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Irish Wake

By firing coach Ty Willingham last week, then failing to hire the man they wanted as his successor, Notre Dame demonstrated that the school of legend is no more

The past week at Notre Dame played out like a teen soap opera, with the Fighting Irish dumping their steady in order to ask out the class hottie, only to find out that the new object of their affection was already sweet on someone else. The Irish fired football coach Tyrone Willingham-- whose 21--15 record in three seasons didn't seem to warrant such a quick hook--with two years left on his contract, presumably because they didn't want to miss the chance to grab Urban Meyer, the coach of undefeated Utah. But when Meyer spurned Notre Dame for Florida, the Irish were left looking both impatient and incompetent.

Meyer revealed that he had been negotiating with Florida for two weeks before the Irish even made their pitch. By the time Notre Dame officials--including athletic director Kevin White--met with Meyer in Salt Lake City last Thursday evening, Meyer, who had spent that morning with Florida officials, said his deal to coach the Gators was "95 percent" done. Thus the Irish are scrambling to find a coach once again, just as they did after the embarrassment of George O'Leary's résumé-enhancing three years ago.

Even worse, the firing of Willingham sullied the school's image as an exemplary program with higher goals than just a major bowl game. If Notre Dame truly put other ideals above wins and losses, Willingham would still be the coach. "From Sunday to Friday, our football program exceeded all expectations, in every way," White said. But apparently the Irish are in the Saturday business just like everyone else. They are clearly not in the business of furthering the cause of minority coaches. Willingham's departure leaves only two African-Americans among the 117 Division IA schools, a number that NCAA president Myles Brand calls "unacceptable." Willingham said he would address the racial implications of his dismissal at another time, but even if there are none, by making Willingham the first football coach in school history to be fired before completing his original contract, Notre Dame undid much of the goodwill it generated by hiring him in the first place.

The embarrassment continued as the Irish got a very public reminder that what was once the ultimate job in college football has turned into a tough sell. Detroit Lions coach Steve Mariucci turned down Notre Dame's advances in 2001 and again last week. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, Jon Gruden of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops are among the other coaches who have said they have no interest in trying to wake up any echoes.

Attracting top players to the school has become just as difficult. The high school stud who was once entranced by the Golden Dome might now be just as dazzled by the sunshine at Florida State or the wide-open offense at Louisville. Gone are the days when unlimited scholarships allowed a few powerhouses to stockpile talent, making it harder than ever to maintain an elite program. Just ask Nebraska, Penn State and Alabama, to name a few.

Willingham will probably feel more appreciated at his next job, possibly at a latent powerhouse like Washington, where the expectations are more reasonable. (He confirmed last week that the Huskies had contacted him about their opening about two weeks before Notre Dame let him go.) Rumors that he might return to Stanford, where he coached for seven seasons, appear to be unfounded, but Willingham's name has also been linked to the opening at Mississippi, where David Cutcliffe was fired last week.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, is again realizing the folly of going into a coaching search without a Plan B. Jeff Tedford of Cal and Louisville's Bobby Petrino, an ex--Irish assistant, may appear on White's short list of candidates, and both have the reputation for the kind of offensive innovation that the Fighting Irish need. Charlie Weis, the New England Patriots' defensive coordinator and a Notre Dame alum, is also likely to get consideration. But any coach successful enough to interest the Irish will probably have other options that might make him reluctant to subject himself to Notre Dame's high academic standards and quick-trigger boosters and administrators. And that's never been truer than it is now, when the Irish lose 13 starters (nine on defense) from this year's 6--5 team and will face seven bowl teams in 2005.

It was especially telling that the Irish couldn't attract Meyer, a seemingly perfect fit who was the school's wide receivers coach from 1996 until 2001. Meyer was named for the eight Pope Urbans who have led the Roman Catholic Church, and he even had a clause in his contract that allowed him to leave Utah for the Notre Dame job without penalty. But in the end, despite his ties to and obvious affection for the school, he simply considered Florida--which gave him $2 million a year, or about $800,000 more than Notre Dame reportedly offered--to be the better job. It wasn't that Meyer couldn't get out of his agreement with Florida, it was that he chose not to. "At the University of Florida," Meyer said, "you have everything in place to make a run at the [national championship], and that was a factor."

Meanwhile, at Notre Dame very little is in place--not a solid coach and not its lofty reputation. That's a shame because a week ago, it had both.

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Hall of Famer Murphy was acquitted on all charges of sexual abuse.--FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 24