NOTRE DAME FOOTBALL isn't what it used to be, on or off the field.
The on-field decline is hardly a breaking news story. The Fighting Irish have lost six straight bowl games. They won the most recent of their eight national titles 16 years ago. They suffered five losses by 31 or more points in Tyrone Willingham's three years as their coach.
A sub-.500 Brigham Young team was among the five opponents that beat them this season. Michigan and Florida State combined to thrash them 75-0 last season. Atlantic Coast Conference middle-of-the-roader North Carolina State pasted them by 22 in the 2003 Gator Bowl.
The Irish still have a lot going for them with their name, unmatched history and national TV contract, but they're no longer anything special once the opening kickoff is in the air. Anyone who still believes that is just deluding himself.
The firing of Willingham, announced yesterday, underlines the accompanying reality that Notre Dame also no longer stands apart off the field.
Until yesterday, the school was loath to dismiss a coach with years left on his contract. Notre Dame supposedly operated on a higher plane, where winning, though important, was kept in perspective.
Graduate your players. Fulfill your contractual commitments. Notre Dame supposedly didn't stoop below those honorable standards, as so many other schools do. It made them special, regardless of their won-lost record.
No one is going to cling to that myth anymore. Willingham had two years left on his five-year contract. He made a deal with Notre Dame, and Notre Dame backed out early. Thanks, see ya. Nothing special about that.
The firing illuminates an awful trend in the college game, the dearth of African-American head coaches. There are only two left in Division I-A, which includes 117 schools.
Some might suspect a conspiracy, but it's unrealistic to think these schools have secretly gotten together and agreed to hire only white guys. They're playing for millions. They don't let outsiders have an impact on their hiring.
But the absence of color on the sidelines does hint at a frightening reliance on dated stereotypes and beliefs, a startling development given the advancements made by black coaches in other sports. Black coaches have become commonplace in college basketball, pro football and pro basketball. College football apparently is an exception, still stuck in a sorry past. There is no other conclusion to make.
Willingham's firing is not about race, however. Let's make that clear. He was just another football coach at another school with unrealistic expectations. In a weird way, that represents progress. He was not treated any differently because he is black. He was fired just like every white coach a school has run off.
Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White made that clear at a news conference yesterday.
"We simply have not made the progress on the field that we need to make," White said.
Things were fine off the field. Willingham's players behave. They're reportedly strong academically.
"From Sunday through Friday our football program has exceeded all expectations in every way," White said. "Tyrone has done some wonderful things, but again on Saturday, we've struggled."
Until now, that wasn't enough to get you fired at Notre Dame before your contract was up.
This is the school that gave overmatched high school coach Gerry Faust every chance, letting him hang around for all five years of his contract even though it was clear within two years he was a bad hire.
This is also the school that let mediocre Bob Davie, Willingham's predecessor, hang around for all five years even though he was 21-16 after three.
Willingham was 21-15.
Davie, by the way, went 9-3 in his fourth season and took a team to the Fiesta Bowl, a nice turnaround. He then was fired for going 5-6 the next year. But that was fair. Davie's contract was up. The school made a decision. It happens.
Five years is enough time to judge a college coach. Three years isn't. Some of Notre Dame's 2005 seniors are Davie recruits. It's tough to blame a coach for the performance of players he inherited. But Notre Dame just did.
Willingham's replacement will be a critical hire, to say the least. The Irish are an independent team in a sport trending toward mega-conferences. They don't have a bowl tie-in, and their recent history is humdrum. They could easily slide further into obscurity, although NBC is under contract to televise their games until 2010.
But who's to say NBC won't back out of that commitment, just as Notre Dame backed out of one yesterday? It would be fitting, in that sense. What goes around, comes around.