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Despite outside belief, Tuesday a sad day for Irish

Joe Hettler | Wednesday, December 1, 2004

My first conversation with Tyrone Willingham was brief.

I nervously introduced myself, made small talk and quickly walked away. It was the shortest of conversations, but it was long enough to leave an impression – I liked this man. I liked him a lot.

Maybe it was the firm handshake. Maybe it was the way he took time out of his busy day to speak with me. Maybe I was just awestruck at meeting Notre Dame’s football coach. In any case, I’ve always rooted for Willingham to succeed.

That’s why I believe Tuesday was a sad day for the Notre Dame family. Not because I felt Willingham shouldn’t have been fired. He should have. The blowout defeats, the inconsistent performances, the poor recruiting, the terrible home record – all justified this firing, even if it was after only three seasons.

Tuesday was a sad day because too many people rooted for this move. Too many people rejoiced in Willingham’s fall. Too many people think ridding the University of Willingham and bringing in a head coach from Utah will magically turn everything around for the fallen Irish.

The truth is, it won’t.

There is no quick fix to Notre Dame’s problems.

People blame Willingham for Notre Dame’s struggles the past several seasons. There is obvious reality to those criticisms. He didn’t produce – bottom line. But it wasn’t completely his fault. He was expected to implement a radically different offense and do so against one of the nation’s toughest schedules. To make matters worse, he won his first eight games, raising expectations to a level unfair to any coach. Former Irish head coach Lou Holtz once said, “Notre Dame fans expect a minor miracle every Saturday and a major one every now and then.” This isn’t far from the truth, and by winning early, Willingham indirectly set himself up to fall hard.

Aside from football, Willingham did much more for the University than many people realize. He pushed his players to succeed in the classroom, and the players responded with some of the highest GPAs this football program has ever seen.

He indirectly increased minority enrollment at a school comprised of mostly white, upper-middle-class students.

And he restored respect and character to a Notre Dame program that was reeling with embarrassment after the George O’Leary debacle.

As the losses mounted, Willingham was criticized for the smallest aspects of his character. He didn’t show enough emotion, critics said. He didn’t supply enough answers to the team’s problem, they claimed. He didn’t care about Notre Dame, people argued.

But what outsiders saw as shortcomings, I saw as qualities. Willingham always kept the same even-keel demeanor, never letting his emotions get the best of him. He joked with reporters and made us feel comfortable. Most importantly, he did care – not just about his players, but about people.

I remember a story Willingham told a group of students when he was first hired. He recalled ordering a meal at a nearby fast food restaurant. Before he could finish ordering, the person taking the order asked, “Aren’t you Tyrone Willingham?” Willingham introduced himself, then spent the next 20 minutes standing outside and signing autographs for a number of people.

Situations like this show Willingham understood peoples’ passion for this University. That’s why he was reportedly distraught when athletic director Kevin White informed him of the firing. Willingham is a proud man. He wanted to succeed at Notre Dame, to show his doubters he was the right choice three years ago.

But sometimes things don’t work out. Willingham couldn’t stick around for another year or two because too many alumni, too many students and too many Notre Dame administrators and trustees felt he was the wrong man for the job. Another season that produced just seven or eight wins would not have been enough to keep the critics at bay.

So Willingham was fired Tuesday, near the end of a second disappointing season in three tries. He didn’t expect the news – neither did his assistant coaches, who were on the road recruiting.

A man that stands for everything that is right about this University, a man that made this school better during his three years in South Bend, a man that did everything he could to return Notre Dame football to glory, is now a part of the past, joining the ranks of recently disappointing Irish coaches Gerry Faust and Bob Davie.

While many Notre Dame’s fans celebrated Willingham’s firing, the coach silently sulked into the background, into a fraternity of failed Irish football coaches that no one wants to join.

But contrary to popular belief, Tuesday was a sad day in Notre Dame’s rich football tradition.

That’s because, Tuesday, Notre Dame abruptly said goodbye to one of its own.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Joe Hettler at jhettler@nd.edu