Editor’s note: The following letters were received by postal mail or through the magazine’s React Online form.
The termination of Ty Willingham, when evaluated by objective evidence, was truly a simple decision. The coaching errors were simply too common and too obvious for any other choice to be made.
There were the blatant mistakes that were apparent to the most casual fan (e.g. having 12 men on the field on the first play after a timeout on two separate occasions in 2003). There were the curious strategic decisions (e.g. punting from an opponent’s 30 yard line in 2004). Worst of all, however, was the stubborn insistence on retaining an offensive coordinator who was obviously not getting the job done.
For whatever reason, Bill Diedrick’s offense could not be mastered by two different quarterbacks with two radically different skill sets. Carlyle Holiday was casually cast aside early in 2003 because it was believed that Brady Quinn could better adapt to Diedrick’s offense. By the end of 2004, however, it was readily apparent that Quinn was no more effective in that offense.
It is believed that Willingham was advised to change his offensive coordinator at the end of the 2003 season, and it is widely understood that Willingham was told to make this change a year later. He refused to do so on both occasions. It was only when Willingham went to Washington that he decided that Diedrick was no longer essential to him. He apparently was not willing to replace his coordinator to keep his job at Notre Dame, but he was willing to replace him in order to get a job at Washington.
As is evidenced by the many top college coaches who take professional jobs, the NFL is considered to be the pinnacle of the profession. Had Charlie Weis not returned to his alma mater, it is virtually certain that he would be an NFL head coach now. He would not, accordingly, have been available had a change been made after the 2005 season.
Weis has assembled a visibly more qualified staff around him, and he has been visibly more effective in his recruiting efforts to date. Odds are good that he will compile a visibly better won/lost record over time. The decision to replace Willingham was, accordingly, the correct one, and the decision to hire Weis was even more correct.
Patrick Toomey, Jr. ‘80
Miami Shores, Florida_
I read with a great deal of interest your article on Saturday football at ND. I, too, remember the two excruciating losses you mentioned, even to the extent of remembering where I was at the times.
I didn’t feel that Willingham was doing the job, but I wonder about the hiring of Weis. He seems a bit crude and “nasty” to me; and $2 million a year for six years? How come Tom Clemens didn’t get a shot? He seems more a ND man than Weis. And what if Weis doesn’t work out?
I’m concerned about the academic standing of our second home. The whole thing just doesn’t “feel right” to me. Also, In 1949 the cost of tuition, room and board for four years was about 10 percent of today’s cost for one year. Wow!
Clarence C. Zimmer ‘49
Rochester, New York_
Kerry Temple’s football article recounts in detail the vicissitudes of our hallowed sport. But it falls flat at the end with a paragraph of wishful thinking. Yes indeed, wouldn’t it be nice . . .?
Let’s face facts. For years now, major college football is beyond the sphere of student athletics and in the realm of big business that largely ignores the academic needs of its players. Notre Dame football’s own business side, but not (yet?) its academic requirements, confirms this. And certainly it appears unlikely that college football as a whole will retrace its steps, given the money involved. This brings Notre Dame to an unenviable dilemma commonly seen as three-sided: either lower player academic standards, or soften the schedule, or continue to have mediocre win-loss records and bowl performances.
Permit me to propose a radical, nay heretical, fourth alternative. Return football, and all other sports for that matter, to where they should be in a great institution of learning, to true student athleticism. To wit, abolish athletic scholarships an play only academically great schools that have a similar policy.
Sure, it may mean giving up the big money from TV, etc. But it also means taking a stand for what is right and uncorrupted in our process of higher learning. Notre Dame once led in the expansion of college football to its near professional status. Why not lead back to what a university truly is all about: learning and preparation for life? Or else stand alone, pure and proud of it.
James O’Hare ’64
Thank you for your sweeping essay, “The Indisputable Importance of Saturday.” I, too, grew up living and dying on Fall Sautrdays, listening on the radio to Bill Stern broadcast ND games in the 1940s. Since I lived in Utah, Notre Dame was an icon, far away.
