My heart was first broken on November 28, 1964. I was 12.
I was in the car with my dad listening to the closing minutes of the Notre Dame-USC game on the radio. It was the season finale for Notre Dame, because the school did not go to bowl games then. So Notre Dame, undefeated and ranked No. 1, was in Los Angeles for that wondrous season’s climactic face-off, and a 17-0 Irish lead had dissolved into a 17-13 cliffhanger. USC was moving the ball down field late in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame had been 2-7 in 1963, and I had never heard of the place. That was before Ara Parseghian. In 1964 my family in Louisiana was buzzing about the dynamic young coach who had returned Notre Dame to gridiron glory—right where the Fighting Irish belonged, according to my parents. Notre Dame was a Catholic school — the Catholic school — and we all knew how the nation disliked Catholics.
So that autumn, because of football, Notre Dame became my school and carried my dreams onto the playing fields of America. And when USC quarterback Craig Fertig hit halfback Rod Sherman on a 15-yard touchdown pass with 1:34 remaining, it broke my heart.
Two years later I learned more about Notre Dame football. Ara’s Fighting Irish were again in the hunt for the national championship. This time, a 10-10 tie with Michigan State ruined a perfect season. But the pollsters looked kindly upon the 9-0-1 Irish (who still declined bowl invitations) and picked them No. 1 in the final rankings, with MSU in second place. Alabama finished third that year with an 11-0 record, having outscored its opponents 301-44 and having beaten Nebraska 34-7 in the Sugar Bowl.
My schoolmates and the local sportswriters were outraged. They resented Notre Dame for its special treatment, ridiculed the school for its arrogance and cowardice in avoiding bowl games, and were angry at the media for their obvious bias against the South. By the time I graduated from high school, I would fully understand how Notre Dame football was not just about football. Those who represented the school on the gridiron carried a lot more on their shoulders than the pads they wore into battle.
My experience was not unique. Many Notre Dame people had their first contact with the place through football—sometimes because of games broadcast nationally on the radio, sometimes because of the priests and nuns who asked prayers for “the boys” on Saturdays and who intertwined Fighting Irish football with their faith. Millions of Catholics—whether Irish, Italian, German or Pole —lived vicariously through the wins and losses of Notre Dame’s football teams. For that vastly immigrant population Notre Dame football symbolized the triumphs of an ostracized people. It also reflected the ascendancy of U.S. Catholics into the nation’s mainstream.
The legend of ND football
From the early victories at the turn of the century through the postwar prowess of “Leahy’s lads” to the championship seasons of Parseghian, Devine and Holtz, Notre Dame football became a societal icon, the stuff of legend and myth. Its most famous heroes —the likes of Rockne, the Four Horsemen and George Gipp, even Rudy—transcended the playing field to become part of our cultural vernacular. And Notre Dame, once a parochial Midwestern college, rode that football success onto the national stage.
Knute Rockne’s genius as a coach, motivator and promoter not only brought Notre Dame into the nation’s consciousness but also enabled it to survive, even thrive, during the Depression. Notre Dame was perceived as an “against the odds” winner possessing uncommon values and ideals. Its appeal as an underdog attracted an even wider following.
As college football grew into a big business soiled with recruiting scandals, dismal graduation rates and the misconduct of powerful boosters and rogue athletes, Notre Dame maintained a reputation for doing it right. Its football players met admissions standards. They went to class, got an education, earned a degree. They lived in residence halls like other college students and not in special athletic dorms.
Even those who were not Fighting Irish fans acknowledged that Notre Dame was different, that it kept college athletics in the proper context, that its philosophy and standards may put the school at a competitive disadvantage but its guiding principles had become a hallmark of institutional integrity.
My heart was broken for the second time on November 28, 1970. I was a freshman at Notre Dame and the Fighting Irish had gone 9-0. It was Thanksgiving weekend and the Irish were again at USC. I watched on TV as Joe Theismann threw for 526 yards in a steady, game-long downpour—and lost 38-28. I was heartsick for days. A 24-11 win over unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl eased the pain a bit, but Notre Dame finished the season second, not first.
