The Scene Sports Research Department at McCabe Pub has been looking into this, but consensus among the Way Too Far Insiders is that no college football coach until this year had been fired after a season in which his team beat both Michigan and Tennessee. Chalk it up as another first for Tyrone Willingham.
The first African American and first Southern Baptist coach at Notre Dame also may have been the first to receive such a ringing endorsement from his boss even as he was being sacked. Willingham, said Irish athletic director Kevin White, had displayed impeccable integrity, strengthened the already strong academic performance of his players and done an exceptional job for 354 days that year.
But what really counted was Notre Dame's performance on those 11 other days, which all happened to be Saturdays this fall. In spite of victories over the Wolverines and Vols (and a 9-2 Navy team), the Irish finished 6-5. Though Willingham took his squad to 10 wins and a BCS bowl in his first season, two years of relative mediocrity were plainly intolerable for too many boosters. That's why Willingham achieved another milestone in becoming the first Notre Dame head football coach to be canned after only three seasonsa fate avoided even by stumblebum Gerry Faust.
Willingham's firing created a sensationnot because Notre Dame's act was so different from what you'd expect at Florida or Texas but because Notre Dame has always laid claim to being different from the football factories.
With much justification, the good fathers of South Bend and their followers view Notre Dame as football's city on a hill. They try hard to play by the rules. Not just any lummox with football skills gets into the school. The athletes take real classes. And, in stark contrast to the nod-nod-wink-wink approach most football powers take with scofflaw players, ND administers real discipline, even to All-Americans, even if the quality of the team suffers.
Now, many critics say, the firing of Willingham reveals the Golden Domers to be crass Bottom Liners, just like all the barbarians who don't have Touchdown Jesus symbolically blessing their stadiums.
The critics have a point: most fans will take W's over P's and Q's every time. But the bigger reason why this story matters is that, bottom line, Notre Dame no longer really matters to college football.
By firing Willingham, the ND faithful reaffirmed their belief that their university can continue to have it both ways: they can play for national titles while remaining above the hypocrisy and sleaze of their rivals. They are suffering from a profound case of denial.
Once, Notre Dame was the center of the college football universe. It was the underdog Catholic school that could regularly best the behemoths. Neither of those statements is true anymore.
ND has let the college game pass it by. Put another way, Notre Dame refuses to allow football to be the tail that wags the university. That's a principled stand. It's also a formula for failure in today's unprincipled football marketplace.
Bob Davie, Willingham's ousted predecessor, spoke a chilling truth the other day that Irish fans need to hear. During his last season in South Bend, he said, his staff identified the top 100 recruits in the country. Then they scrutinized their academic performance and test scores. When they were done, the coaches realized they could pursue only 30 of the elite 100. Those numbers speak volumes about Notre Dame's decline.
Like the eclipsed British Empire after 1947, the Irish still have formidable assets: broad national appeal, their own network TV contract and the most storied tradition in football. Those resources have helped Notre Dame to attract just enough top talent and win just enough high-profile games to keep the echoes ringing. But they also have helped mask the fact that, when it comes to recruiting, ND hasn't been playing on a level field with programs whose main goal has been to reach a BCS bowl, regardless of how they get there.
Irish true believers are convinced that all they need is the right coach. At one point, they thought it was Davie. Then it was Willingham. Some apparently believed dumping Willingham would open the door for the next presumptive coaching superstar, Utah's Urban Meyer, who went to Florida instead.
Maybe you can believe Meyer when he says the Florida deal was done when ND called. Or maybe Meyer, who spent six years as an assistant in South Bend, recognizes something Irish fans can't yet admit: not only is ND not college football's premier coaching job, it won't be easy, given the high standards and lack of depth, for anyone to improve dramatically on Willingham's 21-15 worksheet.
Oh, on their best days, the Irish can still beat anyone. But they can't do it week after week against one of the country's toughest schedules. There's a huge disconnect between that reality and fans' expectations of nine or 10 wins per season.
Here's another sobering thought. If Notre Dame, with all its lore and cachet, can no longer be a perennial Top 10 team, consider what the long-term future holds for lesser lights that cling to high standards, like Vanderbilt, Duke and Stanford. Time, it seems, is not on their side.
Meanwhile, the Irish faithful will continue looking for a new king to restore Camelot. Good luck.
Steve Spurrier, who actually believes he is Touchdown Jesus, would have made an intriguing choice. But it would require a miracle of loaves-and-fishes proportions to make northern Indiana playable for golf year-round, a prerequisite for attracting The Visor. Then there's the inconvenient fact that Spurrier already filled the opening at South Carolina.
But let's not trouble ourselves with inconvenient facts. That's not where the heads of Notre Dame's leadership are right now. (Just where they might be, I will not speculate about in a family newspaper.)
Anyhow, as long as we're dealing in unrestrained unreality, there's one choicethe only choiceguaranteed to halt the revolving door to the coach's office at ND. They could always hire the pope.
Think about it. By doctrine, the Holy Father is infallible. That means no public second-guessing of his play selection. No fan Web site under the domain name of firejohnpaul.com. If Coach JP finishes 6-5, or 5-6or, hell, 2-9Irish fans are obliged to take it as an article of faith that it can't have been his fault. At worst, he might have to dump his offensive coordinator.
Want somebody who can bring celebrity status back to South Bend? JP is your man. Imagine the spectacle when he leads the team onto the field in the Popemobile. What other coach could pull off a pregame prayer in Latin?
You say the old man can't relate to today's athletes? Then let me ask you: who's got more bling than the pope? Matter of fact, when Notre Dame plays other Catholic rivals, like Boston College or Miami, Il Papa probably could compel the other coach to kiss his ring (something even Lou Holtz only dreamed about).
In a few years, John Paul will be with the angels. But so what? Stick with the pope-hiring strategy, and you're guaranteed that his successor will be just as incapable of error.
A fantasy, you say? Maybe. (For example, I doubt ND is going to lure the pontiff away from Rome with the paltry $1 million salary they're offering.) On the other hand, it's as realistic a scenario as anything coming out of South Bend these days.