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It's Now or Never

When notre dame fired football coach Tyrone Willingham last week after only three seasons in South Bend, the school wasn't merely giving its disgruntled fans an early holiday gift of canned 'ham.

No, Fighting Irish officials were also indulging in a Rush to Judgment, the fun new game in which 'ham goes ever so well with eggs: After Saskatchewan Roughriders kicker Paul McCallum missed a field goal last month to cost his team a CFL playoff game, fans pelted his home with eggs, giving terrible new poignancy to the phrase "Breakfast is on the house."

It has long been true, in sports as in life, that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. But increasingly--in sports at least--you never get a first chance to make a first impression.

Before he played a single game for the New York Giants, quarterback Eli Manning was greeted by preemptive chants of "Eli sucks!" from Jints fans at the NFL draft. After he lost his first three starts for Big Blue, the rookie has become--in the eyes of some Giants supporters--a cement-shoed stiff rivaled in Meadowlands lore only by Jimmy Hoffa. (And, as that legend has it, at least Hoffa found the end zone.)

In an age when the most dispassionate cubicle jockey with a fantasy team knows the quarterback rating of A.J. Feeley and every game is chewed like Turkish Taffy on talk radio, an athlete had better produce now or it's one and done. (Except in the odd cases when it's none and done, as illustrated by the high-profile coaches and managers hired and fired with an 0--0 record: George O'Leary by Notre Dame, Wally Backman by the Diamondbacks.)

It is possible, in other walks of life, to bloom late. Grandma Moses had nearly 80 years to develop her craft before selling a single painting. Jeff Van Gundy had precisely 16 games this season before Rockets fans, unhappy with Houston's 6--10 record, began chanting, "Fire Gundy!"

Jessica Tandy, after a lifetime of professional nurturing, won the best actress Oscar at 80 for Driving Miss Daisy. Whereas The Washington Post reported this summer that Freddy Adu "has scored only three goals despite having played in all 23 games" for D.C. United. (The italics are mine.) The vaguely disappointing Adu, it seems worth pointing out, is 15 years old.

We're all becoming Gong Show panelists, enduring no more than 45 seconds of dissatisfaction before banishing contestants from the stage. I write in perpetual fear that you're moistening your itchy index finger, eager to turn the page. In lobbies we repeatedly punch the lighted elevator call button in the hope that doing so will make the car come faster. (It's a concept that the comic Rich Hall identified as "elecelleration.") But sports fans are the worst. If patience is a virtue, we're all Larry Flynt. U.S. senators get a minimum of six years to prove themselves, presidents get four, but Notre Dame football coaches now get three, not enough to see a single recruiting class through. Where have you gone, Wait Til Next Year ?

If John Wooden were a young man today, he'd be bagging groceries--the Wizard of Wal-Mart--never having survived those five straight seasons at UCLA in which the Bruins didn't make the NCAA tournament. (Those five seasons, of course, preceded Wooden's run of 10 national championships.)

Sandy Koufax was as wild in his first six seasons as he was unhittable in his last six. (Struggle through six losing seasons today and you end up at Tire Town, not Cooperstown.)

Take a woman to a Washington Wizards game and you don't hope for a second date. You hope for a second quarter. The Wizards held a speed-dating promotion at the MCI Center in which single men got exactly 12 minutes to impress their blind date before having to change seats and try again with another woman. Not only do NBA fans date four women during a single game, but they also duck T-shirts fired by air guns while acrobats cartwheel past and indoor blimps fly overhead and dancing girls grind to an incessant bass line, the league being panicked that the briefest lull might make spectators lose interest in the entire enterprise, like medieval kings shouting at court jesters, "Off with their heads!"

Mercifully, there are still a few oases of patience in sports. The Chiefs' starting quarterback, Trent Green, threw one ball in his first five NFL seasons. Quarterback Drew Brees, in his fourth season, has become an MVP candidate for the 9-3 Chargers, even though the team drafted Philip Rivers to be Brees's replacement. Chauncey Billups was drafted by then Celtics coach Rick Pitino in 1997 and was traded four monthsinto his rookie season. Today the Pistons' guard is the reigning MVP of the NBA Finals.

Genius is not always a hothouse flower. Sometimes it takes years. The unknown Helen Hooven Santmyer published her No. 1 bestselling novel, ... And Ladies of the Club, when she was 87. By that standard, 77-year-old Joe Paterno deserves at least another decade to turn things around at Penn State.

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U.S. senators get six years to prove themselves, presidents get four, but Notre Dame football coaches get three.