It would seem that while compiling this list, the third seasons of Hunk Anderson (3-5-1 in 1933) and Tyrone Willingham (6-5 in 2004) should be the bottom two for the same reason: They are the only two head coaches at Notre Dame who were axed after their third seasons.
Tyrone Willingham started 8-0 at Notre Dame, but a 13-15 record thereafter and problems on the recruiting trail led to his ouster in his third season.
Even 13th-place Charlie Weis (3-9 in 2009), 12th-place Terry Brennan (2-8 in 1956) and 11th place Bob Davie (5-7 in 1999) remained at the school five years despite their huge setbacks in Year 3.
Still, Willingham at least finished with a better than .500 record (more on that later) in his third year and his Irish pulled off two “where did that come from?” upsets against Michigan (28-20) and at Tennessee (17-13). That’s why we couldn’t put him in the bottom three.
However, the groundwork for his firing began the previous year when the Irish finished 5-7 and seemed consistently unprepared and lethargic in blowouts against Michigan (38-0), Florida State (37-0), USC (45-14) and especially at Syracuse (38-12).
The uninspired effort carried over into recruiting, where for the first time a Notre Dame incoming class — the one that had seven fourth-year seniors remaining in 2007 — wasn’t even deemed a Top 25 or Top 30 outfit.
The program desperately needed to right itself at the start of 2004. Thus, rebuilding Brigham Young was moved up to the opener that year to maybe aid a quick start out of the gate. So when the Irish were stunned by the Cougars, 20-17, Willingham’s record fell to 7-11 in his last 18 games.
Notre Dame natives went far beyond restless. A perception had grown and the die cast that Willingham did not posssess “the right stuff” to take the Irish to where it they wanted to go.
How Did It Happen?
Willingham’s first two seasons were a study in extremes. The 8-0 start in his inaugural campaign elicited comparisons to Ara Parseghian’s magical 9-0 beginning in 1964. Then his 5-7 campaign in Year 2 evoked reminders of Joe Kuharich’s second season in 1960 when the Irish finished 2-8. Thus, Year 3 would serve as a “tiebreaker” and gauge as to what course the program would take under his direction.
When the Irish were stunned in the opener at BYU, it instantly set a negative tone. A 41-16 loss at home to Purdue (the first time the Irish lost at home to the Boilermakers since 1974) continued a pattern of blowouts. Upsets of Michigan and Tennessee only made home defeats versus Boston College and Pitt more frustrating and provided evidence of the program’s inconsistency.
Boston College would be to Willingham what Northwestern was to Kuharich (0-4), Air Force was to Gerry Faust (four straight losses) and Michigan State was to Bob Davie (0-5). His 0-3 ledger against the Eagles saw the Irish snatch defeat from the jaws of victory each time.
After the 11th-hour 24-23 loss at home to Boston College dropped Notre Dame to 5-3, a rumor circulated that “heads would roll” unless the Irish won at least two of their last three at Tennessee, Pitt and at USC. Maybe not so coincidentally, it was then that Willingham engaged in private, “informal” discussions with the University of Washington, which would be seeking a new coach as well at the end of the season. It would seem Willingham saw the writing on the wall and, wisely, prepared for Plan B.
The victory at Tennessee provided a temporary feeling of relief for the staff — but falling to Pitt (41-38) and getting destroyed by the Trojans for the third straight year by 31 points (41-10) prompted more outrage.
On Monday, Nov. 30, two days after the debacle at USC, Notre Dame students planned a mini-protest in front of the Administration Building by tossing their “Return to Glory” shirts into a pile. Instead, news broke around noon that a decision had been made to buy out Willingham and the remaining three years on his contract.
Ramifications of Year 3
The backlash of firing black head coach Willingham after just three seasons, while previous white head coaches such as Brennan, Faust and Davie each received five years, reverberated amongst national media outlets and fostered charges of racism.
Ignored was the fact that 1) Florida’s Ron Zook that same year was fired earlier in the season before he had a chance to complete his third year. 2) Indiana’s Gerry DiNardo, a Notre Dame grad, was axed after just three seasons at moribund Indiana, while 3) Willingham’s predecessor at Stanford, Buddy Teevens, also was jettisoned following just three years.
The Notre Dame program was bleeding on the field and on the recruiting trail. Just like the previous year, the recruiting was nowhere near where it needed to be in order to become a consistent Top 25, never mind Top 10, outfit. A change in leadership was needed to serve as the tourniquet.
Following the second year, word was that Willingham’s higher-ups recommended he make changes in his staff. When Willingham opted to remain loyal to his people, the third-year results would be on him, not the assistants.
How Does It Relate to Brian Kelly?
Notre Dame followers can tolerate, at least for a while, a losing or disappointing season (how can they not after the last 18 years?). What they cannot accept is news that the program is struggling on the recruiting circuit.
Recruiting hype was the saving grace for Gerry Faust, who was 5-6, 6-4-1 and 7-5 his first three years. “He’s a nice guy — and he recruits so well.” Faust had three straight No.1-caliber classes from 1981-83.
Bob Davie had back-to-back top-5 ranked classes in his second and third seasons, so he was given the benefit of the doubt. Charlie Weis built up some coaching equity with a 19-6 start — but more significant was that he astounded everyone with the No. 2 recruiting class in 2008 on the heels of a 3-9 campaign.
Nothing buys you time in this profession like recruiting hype. It is page 1 of the unofficial coaching manual: “When you are struggling, sing hosannas about your incoming class. People eat it up every time.”
Willingham had no such luxury with the 2004 class, and likewise in 2005. Fair or unfair, he was not perceived as a go-getter on the recruiting trail and content with a winning record of 6-5. He proudly stated that he “never had a bad day” — a beautiful Christian philosophy to abide by in every day life, but a death knell for a Notre Dame head coach, who must, in the words of Frank Leahy, “pay the price” and get to the point where he’s miserable with a 10-2 record.
Despite disappointing 8-5 seasons to start his first two season, Kelly and Co. still have created a buzz in recruiting, especially this year with 16 verbal commitments prior to July 1 that has elevated them No. 3 in the 247Sports rankings. Such a standing pays many debts and keeps the faith in Kelly.
The next step is to get beyond the status quo before eventually developing consistent excellence and the type of season that prompts a sixth coaching statue along the periphery of Notre Dame Stadium.