Losing has always hurt. The final score has always mattered. At Notre Dame the point is always to win—but win the right way. That tension has imposed an obstacle from the beginning. Winning mattered even in the post-Leahy era when football mediocrity in the 1950s was blamed on the new young president, Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, who was reputedly de-emphasizing football as he pushed the University to bold new heights academically. It mattered in 1958 when, with Hesburgh as president, Terry Brennan ’49 was fired on Christmas Eve after going 32-18 over five seasons.
Despite some rough periods, Notre Dame has won enough football games through the years to be inextricably tied to its football heritage. Few colleges or universities (or corporations, institutions, organizations) have the immediate name recognition enjoyed by Notre Dame, and, for better and worse, the place derives much of that identity from its athletic traditions. Focus groups and surveys consistently confirm that, in the national consciousness, Notre Dame means “Catholic” and “football,” with an awareness that the place is pretty strong academically, too. Only a few organizations (the New York Yankees come to mind) have acquired the cachet for excellence over time combined with so broad a following as Notre Dame football.
Whether proud of the brilliant legacy or sheepish about being thought of as “a football factory,” there is no escaping the fact that football is important here. Even many of the faculty, who complain that the institution’s football image detracts from how seriously their scholarship is viewed among peers, will second-guess a play call from the previous Saturday or lament a blue-chip recruit choosing to go elsewhere. Expectations are high; perennial finishes in the top 10 are practically assumed as a birthright. It’s an amazing phenomenon for an auxiliary enterprise that isn’t the school’s primary reason for being.
The highpoint of my life as a Notre Dame football fan came on New Year’s Eve 1973 at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. It was my senior year, my home state, two unbeaten teams, the national championship at stake. Ara Parseghian on the sidelines across from the legendary ’Bama coach, Bear Bryant.
The game was a thrilling epic that featured fumbles and long passes, sustained drives, a kickoff return for a touchdown, a halfback pass for a touchdown, momentum swings and mood swings, a missed extra point and a 24-23 Irish lead late in the fourth quarter.
I prayed throughout the second half for a Notre Dame victory —knowing full well that there were Southern Baptists in the same stadium who were probably praying to the same God for a Crimson Tide win. Although the theology is now embarrassing to confess, it’s a good indicator of the passions aroused when games acquire additional levels of meaning.
I do not know if God interceded that night, but when Tom Clements threw out of the end zone on third and long to Robin Weber, sealing the win, I was engulfed in a rush of jubilation, even euphoria I have rarely felt in my life. And I have since made good on my part of the pact—never to invoke the name of God in sport again.
Of course, my stories of Notre Dame football are interchangeable with the memories and tales of others. The legacy is a richly storied past starring seven Heisman Trophy winners and 11 national champions and replete with heroes, with endings sad and happy. Even the names are evocative: Lujack, Lattner, Hart, Hornung, Bertelli, Montana, Page, Hanratty, Bleier, Browner, Buoniconti, Sitko and Patulski.
It’s been a different story for the past 10 years. The tradition is alluded to and the ghosts of gridirons past are invoked. But it’s been awhile since the echoes were more than that.
After the 1993 Lou Holtz team made a run at the national championship (with some of us still thinking they earned it), his final three teams went an undistinguished 23-11-1. Bob Davie followed by going 35-25 over five years, and perhaps his most memorable game was the 41-9 humiliation he suffered against Oregon State in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl. In three years Tyrone Willingham’s teams went 21-15 —but they were only 13-15 after starting 8-0 in 2002, then ending that season with a 44-13 humiliation at USC and a 28-6 Gator Bowl loss (the first of a series of demoralizing losses during the Willingham era). The indications that things were not getting better and the lackluster recruiting seasons did not suggest hope for dramatic on-field improvement. The program seemed to be sputtering.
It’s been a tough time to be a Notre Dame fan. There have been a few sweet victories, but Notre Dame football has surely changed in recent years. It is now the ceremony that matters, the ritual of it all. The game may bring us together, but the tradition, memories and fraternity are the real reasons for pleasure. A certain amount of emotional distancing from the games played by college students may demonstrate a healthy maturation for someone my age, and, as an alumnus who subscribes to the school’s philosophy and mission, I have no trouble keeping football in its place. But life_ is_ more fun when the team gives you reason to celebrate and feel good.
