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Originally published Wednesday, October 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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For Notre Dame fans, is Ty Willingham's failure vindication?

There's a saying that for many college football fans, their two favorite teams are their own and whoever is playing Notre Dame that week...

Seattle Times staff reporter


Notre Dame @ UW, 5 p.m., ESPN2

There's a saying that for many college football fans, their two favorite teams are their own and whoever is playing Notre Dame that week.

For the past four years, Notre Dame fans have given it their own twist — their favorite teams being the Irish and whoever is playing Washington.

Because whether they would admit it or not, many Notre Dame fans not just wanted, but needed, the Tyrone Willingham version of the Washington Huskies to fail.

It wouldn't necessarily cleanse all the criticism the school received for firing Willingham at the end of the 2004 season, but it would go a long way to justifying the move.

And as Notre Dame comes to town this weekend — a game that inevitably calls for an accounting of where the programs are four years after that controversial decision — Willingham's Huskies couldn't be complying much better.

At 0-6, with an eight-game losing streak dating to last year, and an 11-31 record overall, Willingham's UW tenure is awash in failure, and it's seemingly only a matter of when and how, not whether, he is removed as coach.

Tim Prister, senior editor of IrishIllustrated and author of a book on how coach Charlie Weis rebuilt the program after Willingham was fired, agreed that for many fans UW's travails are a welcome sight.

"I think that there is a sense among fans that Notre Dame was criticized unjustly for the firing of Tyrone Willingham, so by him struggling at Washington, I think there is a pretty sizable section of the fan base that thinks we've been vindicated, and that the move has been justified," Prister said.

Willingham was fired at the end of a 6-5 regular season in 2004.

Most agreed that the Irish program was struggling — Willingham had a 21-15 record, but had gone just 13-15 since an 8-0 start in his first season of 2002. Many also pointed to some abnormally low recruiting rankings for Willingham's last two recruiting classes as further indication that a change needed to be made (and there's also the theory that the school simply wanted to make a run at Urban Meyer, who instead spurned ND to head to Florida).

But the Notre Dame way had always been that its coaches get to fulfill a five-year contract before being fired, like Willingham's predecessor Bob Davie, and Gerry Faust in the 1980s.

When Willingham was let go after only three seasons, some wondered if race hadn't played a factor, a criticism that burned the most in South Bend. Many there wondered why no one pointed out that Ron Zook was getting the same treatment that same year at Florida.

"He [Willingham] was hired by Notre Dame," Prister said. "So to fire him and call that racist, that strikes a nerve with Notre Dame people."

Willingham's failure at UW, in the eyes of many Notre Dame fans, instead gives proof that he was fired simply for the same reasons all coaches are — he wasn't doing a good enough job.

"I don't know if 'vindicated' is the right word, because no matter how Tyrone Willingham performed as Washington's coach, his performance as Notre Dame's coach, both on the field and in recruiting, was unacceptable," wrote Mike Coffey, an editor with, in an e-mail. "We're seeing right now what year four of a Tyrone Willingham program is like, and had Notre Dame kept him for that fourth year as some people demanded, the damage would have been even greater.

"[But] no one is holding their breath waiting for all the pundits who vilified Notre Dame at the time he was fired to make any kind of admission of error or apology. Most of those people were serving another agenda. That they made horrible accusations about a school that has given more than lip service to the advancements of African-Americans, as evidenced by important statistics like graduation rates and assistant-coach hirings, only compounds their error, but again, it's not good copy to say you're sorry. As usual, Notre Dame just has to suck it up and move ahead.

"Having said that, I can't deny there is a certain schadenfreude to the whole thing."

Some of the criticism flared anew last year when the Irish went 3-9 in the third season for Weis, Willingham's successor. Some of the same people who ripped the school for firing Willingham wondered why Weis wasn't getting the same treatment.

It looked even worse, in the eyes of some, when many at Notre Dame blamed the 2007 failings on Willingham, saying that his poor recruiting left the team without much of an upper class, leading Weis to play a lot of younger players.

"At some points, it's gotten to be too much," said Lou Somogyi, editor of the Notre Dame fan magazine, Blue and Gold Illustrated. "It's almost gotten to where all the maladies of Notre Dame were blamed on Tyrone the last couple of years. Not saying he's not culpable, but at times it's like he was even responsible for Original Sin."

But even the argument that the 2007 failure was at least partially due to Willingham's recruiting looks better in the eyes of some now that the Irish are rebounding this year under Weis, while the Huskies continue to struggle.

"The strength of this current team centers in the freshman and sophomore classes, so the Notre Dame fan feels like Charlie Weis had to overcome the last two recruiting classes of Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame," Prister said.

Willingham, for his part, doesn't seem to care a whole lot about any of it.

He gave a quick defense of his time at Notre Dame on Monday, saying "hopefully both there and here, I've done the right things to put teams in position to be successful on and off the field."

And asked at another point if he thought it was time for people at Notre Dame to move on, he said simply, "I have."

Assuming that Willingham's UW career plays out the way most expect — with him being unemployed after this season — Irish fans might soon be able to do that, as well.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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