Notre Dame football was thus extremely important to me from then on—right through my acceptance by and attendance of the University in 1953-54. That significance has never wavered, although the reasons for its importance have changed, from deep pride to deep concern.
In recent years, from toward the end of the Lou Holtz years until today, I have been disappointed not so much by the decline in winning percentage but rather by my perception we had lost something more important: Sportsmanship, Dignity and Class.
We now look just like the rest of the colleges, taunting and trash-talking; celebrating routine defensive plays and touchdowns as if we had eliminated world hunger. We behave—coaches, athletes, and administrators—as if the very mission of Notre Dame football is 1) to raise money, 2) to conform our standards to television’s; and 3) to supply players for the NFL. The tail is wagging the dog.
Notre Dame used to stand for students earning a degree and preparing for a Christ-like life. If those students also happened to be good football players, so much the better. Right now it appears we’ve allowed our principles to be turned upside-down and inside-out.
The very work “recruiting” is noxious. No one should have to be “recruited” to play at Notre Dame. The competition should be between the very best football players in the nation, from Catholic and public high schools, fighting to come to Notre Dame. They, their parents, and their schools should be lobbying Notre Dame to accept them_. The “selling” job we need to do is to rekindle the connections between Notre Dame and dioceses and churches and high schools around the nation.
One example of this disconnect: In Concord, California, there is a Catholic high school, De La Salle, which has been amazingly successful in football for the last decade or so. Only a handful of their players over the years has played at Notre Dame.
I firmly believe that when the above situations are rectified, Notre Dame will become an even greater school and therefore ND football will once again regain excellence and eminence. It will not be accomplished by hiring and firing coaches; it will be accomplished by attitude, policy and example.
Thank you again for a great, stimulating article.
“…And our hearts forever love thee, Notre Dame.”
James Brennan ‘57
Walnut Creek, California_
I commend Kerry Temple on such a well-written piece of journalism. You stated the facts with precision and got to the heart of the matter. After the Willingham firing, I suffered for weeks with all the Notre Dame bashing. Maybe we deserved some of it, but in the final analysis Father Jenkins made the correct decision. We may not go undefeated for some time, but we are headed in the right direction. Decisions like the one Father Jenkins has to make are very difficult. My prayers and good wishes are with the boys on Saturday and with Coach Weis.
I was a senior at ND when Temple heard about Ara Parseghian. I lived through the seasons of Coach Kuharich and Devore, and that 2-7 season the story referenced. So, I have lived through the worst of Irish football. I now look forward to a team that will play hard and compete in each game.
You are doing a great job, keep up the good work.
Gene De Agostino ’64
Excellent article on ND football history. Yes. Notre Dame “means Catholic and football” to many people. I must remind you that many Protestants and other “non-Catholics” have helped “build” the University and its football program over the years . . . including Ara Parsegian and (at the time) Knute Rockne. There are thousands of Protestant and non-Catholic alumni and "subway alumni "who bleed gold and blue and love Notre Dame. Although I am sure you never intentionally meant to slight these people, it would be more sensitive in future articles to point out this fact and remember Father Sorin’s philosophy and mission that all religious denominations were welcome at Notre Dame . . . and have come here to not only educate themselves, but to help glorify the “School of Our Lady.”
Dennis R. Pickens ’64
I found Editor Kerry Temple’s summary of the current deplorable state of Notre Dame football in the Spring 2005 issue of Notre Dame Magazine (“The Indisputable Importance of Saturday”) to be, on the whole, comprehensive, balanced and fair, except for one glaring omission; i.e., his failure to mention that many Fighting Irish fans, myself included, strongly feel that ND’s current Athletic Director, Kevin White, is much to blame for the current situation. He has been guilty of a number of inexcusable blunders, including impetuously extending former coach Davie’s contract as well as ineptly mishandling the search for Coach Willingham’s replacement, which have cost the University dearly in terms of both dollars and reputation.
When I raised this issue in a previous letter to Father Jenkins, he rebutted me by pointing out several impressive successes by Notre Dame teams in other sports. Those are indeed laudable, I agree, but let’s face it, football is the sport that has always counted the most at Notre Dame.
