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Similar, but different

Heather VanHoegarden | Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Reporters waited outside the interview room at the Joyce Center, hoping to get a glimpse of Tyrone Willingham after a press conference announced his firing. But he was nowhere to be found.It was quite the opposite of the scene in 2001, where Bob Davie calmly addressed reporters for nearly a half-hour in a press conference announcing his firing.Willingham, who was not available for comment, was the first Irish football coach to be fired without finishing his first contract, as he coached just three of the six years of his initial contract and finished with a 21-15 record.Athletic director Kevin White attributed Willingham’s short tenure to the high expectations at Notre Dame.”I think the best way I can respond to that is – there’s very high expectations, competitive expectations relative to Notre Dame football,” White said at Tuesday’s press conference. “I think everyone in the room realizes that, and we just were not meeting those programmatic or competitive expectations on Saturday.”It was similar but also different from 2001, the year Bob Davie was fired after five seasons and a 35-25 record. Then, White attributed the change in coaching to a need to start over.”I felt we were in a place that I could no longer say that we could actually stand up and say that we were putting together a program in place that could contend, if not win, a national championship,” White said in a Dec. 2, 2001 press conference. “I really believe we need to restart this thing.”In 2001, it was White who recommended to University President Father Edward Malloy that Davie not be reinstated in his sixth year, shortly after signing him to a five-year extension. Malloy agreed with him, and Davie was notified that day, as was the public.This year, it happened differently.A source said the Board of Trustees held a meeting Monday night, during which they decided to fire Willing-ham.And at the beginning of the 2001 season, Davie was told by White that his job was in jeopardy. White said this year, that wasn’t the case with Willingham. “I would say that Coach Willingham and I had not had those specific conversations and really waited till the end of the season to sit down and have kind of a program evaluation conversation,” White said. “We began that conversation on Sunday.”Both Davie and Willingham had successes off the field but were unable to translate to success on the field, as well.Davie’s teams were academically accomplished. Notre Dame won the AFCA Academic Achievement Award for graduating 100 percent of its players, the first time that number had reached 100 percent since 1988. White praised Davie in 2001 for his off-field actions.”Bob Davie has brought good students and good people to Notre Dame,” White said in 2001. “He has supported and had taken an active interest in the academic progress of the players. He has encouraged good citizenship. I am proud to be associated with our football team. These are expectations that we have of all of our coaches in all of our sports.”White echoed the same sentiments about Willingham Tuesday. Willingham has had one player earn Academic All-America honors and two players earn academic all-district honors, all while his teams have maintained a solid grade-point-average. “From Sunday through Friday, our football program has exceeded all expectations in every way,” White said. “As I just indicated in the statement, the academic performance is at a fever pitch; it’s never been better. Tyrone has done some wonderful things.”But, for both coaches, it came down to his on-field performance. Although both coaches went to a bowl game, neither came out with desirable results. Davie took the Irish to the Fiesta Bowl in 2000, where they were blown out by Oregon State, 41-9. Willingham took the Irish to the Gator Bowl in 2002, where they were also blown out by North Carolina State, 28-6.In both firings, White emphasized the need for both on and off-the-field performance. His sentiments were expressed again Tuesday. “And I do feel we’ve made some progress, as I’ve tried to articulate that in a statement,” White said. “Just haven’t made enough on game day. Have made great progress everywhere else around this program. In a lot of ways, this program has not been – has not been as healthy in a long time. We’ve got to find a way to get back to the elite, and that needs to happen on game day.”