Three years not long enough

Tyrone Willingham didn't recruit enough skill players, but he still deserved more than three years to turn Notre Dame around.

Originally Published: November 30, 2004
By Kirk Herbstreit | Special to ESPN.com

Tyrone Willingham needed more time.

Tyrone Willingham
Tyrone Willingham was on the right track at Notre Dame.
Three years is simply not a long enough period to evaluate a coach at a high-profile institution like Notre Dame, where someone like Willingham needs four or five years in order to recruit enough personnel to fit his system. He was incredibly fortunate to have won 10 games in his first season, but that win total raised expectations and gave fans and alumni false hope.

That 2002 team was not as well off as the current Irish squad, which has players like quarterback Brady Quinn, running back Darius Walker, wide receiver Rhema McKnight and tight end Anthony Fasano coming back next year. But it apparently took Willingham too long to get that kind of talent to South Bend, because those with influence at Notre Dame want to win right now and obviously are not happy with the direction of the program.

This firing is all about wins and losses, and all the talk about Willingham being the first African-American head coach in any sport at Notre Dame did not come into play here. It's about failing to produce wins. Willingham has made a lot of progress, but he inherited a program where there was a tremendous sense of urgency to turn things around and the pressure to right the ship immediately caught up to him.

That being said, the one thing Willingham did not do a good job of was bringing in top-notch skill players right away. He lured Quinn and a handful of others, but with the kind of schedule Notre Dame plays, the Irish need several outstanding running backs and receivers and a great defensive secondary.

Those kinds of players are not in South Bend in great numbers right now, but to be fair, former coaches Bob Davie and Lou Holtz also struggled to bring in loads of skill on either side of the ball.

Whoever the new coach is at Notre Dame, his No. 1 priority has to be recruiting the kind of team speed we see at schools like USC, Oklahoma, Texas and Tennessee, because without that kind of skill the Irish will always be a seven or eight-win team that has to outwork and out-execute its opponents. Without better players Notre Dame will continue to be in a personnel mismatch with three or four teams on its schedule every year.

And think about this: The last time a Notre Dame skill player was drafted in the first round was 1993, when both quarterback Rick Mirer and running back Jerome Bettis were No. 1 picks. In an age when 18-year-old recruits choose a school based as much on whether the coach's system affords them a chance to play in the NFL as they do on tradition and the opportunity to win championships, that won't do.

Utah coach Urban Meyer will be the first name mentioned for this opening, and as a former Notre Dame assistant under Davie he would be a natural fit. All the other usual suspects will probably be tossed around -- California coach Jeff Tedford included -- and we may even see former University of Miami coach Butch Davis become a candidate. Davis resigned Tuesday as Cleveland Browns coach and was a terrific recruiter in his days with the Hurricanes.

It won't be an instant turnaround and whoever eventually takes Willingham's place better get aggressive in a hurry, because Notre Dame needs players in order to compete.

Kirk Herbstreit is an analyst for ESPN's College GameDay and a regular contributor to ESPN.com during the college football season.

Kirk Herbstreit

College Football analyst
Kirk Herbstreit has been an ESPN college football studio analyst since August 1996. Herbstreit, who joined ESPN in September 1995 as a college football sideline analyst for ESPN2, is also a game analyst for ESPN's Thursday night college football telecasts.

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