Of course, it has not been only the Saturday performances that have caused dismay among the Notre Dame faithful. There was the Joe Moore age-discrimination suit and the friendly blond bookkeeper who pilfered thousands of dollars from her South Bend employer and lavished her gains on trips and gifts for Notre Dame football players, leading to NCAA violations that landed Notre Dame on probation for the first time in its history. There have been various academic improprieties and charges of sexual transgressions (some public and some not) on the part of other Notre Dame football players. There was also the George O’Leary episode and coaching searches carried out under the glare of ravenous media and enlivened more by those who didn’t come than those who did (leaving a good many Irish fans miffed that some of the game’s best coaches —college and pro—did not drop what they were doing to take what must certainly be the nation’s premier coaching position).
To be sure, there had never been a claim that Notre Dame was pure and perfect. The Gipper was a carouser, Rockne clashed with the school’s Holy Cross leadership, and football players occasionally broke the stringent University rules. In 1974 six prominent stars from Parseghian’s ’73 championship team were kicked out of school for a year because of sexual misconduct. But for decades Notre Dame had maintained its reputation as a special place. The handling of the often headstrong, sometimes tempestuous relative that is Notre Dame football had always been a source of pride, not an embarrassment to the family. Now, given the unfortunate events of the previous decade, concern grew that the mystique was being squandered, that Notre Dame—could it be?—was like everyone else. The image was tarnished.
The downward spiral brought pain to the Notre Dame family, but there were others who clearly enjoyed watching the fall from grace.
An Independent Case
By 1990 Notre Dame had won enough for long enough that it could hardly be considered an underdog or enjoy the appeal that accrues to underdog status. On a practical level Notre Dame was a special case in college football—it was an independent whose huge following meant broader media exposure and bowl invitations based more on resource generation than merit. It did not have to share these revenues with conference members. It asked for, and got, unique privileges when the BCS arrangement was negotiated. Often perceived as elitist, self-centered and arrogant, Notre Dame generates a considerable level of resentment and antagonism.
Lou Holtz teams won the national championship in 1988, went 12-1 in 1989 and a disappointing 9-3 in 1990. In 1991 the University entered into an agreement with NBC for all of Notre Dame’s home football games to be televised. Now, the critics complained, Notre Dame had its own television network. Sports Illustrated announced the NBC contract with the headline “We’re Notre Dame and You’re Not.” Notre Dame would go 31-5-1 over the next three seasons.
These were heady times for fans of the Fighting Irish—and for the University’s treasurers. The NBC money transformed the University’s financial aid program. Annual bowl revenues and licensed merchandise income both were in millions of dollars. Stadium expansion was on the horizon. Football was not just championing the University’s institutional image, it was paying tangible dividends that underwrote the burgeoning athletic department and the aspirations of the academic enterprise.
The Holtz revival also reinforced the University’s sense of itself. It proved that the early ’80s, during which Gerry Faust teams went 30-26-1, had clearly been an aberration. It had been a dismal period for Irish teams, but the lovable coach had been given a five-year contract and the University would stand by its man. The fans, too, showed a commendable patience, knowing a change would come and eventually put things back where they belonged. That patience was rewarded by the success of Lou Holtz. On-field performance had been restored and honor maintained—although, by the time Holtz was ready to leave after his 11th season, a restlessness had settled in. Confidence in the future of Notre Dame football continued to decline under the leadership of Davie and Willingham, and some University administrators considered the potential effect of mediocrity on such revenue streams as television contracts and major bowl invitations.
By the end of the 2003 season, a band of alumni put their dissatisfaction on public display with an open letter to the University, calling for a major revamping of the program. After the 2004 season’s 6-6 record, the grumbling on the street was that the ship better get righted next year or Tyrone Willingham wouldn’t survive here —five-year contract or not. And wouldn’t it be nice to have someone like Utah’s Urban Meyer running the show?
Meyer had been an assistant at Notre Dame under Holtz and Davie. His Utah team was unbeaten. Notre Dame, he had said for the record, was his “dream job.” His Utah contract, the papers reported, included a release clause if Notre Dame would beckon him to fulfill that dream.
