Notre Dame fires Willingham during 6-5 season

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tyrone Willingham was fired Tuesday as coach at Notre Dame for failing to turn the nation's most storied football program back into a national championship contender.

He was fired three days after the Irish lost 41-10 to No. 1 Southern California -- their third straight loss by 31 points to the Trojans -- to drop to 6-5 for the season.

"We simply have not made the progress on the field that we need to make," athletic director Kevin White said. "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."

Players are considering whether to play in the Insight Bowl on Dec. 28, and White said he didn't know who would coach the game. Notre Dame accepted the bowl invitation Sunday.

Willingham's firing comes after a season in which the Irish pulled off upsets of Michigan and Tennessee but also were beaten badly by USC and Purdue. They also lost games they were expected to win against BYU, Boston College and Pittsburgh.

White said he met Tuesday morning with Willingham to tell him he was fired, then both met later with some players to tell them.

Players were stunned.

"I think it's a shock to everybody," tight end Jared Clark said.

Other players declined comment, but were clearly surprised and saddened by the announcement.

"As a player, you think it's our fault. We didn't get the job done," Clark said. "I think coach Willingham was a great coach, and I enjoyed playing under him."

Notre Dame officials said Willingham had decided not to speak publicly Tuesday about his firing.

White praised Willingham's handling of the team, especially the Irish's strong academic record.

"From Sunday through Friday our football program has exceeded all expectations, in every way," he said. "But on Saturday, we've struggled. We've been up and down and sideways a little bit."

The timing of Willingham's ouster broke with recent Notre Dame practice that even gave struggling coaches Gerry Faust and Bob Davie five seasons to prove themselves.

"If it says anything, it's an underscore of the notion that football is very important at Notre Dame and the competitive expectations are not downwardly negotiable," White said.

Saturday's loss to USC was the fifth time the Irish lost by 31 points or more under Willingham. By comparison, Davie's teams had just one such loss; Lou Holtz and Dan Devine had none.

Notre Dame hired Willingham, the first black head coach in any sport for the Irish, from Stanford to replace George O'Leary. The former Georgia Tech coach resigned five days after taking the job because he lied about his academic and athletic achievements on his resume.

With Tony Samuel fired by New Mexico State and Fitz Hill resigning from San Jose State last week, there are now only two black head coaches in Division I-A: Karl Dorrell at UCLA and Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State.

Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association, said he was disappointed with Notre Dame's decision.

"In three years, I think he has done everything, short of winning a national championship, and I don't think he inherited national championship talent," Keith said.

In his first season, Willingham had many fans recalling Notre Dame's glory days, taking over a losing squad and turning things around immediately. The Irish won eight straight games to start the season -- the second best start in school history -- before finishing 10-3 and going to the Gator Bowl.

But during his second year, the Irish fell to 5-7, with four of their losses coming by 26 points or more. It was Notre Dame's third losing record in five seasons, the team's worst stretch in 115 years of football. They have played particularly poorly at home the past two seasons, going 5-7 at Notre Dame Stadium.

One coach certain to be mentioned as a possible replacement for Willingham is Utah's Urban Meyer, a Notre Dame assistant from 1996-2000. The Utes are 11-0 and ranked No. 5 in their second year under Meyer.

Meyer said he hadn't heard about Willingham's departure from Notre Dame until he was asked about it by The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Asked whether he has had any contact with Notre Dame or whether he would be interested in coaching the Fighting Irish, Meyer responded: "I won't comment on it."

Other possible candidates include California's Jeff Tedford, who has had success at a school with high academic expectations, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who was hired as head football coach at Maine in 1990 by White when he was athletic director there, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, whose name was mentioned prominently in the Notre Dame search three years ago. He grew up in South Bend and his father was an Irish assistant under Devine.

Notre Dame has won eight AP college football national championships, more than any other school, with the last in 1988 under Holtz. Players from the school have won the Heisman Trophy seven times, also the most in college football, with the last one being Tim Brown in 1987.

But the Irish haven't won a bowl game since ending the 1993 season ranked No. 2 after beating Texas A&M 24-21 in the Cotton Bowl. Since then, the Irish have lost six straight postseason games.

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