Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Tyrone's Gone: Willingham gets a pink slip
By Zach

**Note: This piece first appeared on No Blood, No Foul...where I also write**

Today brought the suprising news that Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham had been fired. Willingham lead the team for three seasons, going 21-15. In 2001, the Irish were 5-6, and brought Willingham in. At the time, it was the highest profile head coaching job ever for a black coach. Willingham immediately lead the team to a 10-3 season in 2002, but the team has slumped the last two years, finishing 5-7 in 2003 and 6-5 this year.

Willingham's firing, along with the dismissals of Tony Samuel at New Mexico State and
A too-uncommon sight: Willingham victorious
Copyright ESPN 2004
Fitz Hill at San Jose State mean that there are now only 2 black head coaches in Division 1-A college football, Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State and Karl Dorrell at UCLA.

It's hard to say whether Willingham's firing was at all racially motivated. Certainly, South Bend, Indiana isn't exactly a bastion of racial diversity and tolerance. And it's not as if Notre Dame hasn't stuck with coaches before. Willingham's predecessor, Bob Davie, went 35-25 over 5 seasons for an identical winning percentage as Willingham (.583). Gerry Foust, the man who had the uncomfortable burden of succeeding Dan Devine (and preceeding Lou Holtz) went 30-26 over 5 years. In fact, Willingham will be the shortest tenured Notre Dame head coach since Hugh Devore coached non-consecutive seasons in 1945 and 1963.

So Willingham is being shown the door rather quickly. But that's not necessarily a new thing in the modern college football landscape. Coaches routinely last only two or three seasons. Still, it's odd for a guy who has a winning record and just two years ago won ten games to be canned.

What this really means for Notre Dame is that they have to be realistic about themselves as a national powerhouse. Yes, they're still a big name (maybe the biggest), and they still have an exclusive contract with NBC, but they're no longer the school in college football. That means with their remote location, stringent academic requirements, and slightly aloof manner, they can no longer count on getting the same quality of recruits they used to. Seriously, name the last great Notre Dame player who excelled in the NFL?

I don't think Notre Dame needs to, or should change its academic policies. Now days, it's nice to see a school care more about integrity then wins and losses. Though how that meshes with firing Willingham, one of the more upright guys in the sports, I'm not sure.

Speculation has already started about who will replace Willingham. The top name is clearly Utah's Urban Meyer, though there are a number of other intriguing options.

The biggest impact the move may have is on Florida and Washington, two storied programs looking to rebuild as well. While Notre Dame may not be the top school it once was, it still has the name recognition that Florida and Washington covet. Don't be surprised if Notre Dame ends up stealing a coach that both schools wanted. Also, don't be surprised if Willingham is the guy tabbed to replace Keith Gilbertson at Washington. As a former Pac-10 guy with the recruiting prowess of Rick Neuheisel, without all the messy legal trouble, Husky fans have to be salivating (pardon the pun) over the opportunity.


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