Still, when Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White announced at a press conference on Tuesday, November 30, 2004, that Tyrone Willingham was being fired, it stunned people from coast to coast. In making the announcement, White praised Willingham for his “impeccable integrity and tremendous character,” for the way his players represented the University and for their academic performance. “From Sunday through Friday, our football program has exceeded all expectations in every way,” White explained, “but on Saturday we struggled.”
White, whose demeanor could not hide his sadness, said, “At the end of the day, we simply have not made the progress on the field that we need to make. 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 . . . that’s not a negotiable position at Notre Dame.”
The firing ignited a media storm. ESPN came at the story from various angles for days. Newspapers—from USA Today, The New York Times and The Washington Post to smaller, local outlets, from one coast to the other—weighed in on the firing. The reaction was almost as interesting as the move itself. Coaches had been terminated under similar circumstances at other schools with little national attention. Florida had announced in the midst of its season that its coach was being fired after less than three years, and no media indignation had followed. Notre Dame clearly, even in the minds of many journalists, was a separate case, its approach to football somehow supposed to transcend the win-loss record. This raised an important irony —many of the sportswriters so critical of Fighting Irish performances now ridiculed the University for making a move to improve that performance. The school was taking hits from everywhere.
The suddenness of the move did seem out of character for the institution. Notre Dame had a reputation for always giving its head coaches at least five years, and here Willingham was indecorously booted after three. The manner and timing, as much as the dismissal itself, certainly contributed to the tempest in the days that immediately followed. The University was blasted for disloyally axing the man whose team had gone 10-3 just three years prior, the man who’d been a celebrated ambassador for the University and who was, in 2002, the first college football coach named Sportsman of the Year by The Sporting News. Notre Dame was roundly criticized for putting money and winning ahead of institutional integrity, for selling out.
The Storm Continues
Others questioned the firing of the coach when the institution so severely handicapped its coaches with unrealistic restrictions, standards and expectations. Many speculated that Notre Dame and college football had changed so much that the University could no longer be among the elite programs. Some felt its academic standards and approach to athletics simply made it impossible to compete with other institutions playing by different rules.
Others pointed to Notre Dame’s schedule, perennially listed as among the toughest in the country, and one made even more difficult by the fact that the opponents are playing Notre Dame, a target game for any school. Both critics and fans of Notre Dame football say the first step in bringing back the glory days is to ease up on the schedule.
Other observers said it’s obvious the talent just isn’t here. Not enough speed. Clearly no game-breakers. Few top NFL draft choices anymore. But when the Irish pull off upsets—as they did this past year against Tennessee and Michigan—both critics and fans are quick to say this shows that the talent is here, it just needs the proper coaching. Certainly Notre Dame’s players are equal to, if not better than those at Pitt, say, or Purdue, Boston College, Michigan State, BYU. So why can’t they beat these guys?
Whichever camp is carrying the day, the conventional wisdom says that admissions standards in recent years have been tightened, that the kind of athletes who got accepted in the past are now getting turned away, and that for Notre Dame to be successful the criteria must be relaxed. The admissions people will tell you otherwise; the standards have not changed.
It is, however, more complicated than that. For one thing, the University requires all of its students to enter college prepared to do college work, including more math than most high school athletes want to take and more than the NCAA stipulates. These requirements eliminate from consideration a good many of the nation’s best prep athletes.
The University, furthermore, is significantly better academically than it was even 10 years ago. While admissions standards for athletes have remained the same, selectivity for the rest of the student body is substantially more pronounced. So the academic credentials of the athlete and those of regular students are much less similar than in the past. That makes the athlete’s life that much more difficult. And, as the University has improved in recent times, there are no longer courses (as there were many years ago) in which to boost a GPA, no majors in which to hide from demanding regimens.
Besides a demanding academic life, there are other reasons a hotshot football player may not come to Notre Dame: single-sex dorms, with plenty of rules and regulations, including parietals, rather than athletic dorms or off-campus apartment living; the promise of a social life and college experience that may be much less diverse and less fun than that found at a state university; South Bend night life and weather (certainly a consideration for speedsters whose game is better suited to Southern or California climes). It would take a special person, with all the right credentials and a unique set of priorities, to choose Notre Dame.
