Another coaching tenure that began in South Bend with high expectations came crashing to the ground in 2004. Ty Willingham’s first year of 2002 had seen Notre Dame rise to #4 in the polls in late October. But they finished that season poorly, endured a losing campaign in 2003 and when the 2004 Notre Dame football team proved to be mediocre, Willingham was told to pack his bags.
Notre Dame opened the season unranked. They had talent in the passing game, but it was still young. Brady Quinn was a sophomore at quarterback, and though Rhema McKnight, Maurice Stovall, Jeff Samardzija and tight end Anthony Fasano all had productive years ahead of them—Samardzija in baseball as well football—none were standouts in 2004.
The Irish could run the ball with the tandem of Darius Walker and Ryan Grant, but poor play on defense—particularly in the secondary—often put the offense in bad spots where the run was not as effective.
Pollsters were never taken with Willingham’s last team and they opened the season unranked. A road trip to BYU, who would finish the season 5-6, produced a tough loss. On a night neither team ran the ball and Cougar starting quarterback John Beck left the game with an injury, Notre Dame allowed BYU backup Matt Berry to complete 15/23 passes, including a 42-yard touchdown pass. The Irish lost 20-17.
Hope came back to campus a week later when Notre Dame upset Michigan, ranked eighth at the time and on their way to a co-championship in the Big Ten. Walker ran for 115 yards on 31 carries. The Irish trailed 12-7 in the third quarter.
Then Dwight Ellich intercepted a Chad Henne pass at the Michigan 29-yard line that set up one touchdown. A blocked punt set up another. Quinn led a touchdown drive of his own and with the 28-20 win, there was hope for the Willingham regime.
Notre Dame went on to survive mediocre Michigan State, keyed by a defensive touchdown from strong safety Tom Zibikowski. The Irish blew out a lousy Washington team, the place Willingham would land next season. That brought Purdue to town.
The Boilermakers had not won in South Bend since 1974, including a recent stretch where Drew Brees was the quarterback and the program went to the Rose Bowl. That all changed on this afternoon. The Boilers returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Quarterback Kyle Orton threw a 97-yard touchdown pass, part of a 385-yard passing day with four TDs. Purdue, ranked 15th at the time, blitzed Notre Dame 41-16.
Willingham’s team picked themselves up. They beat their coach’s former team in Stanford 23-15, though the Cardinal were not having a good year and the win still required a muffed punt to set up the go-ahead touchdown.
A more impressive win came the following week in East Rutherford, over Navy. The Middies were on their way to a 10-2 year and were coached by Paul Johnson, who has since gone to success at Georgia Tech. When Notre Dame decisively handled Navy 27-9 pollsters took notice and moved the Irish to #24.
It didn’t last. Boston College, who had broken Irish hearts in 1993 and 2002 now stepped up and broke the momentum. The Irish defense made BC quarterback Paul Peterson look like the second coming of Doug Flutie. In the second half alone, Peterson went 19/23 for 297 yards. Notre Dame clung to a 23-17 lead, but Peterson connected with tight end Tony Gonzalez on a 30-yard scoring play with 54 seconds left.
Once again, Willingham’s kids didn’t roll over and die. They went down to Tennessee, ranked ninth in the country and en route to an SEC East title. Notre Dame pulled a 17-13 upset. They had a considerable advantage in that the Vols were down to their third-string quarterback, but ND still held Tennessee to just 58 yards rushing and when Mike Goolsby returned an interception for a touchdown, Notre Dame had the margin of victory.
The win in Knoxville was the last great high point of the Willingham era—in fact, it was the last win, period. The next game was at home against Pitt, who would be part of a four-way tie for the Big East title, a group that included Boston College.
If Notre Dame had made BC’s Peterson look like Flutie, they made Pitt’s Tyler Palko into the next Dan Marino. Palko threw five touchdown passes, for 334 yards and led the drive for the winning field goal in a 41-38 game.
USC was on deck for the finale and there was never any doubt where this one was going. This was a great Trojan team, the best of Pete Carroll’s dominating tenure in Los Angeles. Notre Dame took a 7-0 lead, but then USC quarterback Matt Leinart blitzed the ND secondary for five touchdown passes in a 41-10 win.
Carroll would go on to win the national championship, beating Oklahoma even worse in the Orange Bowl. Willingham had coached his last game—with the 6-5 finish and a recruiting class that did not rank in the Top 25 nationally, he was let go after just three years.
Notre Dame came in for harsh criticism. It was nearly two decades earlier that the school had stood out for its honor in letting Gerry Faust finish out his five-year contract, even though the results on the field weren’t there. Now Willingham, whose 2002 season was better than any year of the Faust era, was being dismissed after three? When Willingham was already a proven winner—a Rose Bowl year at Stanford in 1999—while Faust had come from the high school ranks?
The fact Willingham is African-American brought a racial component into the criticism. My own view is that I don’t believe the decision was race-based. Notre Dame’s athletic department was run by different people in 2004 than it had been in 1985, and the ’04 people were more short-term focused, less moved by arguments to honor. I find it hard to imagine Faust would have gotten a fourth year, much less a fifth in the new era. It reflects a change in Notre Dame’s approach to the football program that is for the worse.
No one ended up looking good in all this. Willingham went to Washington and failed spectacularly. Notre Dame, which said recruiting was Willingham’s primary failure, saw his successor Charlie Weis have two good seasons with Willingham’s players and then fail spectacularly himself once his own more touted classes came to maturity.
Oh, and there was one more football game to be played in 2004. Notre Dame went to the Insight Bowl and played Oregon State and were coached by defensive coordinator Kent Baer. Derek Anderson was the Beaver quarterback and became the latest QB to pad his stats against the Irish, throwing four touchdown passes in a 38-21 Oregon State win. Notre Dame licked its wounds and went back again to the drawing board.