Willingham fired in South Bend after 3 rough seasons

Coach Tyrone Willingham was fired by Notre Dame yesterday after three seasons in which he failed to return one of the nation’s most storied football programs to prominence.

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. “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 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 to the game on Sunday.

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 records.

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

White and Willingham met with some players Tuesday to tell them of the firing.

“As a player, you think it’s our fault. We didn’t get the job done,” senior tight end Jared Clark said. “I think coach Willingham was a great coach and I enjoyed playing under him.”

Notre Dame’s loss to USC on Saturday marked the fifth time the Irish lost by 31 points or more under Willingham – including three against the rival Trojans. By comparison, former coach Bob Davie’s team 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 George O’Leary. The former Georgia Tech coach resigned five days after taking the job because he lied about his academic and athletic achievements on his resume.

With Tony Samuel fired by New Mexico State and Fitz Hill resigning from San Jose State 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,” 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 certain to be mentioned as a possible replacement for Willingham is Utah’s Urban Meyer, an Irish assistant during 1996-2000. The Utes are 11-0 and ranked No. 5 in their second year under Meyer.

Meyer said he hadn’t heard about Willingham’s departure from Notre Dame until he was asked about it by The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Asked whether he has had any contact with Notre Dame or whether he would be interested in coaching the Fighting Irish, Meyer responded: “I won’t comment on it.”

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.