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Players react

Heather VanHoegarden | Thursday, December 2, 2004

The e-mail was sent at 12:30 Tuesday afternoon – there was a meeting at 1 p.m. Most thought it was about the Insight Bowl, others weren’t quite so sure. But according to Irish players Wednesday, none expected the announcement of the firing of head coach Tyrone Willingham at that meeting.”As players, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” offensive lineman Ryan Harris said. “We knew there would be some measures taken, but I believe that if you would have asked any of the players here, no one would have thought that coach Willingham would not be the coach any longer.”Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White told the team at Tuesday’s meeting that Willingham would no longer be their head coach. Shortly after, the team was able to meet with Willingham to talk with him about the decision made.”I was completely shocked,” Irish quarterback Brady Quinn said. “It really went from talking about the bowl game to that. I had no idea. I had no idea that was coming. It was just shocking.”Wednesday, Irish players expressed both shock and disappointment that Willingham would no longer coach them.”I just have a heavy head, a heavy heart,” Irish tight end Anthony Fasano said. “There’s whispers all the time around here about coaching changes. Especially at the time it happened – no one on the team ever thought it would really happen.”Irish linebacker Brandon Hoyte, who said he wished he had the character of Willingham, said the team was emotional upon hearing the news.”It was definitely very emotional,” Hoyte said. “Anger was definitely something that played into it. It was hard, overall, just hard.”Most of the players blamed their performance as a team for one of the reasons Willingham was fired. These comments came a day after White said Notre Dame wasn’t getting it done on Saturdays.”We as players don’t feel we did enough to help coach out,” Harris said. “That’s not for me to answer if he got a fair shot, but there is a sentiment among players that we should have done more, we could have performed at a higher level for coach.”The Irish finished the regular season with 6-5 record, and last season finished 5-7. They were 21-15 during Willingham’s three-year tenure. However, after winning their first eight games with Willingham at the helm, they finished 13-15.”Everybody on this team is responsible for our performance the last two years, and it’s a shame he gets blamed for it,” Fasano said. “It’s really not him. It’s our team, it’s our coaches and that’s really what it comes down to.”Players commented on Willingham’s character and leadership abilities. Most said they were sad to see him go.”First off, we’re losing a great leader,” Quinn said. “He’s someone who, without a doubt, leads a life that, I think as a person, many people should try to imitate. Also, as a leader and a coach, he’s someone who I was always able to confide in, talk to and get a little extra something from.”When asked if he thought Willingham had enough time to show what he could do at Notre Dame, Quinn said the coach should have been given more time. Willingham was the first Irish coach to be fired before his initial contract expired.”If you think about it, that’s not even allowing one of his recruiting classes to get all the way through,” Quinn said. Quinn also said that if asked to look for a new head coach, he’d want someone similar to Willingham.”For me, [I would want] someone like coach Willingham,” he said. “So, if he’s got a twin or someone out there he doesn’t know about…”The Irish quarterback, who started as a true freshman last season, also expressed his gratitude for Willingham’s support throughout the past two years and the ups and downs.”I can’t thank him enough just for the opportunity he’s given me, and for the man he’s made me these past two years,” Quinn said. The Irish team now turns to each other for support and to move on. But Quinn said it will be no easy task to achieve that goal .”Anytime you don’t have closure on an issue, especially one where a lot of emotions play a big part, it can be hard for a lot of people to get through something like this,” Quinn said. “Right now, I think what we need to do as a team is rally together and use this time to get closer.”So as the coaching search begins, the Irish find themselves unsure of what the future holds, both for the team and the head coaching position.”It’s a tough situation,” Fasano said. “You think about a lot of things, and you really just worry about your teammates, yourself and the future of what is going to happen.”