Honeymoon is over for Willingham

Updated: February 24, 2004, 9:59 AM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

The Notre Dame alumni believe they're doing the beloved Fighting Irish a favor, issuing some sort of ultimatum to the board of trustees on the crumbled football empire. After a lousy season and an uninspired recruiting class, a disillusioned faction of supporters delivered a letter to the board of trustees with an unmistakable message: Turn Notre Dame back into a winner in 2004, or fire the football coach, Tyrone Willingham.

Tyrone Willingham
The frustration of losing is beginning to mount for Tyrone Willingham and the Irish alumni.
One of these days, Notre Dame has to look at itself and understand: Maybe it isn't the coach anymore; maybe it's the program.

Four hundred signatures on a January letter sent to those lording over Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Dome? Four hundred will turn into 4,000 fans. And 40,000. And if the struggling continues, a movement that will undoubtedly gather momentum and overtake the Irish administration -- athletic director Kevin White and all the way up. Nobody can survive years of failed football in South Bend. Nobody.

Welcome to Notre Dame, Willingham.

Only everything is on the line at Notre Dame now.

Of course, it always is.

"The key point of this is that we feel that the football program itself is an integral part of what the university is all about," Tim Kelley, an alumnus who co-wrote the letter, told The Indianapolis Star. "It's not just football for football's sake."

Nobody remembers his 8-0 start as Fighting Irish coach, the 2002 Saturdays against Michigan and Maryland and Florida State when Willingham was part savior, part genius, part Rockne. This is a faded memory, a smoke-and-mirrors start to his Fighting Irish coaching career that started to slip, slip away, with seven victories and 10 losses through the end of his second season. What's worse, nobody sees the promise of change. Nobody sees those high school All-Americans falling over themselves to sign up for Willingham's vision.

The scouting guru's preferred recruiting classes don't always translate into winning seasons and championship contention, but it's frightening to see Notre Dame just slipping into the Top 25 recruiting classes at No. 24 in Tom Lemming's rankings. One prominent Eastern high school coach suggested that Notre Dame made a tactical mistake by insisting that top national recruits attend its summer camp to receive an early scholarship offer, a move that backfired when elite players resisted.

More than that, it's disturbing that Willingham didn't turn the momentum of his first season into a long list of strong early commitments to his program. It's disturbing that the best high school tight end in the country two years ago, Greg Olsen, transferred to Miami before fall practice was even over -- inspiring his brother, Christian, a quarterback, to leave for Virginia too.

Notre Dame has a mystique to an older generation, but slowly, surely, they're just another program to the throwback jersey generation. They're just a football team with a dull offense, bland uniforms and a cold, snowy campus. The golden dome isn't nearly as impressive on recruiting visits as the warm sun of those Florida powerhouses. Kids just don't grow up dreaming of Notre Dame anymore. Yet, it is Willingham's job to change that back again.

Whatever happens next season, Notre Dame can't fire Willingham. They just can't keep changing coaches at Notre Dame. Bob Davie never should've been hired, which is hardly a revelation now. Notre Dame isn't an entry level head coaching job. It is not the place to be learning on the job, using trial-and-error to find your stride as head coach. There are too many outside pressures, too much to make someone insecure begin to second-guess himself.

Willingham is still the right man for the job, but he has to hit the road recruiting even harder this spring. He has to get players. And he sure has to coach them. Nobody will have patience with him. Nobody has patience for anything at Notre Dame. It isn't right. And it isn't wrong. It just the way it is, and the way it will always be there.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for the Bergen Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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