Dick Callahan ‘55
Lions Bay, B. C., Canada_
I want to compliment Kerry Temple on what appears to be (after I’ve merely skimmed it) an outstanding article on the importance of ND football. I’m a 44-year-old subway alumnus for whom the 1973 Sugar Bowl victory wasn’t the highlight of my life as a fan but one of the highest lights of my life, period. Your reference to listening to a 1964 radio broadcast with your dad hits home hard, and beautifully.
It seems like this article beautifully captures the significance of what ND football success can mean. Just one example of how this has played out for me is my extensive volunteer work on behalf of the Parseghian Foundation, which, obviously, strives to achieve so much that is good. Thanks for a great article.
Kerry Temple’s article on “The Indisputable Importance of Saturday” started me thinking about the meaning of big-time intercollegiate sports. In the article, President-Elect John Jenkins, CSC, explained why Tyrone Willingham was fired. He said that success at the University of Notre Dame consisted of “acting with integrity, giving students a superb education and excelling on the field.” He followed this statement with one that warns us of what big time sports have become today. He said, “Success in only one or two of these areas is not the success we seek. Just as we would not tolerate a program which failed to graduate its students or to act with integrity, so we should not be content with one that fails to succeed on the field” (emphasis added). As I read this statement I realized that Father Jenkins assumed, intentionally or not, that excellence on the field means winning more than 58.3 percent of the time (Willingham’s record), and that winning more than 58.3 percent of the time is as important as integrity and education!
This is an important thing to know about a priest who is the educational leader of the University of Notre Dame. It also helps me understand the power of big time intercollegiate football, even after studying it as a sociologist for the past 35 years. When the priest/president-elect of a university reputed to epitomize the combination of values and sports says that having a football team with record of at least seven wins and no more than four losses per year is as important as integrity and education, I see how difficult it is to eliminate the hypocrisy and other problems in intercollegiate sports. Would Father Jenkins accept five losses if one was in a big-money bowl game? Maybe that’s a silly question to ask when being ranked and winning games is as important as integrity and education.
Jay Coakley, ’69M.A., ’72 Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Congratulations to Kerry Temple for his wonderfully balanced article on the difficult and sensitive subject of Notre Dame football. I can’t wait to see the letters blasting you from both sides. Notre Dame Magazine will be accused of following the company line or being way too liberal; either way it was excellent journalism. I was especially impressed with the sensitive way you handled the disagreement between Father Malloy and Father Jenkins. Unlike disagreements in the business world it is good to remember that these men are members of a religious order and must live under the same roof the same way a family does. This will not be a permanent rift between these two men. I am convinced that they both want to do what is best for the university.
Tom McCabe ‘53
What has happened to Notre Dame football? One cause is the increased emphasis on scholastics. Undoubtedly, some talented athletes turned down by Notre Dame turn up on opponents’ teams. The administration wants Notre Dame to become “the Harvard of the Midwest.” This has already been accomplished in football and liberalism, if not in the classroom or endowment.
A deeper cause, I think, is a weakening of the “Spirit of Notre Dame.” Irish teams of the “glory days,” when slightly lacking in physical prowess, made up for it in spirit. Did this spirit have “outside help” or did playing to honor the Virgin Mother inspire extra effort?
Consider the “Old Notre Dame” of the Victory March. The school was named for and dedicated to Our Lady. Students daily prayed rosaries and sang hymns in her honor at the Grotto, a shrine replicating Lourdes in France and built of rock from there. Mary was not adored but honored and asked to be an advocate for every cause, including football. Devotion to the Blessed Mother was obvious, and why not? Notre Dame is her school! Who would be listened to more attentively in heaven? Mary was chosen by God, the Father, to be the mother of His Son. The Holy Spirit was her spouse. She bore Jesus, raised Him and stood at the foot of His cross. She was born free of original sin and was taken alive to heaven, to deprive death.
