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White acknowledges vocal alumni influence

Pat Leonard | Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Following the firing of coach Tyrone Willingham, the influence of one of the country’s widest and most powerful alumni bases is as evident as it has ever been.

“I’d like to say that all of the noise around the program has no impact,” Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White said. “But I’m not sure I can say that objectively.”

White announced the removal of Willingham as head football coach at a 4 p.m. press conference Tuesday, just one and a half hours before a scheduled rally to protest Willingham’s tenure as coach.

The rally, publicized and organized by the Irish fan website NDNation.com, called for participants to lay “Return to Glory” shirts on the steps of the administration building.

White did not cite any specific reason for his timing in relieving Willingham of his coaching duties, but he made it clear that alumni dissent is difficult to ignore.

“I think what makes Notre Dame Notre Dame is the fact that people care about it and are so passionate about it and so emotional about it,” White said. “That’s what makes Notre Dame football what it is, and something very special.”

Rumblings about the state of the program resumed across alumni message boards during the 2003 season. Then, in the winter of 2004, the alumni went public.

Alumnus Tim Kelley helped author a letter to the Board of Trustees signed by more than 400 alumni criticizing how the football program was managed.

“I personally feel that the Notre Dame alumni should be the most important constituency of the University,” Kelley said. “The administrators and the Board of Trustees should be in fact seeking out what alumni feel about major issues.”

The letter produced mixed reaction, but Kelley saw hints of alumni influence on White’s decision Tuesday.

“[White] made some comments to the effect that the football program felt was important to the school, to something of the respect of what we thought when we composed that letter,” Kelley said. “If those words represent what the real decision makers feel, then I am heartened.”

White insisted that, at the end of discussion between administrative officials including University President Father Edward Malloy, alumni response was not a defining factor in his decision.

“Everything matters, and everybody matters,” White said. “And I don’t want to discount that or shy away from that response, but at the end of the day I think we did put ourselves in a position to take somewhat of a private reflective viewpoint and see if what we we’re doing matches up with our expectations.”

Notre Dame’s expectations, in the end, demanded better than the records Willingham produced. Former Notre Dame player Mike Golic (1981-84) said on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption the recently removed coach may not have fully realized the situation he was entering when he accepted the head coaching job in 2002.

“Everybody has to understand [the situation] when they sign their name on that dotted line,” Golic told ESPN. “And while Ty Willingham said he understood the pressure, I don’t think he fully knew how pressurized it was until he got there, and anybody who goes there is now going to have that weight on their shoulders.”