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COLLEGE FOOTBALL : CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

He gets what he deserves . . . now

October 30, 2008|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Dufresne is a Times staff writer.

Washington fired Tyrone Willingham this week, and that meant vindication in some crevices of subway alumni stations.

It proved Notre Dame was right when it canned Willingham after three years and gave his team to Charlie Weis.

It proved that Willingham is a lousy coach and that Notre Dame did the right thing before he ruined America's leading college football franchise.

Sorry . . . wrong . . . nope.

Willingham's failure to succeed at Washington has nothing to do with his failure to get a five-year fair handshake at Notre Dame.

Willingham deserved to get fired this year, effective at season's end, after going 11-32 (and counting). His 0-7 team is 60 painful minutes away against USC on Saturday from being 0-8.

Washington and Washington State are so bad this season that trouncing both schools could end up hurting USC in the Bowl Championship Series computers and costing the Trojans a berth in the national-title game.

"It very well can do that, so it is a concern," Pacific 10 Conference Commissioner Tom Hansen said this week.

There is no way to spin it.

Willingham didn't do a good job. He took over a program reeling from the post-Rick Neuheisel era and cleaned up the circus-tent mess part of the program.

Willingham didn't, as far as we know, enter any NCAA tournament pools.

But neither did he make the gridiron great.

"We didn't win football games," Willingham acknowledged this week. "That's it."

Willingham is not, necessarily, a sympathetic figure. His dour personality alienated boosters and reporters while top-notch recruiting doesn't seem to be among his strengths.

And he still didn't deserve to get fired after three years at Notre Dame.

Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Assn., could only chuckle at the tortured logic some Notre Dame fans are employing this week.

"The situations are totally different," Keith said. "Notre Dame is not Washington and Washington is not Notre Dame."

Willingham's failure in Washington is not a permission slip to rewrite history.

So let's revisit:

Willingham probably should have never left Stanford, where he was a perfect fit. In seven years on the Farm, Willingham led the Cardinal to four bowl games, the Pac-10 title in 1999 and the school's first Rose Bowl berth since 1971. Willingham, twice, was chosen Pac-10 coach of the year.

Stanford hasn't had a winning season since he left.

If not for Notre Dame's colossal screw-up, Willingham might still be in Palo Alto.

The Irish, remember, after firing Bob Davie in 2001, botched the hiring of George O'Leary, who within days resigned in shame after it was revealed he lied on his resume.

Embarrassed, Notre Dame responded with a bold-stroke move in making Willingham the school's first African American head coach in any sport.

Willingham came out smoking in 2002 as the Irish opened 8-0 and rose to No. 4 following an Oct. 26 win over Florida State in Tallahassee.

I was there, and you should have seen the elated Irish faces. I was there the next week too, in South Bend, when Willingham made the mistake of his career in breaking out the green jerseys for Boston College.

The team it inspired was B.C., which pulled off a 14-7 upset.

Willingham was 8-0 before that game and 13-15 after it, so you might call it a turning point.

After Willingham's third season ended, in 2004, after a 21-15 cumulative record, the Irish blew him out the church doors with two years left on his contract.

This might have been justifiable at many schools, but not Notre Dame, which had a history of higher-calling pragmatism and patience when it came to hiring and firing.

Gerry Faust, 18-15-1 after three years, got five years. So did Davie, who was 21-16 after his third season.

It didn't help that Willingham's replacement, Weis, was 3-9 in his third season but was allowed to get 5-2 deep into Season 4. Weis' record after three years was 22-15.

Weis, in fact, got a sweetheart contract extension after losing to USC in his first season.

So rationalize this week, and that year, any way you want. In my mind, the numbers don't add up.

Say what you want about Willingham -- he probably deserves it now.

But that doesn't mean he deserved it then.

Blitz package

* BCS commissioners met in Atlanta this week for contract talks with Fox, which holds broadcast rights for the Sugar, Orange and Fiesta Bowls. The BCS contract with Fox expires after next season, but the network has an exclusive negotiating window to broker a new deal. The Pac-10's Hansen said Fox has "made it very clear" it wants to remain in business with the BCS. The Rose Bowl has a separate contract with ABC that extends through the 2014 game.

* Turmoil: Washington's next coach will be its sixth since Don James began his reign in 1975. The five coaches who followed James -- Jim Lambright, Neuheisel, Keith Gilbertson and Tyrone Willingham -- were all fired.

Tranquillity: Oregon has had two coaches since 1976, Rich Brooks and Mike Bellotti. "I'm really glad about that," Bellotti said. "It has been amazing."

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