Our prayers to Mary asked her to intercede for us with God, whom we also entreated directly at daily Mass. Did this praying and pleading cause some fumbles and passes to fall into the right hands, or tackle, blocks, or kicks to be made or missed, or was it just the “luck of the Irish”?
Of late, there seems to be a somewhat different atmosphere at Notre Dame. While students display love of neighbor in charitable and missionary work, I believe the love of God has declined because of a drift away from some of His Commandments. The Holy Father’s edict, “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” requiring universities calling themselves “Catholic” to have a majority of practicing Catholic faculty and all theology professors be approved by the local bishop, has been rejected. Organizations of gays and lesbians have been permitted, while abortion advocates have been honored. Very questionable film festivals and monologues are permitted. Surely, the Blessed Mother is aware of what is happening at her school.
I pray that Notre Dame will return to what it once was—a truly Catholic university with high standards for morality, integrity, scholastics, and athletics.
_Robert W. Degenhart ’42
Columbia, South Carolina
I have to admit that while I enjoy your magazine, I don’t often have time to read all the articles, especially the longer ones. I have even less time to respond to them. I guess I epitomize the USA Today type reader, much as I hate to admit it.
But I was hooked on your article about “The Indisputable Importance of Saturday” with your first sentence. I too remember that dark day in November 1964. Probably better than I remember Kennedy’s November 22, although again, I hate to admit that.
To this day, I can see myself, a callow youth of 15, lying on my mom/dad’s bed, listening to the radio that got the best reception in the house in the tiny town of West Nyack, just north of New York City. Being a glass-half-empty kinda guy even back then, I could see (hear?) disaster written all over that last drive by USC. So I did what any self-respecting, God-fearing, Catholic-grade-school-and-high-school-attending lad would do. I promised God that if he didn’t let USC score, I’d become a priest.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
That hooked me into the story, but your second heart-breaking moment propelled me to actually take the time to write (don’t tell my boss). I was actually at that late-November game in 1970 as a student of Our Lady of the Lake. It was the Senior trip, but my buddy Snake and I flew up to San Fran and hitchhiked down the coast to Los Angeles. Sounds funny, hitchhiking, but back then it was a way of life.
We met a bunch of our cronies who were on the trip, and went to the game. What a miserable, miserable day, at every level both physical and psychological. It seemed like there were 178 ND rooters, mostly sitting around us, and 78,000 Trojan rooters, mostly surrounding us. Wet, bedraggled and exhausted, our last act of defiance as the Irish ship sank late in the game was to start wadding up balls of newspaper and firing them at particularly obnoxious USC fans. Who, us, obnoxious??? Noooooo.
At any rate, Kerry, as the old TV program used to end, “Thanks for the memories.”
Brian L.P. Zevnik ‘71
Editor-in-Chief, Alexander Hamilton Institute_
My conclusions from Kerry Temple’s typically excellent essay: (1) football built ND and presently holds it captive; (2) the neophyte Father Jenkins is both our Judas and our Brutus; and (3) having had a wonderful tenure, poor Father Malloy abdicated his responsibilities months before he said he would. Shame, shame on ole Notre Dame.
_Peter R. Reilly ’61
Kerry Temple remains the profound writer whose prose on a Notre Dame brochure inspired me to matriculate in South Bend. His article on the lore and heartbreak of Irish football was equally compelling. However, two 1993 occurrences that I believe contributed to our Decade of Decline were omitted: the Under the Tarnished Dome book that drew negative attention, and the overconfident, painful 41-39 loss to Boston College when we were ranked Number 1 in the regular season finale. But as Temple has noted, Notre Dame is a place of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds and responding triumphantly when the world says you’re done. Under Charlie Weis, this will happen in striking fashion. Though we need a better looking “The Shirt,” no?
Alex Montoya ‘96
San Diego, California_
Kerry Temple’s article “The Indisputable Importance of Saturday” reminds us that Notre Dame is not preeminent in college football and has not been for decades. Jim Donaldson’s article"Man on the Spot" proves that we have a very fine coach in Charlie Weis who, in my mind, was the best selection possible. However, he is human. He will not win every game. And all of us who dwell in mediocrity from time to time, should remember that we do not win the equivalent of a National Championship every year in our respective occupations, professions or daily efforts. So give Charlie a break when he does not either.
