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Willingham fired

Heather VanHoegarden | Wednesday, December 1, 2004

For the first time ever, Notre Dame fired its football coach before his original contract expired, as Notre Dame football coach Tyrone Willingham’s term ended Tuesday after three seasons at the helm of the Irish.

Willingham, who was not available for comment Tuesday, leaves Notre Dame with a 21-15 record, including this season’s 6-5 regular season campaign, which concluded Saturday with a 41-10 loss at No. 1 USC.

Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White said Tuesday it was Willingham’s on-the-field performance that led to the decision.

“We simply have not made the progress on the field that we need to make,” White said in his initial statement. “Nor have we been able to create the positive momentum necessary in our efforts to return the Notre Dame program to the elite level of the college football world.”

White said the decision to fire Willingham was made by the senior leadership at Notre Dame.

“The decision was made by the University senior leadership, and in concert with the University senior leadership,” White said. “I participated in a round of discussions and coach Willingham was aware of those conversations as we proceeded.”

Sources said there was a Board of Trustees meeting Monday night, during which the decision to fire Willingham was made.

White said University President Father Edward Malloy and select leadership officers make most of the policy decisions at the University.

“I think it’s fair to say, I report to the president and at the end of the day, I serve at the will of the president at the University of Notre Dame,” White said. “Father Malloy and select officers tend to make most of the policy decisions relating to all the different entities at the University of Notre Dame. I had an opportunity to fully participate, as well as some participation with some participation of select leadership trustees, as well.”

University spokesman Matt Storin said Tuesday that the collaboration between University President-elect Father John Jenkins and Malloy followed the decision-making pattern the two have used since Jenkins was named Malloy’s successor in May. Jenkins told The Observer in October that in this process, he has input on long-term University decisions, but that Malloy still has the final say.

White said Willingham was notified of the University’s decision Tuesday morning. Later that afternoon, the players were called in for a meeting to discuss the decision.

The University’s decision to fire Willingham comes on the heels of another blowout loss for the Irish. During Willingham’s three years, the Irish have lost by 31 points or more five times. Prior to Willingham, the Irish had just four such losses in 38 years. White said al-though the blow-outs were a factor in the decision, it wasn’t just one thing that led to the decision.

“I don’t know that I can point to anything in particular. I think as we put it all together, as I said pretty carefully in this statement or this release, we just weren’t, I don’t think, manufacturing the momentum, the progress that we felt we needed to have to move this program back to the elite,” he said. “That’s not a negotiable position at Notre Dame. Football is very important to this institution. I think everybody in the room realizes that and understands that, and competing at the highest level is of the utmost importance.”

Notre Dame has been inconsistent this season. After losing to unranked Brigham Young in the season-opener, the Irish de-feated then-No. 8 Michigan. They won two straight games before getting blown out by then-No. 15 Purdue. After winning two more games, Notre Dame lost at home against Boston College only to defeat then-No. 9 Tennessee on the road. Notre Dame closed its season with a 41-38 loss to Pittsburgh at home and the loss to USC on the road.

“On Saturday, we struggled,” White said. “We’ve been up and down and sideways a little bit, a little bit inconsistent. I think the program is closer than when he arrived, and I think we were making progress, by my view and view of the University, just doesn’t make enough progress.”

Although Willingham struggled on the field, White commended his efforts off the field as a representative of Notre Dame.

“All of us had great expectations when we sat here three years ago, and in a number of ways Tyrone has been an excellent fit and a great representative of our program,” White said. “He personally has displayed impeccable integrity and tremendous character, and his players have represented themselves off the field in a first-class manner.”

Notre Dame, who recently accepted an invitation to the Dec. 28 Insight Bowl, has not decided if it will still participate, pending on a team decision.

White said a search for a new football coach will begin right away.

“We will immediately begin a national search for a new football coach,” White said. “I don’t have any particular parameters in mind, other than identifying an individual who can lead Notre Dame football back to the sustained level of excellence that everyone associated with the University and the program wants and desires.”