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Top 10 Greatest Notre Dame Football Head Coaches: #10 Tyrone Willingham

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A “Return to Glory” lasted all of 8 weeks during the Tyrone Willingham Era

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Notre Dame Football has one of the richest histories in the sport of college football. Despite not winning a national championship since 1988, the Irish are firmly entrenched as one of the elites in the sport. With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at the top ten greatest head coaches in the history of Irish Football. This will be a ten part series.

10. Tyrone Willingham

Tenure: 2002-2004

Record: 21-15

Tyrone Willingham was not the first choice for the Irish in the search to replace Bob Davie. In fact, Willingham was hired away from Stanford only after it had been discovered that the initial choice for the head coach job, George O’ Leary, had misrepresented his academic credentials in his job application. Prior to arriving at Notre Dame, Willingham went 44-36-1 at Stanford during a seven year run. Notably, he became the first African-American head coach in the history of Notre Dame. Kevin White handed out a six year contract to Willingham. Terms of the deal included a base salary of $1.5 million per year, with the potential to earn up to $2 million per year. At the time, only Steve Spurrier (Florida) and Bob Stoops (Oklahoma) had that kind of earning potential in their contract.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Willingham’s first season started off with a bang as the Irish were once again on the path to “Return to Glory”. The Irish began the year 8-0, including victories over #7 Michigan at home and on the road against #11 Florida St and #18 Air Force. After rising to #4 in the country, the magical season came to a crashing halt when the Irish lost 14-7 at home against an unranked Boston College team. After getting humiliated against #6 USC 44-13, a game in which the Trojans outgained the Irish 610-109, Notre Dame missed out on a BCS Bowl berth. Instead, they accepted an invitation to the Gator Bowl and lost to #17 N.C. State by the score of 28-6. A once promising season ended at 10-3 and a #17 national ranking. Despite the poor end to the year, Willingham received two Coach of the Year awards.

Arguably, Willingham’s greatest contribution to the university occurred with the addition of the 2003 recruiting class. Per 247Sports, the class included one 5-star recruit and eight 4-star recruits. Players included: Victor Abiamiri, Brady Quinn, John Sullivan, Tom Zbikowski, Ryan Harris, Jeff Samardzija, and John Carlson. This group would spearhead the successful 2005 and 2006 seasons under Charlie Weis.

The Irish were unable to follow-up on their successful 2002 season and ended up going 5-7. Their lone victory of the year over a ranked team occurred against #15 Pittsburgh, a game in which Julius Jones set the single game Irish rushing record by rushing for 263 yards and 2 touchdowns. A disturbing trend began during the 2003 season. The Irish lost four games to ranked opponents by the combined score of 143-24. Losses included: 38-0 against #5 Michigan, 23-10 against #22 Purdue, 45-14 against #5 USC, and 37-0 against #5 Florida State. Following a 1-2 start, freshman Brady Quinn replaced Carlyle Holiday and played throughout the rest of the season. This dismal campaign marked only the twelfth losing season in the history of Notre Dame Football.

A tough year on the field carried over to the 2004 recruiting class. Notre Dame finished with the 35th best class in the land according to 247Sports and only included two 4-star players. The Irish faithful were becoming restless. The on field results did little to allay the growing concerns about Willingham. The Irish began the 2004 season with a loss to BYU. However, they rallied to win their next three games, including a 28-20 victory over #8 Michigan. Unfortunately, the following week saw the Irish fall to #15 Purdue in a 41-16 rout at Notre Dame Stadium. In one of the more memorable games of the Willingham-era, the Irish went into Neyland Stadium in early November and knocked off #9 Tennessee in a game that few thought the Irish stood a chance.

Following a 41-10 loss to #1 USC, the third 31 point loss to the Trojans in a row, the move was made to fire Tyrone Willingham on November 30th, 2004. Notre Dame finished the regular season at 6-5, and Willingham was not allowed to coach in the bowl game, thus ending his tenure with the Irish. Willingham was believed to have been the first Notre Dame Football head coach fired in the middle of his contract. As part of the press release, Notre Dame Athletic Director Kevin White stated, “We simply have not made the progress on the field that we needed to make…From Sunday to Friday, our football program exceeded expectations in every way. But on Saturday, we’ve struggled.”

There was rampant speculation that the move was made in haste in order to pursue Urban Meyer, who at the time was coaching at the University of Utah. Meyer had an out clause in his contract to pursue a job at Notre Dame, Michigan, or Ohio State if there was a coaching vacancy. Unfortunately for the program, Meyer took at job at the University of Florida. The Irish announced Charlie Weis as the next head coach of the program on December 12, 2004.

Ultimately, Tyrone Willingham was a flash in the pan at Notre Dame. His initial season was an exhilarating ride that had people dreaming of a National Championship. However, he went 11-14 in his final 25 games for the Irish. Five of those losses resulted in the Irish losing by 31 points or more. For every big win against a ranked opponent, there was another blowout loss against a highly ranked foe to negate the victory. The Irish went 7-8 against ranked teams during Willingham’s tenure. Another unfathomable stat from this era is that Willingham never defeated an unranked Boston College team, going 0-3 against the Eagles.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

While essentially only a one year wonder, Willingham set the program up for success in 2005 and 2006 with his 2003 recruiting class. Furthermore, the beginning of the 2002 season was an exhilarating ride that captivated Notre Dame fans across the country. Although the Irish did get blown out a fair share in ranked showdowns, they were also able to secure big game victories that Irish fans are currently begging Brian Kelly for. Based off of these facts, I felt justified in sneaking Willingham onto the list at #10.

Stay tuned to find out who ends up at #9 on my list of “Top 10 Greatest Notre Dame Football Head Coaches”.