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Irish Surprise: 2002

Editor’s Note: Over the past five seasons, Notre Dame is 32-31, has tied the school record for most consecutive seasons with at least five losses (five) and is one short of tying the school record of six straight seasons not finishing in the top 25.

Tyrone Willingham was the toast of the nation during an 8-0 start in 2002.

Can the Irish get out of their funk in 2012 and break the spell? At least 10 other Notre Dame teams did. Our criteria include, 1) how long has the program been slumping? 2) how much did it struggle a year earlier? And 3) how dramatic was the turnaround season? At No. 7 is 2002.

Previous Year(s)
One year after Irish head coach Bob Davie signed a five-year extension through the 2005 season, his five-year reign was officially terminated on Dec. 2, 2001. According to athletics director Kevin White, the extension was a “misread” and the change needed to be made now because “we’ve lost credibility (on the football field).”

It was a roller-coaster five-year ride that produced a 35-25 record. The year Davie and his staff were pointing to for getting it all together was the fifth season in 2001. In 1998 and 1999, the Irish had recruited back-to-back top-3 ranked recruiting classes, and by 2001 they would be seasoned seniors and juniors. The 2000 campaign was an appetizer with a 9-2 regular season that resulted in a BCS bid.

Alas, the Irish were crushed 41-9 in the Fiesta Bowl by Oregon State, a setback that White referred to as “sobering.”

The 2001 season was filled with tumult and turmoil from the outset, from a 27-10 loss at Nebraska in the opener, to 9-11, to becoming the first Notre Dame team to start 0-3. Sophomore quarterback Matt LoVecchio, listed as a dark horse Heisman contender by Sports Illustrated after his performance the previous year, was supplanted by the third game by more dynamic classmate Carlyle Holiday, who would rush for 666 yards in a run-oriented attack.

The turmoil hardly ended with Davie’s firing. Hired to replace him a week later was Georgia Tech head coach George O’Leary’s, whose regime lasted all of four days before it was inadvertently discovered that he had lied on his résumé about his educational background, leading him to turn in his resignation.

December became a nightmare month that revealed just how much Notre Dame football had fallen as one coach after another — whether he was offered the job or not — denied any interest in what was becoming a thankless task.

Finally, on Jan. 1, 2002, Stanford head coach Ty Willingham was introduced as the new Irish head coach. He fulfilled the three requirements of a clean, uncontroversial background, experience at recruiting at a renowned institution with high academic standards and, finally, winning.

Although his 44-36-1 record wasn’t flashy, it was compared to Ara Parseghian’s 36-35-1 ledger at Northwestern (1956-63). His Cardinal was 3-2 versus Davie’s Irish, and in 1999 the Pac-10 champion Stanford team went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 28 years. The 9-2 regular season mark in 2001, including a comeback 17-13 win versus Notre Dame, was the best regular season record at Stanford in 50 years.

Nevertheless, the 2002 Irish were in for another brutal schedule. There would be road games against Florida State, USC and Michigan State, the Kickoff Classic against ACC champ Maryland, plus challenging games against Michigan, Purdue, Stanford, Boston College, Air Force …

Furthermore, the West Coast offense he was introducing was not the right fit for Holiday, LoVecchio transferred to Indiana University, star running back Julius Jones was declared academically ineligible to compete in 2002, and the NFL drafted top receivers David Givens and Javin Hunter.

On defense, star lineman Anthony Weaver was a second-round pick, and linebackers Rocky Boiman also were selected in the draft.

Finishing above .500 in his first season would be a challenge., or so it was thought.

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!
One began to sense that there might be some magic in Notre Dame’s 2002 football air when the Irish opened with 22-0 and 24-17 victories against No. 21 Maryland and Purdue — without scoring a single touchdown on offense.

Sensing that, Sports Illustrated came to campus for the showdown versus No. 7 Michigan. The Irish hung on for a 25-23 victory and shot up from 20th to 12th in the rankings.

A week later, with Holiday injured, walk-on Pat Dillingham found Arnaz Battle on a 60-yard score with 1:15 left to defeat Michigan State, and now the Irish were up to No. 9. Sports Illustrated did a cover story on the “Savior of South Bend,” its headline for Willingham. Their cover story included the headline “What A Difference A Coach Makes.”

The wins weren’t always pretty, but they kept adding up, including 14-6 versus Pitt and 21-14 at Air Force. The heart and soul of the team was a playmaking secondary led by consensus All-America Shane Walton at corner and third-team All-America corner Vontez Duff. Safeties Gerome Sapp and Glenn Earl also starred for the unit.

The come-uppance was finally supposed to occur at No. 11 at Florida State, whose coach, Bobby Bowden, referred to Willingham as Notre Dame’s “Black Moses” who was destined to lead the Irish to the Promised Land. On the game’s first play, Holiday launched a scoring toss to Battle and the rout was on. The Irish were ahead 34-10 with about five minutes left and won 34-24.

Now it seemed official! Thirty-eight years after Parseghian led a miraculous 9-0 start to a No. 1 ranking in his first season, Willingham was the new Parseghian at Notre Dame. The Irish were 8-0, ranked No. 4 and on the cusp of maybe playing for the national title.

Alas, just like in 1993, the week after an edifying win over Florida State, the Irish lost at home the next week to Boston College, this time 14-7. Notre Dame was crushed at USC, 44-13, in the season finale, and then pounded 28-6 by North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl.

Nevertheless, the 10-3 Irish finished No. 17 in the AP poll, and Sporting News named Willingham “Sportsman of The Year”. The 10-win season doubled the previous year’s total, and the recruiting was picking up again with the signing of a top-10 class that included quarterback Brady Quinn, defensive end Victor Abiamiri, offensive tackle Ryan Harris and safety Tom Zbikowski.

Epilogue
A “Return To Glory” book was released by ESPN’s Alan Grant chronicling Willingham’s first season. Yet there was an awkward feel to it because the Irish lost three of their last five games and were out-scored 72-19 in their last two.

But the Notre Dame community was so desperate and hungry to be a viable force again in football, it was willing to drink the Kool-Aid. Two seasons later after 5-7 and 6-5 results, Willingham was axed.

"For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting."
— Gen. George C. Patton

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