 11 (national titles), that’s unacceptable.But there’s more. The Irish haven’t won a bowl game in a decade. They’ve had three losing seasons in five years. They endured an embarrassing lawsuit in the Joe Moore trial, got hit with NCAA sanctions and became a punchline by hiring O’Leary.Which brings us back to the most recent criticism of the football program – criticism noticeably absent after Tyrone Willingham started his Irish coaching career 8-0.Take the group of letter-writing alumni. Tim Kelley, one of the principle letter writers, said the letter grew out of a frustration that the administration is no longer as committed to managing championship-caliber football as they have been in the past.Then in swoop Notre Dame administrators, who say that football is and always has been the highest priority of the athletic department and that Willingham’s Irish are moving in the right direction.And in the middle, the patriarch of the Notre Dame football family who also doubles as the head coach, stoicly coaches his team while openly admitting his team’s flaws and equally touting his team’s success.Perhaps it’s because that, in the end, arguments about organizational hierarchy, admissions standards, schedule strength and coaching strategies boil down to exactly one thing.Can Willingham and the Irish win on Saturdays?After the 5-7 debacle a year ago, Willingham now understands what it feels like to be on the hot seat. He is in the middle of a pivotal year for Irish coaches – no head coach has lasted longer than five years if he failed to win a national title in his third.When Willingham first came to Notre Dame, he vowed to chase away an Eeyore cloud that hung over disgruntled Irish fans. He did – for a year – only to have it reappear along with another divided Irish community.Willingham is the man charged with winning. And only by winning will the divisions disappear.

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