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Tuesday, November 30, 2004
Updated: December 1, 2:20 PM ET
AD cites lack of on-field progress

ESPN.com news services

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Coach Tyrone Willingham was fired by Notre Dame on Tuesday after three seasons in which he failed to return one of the nation's most storied football programs to prominence.

Fall From Grace
On any number of levels, the fact that Tyrone Willingham will not be returning illustrates how Notre Dame is not Notre Dame anymore. The university that has not let a coach go without him fulfilling his contract let Willingham go three years into a five-year deal. The 16-year gap since its last national championship now looks as if it will stretch beyond 20.

The unique quality of which Notre Dame has been so proud of for so many years -- that it doesn't do things the way the typical "football factory" does -- became a lot less visible around 1:15 ET Tuesday afternoon. Sending a coach on his way three years into a contract is what any school would do. Florida and Stanford come immediately to mind.

A member of Willingham's staff used the words "frustrated" and "unhappy" Tuesday morning to describe the head coach's state of mind and said that Willingham was in a meeting in which his future would be decided. What we await to hear is whether the University of Washington, whose rumored pursuit of Willingham has been swirling about the coaching fraternity for the last 24 hours, had any effect on Willingham's surprising departure.

-- Ivan Maisel, ESPN.com

Willingham went 21-15, including 6-5 this season. The Fighting Irish lost 41-10 to No. 1 Southern California on Saturday.

"We simply have not made the progress on the field that we need to make," athletic director Kevin White said in a news conference. "Nor have we been able to create the positive momentum necessary in our efforts to return the Notre Dame program to the elite level of the college football world."

Players now are considering not playing in the Insight Bowl on Dec. 28, and White said he didn't know who would coach the game. Notre Dame accepted the invitation from bowl officials on Sunday.

The Notre Dame players met Tuesday evening. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that the team had decided to play in the bowl game, but school officials said Wednesday afternoon that they remain uncertain.

The decision to sever ties with Willingham was made during an emergency meeting of the university's board of trustees Monday night, ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel reports. At the time, seven assistants were on the road recruiting. Upon learning of the decision Tuesday afternoon, Willingham called his coaches and, according to one source, said to them "come on in, we're done."

The team attended an emotional early-afternoon meeting with Willingham and White, who said they "decided to go in different directions."

"I feel bad for the seniors," sophomore free safety Tommy Zbikowski told ESPN.com's Wayne Drehs. "First they have to go through the [Bob] Davie firing, then [George] O'Leary and now this. Those guys have constantly helped the underclassmen and they've been so selfless, and now they have to go through this again. The other bad part is most of the coaches were out recruiting, so we didn't even get to talk to them.

"The best way to describe it is shock. You hear about this stuff on the message boards, but no one thinks it can happen, and then there's a meeting called out of nowhere and it happens."

Willingham's firing comes after a season in which the Irish pulled off upset victories over Michigan and Tennessee but also were beaten badly by USC and Purdue. Student groups were planning a protest on campus Tuesday evening to call for Willingham's firing; he faced criticism from fans much of the season.

White praised Willingham's handling of the team, especially the Irish's strong academic record.

"From Sunday through Friday our football program has exceeded all expectations, in every way," he said. "But on Saturday, we struggled. We've been up and down and sideways a little bit."

" The best way to describe it is shock. You hear about this stuff on the message boards, but no one thinks it can happen and then there's a meeting called out of nowhere and it
happens.
"
Tommy Zbikowski,
Sophomore safety

Notre Dame's loss to USC marked the fifth time the Irish lost by 31 points or more under Willingham -- including three against the rival Trojans. By comparison, the Irish under Davie had just one such loss; Lou Holtz and Dan Devine had none.

Notre Dame hired Willingham, the first black head coach in any sport for the Irish, from Stanford to replace O'Leary. The former Georgia Tech coach resigned five days after taking the job because he admitted lying about his academic and athletic achievements on his résumé.

With Tony Samuel fired by New Mexico State and Fitz Hill resigning as San Jose State coach last week, there are now only two black head coaches in Division I-A: Karl Dorrell at UCLA and Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State.

Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association, said he was disappointed with Notre Dame's decision.

"In three years, I think he has done everything, short of winning a national championship and I don't think he inherited national championship talent," he said.

Keith told ESPNews that the firing makes it seem that black coaches are held to a higher standard than their white counterparts. Davie, Willingham's predecessor, compiled a 21-16 record during his first three seasons, but was retained for the duration of his contract. He finished with a five-year record of 35-25.

Willingham had two years left on his contract.

"This sends an alarming message to African-Americans," Keith said.

In his first season, Willingham had many fans recalling Notre Dame's glory days, taking over a losing squad and turning things around immediately. The Irish won eight straight games to start the season before finishing 10-3 and going to the Gator Bowl.

But during his second year, the Irish fell to 5-7, with four of their losses coming by 26 points or more. It was Notre Dame's third losing record in five seasons, the team's worst stretch in 115 years of football.

One coach expected to be mentioned as a possible replacement for Willingham is Utah's Urban Meyer, an Irish assistant between 1996 and 2000. The Utes are 11-0 and ranked No. 5 in their second year under Meyer.

Meyer wouldn't say Tuesday whether he'd be interested if Notre Dame called, but he did acknowledge the clause in his Utah contract that allows him to leave Utah without penalty if he is named head coach at Michigan, Ohio State or Notre Dame. The clause was included in the contract extension he signed last summer.

"I have great respect for that university. That's the reason it's [the out clause] in my contract," Meyer said after Tuesday's practice. "I think a lot of people look into it more than what it is. I'm sure that this is going to spark a lot of discussion, but I'm just trying to get a team ready to play in a bowl game."

Notre Dame has won eight AP college football national championships, more than any other school, with the last in the 1988 season under Holtz. Players from the school have won the Heisman Trophy seven times, also the most in college football.

But the Irish haven't won a bowl game since ending the 1993 season ranked No. 2 after beating Texas A&M 24-21 in the Cotton Bowl. Since then, the Irish have lost six straight postseason games.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.