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BOTTOM LINE: FIGHTING IRISH COULDN'T WIN WITH WILLINGHAM

Notre Dame's firing of coach Tyrone Willingham is the clearest sign of integrity in college football since the review of George O'Leary's resume.

We're finally through with the phony baloney platitudes about academics, "student-athletes" and character. At last, a big-time university speaks honestly about its purpose and goals.

Notre Dame expects to win, win often and win big on the football field. Anything less is unacceptable. Everything else is secondary.

We've suspected that, a little longer than forever. It's true about every program with national-title aspirations. But it's sure refreshing to hear someone admit it.

"Sunday through Friday our football program has exceeded all expectations in every way," Notre Dame Athletic Director Kevin White said. "On Saturday, we've struggled."

Judged by those criteria, Willingham was fired Tuesday after compiling a 21-15 record in three seasons. It was a quick boot, taking most people by surprise. Maybe even Willingham.

Willingham's Notre Dame tenure, which began with a surprising 8-0 start in 2002, ended with a limping 6-5 finish in 2004. His final loss was to Notre Dame's biggest rival, USC -- by 31 points for the third straight season. Not a selling point for a year-end review.

White's praise of Willingham was so effusive Tuesday, you'd have thought he was justifying a raise, not explaining his ouster. White called him an excellent fit for Notre Dame. He said academics had never been stronger and the team's reputation off the field was impeccable under Willingham direction. Willingham was, in public relations and image, a godsend after O'Leary was fired five days into the job for resume falsehoods. White said he expects Willingham to be pursued by many other schools.

Too many losses

Willingham, beyond reproach in his personal life and conduct, is gone because he didn't win enough games. White minced no words about that.

"We simply have not made the progress on the field we need to make," White said, reading from a written statement. "Nor have we been able to create the positive momentum necessary to return the Notre Dame program to the elite level of the college football world."

That's it. No scandals. No indiscretions. No hints or allegations of either. Willingham lost too many games and lost his job.

Fair enough, especially since Notre Dame isn't pretending there are any other reasons.
Willingham was the first black head coach at Notre Dame. Some will ask why white coaches Gerry Faust (30-26-1, .535) and Bob Davie (35-25, .583) had five years to prove their incompetence and Willingham (21-15, .583) received only three. It's a logical question, but race had nothing to do with it. Anyone who has followed Notre Dame football long enough (at least through the NBC television contract and various bowl match-up guarantees) knows Notre Dame's favorite color is green.

If Notre Dame officials could go back in time, they'd have eased both Faust and Davie out the door after three seasons. They didn't want to make the same mistake again, especially as the memory of Notre Dame's last national title in 1988 under Lou Holtz is fading further into the history books.

There's also the looming possibility that one of the hottest young coaches in the game, Utah's Urban Meyer, a former Irish assistant under Holtz and Davie, might never be more available. White said the search would begin today. That might be true, but the wish list is always on file. Anyone seen the "M" folder?

Coaches who have thrived at Notre Dame had one thing in common: a national title in their third season. Frank Leahy did it (twice if you count his second stint after returning from the Navy), Ara Parseghian did it, Dan Devine did it and Holtz did it.

Judging a football coach after three seasons isn't new at Notre Dame. Rendering a verdict is.

Willingham's record was impressive his first season (10-3) and depressing his second (5-7). He didn't need a national title to save his job this season. He needed a less schizophrenic team. If Notre Dame had beaten three mediocre teams it lost to this season -- BYU, Boston College and Pittsburgh -- the Irish would be sitting 9-2 with a BCS bowl and $13 million ready for direct deposit.

White was asked if this move signals a new era at Notre Dame, which traditionally waited at least five years before forcing a move. He was also asked if the national-title success of other coaches within three years of being hired -- Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, USC's Pete Carroll, LSU's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Jim Tressel -- prompted the Irish to grow impatient.

He answered no to both questions. That's considerably less believable than the admission that winning was essential to any Irish coach's longevity. "Football is very important at Notre Dame and competitive expectations are not downwardly negotiable," White said.

Pressure to win

Clearly, the quick trigger on Willingham's tenure is a change in course at Notre Dame. By firing Willingham after three seasons, Notre Dame is just like any other big-time program that wants regular double-digit wins, starting yesterday. Look at Ron Zook in Florida. His three-year record was better than Willingham's. He's gone. Look at Frank Solich at Nebraska. He was booted over a year ago after a 10-win season. Patience is in short supply in college football.

The pressure to win has never been stronger. Notre Dame has always felt it, but until now the university's official stance was to stay above the win-immediately-or-else fray.

The fact winning ranks first in Notre Dame's collective mind makes the Irish no better or worse than every other big-time football program.

Admitting those priorities publicly does, in rich irony, set Notre Dame apart once again.

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