That special athlete must be drawn to the educational experience, the Notre Dame degree and football. While the education and degree are probably more valuable than ever before, the heroes of Notre Dame football are ancient history to the high schoolers now being recruited; they were little kids when the Irish were big winners on Saturday. Notre Dame may be on TV weekly, but cable networks put a lot of schools on TV a lot—and poor performances, with too little offensive show, do little to persuade those not already enamored of the name, the traditions, the place itself. Past laurels no longer swing the deal; Notre Dame has not won a bowl game since the ’93 season. Even the physical facilities are perceived as inadequate.
Despite all this scrutiny in the days following Willingham’s dismissal, the University would have more gracefully weathered the turbulence had the outrage not also been voiced by so many Notre Dame people. Faculty groups questioned the decision. Former Irish football players Rocket Ismail, Chris Zorich and Aaron Taylor chastised their alma mater on national TV. Angry complaints came by phone, email and letter from alumni around the country, showed up in the media. Melinda Henneberger, a 1980 Notre Dame grad and Newsweek writer, posted a column on the MSNBC web site that concluded, “The Notre Dame we saw this week is just another soulless sports factory.”
A student demonstration to call for Willingham’s dismissal had been planned for the very afternoon that White announced the coach’s termination. It was replaced by another student protest on the steps of the Main Building—this group mostly African-American students who were mad at Notre Dame for firing the coach who represented to them so much more than wins and losses. Willingham had been named by Sports Illustrated as the sixth-most-influential minority in all of sports. His stature at the University reinforced in the school’s minority community a sense of pride and achievement, a much-needed presence to an institution said to lack a true spirit of inclusion. His firing, they said, was a signal of insensitivity to the racial issue.
The Black Alumni of Notre Dame, a subgroup of the University’s Alumni Association, issued a statement in support of Willingham and concern over his firing. Some 40 African-American students met with University administrators, and T-shirts in support of Willingham and critical of the institution were distributed. Chandra Johnson, an African American and an assistant to the University president, shaved her head in protest. Her photo made the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times and her explanation made the Perspectives page of Newsweek. Johnson, 50, vowed to keep her head shaved until the Irish won a national championship in football: “Because when we do, that will be justification for some people as to why we fired Tyrone Willingham. Not for me, but for some people.”
Things took another startling twist when the University president joined the chorus of complainants. Father Edward Malloy, CSC, who last May had announced he would step down in June 2005 after 18 years as president, was speaking in New York at the Sports Business Journal’s Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, when he said, “In my 18 years, there have only been two days that I’ve been embarrassed to be president of Notre Dame—Tuesday and Wednesday of last week,” referring to the events surrounding the Willingham firing. Malloy then explained, “I am not happy about it, and I do not assume responsibility for it. I think it was the wrong move, and the fact that other schools have made similar choices after three years suggests that they are feeling the same pressures that we are.” Malloy indicated the decision had been made “with a strong presence of the Board of Trustees.”
Malloy’s statements, reported in The New York Times and carried by hundreds of media outlets, seemed to corroborate suspicions voiced in various media that a group of trustees and benefactors had engineered the dismissal. Several university presidents publicly thanked Malloy for speaking out against what they see as inappropriate intrusion into institutional affairs on the part of trustees. In its “Conventional Wisdom” feature, Newsweek used Malloy’s remarks to give Notre Dame a thumbs down. Other observers, alumni and some school officials were displeased with his public criticism. The initial University response, coming through Matt Storin, associate vice president for news and information, explained, “There was debate and disagreement as there often is with any major decision at an academic institution. Father Malloy was gracious enough to defer the decision-making to the group in light of his retirement next July.” The whole affair had certainly caused a rift in the Notre Dame family and commotion under the Dome.
For his part, Willingham stayed above the fray, conducting himself with typical class, reserve and diplomacy. He, too, was disappointed that expectations had not been met, he said during a press conference a few days after his dismissal.
It was widely understood that Notre Dame had acted boldly and swiftly to make room for Utah’s Meyer, now a hot property and likely to get away if the Irish didn’t move fast. Most everyone had Meyer’s bags packed for South Bend, and the sting of embarrassment, in the minds of many Notre Dame faithful, was soothed by the anticipation of Meyer’s arrival. But Meyer had, in fact, been negotiating with Florida for weeks. Notre Dame’s late bidding did not dissuade him from heading to Gainesville.
