Tyrone Willingham, embattled coach and golfer extraordinaire, has just been fired by the University of Notre Dame after three grotesque years. The fight song is being blared across campus for the first time in a long time, and excitement is palpable across the Notre Dame Nation. A few states away, a former member of the fold is reinventing the playbook while leading a group of white Mormons to a BCS bowl victory. Urban Meyer forged the glass slipper and then slammed it onto his Utes’ program with the backside of the Pittsburgh Panthers. In South Bend, a jet engine fires awake.
By the end of the 2004 football season, most devoted Notre Dame fans had shaken off the hypnotic spell of synchronized clapping and obtuse metaphors to realize that Willingham’s firing was not a matter of “if,” but “when.” As a junior at Notre Dame, I had been through the entirety of Willingham’s deplorable tenure. We all knew he wouldn’t make it, but the push to remove him from office was exacerbated by the shining beacon one time zone away (sometimes two). Urban Meyer was on the tip of every embattled athletic director’s tongue, and we wanted a piece of the action. We had to fire Willingham now, to get ourselves a raffle ticket to the Urban Meyer sweepstakes. As a former coach under the Golden Dome, everyone thought he was in the bag, including head Notre Dame officials. He was our Excalibur of the Great Salt Lake, and he would allow us to return to our rightful place at the head of the College Football Round Table. A section on the 3rd floor of Dillon Hall decorated for a “Very Urban Christmas.”
One week later, Notre Dame fans found themselves cuckolded, embarassed, and enraged. Urban had spurned the college team everyone thought he was destined to lead for the sleek and sexy, if dyslexic under the Zookster, Florida Gators. Nobody could believe it actually happened, and the college football world thought it was the final nail in Notre Dame’s coffin.
History will record Dec. 3, 2004, as the day that Notre Dame football died. The Fighting Irish will still fight. The gold helmets will still reflect the Golden Dome. But the House That Rockne Built, the monolith that bestrode the sport for eight decades, expired Friday when Urban Meyer turned down Notre Dame to go to Florida.
What if...Urban Meyer had agreed to become Notre Dame’s head coach?
Obviously, Notre Dame football is far from dead, and many would argue that the program, while falling behind early to Meyer’s Gators, is better situated in the long run with Weis at the helm than with the Meyer wunderkind.
But what if Meyer decided it was worth trying to win at Notre Dame? Would the Irish be reigning champs as we speak?
It’s tough for any Notre Dame fans to remember the love affair the nation held with Meyer during his last season at Utah. He led the Utes (the Utes!) to an undefeated record and BCS win, albeit against Big East Chumpion Pitt. And it’s also tough to remember how sure we were Meyer was coming back to ND.
In a move that’s reminiscent of laughing at your parents’ high school yearbook, let’s look at one of the very first posts ever posted here at BGS; a rundown of the “Who’s Next?” candidates. Now, no laughing, we all were in this frame of mind at this point:
CHARLIE WEIS - New England Patriots offensive coordinatorFor perspective, Joe Tiller was rated a B-minus hire. Joe “I Wear a Purdue Sweatshirt I Got Free with My Sports Illustrated Subscription” Tiller. (The top names bandied about at the time, you'll remember, were guys like Gruden, Stoops, Shanahan, Ferentz, Alvarez, Tedford, Petrino, etc.)
Pros: Notre Dame graduate....NFL experience would be enticing to recruits....has run an efficient, winning offense at the highest level.... wants the job
Cons: No head coaching experience at any level....appearance - not exactly someone you can put on a poster for the football program (unless it's somehow tied to a rib eating contest)....likely not available until February as Pats will probably go deep into the NFL postseason....if he wasn't an ND grad, wouldn't even be considered.
GRADE (if hired): C
But enough of the shameful trip down Memory Lane, how would Urban have fared if he zipped up for ND instead of jorting down for Florida?
In some sense, perhaps Urban was right, because I think he fared better in Florida than he could have under the same time frame at Notre Dame. Willingham, in his infinitely vague wisdom, didn’t do the whole recruiting thing, especially in the trenches. Ron Zook, despite a complete and utter doofball, did manage to somehow convince 18-year old men to spend four years in 80-degree weather surrounded by beautiful Southern gals in Daisy Dukes and halter tops. His national championship team is populated by Zook players, and I don’t think any coach could have led Willingham’s posse, as much as we love them, to a national championship. The horses just weren’t there, and we can point to Charlie’s losses as examples of that.
In other words, Willingham may have left the cupboard bare, but Zook had a house full of food, but kept trying to eat it all blind-folded and wearing oven mitts.
Notre Dame, under Urban Meyer, would not be national champions right now. And Charlie Weis would be a head coach in the NFL.
Now, it’s unlikely he would have been a complete and utter disaster either, despite what we would all like to think at this point. Notre Dame’s program would have found a nice boost from the Urban hire, had some great momentum going into the season, and it’s obvious the man can coach. I imagine Meyer would have found himself +/- 4 total wins from Charlie’s win total at this point.
But what would Notre Dame have turned into under his watch? While there is certainly a twinge of scorn in our perspective on Meyer, but there are recorded instances of him handling business not “the Notre Dame Way.” Poaching recruits, not handing down harsh punishments for felonious players, and misrepresenting his school’s graduation rates.
Of course, part of that comes with the SEC culture, and it’s a lot easier to handle Notre Dame athletes than Gators (we don’t have too much of a problem with players firing automatic weapons into the air), so it’s not entirely an Urban problem.
But we must remember what made Urban choose the Gators over the Irish. The legend tells that Urban asked his father what he should do, and he was told, “Where do you stand the best chance of winning?” Urban went with Florida, and I don’t think anybody would be too hard-pressed to argue that point. It’s too cold in South Bend, the academic restrictions are too tight, nobody cares about Notre Dame. Winning was his priority, and winning is what he got.
Amidst all the allegations following the Willingham firing that Notre Dame was now “like everybody else” and “all about winning,” would a successful Meyer hire propogate the “win at all costs” mentality paitned on us?
Urban Meyer may have been a former coach at ND, but he didn’t get “it.” The simple fact that he relied on Bob Davie for insight during the process shows that he doesn’t know “it” from a hole in the ground.
If Urban Meyer had become head coach of Notre Dame, I’d imagine we would have found ourselves in a similar position to where we stand today. Just as we expect Charlie Weis to lead us to a national championship at some point, so too we may have expected it with Urban. But when we looked at the path we had to take to get there, I don’t think we would have enjoyed the ride nearly as much.