Coach's only regret: Irish didn't win

Updated: December 2, 2004, 12:47 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tyrone Willingham blamed himself Wednesday for his firing as Notre Dame Fighting Irish coach, saying he failed to meet the school's expectations of producing an elite team.

But Willingham, whose three-year tenure was the shortest of any non-interim coach at the school in 70 years, wouldn't say whether he was given enough time to turn the storied program back into a football power.

Tyrone Willingham
Tyrone Willingham said he is a realist who deals with "events as they occur."

"I don't get into what's fair and what's not fair. I am an optimist by nature, but I am also a realist, and that makes you deal with the events as they occur," he said. "So I will deal with the events."

Willingham was fired Tuesday with three years left on his initial six-year contract after going 21-15. Notre Dame had made a tradition of allowing its coaches to at least work through the length of their first contract.

"I understand that I did not meet the expectations and standards I set for myself and this program," he said. "When you don't meet your own expectations you make yourself vulnerable to the will of others. So today I am no longer the head football coach at Notre Dame."

His players, though, left no doubt they thought three years wasn't enough time for Willingham.

"Think about it," quarterback Brady Quinn said. "It's not even allowing one of his recruiting classes to get all the way through."

The hardest part about being fired for Willingham is leaving Notre Dame without meeting the goals he set and leaving behind the players he recruited.

He said there is just one thing he wished he had done differently.

"Win. That's it," he said.

Willingham knew some discussions about his job were under way Sunday, but said he was still surprised by the firing.

The university's outgoing and incoming presidents, the provost, the executive vice president, athletic director Kevin White and two board of trustee members met Monday night and Tuesday and decided it was time to fire Willingham.

Chris Zorich, a former Lombardi Award winner and defensive lineman at Notre Dame, told ESPNews that he is "embarrassed" by Willingham being fired before the end of his contract.

"It really tarnishes what Notre Dame is all about," Zorich said.

Willingham, the first black head coach in any sport at Notre Dame, was asked if he had any thoughts on the number of black head coaches in Division I-A being reduced from five to two.

"Plenty, but none of them will be discussed now," he said.

Willingham said he will take a "moment" to decide what he will do next.

"I don't know how long that moment will be. A moment could be a moment or it could be a week," he said. "It's kind of indefinite what that moment will be."

Willingham also talked about a report that he had been contacted by Washington two weeks ago about its coaching vacancy. He said there was no official contact, but there was informal contact.

He said his response was: "I am the Notre Dame football coach. I came to do this job and only this job."

He declined comment on whether he had been contacted by Washington since being fired.

Willingham tried to keep his first public remarks since being fired positive.

"I've never had a bad day. I've had bad moments. Sometimes those bad moments will run into another day and you'll have hurt, pain, etc., but it is still a good day," he said. "There are so many blessings that Tyrone Willingham has that are amazing."

And his ouster could have already cost the Fighting Irish a coveted recruit.

Lawrence Wilson, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound end who carries a 3.2 grade-point average, said he has not ruled out Notre Dame, but he will withdraw his verbal commitment to attend the school.

"The firing of coach Willingham is very disappointing," Wilson said Tuesday. "I am very unhappy. Coach Willingham and the assistant coaches were one of the reasons I decided to attend Notre Dame."

Wilson, also a standout basketball player at St. Vincent/St. Mary's in Akron, Ohio -- alma mater of NBA Rookie of the Year LeBron James -- said Ohio State and Pittsburgh, two of his final three choices, re-enter as possible candidates. Wilson has said he wants to play basketball and football in college.

Notre Dame players said a liaison committee of five players has been formed to give input into what they're looking for in a new coach. Quinn, a member of the committee, said he knows what characteristics he wants in the new coach.

"I think for me, someone like coach Willingham," Quinn said. "Maybe he has a twin out there he doesn't know about."

ALSO SEE