Unfortunately, Notre Dame had no immediate Plan B. The list of candidates put forth by the media shrank as various coaches announced they were staying put, signed lucrative new contract extensions or declined interest. Not all the nominees put forward by the media were actual prospects, but the process, as tracked in the press, gave the impression that Notre Dame was a spurned suitor, that the place and job were not what they once were, that the school was being humbled, if not embarrassed. The whole public ordeal—the dismissal, the discord, the dissection of the University —was an ugly episode that will take time to leave behind.
On Monday, December 13, Kevin White introduced New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis ‘78 as Notre Dame’s 28th football coach. White noted that the 10-day search had involved “an unquantifiable number of conversations . . . with potential prospects and about potential prospects.” The athletic director said five formal interviews had been conducted and “specific compensation details” had been discussed with two candidates. Only one candidate was formally offered the position. He accepted.
Serendipitously, Tyrone Willingham was introduced as the new coach of the Washington Huskies the same day. The two teams face each other September 24.
Weis was reportedly given a six-year, $12 million contract. Willingham, too, had had a six-year contract—not the five-year pact as was widely reported. Both were quite similar to Davie’s contract—the one renegotiated and extended to six years when White became athletic director in 2000. Likened to prenuptial agreements, these contracts are standard issue in college athletics, and the other Notre Dame varsity coaches have similar deals. They stipulate expectations and establish financial arrangements should either party want out before the term of the contract has expired. Gone are the days when a commitment to five years meant just that.
This was one of the key points that President-elect John Jenkins, CSC, made several days after the Weis announcement when he addressed Notre Dame’s Faculty Board on Athletics. He also outlined the sequence of events that led to Willingham’s firing and named those involved. “It has been said there was inappropriate trustee involvement in this decision,” he said. “As to me personally, I was not pressured into any action I took by any member of the Board of Trustees. Senior University administrators did contact me to express concern —though not to pressure me. But neither the chairman of the board nor the chair of athletic affairs took the initiative to contact me about this situation. I took the initiative to ask their respective opinions.”
The priest said “a number of high-level administrators” had expressed concern about the team’s on-field performance and about “the trajectory” of the program. Referring to the Weis press conference, during which Jenkins had noted that success at Notre Dame consisted of “acting with integrity, giving our students a superb education and excelling on the field,” the priest added, “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.”
So on the Monday after the season’s final game—a 31-point loss to USC for the third consecutive year—Jenkins said he went to Father Malloy’s office to discuss the situation. Later that day Jenkins, Malloy, athletic director Kevin White, the provost, Nathan Hatch, and Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves gathered in the Main Building. “Because this was a decision about such a high-profile issue,” Jenkins added, “we included Patrick McCartan, chairman of the Board of Trustees, and Philip Purcell, chair of the Athletic Affairs Committee.” McCartan and Purcell were connected via phone. While not unanimous, the decision was made. “After sleeping on the issue for one night,” Jenkins said, the group went forward. Later that day, Tuesday, November 30, Kevin White made the announcement, setting off the maelstrom that would occupy the University for days.
Jenkins concluded his statement by saying, “As is obvious to all, [Father Malloy] and I disagreed about the dismissal of Coach Willingham, although he deferred to me on this decision. Although I did not fully appreciate it at the time, this put [him] in the very difficult position of being blamed for and having to defend a decision he strongly opposed. It was for this reason, I believe, that Father Malloy made some widely reported comments, which put me and the University in a difficult position. Father Malloy and I have spoken about this matter, and we each regret and have apologized for any difficulty each of us has caused the other. It is not easy for anyone to operate in the glare of such intense media interest, speculation and criticism. We both deeply regret any damage we have caused this University.”
I got hooked on Notre Dame football as a kid 40 years ago. Because of football, I came to love Notre Dame and to believe in it. Through the years I’ve experienced a lot of the history of the sport so ingrained in the University’s character. There has been rejoicing and there has been heartache. I’d like to think it’s time that the program and institution bring honor to the tradition and give Notre Dame fans reason to feel good again.