Willingham's firing at Notre Dame was quite unexpected. Three years into a five-year contract, the Irish did something that they haven't done in the past, which is fire a coach before five years on the job. Willingham had a 6-5 record this year, good enough to earn a bowl trip, but that wasn't good enough for Notre Dame, particularly in light of the hosing given the Irish last Saturday night by Southern Cal. Losing to Southern Cal is bad enough if you are a Notre Dame fan, but losing by 31 points is unbearable.
Yet, Willingham's job was thought safe by most for a couple of reasons. First is the history of Notre Dame and coaches. The Irish gave Gerry Faust five years and any school that would give Gerry Faust five years has the patience of Job. The Irish gave Bob Davie five years also. Davie was probably the most unpopular hire in Notre Dame history and perhaps its most popular fire, too. Second was the acceptance of the bowl bid. When the Irish said yes to the Insight Bowl, everyone figured Willingham survived.
But Notre Dame didn't give Willingham extra years. His firing came swiftly and put Notre Dame in the chase for Meyer, who to that point everyone figured was a Florida lock. The moment Notre Dame's job came open, though, all bets were off. Meyer is Catholic and named for a pope, plus he assisted Lou Holtz and Davie at Notre Dame over a five year span.
If ever it seemed there was a match for Notre Dame, Meyer was it. At least Irish fans thought so.
The firing of Willingham was not, however, the biggest move of the week. That was made by BYU when Crowton "resigned," which is how they like to say "fired" in Provo. It was a firing. No doubt about it. Resigned just sounds better.
Here's why the BYU firing of Crowton proved the catalyst in Florida getting Meyer.
With Crowton gone and BYU in the hunt for a new coach, the University of Utah suddenly found itself with a major predicament. The Utes had known for a long time that Meyer was a goner. They probably suspected it would happen when Bernie Machen became the president at the University of Florida. They knew it for sure the way the Utes kept hammering one opponent after another on their way to an unbeaten record. At Utah you don't keep coaches around who go unbeaten. It just doesn't happen.
Factor in that BYU is the alma mater of Kyle Whittingham, Utah's defensive coordinator. He grew up in Provo where his dad was an assistant coach under LaVell Edwards. He is also the man that the folks from "that team out west" had on their coaching radar the moment they didn't have Gary Crowton to kick around anymore. Whittingham even admits that returning to BYU as the head coach would be his "dream job."
Dream job? Where have we heard that before?
But it isn't just BYU that has Whittingham on its radar screen. So does Utah. In a perfect world, Utah offensive coordinator Mike Sanford would take the UNLV opening where he could succeed his mentor John Robinson and Whittingham would succeed Meyer — at least in the perfect world that is envisioned by the Utah faithful. That would make everyone happy.
Only problem is, there's no way to guarantee Sanford not getting the UNLV job and there's equally no way to guarantee that Whittingham won't answer mama's call at BYU. So Utah had to act and if you're looking for the final star that had to align so that Meyer could be hired at Florida, then look no further than Tuesday when BYU canned Crowton.
When Notre Dame fired Willingham, the Irish had Meyer front and center, but for appearances sake, it was announced that Notre Dame would take a leisurely stroll through the coaching ranks before making the choice.
Then BYU fired Crowton.
At Florida, the appearance of a leisurely search was also taking place. The Gators were six weeks into a coaching search for Ron Zook's replacement. Meyer was front and center in Gainesville, too, although there were some rather large pocketed booster types who wanted one last stab at former Gator defensive coordinator Bobby Stoops, now the king of the college football world at Oklahoma. The search was taking its sweet time, though.
Then BYU fired Crowton.
It wasn't the Notre Dame firing that really got the Gators moving. If it had just been Notre Dame and Florida, this would have gone on another week in all likelihood, but when BYU forced Utah's hand, everybody had to spring into action.
Suddenly, Utah was forced to move quickly and that opened the floodgates of activity. Foley had Florida prepped to make an astronomical offer but before it could be made, Stoops said no, probably because he needed more time. With the Big 12 championship game to be played and prepared for, the last thing Stoops needed was to spend the rest of the week talking to reporters about why he's leaving Florida as well as facing a throng of angry Okie fans who think that Stoopsie is the Second Coming.
Florida needed an answer that Stoops wasn't prepared to make quite yet. It was take it or leave it time for Stoops. He didn't take it. Foley left for Salt Lake City at the bequest of Meyer.
Notre Dame made its pitch Thursday and Florida followed. After talking to Notre Dame and Florida, Meyer talked to the people who matter most to him — his father as well as some of the coaches he's worked for including Earle Bruce, the former Ohio State coach who hired Meyer as a grad assistant in the mid-80s — and they more or less told him all things being equal, he should consider the Florida job the better of the two, which is exactly what he did.
And so now the Gators have a coach, and at some point in the next day or so, Utah will have its successor. It's pretty much a tossup at this point whether it will be Sanford or Whittingham, but the Ute faithful think they have a good one whichever it will be. That Meyer would be going when this season ended was a foregone conclusion at Utah, but having the right man in place to succeed Meyer was not.
Sanford's flirtations with UNLV and Whittingham's heart pounding at the thought of taking over at BYU made it imperative for Utah to get this over with quicker than an online Dominican Republic divorce.
That's what prompted both Florida and Notre Dame to move so quickly. Forced to decide quickly, Meyer chose Florida. We'll never know what might have happened if Notre Dame had been able to mount a full scale campaign to lure him. There was pressure enough as it was, but a week's worth of pounding might have been too much.
As it is, the Gators have a coach who is a good one and Notre Dame is still wondering what happened, how it is that the lure of shouting down the echoes at football's most hallowed venue weren't enough? While the Irish ponder away, the Gators have themselves a football coach. Perhaps a thank you card should be sent to "that team out west."