by | Dec 1, 2004 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

No different from anyone else. That is the stark reality now at Notre Dame, and the Irish don’t like it, even as they prove it true. They are an up-and-down football program, which only makes them normal, and they hate that so much they just fired their head coach, which only makes them coldhearted, same as the other up-and-down football programs.

Which can’t stand it either.

Here is what athletic director Kevin White said after firing Tyrone Willingham on Tuesday, despite Willingham’s winning record in three seasons at South Bend:

“From Sunday through Friday, our football program has exceeded all expectations in every way. Our academic performance is at a fever pitch. It’s never been better. Ty has done wonderful things.”

“On Saturdays we struggled, we’ve been up and down and sideways, a bit inconsistent. The program is closer than when he arrived. It’s making progress.”

Wow! Some would call that a positive job review, not the speech you get when they kick you out the door.

But Notre Dame is all about Saturdays now. Sunday through Friday is as meaningless as the marching band’s song selection. Gone are the days when Notre Dame honored a man’s contract simply because it was the right thing to do. Gone are the days when “student-athlete” was an equally weighted phrase.

The Irish are no different from anyone else now. They want more wins, more wins, more wins. Three years to them is long enough to judge a coach — even if he had three years left on his contract, even if he won 10 of his first 11 games, even if he stood proud as a man of principle.

And so Willingham, who a blink ago was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the man restoring glory to the golden dome, is on the junk heap.

And the Irish are shopping.

No different from anyone else.

Not so special? Get over it

Never mind that under Willingham — who saved the day for Notre Dame by taking the job after the embarrassing debacle of George O’Leary’s five-day tenure — no Irish players were arrested or charged with assault, no small bombs were planted outside dormitories, no coaches were accused of slipping money or fake jobs to athletes.

Never mind that, considering recent news out of Ohio State or Colorado, Notre Dame should be thanking Willingham profusely.

Never mind. Instead the board of trustees called an “emergency meeting” Monday night. Here was the “emergency”: that Willingham had finished the year 6-5 and the team was headed to a bowl game. That it had lost Saturday, 41-10, to USC.

Yeah? So? USC, No. 1 in the nation, beat five other teams this year by a bigger margin than that. USC is better than Notre Dame right now. Get over it.

Well, that’s the problem. The Irish can’t get over it. In the minds of the people who call “emergency” meetings, there can be no down years. There can be no allowing that other schools have good programs, too, good athletes, too, good recruiters, too.

No, there can only be Notre Dame. These people still think they are the only football team on television. Wake up, guys. With ESPN, ESPN2, satellite and pay-per-view, everybody is on TV!

You can still be special.

But you can’t be the only thing special.

Only an imagined difference now

Yes, it’s true, under Willingham, there were some blowout losses. But there were some stunning upsets, too. Ask Michigan about the “lousy” job Willingham did this year. If not for the solid defeat the Irish laid on the Wolverines, they would have been battling for a national championship. Go ask Michigan State. Go ask Tennessee.

Don’t bother. It’s too late. The same school that kept a miscast Gerry Faust for five tough years because it believed in honoring contracts, now fires a perfectly capable Willingham before he has a chance to see one recruiting class complete its cycle.

It is nothing new. It is nothing shocking. Schools do it all the time — hire, fire, win or get lost. The thing is, Notre Dame used to be different.

Now it only thinks it is.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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