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Reserve judgement for future

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, December 3, 2004

Notre Dame flourishes because it is a family that is supported by and demands integrity, loyalty, faith, love, character and leadership.

Notre Dame football flourishes when its family is equally obliged to develop quality, value-driven young men and win games.

The football program is an integral component of this University, and as such, it should be committed to the University’s core values.

However, regardless of how strong the bonds are within the football family and how committed players are to meeting the expectations of their coaches both on and off the field, Notre Dame demands a union of winning and strong character. When one of these two components suffers, a change needs to occur.

The Notre Dame leadership was at a crossroads Monday evening and Tuesday morning – likely weighing what Notre Dame is about and what its football program stands for – and it appears that the seven decision makers did not ponder this situation lightly.

Notre Dame history shows that coaches who do not meet expectations within three years do not reach those expectations later in their Notre Dame careers. It has been 16 years since the last national championship. It has been 11 years since Notre Dame legitimately was a member of the college football elite on the field. And it has been eight years since this program had a coach who proved he could bring the team to the glory its storied tradition demands.

The factors that drive the college football machine do not necessarily match the pillars that uphold this institution. Notre Dame values both academics and sports, and thus has been unique in the way its program has functioned within the machine. However, Notre Dame football cannot sacrifice one of its two supports for the other. It demands excellence in both.

Tyrone Willingham learned that the hard way.

Did the former Irish head coach develop the moral character of his players, command the respect of his players, guide this team towards two winning regular seasons, earn the right to play in two bowl games and coach his players to defeat two top-10 teams this year? Yes.

Did Willingham coach a team that lost to rival Southern California three times by 31 points, suffered five losses by at least a 30-point margin, saw the all-time college football winning percentage slip away? Yes.

Did Willingham fail to consistently attract top talent to Notre Dame and compile a squad that won just 11 of 18 home games during his tenure? Yes.

Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White acknowledged these factors Tuesday. “From Sunday through Friday, our football program has exceeded all expectations, in every way … Tyrone has done some wonderful things,” White said. “But on Saturday we’ve struggled.”

Willingham himself said, “I understand that I didn’t meet the expectations or standards that I set for myself in this program.”

Notre Dame football is not a program that rests easily with failed expectations.

It is trapped by a web that pulls it in all directions – with pressure coming from the fervent Irish football nation, the “victory is necessary” benefactors, the impatient students and the Holy Cross brass.

Faced with the dilemma of putting faith in a coach who has a history of inconsistency – for example, at Stanford – on Saturdays or pursuing an appealing coach from a field of prospectives, Notre Dame had to make a quick decision. The opportunities were ripe for Notre Dame to pick at this time and the University took the gamble that Tyrone Willingham could put this program back on the map of the football elite.

Whether Notre Dame, the football program is diverging from Notre Dame the institution remains to be seen. The unpopularity of this decision should not have been unexpected, but judgment should be reserved to see how the situation develops and what happens next to Notre Dame football.

Can Notre Dame football remain Notre Dame football when its strings are manipulated by “just win” pressure instead of its established tradition and loyalty? That question may be premature. The Willingham decision could be a unique situation, and it is unfair to predict now if Notre Dame will become a coaching carousel or a football factory. One thing is clear now – the coach hired next must embrace and further the values of both Notre Dame, the institution and Notre Dame, the football program.