Philip L. Russo, Jr., ‘80
Virginia Beach, Virginia_
I witnessed many magical football-Saturday moments during my time at Notre Dame (1977-81)—a national championship, field goals with only seconds left, and “The Comeback Kid” making that name for himself. I was very fortunate to experience another magical moment just prior to Ty Willingham’s move to Notre Dame. My son, then 15, and I were seated at Coach Willingham’s table at a fundraiser for the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit organization with ties both to Stanford and Notre Dame. Coach Willingham couldn’t have been more kind or encouraging to my son, a young athlete and baseball player with big dreams. He stressed the importance of getting an education and reminded my son that participating in college sports was, most of all, character-building. My son heard a man of incredible integrity tell him that it wasn’t your accomplishments that defined you, but how you dealt with your disappointments and even your failures.
When Ty Willingham left Stanford to take the head coaching job at Notre Dame, I couldn’t have been more pleased. I hoped beyond hope that Notre Dame would benefit from his wisdom, his concern for his players and their futures, and his incredible insight and integrity. Little did I know that the men (yes, mostly men)entrusted to lead Notre Dame, Our Mother, would betray the legacy that has defined generations of those who love this University so dearly. Thank you, Father Malloy, for expressing what so many of us were feeling the day the announcement of Coach Willingham’s firing was announced—yes, we were ashamed, for the first time we could ever remember, to be sons and daughters of Notre Dame.
I wish all the best to Ty Willingham at Washington and have to say that I’ll be cheering against ND for the first time ever when the two teams meet this year.
Mary Ahern ’81
Half Moon Bay, California
In addition to providing a much-need, fair summary of the events of the last several months, Kerry’s article evoked my own memories of becoming emotionally invested in the football team. Of course, the big wins are more fun to remember than the heartbreaks. My memory of the 1973 Sugar Bowl is particularly vivid. The article’s headline is a classic.
I’ve been surprised by the number of friends and casual acquaintances who remain critical of the University’s decision to change coaches. The short-term damage to ND’s reputation is considerable. Although I wish it hadn’t happened (because I had great expectations for Ty Willingham), I nonetheless continue to support the decision. There’s no reason to be defensive about our aspirations for excellence. Why field a football team unless you expect to win the games? At the end of the day maybe it’s not too corny to make football a metaphor for living one’s life. Caring deeply about what we do, trying to do that thing in the right way, and, yes, striving for as much success as possible, and then maybe some more—that’s a pretty good “mission statement” for most things we set out to do.
The importance of symbolism can’t be overstated. The University’s renewed commitment to the success of our most visible symbol is both a welcome development and a high-stakes bet. I suspect the pressure will be excruciating. But then I remember being 9 or 10 years old and living in suburban Chicago, and getting to know Paul Rafferty, who was the older brother of a pal of mine and an avid fan of the football team. Notre Dame was in the doldrums at the time; I think Terry Brennan had just been fired. The Chicago newspapers were annoyed about Notre Dame’s attitude towards winning football games. I believe one of the articles in the Chicago Tribune was headlined "Does Notre Dame Really Expect to Win Them All?" Paul wrote a brilliant letter to the editor that, as I remember, simply said “Hell yes, if not more!”
Tom Gies ‘72
If you think the football part is in bad shape, take a look at the Catholic part. To see where Notre Dame is headed one need only visit Harvard, Princeton or Yale where religion is just another academic subject and football is just another extracurricular activity. If that is what you really want, why don’t you just go there and leave us alone. As for me, give me Catholic and give me football and give me a faculty and student body that appreciates the Church, the pope, our bishops, and all the athletes who fill our stadium on Saturdays in the fall. If by chance you do choose to leave us for one of those schools in the east, please take academic freedom with you. It has not served us well.
Tom Wich ‘63
Clarendon Hills, Illinois_
Three brief points.
