Commentary

Leaving Notre Dame was inevitable for neutered White

Updated: June 2, 2008, 12:10 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Notre Dame is looking for a new athletic director today because it neutered the previous one.

The surgical procedure, done without the benefit of privacy or anesthesia, was performed on Kevin White on Nov. 30, 2004 -- the day the school's president and board of trustees ignored White's objections and fired football coach Tyrone Willingham. Ever since then, White has been circling overhead, parachute strapped to his back, waiting for the jump light to switch from red to green.

[+] EnlargeKevin White
Jon Gardiner/Duke PhotographyKevin White said he was "euphoric" to land the athletic director's job at Duke.
Last Friday, White found his landing zone in Durham, N.C.: Duke University. And when he got there, White said he was "euphoric" to leave Notre Dame for the Blue Devils. I repeat, "euphoric."

Let that word -- and the full weight of its meaning -- marinate in your mind for a few minutes. A man who loved Notre Dame or, at the least, its better virtues, couldn't wait to leave the place. So on June 16, he officially becomes a Dookie.

I understand the move. What I don't understand is why he waited so long to file the divorce papers.

Notre Dame ceased being the Notre Dame we used to know the nanosecond it canned Willingham back in 2004. And White ceased being the athletic director at that same precise moment.

The firing was done on White's watch and that's exactly what he did -- watch helplessly as the university trustees and incoming Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins fired Willingham after just three seasons (and just two seasons after a 10-3 record). In the past 46 years of Notre Dame football, only Willingham has been terminated before the end of his initial contract.

White fell on the blue and gold sword. Problem is, nobody pulled him off the blade. You hire people and you let them do their job. Notre Dame hired White, but eventually peeled away layer after layer of his authority.

Maybe he could never overcome the five-day football reign of George O'Leary and the embarrassment of O'Leary's sometimes-fictional résumé. He then hired Willingham, but couldn't save the coach's job three years later. Then came the strange (some say botched) pursuit of Urban Meyer, followed by the hiring of Charlie Weis, who has a three-year record of 22-15 -- one victory more than Willingham.

Weis is the fourth Notre Dame football coach since 1997. White's successor will be the fourth athletic director since 1987. In the previous 73 years, the school needed only six ADs.

White had four years left on his Notre Dame contract, but nobody was exactly threatening him with a lawsuit if he left. Jenkins issued a very nice farewell statement, but you never got the idea he pleaded with White to stay. They loved White when he was raising money for, say, athletic facilities, but his influence in football matters -- and that's what butters Notre Dame's loaf of bread -- wasn't equal to his colleagues at such legacy institutions as Texas, Ohio State and Florida.

Notre Dame now seems to be ruled by its trustees. The next athletic director needs to understand that, accept it, or change it. White didn't have that sort of juice.

There will be some Golden Domers who will say White won't be missed, that his tenure, especially as it related to the football program, was uneven and error-filled. He did make mistakes, not the least of which was his belief that Notre Dame would let him do his job.

This isn't a downward move for White. Consider it a lateral move, maybe even a trade up. He gets what he no longer had at Notre Dame: the ability to make a final decision. Or put it this way: Duke's board of trustees isn't going to choose the eventual successor to Mike Krzyzewski.

And isn't it interesting that the guy who initiated the contact on behalf of Duke was none other than Gene Corrigan, a Duke grad, former ACC commissioner and Notre Dame athletic director? Think they had an interesting chat?

I know Duke football is eligible for federal disaster relief almost every season. The Blue Devils have had three winless seasons and two one-win seasons since 2000. That's hard to do even if you're trying to stink.

But Duke has won as many football national championships as Notre Dame during the past 19 seasons: zero. It also has as many Heisman Trophy winners as Notre Dame during the past 20 seasons: zero. So, sure, Notre Dame is way ahead in style points, but Irish followers shouldn't get too smug. ND had a grand total of two more wins than Duke last year (3 versus 1) -- and one of those victories was against, ta-da, the Blue Devils.

White made the right move. I believe him when he says he's going to miss Notre Dame. It remains a singular place, with its heart and soul usually in the right place. But White won't miss the sometimes clumsy, tone-deaf politics of the administration.

In the end, an athletic director left one job for another. From Midwest to the South. From Congregation of Holy Cross to United Methodist Church. It happens.

Notre Dame will be fine. This we know. But it will never be the same.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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