SPORTS: The Irish fired-and hired-themselves into a stew

November 19, 2007

If you are among those who believe-and I am among them-that the University of Notre Dame treated Tyrone Willingham unjustly three years ago when it fired him as its football coach just three seasons into his tenure, then you probably share my sense that what goes around has come around in South Bend.

If you also are among those who believe-and, again, I am among them-that one of the reasons Charlie Weis is a chunky fellow is because he's so darn full of himself, then you also might feel some satisfaction in seeing the Irish coach reduced to a Weight Watchers diet of humble pie.

But before my perspective is misconstrued, let me explain. I am not anti-Notre Dame. It is one of our nation's finest institutions of higher learning. And going there for a football game, being part of that magical pre-game environment on campus, is one of the best experiences in sports.

It is also in South Bend, Indiana. Even though Notre Dame is a decidedly national university, I still tend to pull for virtually all things Hoosier and, yes, that includes Boilermakers and Irish (except when they're playing Indiana University).

Thus, I take no particular delight in the sufferings of the Notre Dame followers as they have had to watch this team become the most losing in the 119 years of Irish football. Welcome to the real world of college football where, inevitably, there comes a time when even the mightiest of tradition-laden programs (see, Nebraska) fall off the cliff.

Yes, much of the nation is enjoying a good chuckle-no, make that hysterical laughter-as the Irish tumble. Historically, Notre Dame is the New York Yankees of college football. All those Heismans, all those national championships-even as both fade into the distance-and all that "mystique" engender, for lack of a better word, jealousy.

I will admit, because I've written about it before, that I am still bothered by Notre Dame's ability to cut its own deal, both with NBC and the Bowl Championship Series. As for the former, what I can't dispute is that Notre Dame was able to take advantage of its independent status, its unique brand and the fact that it could deliver consistent television audiences. Still, I view major college football as a collective, although the Irish are doing their best-or worst-to disprove my notion that the NBC deal gives the Irish a competitive advantage.

As for the BCS, however, I believe Notre Dame has been assigned more gravitas than it is due, especially since it hasn't been a bona fide national power since Lou Holtz was on the sidelines. As borne out by its poor bowl record, Notre Dame has been accorded placement within the BCS based not on its performance, but by the fact it can deliver spectators and ratings.

But back to where I started, which is with the treatment of Willingham and the pomposity of Weis.

It would have been different if Willingham had been failing at the time of his dismissal. Instead, his three-year record was a respectable 21-15. His players embodied the student-athlete principles Notre Dame espouses. He was an honorable man who had done nothing to embarrass the university. And it had been decades since Notre Dame had fired a coach without his having had at least five years to prove his worth.

It's not out of the question to presume Willingham, had he been allowed to stay, would have had the success Weis enjoyed-with Willingham's recruits-his first two years.

Yet Notre Dame let him go, hired Weis (after it was discovered that the school's first choice, George O'Leary, had lied on his resume) and six games into Weis' first season, inexplicably-in light of the heavyhanded treatment of Willingham-extended his contract through 2015.

Now they're mired in the muck, which, again, can happen even at the most traditionladen of places. The Irish nation is left with nothing else but to ride it out and hope-or pretend-that its supposed blue-chip recruiting classes will ride to the rescue.

More than losing football games, however, there is the sense that Notre Dame lost its way when it shoved Willingham out the door and bestowed riches on his cocky successor before he could actually earn them.

Maybe Touchdown Jesus is doing more than just peering over the stadium.

In closing, a sad note: Harry Inskeep, the longtime high school teacher, administrator and athletics official I profiled in this space in February, died suddenly recently. Harry, 75, was one of the most generous and genuine people I've ever known. My condolences to his family. Rest in peace, Harry.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. To comment on this column, send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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