1. Tyrone Willingham is a class act, a fine man, and a great role model.
2. The most embarrassing episode in the events surrounding the dismissal of Tyrone Willingham came when Father Malloy expressed his personal embarrassment at being president of Notre Dame. As president, Father Malloy should have done one of two things: He should have retained responsibility for this decision and kept Willingham, or he should have supported the decision of the university. One cannot have it both ways. Father Malloy, essentially, washed his hands of the situation and then condemned the decision. That is embarrassing!
3. A portion of the outcry related to Willingham’s dismissal was racially motivated. Tyrone Willingham was not hired at Notre Dame because he is black. Willingham was hired because he was the best candidate for the job at the time. To say otherwise would be an insult to Willingham’s ability and an argument that Notre Dame hired a coach that was not qualified except for his skin color. I did not believe this when he was hired anymore than I believe it since his dismissal. Willingham was dismissed because he was not doing the job he was hired to do. His tenure was not cut short because he is black. Hypothetically, should Charlie Weis have the same results as Willingham and be dismissed before his contract is complete, will the same people be outraged? Will anyone shave their head?
Larry Iwanski ’00
Kerry Temple’s journey down memory lane was nostalgic but he selectively omitted a couple of the uglier aspects of Notre Dame football.
Notre Dame’s quasi-membership in the Big East is demeaning to all schools football-playing members. This “We’re too good for you” attitude has driven three schools to another conference, prompted the Gator Bowl to dump the Big East and threatens to exclude the conference from BCS membership.
Notre Dame’s response to this slow-motion tragedy is complete apathy. The Irish cherish their independence in football and they don’t care in the least if their football-playing peers in the Big East Conference sink into obscurity with the MAC and CUSA.
Oswego, New York_
This was a truly excellent history of Notre Dame football politics over the last two decades. The administration looks as disjointed as our on-the-field offense! I can finally erase the email sent to Father Malloy in early December—you have captured the truth far better than I ever could.
The follow-on article about Charlie Weis, “Man on the Spot,” brings hope. If everyone, including whoever claims to be running Our Lady’s University at this point, catches the same sense of enthusiasm, ownership and responsibility as the “Jersey Guy,” we may just have a chance.
_Jim Jesse ’69
Charlotte, North Carolina
A wonderful article that sheds new light on the circumstances surrounding the firing of Willingham. Beautifully written with objectivity in spite of the appeal for ND football. I too, have followed ND football for 70 years and can appreciate the past and the influence it has had on football, and the academic world over the years. The criticism that followed Willingham’s firing was ONLY because it WAS ND. Malloy never should have made his statement, and it only served to fuel the fire. ND is a fine institution and needs to be outstanding in ALL areas.
Willingham’s approach to guiding ND with the “west coast” offense, in spite of the obvious lack of talent, was duplicated in Washington by Steve Spurrier’s quest to install the “fun and gun” offense in pro football. Both men are wonderful coaches but had blind spots that ruined their efforts as head coaches. You start by assessing your talent and go from there. Both men refused to evaluate the individual circumstances.
The result, in both cases, was the inability to field a consistently, good team, week after week. Successful people in all fields, medical, military, pedagogical, etc., must first evaluate the current situation, tools or talent available, then establish a plan of attack. Two successful coaches failed because they overlooked the most basic rules that govern everything we try to accomplish in life: 1) assess present circumstances; 2) where do I want to go and can I get there with ease or do I need to re-examine and institute a new approach; 3) and finally, the most important phase . . . planning.
Both coaches will be successful at their respective universities, but their success in the past blinded their approach to winning football.
Again, a wonderfully well-written article. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will pass it along to my many ND friends and ND fans. All my life I have answered this question the same way to everybody who knows me, “Hey Robert, you really like Notre Dame, don’t you?” My response is, “No, I LOVE Notre Dame.” Nothing has changed.
The best compendium on Notre Dame football I have ever read.
_Joe Schaefer ’59
Universal City, Texas_
_Ray Dubriske ’41