In different circumstances, he would've gotten a longer period. The truth is that he was dealt a hand that was much more difficult to play than the one dealt Coach Davie. Davie took over a team that the year before was 8-3, outscored the opposition 37-17 and gained better than 460 yards per game.
Willingham took over from Davie a team that was 5-6, was outscored 19.5-19.4 and gained only 285 yards per game total, just barely more than Holtz's last team averaged on the ground. Davie's last team was dead last among Division I-A teams in yards per pass attempt at 5.1.
So, to note that Davie's and Willingham's win rates of .583 are identical is not really fair to Willingham. He started from a much lower floor.
But it was precisely the difficulty of the task that gave him less room for error. Had Willingham taken over the program from Holtz and kept it that level, ND would've been routinely going to big bowls. In different circumstances, Willingham might've been to Holtz what Devine was to Ara: a capable but less spectacular coach following a legend.
But the problem was that although progress was being made on some fronts (most notably the development of a reasonable passing offense) other areas were not progressing or were even regressing. ND, however, needed to make substantial progress on all fronts.
History has shown that at ND (indeed at most schools) the first three years are telling. Faust averaged six wins per year his first three years and six wins per year his last two years. Davie averaged seven wins per year his first three years and seven per year his last two.
Willingham at Stanford averaged 6.33 wins per year his first three years there and then 6.25 wins per year for his last four. It's possible that if given a fourth year that ND under Willingham might've won nine games, as ND did in 2000 under Davie. But then it would've probably been followed by a five or six win year the next year.
In 10 years as a head coach, Willingham's career record was 65-51-1, which works out to just a bit better than 6-5. The truth was that if given another decade, unless he radically changed his approach, ND would've plugged along between five and eight wins a year.
There just simply wasn't and isn't any evidence that ND was ready to break out and become a much better team under Willingham. Let's look at an average box score for ND under Willingham.Points scored: 22.9
Points allowed: 22.4
Total yards: 333.9
Total yards allowed: 336.4
Total rush yards: 143.4
Total rush yards allowed: 105.7
Total pass yards: 190.5
Total pass yards allowed: 230.7
As we can see, under Willingham, ND teams were just barely outscoring the opposition (only .5 points per game) and were actually being slightly outgained. The rush defense was strong and the passing attack had improved greatly from the 101.5 per game averaged in Davie's last year. But the pass defense was a perpetual problem and the relatively modest rushing totals probably suggested that ND was not always playing to its strengths.
The simple truth is that ND wasn't going to get out of its rut with Coach Willingham.
The national media is in a feeding frenzy about the unfairness of letting go a coach who's a fine person and above .500. But ND is entitled to expect better than that.
It's slightly humorous to watch all the coverage of ND accompanied by the somber assessment that ND isn't really worth all the national attention any more because its best days are past. Of course, the coach firings at Indiana, BYU and Stanford haven't attracted 10% the attention, which simply proves the point that ND is still highly relevant.
ND haters will always claim that we can't win anymore because we fight with one hand tied behind our back and then criticize us when we try to fight with both hands. It goes with the territory.
If ND can make the right coaching hire this time, the Irish will be back, and back soon. The next coach has got a better situation. The 2004 ND team is indisputably better than the 2001 ND team that Davie left behind. Essentially all of the offense is back. Big pieces of the defense is back. The right coach, some key recruits down the stretch and 2005 will be a year to look forward to.