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Majority of players remain in silent shock after firing

Pat Leonard | Wednesday, December 1, 2004

No comment. No comment. No comment.

In three sentences, those were the feelings of the majority of Notre Dame football players Tuesday night.

While athletic director Kevin White and associate athletic director John Heisler spoke to media about firing Willingham during a 4 p.m. press conference, most players refused to comment about losing their head coach.

Players found about Willingham’s firing during a team meeting in the early afternoon.

“I met with a core group of the seniors at two o’clock, and I know our seniors are meeting early this evening,” White said. “I’ll converse with them again. But I did want their input for obvious reasons.”

Only free safety Tom Zbikowski, a sophomore recruited by Willingham from Illinois, commented on his feelings concerning Willingham’s dismissal.

“As soon as we found out, heads dropped,” Zbikowski said. “It was tough. We’re still talking about it.”

Zbikowski said the players did not see Willingham’s firing coming.

“As a team we never thought about it, but we heard about it from outside sources,” he said. “We never put much thought into it.”

White would not relay direct comments from players, but he did give his sentiments on player reaction as he broke the news at the two o’clock meeting.

“I really don’t want to speak for them,” White said. “I know you’ll find them, and they anticipate you finding them as a group. But I will say a word or two. I think they were stunned, and I think they have great respect and affection for Coach Willingham, and that was apparent to me as I spoke to them.”

Three years ago, when Notre Dame fired head coach Bob Davie after five seasons, players talked the day of the firing and looked to a more promising future.

“We have to continue to improve regardless of who the coach is,” Carlyle Holiday said in the Dec. 3, 2001 issue of The Observer. “We have to get back to competing for the national championship.”

This time, almost all is quiet.

Fifth-year senior Jared Clark graduates at the end of the year and will not have to stay for the changeover in coaches like Zbikowski. But Clark felt the effects of the Notre Dame administrative decision.

“I think it’s a shock to everybody,” Clark said.

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

Players met later Tuesday night to discuss whether or not they wanted to participate in the Insight Bowl. Notre Dame has already accepted a bid to the bowl set for Dec. 28, but the team did not release a statement finalizing the decision.

“We’re still trying to take this in,” Zbikowski said. “It’s going to be tough. We’re a little shocked, a little disappointed. We just have to stay focused. It’s not something you want to go through but it’s the way college football is going.”

As the players appear to unite during the time of their coach’s departure, Zbikowski said he feels most for the seniors of the group.

“The seniors came here, had Davie, O’Leary and now coach Willingham [go],” he said. “They’re one of the best bunch of guys I’ve known. They want to help out the younger guys and get this program back on top … We’ve had meetings too to help support each other.”