I read the subject article on line today with great interest, particularly Coach Willingham's response that he has no idea why the letter was sent now from concerned alumni to the Board of Trustees. As one of the authors and signers of the letter, I may be able to shed light on both its purpose and timing.
We recognize there is no silver bullet solution for the restoration of Notre Dame Football to its historic and rightful place. If it were simply a matter of replacing the head coach, it would be more obvious even to those with little knowledge of the inner workings of the University. Please understand we do not support a coaching change and hope that Coach Willingham's tenure at Notre Dame will be long and rewarding. We do, however, have reasonable concerns regarding his ultimate ability to succeed. I will address them later.
The letter was directed to the Board because its 58 members do not share the same perception of Notre Dame football and its place within the fabric of the University. We have received enough indirect feedback to know that several Trustees agree with the letter’s content and message, but there are a number of others that do not appreciate football’s contribution to the University and the connection between football and the alumni.
One product of this division among Trustees is the program has suffered from benign neglect for several years and there is neither a consensus nor a sense of urgency regarding how to fix it. The letter was meant to call attention to this problem and to empower supportive Trustees to convince others of the need for corrective action.
The current administration has also failed in its stewardship of the program, both at the executive level and in the Athletic Department. This is evidenced by ten years of overall decline, not one 5-7 season. We do not believe Notre Dame football is in a typical "down cycle" that will magically right itself after some unspecified period or simply by the will of the Almighty. We sent the letter now because the problem requires intervention and will only become more difficult to correct. There must be a commitment by the University leadership to improve the management of the program, and strong, capable people must be hired to carry out the plan.
We believe Coach Willingham is such a man, but he cannot do it alone. Notre Dame needs a president with the vision and courage to promote excellence in football as well as academics. The two need not be mutually exclusive. The media has proclaimed the death of championship football at Notre Dame several times in the past when the program has struggled, but each time it recovered. Such turnarounds were not the result of relaxed admissions or blind luck, but were directly attributable to the hiring of capable administrators and coaches, and empowering them to do their jobs.
Notre Dame also needs to fill the vacant position of Executive Vice President with a competent business-oriented professional. The right individual will bring greater focus to the financial, business and athletic endeavors at Notre Dame without impact to scholastic concerns. The Athletic Director must be able to hire coaches without being encumbered and redirected by a committee of academic-oriented administrators.
Several decisions that must be made this year are very important to the future of Notre Dame, and their impact is much more global than the football program. Most prominent among them are the naming of a successor to Fr. Malloy and the appointment of the Executive Vice President. Given the right structure and support, Coach Willingham is more likely to be successful than if no other actions are taken to improve the status quo or the new leadership does not value the importance of football to the University’s unique identity.
As much as Coach Willingham personifies Notre Dame’s ideals, we are certain he understands the need to improve the team’s performance in 2004. The letter did not specify a minimum number of wins in exchange for our continued support, or pose any such threats. Rather, it suggested that significant progress be realized from the disappointing performances in 2003. While we do not define what level of progress is significant, the alumni are savvy enough to recognize it when they see it. In a nutshell, we expect the 2004 Fighting Irish to be a representative Notre Dame team - competitive, disciplined, innovative and fundamentally sound.
In evaluating Coach Willingham’s performance, we are justifiably concerned with recruiting results and the composition of his staff. Both are integral components in his ability to succeed. The staff failed to land all but five of approximately 40 elite recruits it targeted during the just-concluded campaign, and were only slightly more successful with its second wave of scholarship offers. Results can improve this year only with a more aggressive and sustained effort, as well as a better showing on the field.
The makeup and performance of Coach Willingham’s staff during its two seasons at Notre Dame has not been exemplary. One measure of the strength of a particular staff is the level of interest by other schools to hire its members for promotional opportunities, including head coaching vacancies. This year, none of the Notre Dame assistants were mentioned for advancement opportunities as coordinators or head coaches, and none of them appear to have the requisite track record for the foreseeable future.
The performance of the special teams and offensive coaches as well as both coordinators has been a disappointment. Coach Willingham was apparently reluctant to make changes this winter, which demonstrates that he is both loyal and stubborn. These qualities may serve him well, but they may also prove to be problematic. Notre Dame’s entire football staff should represent the best and the brightest, and the current group save Coach Willingham himself does not appear to meet this criteria.
Finally, we strongly disagree with the gratuitous characterization of the letter signers as a small and non-representative group of alumni. Our numbers have grown as the letter has reached a wider audience, and we have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from hundreds of people who have actually bothered to read it. We believe we represent a statistically significant number of alumni who remain connected with the University on more than a casual level.
Football is the tie that binds many of us, and its decline cannot be dismissed lightly or conveniently attributed to a “changing landscape” in college sports. History shows this does not have to be the case at Notre Dame.
Please feel free to distribute these comments as you see fit. We welcome any feedback and opportunity for constructive dialogue on the subject matter.
Very truly yours,