SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame's incoming president, the Rev. John Jenkins, affirmed his support of athletics director Kevin White and defended the process that led to the controversial firing of former football coach Tyrone Willingham after three seasons.
White has been criticized by fans for the performance of the football program and the way the search for Willingham's successor turned out. The school courted Utah coach Urban Meyer, a former Notre Dame assistant, who went to Florida.
White also defended Willingham in the announcement of the firing Nov. 30.
"Kevin White has given great leadership in the past five years," Jenkins said in his campus office this week, his first formal interview on athletics. "He has been put in difficult situations. I think he performed well. I have every confidence in him."
Jenkins said he initiated phone calls to two university trustees that began the process that led to Willingham's firing. "I suppose insofar as anybody is responsible for that decision, I am," he said, "and I'll take responsibility for it."
Jenkins did not specify a level of expectation for the football program under new coach Charlie Weis. "I am not going to give an expectation in terms of won-loss (record)," Jenkins said. "I think we can and should perform at a high level on the field. I think we should, in all ways, seek to be outstanding. ... We do have a special tradition in football, and so it is a special concern that we show in all those areas — integrity, graduation rate and performance on the field — excellence."
Jenkins said Willingham's acknowledged indirect contact with the University of Washington before the season ended was not a factor. And Jenkins said the need for confidentiality was the reason he consulted a small number of administrators and two members of the board of trustees.
"Everybody feels that they should be included," Jenkins said. "It's difficult to know who to include in such a way that the circle doesn't become so wide that the appropriate level of confidentiality is lost."
Jenkins said donors who have helped fund Notre Dame's athletics budget, $39 million for the 2004-05 academic year, according to school spokesman John Heisler, did not sway the decision.
"I can say categorically that financial considerations weren't even mentioned in our discussion, at least any discussion I had with anybody," Jenkins said.
The incoming president acknowledged that while the integrity of the program had been maintained under Willingham and graduation rates were among national leaders, performance on the field had become a concern.
"Win-loss record," he said. "Obviously, your recruiting plays a role. I think programs have a momentum. If they lose that momentum, it becomes harder to recover it. ... It's the total picture of: 'What is the direction of the program? And what confidence do we have in that program?' And I guess one can infer what confidence players considering here have in that program."
Willingham declined through a spokesperson to comment.
Jenkins said he had discussed the strong response of current university president, the Rev. Edward Malloy, who registered his embarrassment. "I think we're working together well," Jenkins said.
Malloy said through a spokesman he had nothing more to add.
Let's check the scorecard. White is staying; I fired Ty, not anyone else; wins are important, as important as integrity and academics; no more decisions by committee; Monk has nothing more to say. Kind of reminds you of when Tony finally took control of the family from Uncle Jun.