Perhaps Tyrone Willingham’s fate as the Irish head coach should have been clear after his first game at Notre Dame Stadium. Maybe that realization comes only with hindsight, the kind of perspective that accompanies a tenure’s latter bookend.
But when Notre Dame reached 2-0 with a 24-17 win against Purdue in 2002, an oddity stood out despite the Irish averaging 23 points in their two wins, an oddity overshadowed by the hype surrounding any new hire, particularly one with the historic heft of Willingham’s arrival.
The offense did not score, not in the 22-0 win against No. 21 Maryland, dependent on five field goals from Nick Setta (a difficulty finishing drives that rings familiar this week), and not against the Boilermakers, three defensive touchdowns creating the illusion of dynamism.
“A couple of us on offense, we felt real embarrassed about not having scored in two games,” quarterback Carlyle Holiday said. “We know as an offensive team that we have to make touchdowns. We have to work on some things to become a better ball club.”
Defensive back Vontez Duff’s two touchdowns in two weeks — a 76-yard punt return and a 34-yard interception return — warranted headlines, but they also took away from the deeper issues arguably already apparent. To some degree, Willingham realized the flaw was getting glossed over.
“A team with one element not performing as well as you’d like it to for a variety of reasons, another element has to step up,” he said. “I think our football team did that.”
Indeed it did, and in doing so, the narrative focused on what went right, theoretically buying time for Willingham to correct the rest, that fault still lying at Bob Davie’s feet, not to mention the sensationalist headlines still remembering the George O’Leary debacle.
But in Willingham’s three seasons — the first and only Notre Dame coach dismissed before leading at least five years, obvious O’Leary-exception aside — the Irish peaked by averaging 24.1 points per game in 2004, coming on the heels of a measly 20.2 point showing in 2003. Some of that certainly tied to Davie, as illustrated by the 19.4 average in his final season in 2001, but much of it hinged on Willingham’s work, particularly when realizing Notre Dame averaged 36.7 points the season after his dismissal.
Ironically, the highest-scoring game of Willingham’s tenure marked the end of his time at Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish had scored more than 38 points twice before in his tenure, including a 57-7 trouncing at Willingham’s previous employer, Stanford, in 2003, but the true measure of a game’s scoring is the losing team’s total, as that sets the bar for victory.
Notre Dame reached 38 in mid-November of 2004. With one second left on the clock, Pittsburgh got to 41.
Blown tackles allowed the Panthers to march 55 yards in 60 seconds to set up the winning field goal, ruining the rare offensive explosion from sophomore Irish quarterback Brady Quinn (15-of-26 for 259 yards and three scores) and freshman running back Darius Walker (16 carries for 112 yards and two touchdowns). Penalties all day limited Notre Dame, not exactly a barometer of a coach with his team trending in the right direction.
“Our young men had the opportunities to make plays and we didn’t make them,” Willingham said. “But it’s the way the game goes.”
After a 41-10 loss at USC a couple weeks later, it’s the way Willingham went, too. The first Black head coach at Notre Dame in any sport, he was fired after three seasons with a 21-15 record. His Sports Illustrated cover-earning 10-1 start quickly gave way to an 11-14 shuffle.
The short leash was unexpected by many, if not most, robbing the 2004 home finale against Pittsburgh of much of the angst usually palpable as a coaching decision looms. There was no dramatic tunnel moment for Willingham, in pre- or post-game, just the ignominy of granting the Panthers their first win in South Bend since 1986, snapping a six-game streak, and just their second victory in the last 13 meetings of a near-annual series.
“We simply have not made the progress on the field that we needed to make,” Irish athletic director Kevin White said.
It would be reductionist and overly-simplistic to say that lack of progress was evident the first time Willingham appeared with an ND monogram on NBC, but even when Notre Dame broke through against No. 7 Michigan in the third week of the season, its second offensive touchdown should have been overturned when Holiday fumbled at the one-yard line.
“It’s a big win for us and our program,” Holiday said after that 25-23 upset. “Now we’re just set to build on this.”
The building never came.
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