Willingham axed by history
Well, it's the holiday season, that time of year when coaches are axed like so many Nova Scotia pines.
This week Buddy Teevens of Stanford, Butch Davis of the Cleveland Browns and Tyrone Willingham of Notre Dame have hit the forest floor.
Willingham's sudden dismissal from Notre Dame Tuesday caused the biggest stir – a product of the Irish football team's status as the nation's most popular program in any sport and because Willingham was the school's first black coach. The hosts of the Best Damn Sports Show Period even pulled out the race card Tuesday night, saying Willingham got fired because of his skin color.
They cited two main pieces of evidence, saying he's the first football coach Notre Dame has fired in mid-contract and that he has a better record after three seasons (21-15) than his predecessor Bob Davie (21-16) who was allowed to coach five years. (Davie went 9-2 in the 2000 regular season -- his fourth year -- was rewarded with a five-year contract extension, promptly lost badly to Oregon State in the Jan. 1, 2001 Fiesta Bowl, and was fired after going 5-6 in 2001.)
Best Damn Sports Show guest Derrick Mayes, a former Notre Dame receiving star, refuted the assertion that the decision to fire Willingham was based upon race. So, too, do the Cold, Hard Football Facts, which dusted off the Notre Dame history books and discovered that the famed echoes of Notre Dame fell into a deep coma on Willingham's watch.
Willingham did not get fired because of the color of his skin. He got fired because he guided the Irish to a series of the most monumental losses in school history. In a football tradition that began in 1887 and includes 1,104 games, Notre Dame had suffered just 21 losses of 31 points or more. Five of those losses came under Willingham. That's just the edge of the forest of misery that came to define the Willingham era at Notre Dame.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts show that Willingham was felled by a Paul Bunyanesque hatchetman called history and by some of the ugliest losses in the once proud 118-year-old tradition of Notre Dame football.
Recap: Willingham led Notre Dame to an 8-0 record, a No. 4 ranking, and even a Sports Illustrated cover that declared an Irish "Return to Glory." The Irish finished 10-3.
Nov. 2 – Boston College 14, Notre Dame 7
The 8-0 Irish came out wearing green jerseys at home for the first time since 1985, when they switched from their blue jerseys at halftime of a 37-3 win over USC. The ploy failed miserably as BC (5-3) won its first game against a top-10 team since beating No. 8 Notre Dame in 1994.
Nov. 9 – Notre Dame 30, Navy 23
The ninth-ranked Irish trailed 23-15 heading into the fourth quarter at 1-8 Navy. A touchdown with little more than two minutes remaining helped the Irish avoid losing to a team they had beat 39 straight times.
Nov. 30 – USC 44, Notre Dame 13
The wheels on Willingham's Notre Dame wagon began to wobble with one of the most monumental losses in Irish history. USC racked up 425 yards passing and 610 yards of total offense – the most allowed in either category in the history of Irish football. In a rivalry that began in 1926, only once before had Notre Dame been beaten so badly (55-24 in 1974).
Jan. 1, 2003 – North Carolina State 28, Notre Dame 6
A promising season for the No. 11 Irish came to a whimpering end with an embarrassing loss to No. 17 N.C. State. After an 8-0 start, Notre Dame mustered wins against only Navy and Rutgers in its final five games.
Recap: The Irish earned their most lopsided victory in the Willingham era with a 57-7 win over Stanford. Now you know why Teevens got axed right before Willingham. Notre Dame took a big step backward in 2003, finishing 5-7.
Sept. 6 – Notre Dame 29, Washington State 26
The Irish entered the game with a preseason No. 19 ranking, but were forced to go to overtime at home against Washington State. Notre Dame needed to rally from a 19-6 fourth-quarter deficit. It turned out to be Notre Dame's best victory over the season, as WSU went 10-3 and ended the year with a 28-20 Holiday Bowl victory over No. 5 Texas.
Sept. 13 – Michigan 38, Notre Dame 0
Notre Dame suffered its first shutout and its biggest loss in a traditional rivalry that began in 1902. The biggest previous margin of victory by either team was 23 points.
Oct. 18 – USC 45, Notre Dame 14
The Irish were embarrassed with their second consecutive 31-point loss to their traditional adversary. It marked the most dominant stretch in the 77-year-old rivalry since the Irish beat USC 28-7 and 51-0 in 1965-66.
Nov. 1 – Florida State 37, Notre Dame 0
The Irish were held scoreless at home for the first time in 25 years and suffered the ninth worse loss in school history less than two months after a similar loss to Michigan.
Nov. 8 – Notre Dame 27, Navy 24
The Irish again struggled to beat their traditional whipping boys, this time needing a last-second field goal to win at home. It was Notre Dame's 40th straight victory in the rivalry.
Dec. 6 – Syracuse 38, Notre Dame 12
Syracuse (6-6) was coming off a 24-7 loss to cellar-dweller Rutgers but pasted Notre Dame in the season finale for both teams. The loss gave the Irish (5-7) their third losing season in five years for the first time in the 118-year history of the program.
Recap: Notre Dame posted big wins against Michigan and at Tennessee, but the 6-5 season featured a series of historic losses.
Oct. 2 – Purdue 41, Notre Dame 16
The Irish suffered their first home loss to Purdue in 30 years. The game was lowlighted by a 97-yard Purdue touchdown pass – the longest allowed in Notre Dame history.
Oct. 23. – Boston College 24, Notre Dame 23
A fourth-quarter collapse at home to unranked BC gave Notre Dame its fourth straight loss in a series the Irish once led 9-3.
Nov. 13 – Pittsburgh 41, Notre Dame 38
The Irish gave up five touchdown passes for the first time in school history as Pitt won at Notre Dame for the first time since 1986. The 41 points by the Panthers were the most they ever scored against Notre Dame. The Irish suffered their third home loss for the second consecutive season and just the eighth time in school history.
Nov. 27 – USC 41, Notre Dame 10
For the second time in school history – and the second time in back-to-back games – Notre Dame surrendered five touchdown passes. The five scoring passes also allowed quarterback Matt Leinart to tie a USC school record. Under Willingham, Notre Dame was 0-3 against their biggest rival and had been outscored 130-37. The Irish were 15-3-1 against USC from 1983-2001 and lead the series 42-29-5. But enough was enough. The hatchet of history toppled Willingham three days after yet another record-breaking loss.
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