The five-dollar word for what many college football fans are feeling today is schadenfreude. The word means, basically, taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. When Notre Dame fired head football coach Tyrone Willingham on Tuesday afternoon, the feeling among many fans was, “See there. You’re no better than the rest of us, Notre Dame, and, in fact, you are worse because you pretend to be better. But you are just another football factory where winning is the only thing that counts. And, by the way, let’s see now if you can win playing the way we do.”
The likelihood is that Notre Dame won’t. For one thing, the Irish haven’t had that much practice doing it the way the big boys do. They still believe that good things–i.e., national championships and Heisman trophies–will come their way simply because they are Notre Dame and have the fight song, the Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus, and all of the other components that make up the tradition. They believe that they can win without getting their hands dirty.
But the universe of college football has changed, in almost cosmic proportions, since Notre Dame last won a National Championship in 1988. The center of gravity has shifted. Schools, like Florida State, that did not even field football teams when Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy were coaching Notre Dame to glory, now rule the sport. Whoever follows Willingham–and the smart money is on Urban Meyer who just led Utah (Utah?) to an undefeated season while Notre Dame went 6-5–will be trying to persuade the best high-school players to come to South Bend, Indiana, instead of playing at Miami or Southern California or Oklahoma. This will not be an easy sell.
The last Notre Dame coach to win a national championship, Lou Holtz, tried to persuade the university to relax its requirements and make it possible to admit kids whose SAT scores were lower than the weight they could bench press. Notre Dame held onto its standards, Holtz moved on, and the Irish haven’t won a bowl game since.
Other former football powers have made the same decision and accepted the consequences. The University of Chicago was once a great football power. Now it plays what is the equivalent of Class D baseball. Army and Navy once competed at the highest level but got out of the chase, presumably because it was felt that the country needed ensigns and lieutenants who had studied something more rigorous than playground management. The Army/Navy game this Saturday will be long on spirit but short on future NFL stars.
Coach Willingham was fired after an emergency weekend meeting of Notre Dame’s board of trustees. The “emergency” was a loss to number-one-ranked Southern California by the embarrassing score of 41-10. Notre Dame had lost by more than 30 points only 20 times in 118 years of playing football. Five of those losses occurred while Willingham was coach. This, the board concluded, was insupportable.
Football schools like Notre Dame and Florida State need to win and compete for national championships not simply because it makes their fans feel good. The kind of alums who prosper and want to give back to the university often care deeply about football success. It is how they measure the status of the school. A winning program brings in money from them as well as from television and bowl appearances. Mediocrity on the football field is demoralizing to the character of the school. If you choose to compete at this level, you cannot be ambivalent about 6-5 seasons and 30-point blowouts in prime time.
Loyal Notre Dame fans–and there are millions of them–will believe that the next coach can “wake up the echoes,” but the situation is not unlike that of the network news programs that are busy changing anchormen, some with more grace than others. CBS and NBC can put new faces in for Rather and Brokaw but the ratings will continue to decline. The game has changed since the days when the nation trusted Walter Cronkite more than anyone.
According to Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White, “From Sunday through Friday our football team has exceeded all expectations.” The players were good students and citizens, then, but it was not enough. What really counted happened on the field, where they couldn’t beat Boston College at home. So Tyrone Willingham, a good man and a fair coach, had to go. As Cronkite would say, “That’s the way it is.” The Notre Dame faithful will just have to get over it and endure the gloating of those fans from other football schools telling them, “Now you’re just like us.”
–Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.