Forgive or Forget?

We'd like to introduce another columnist joining the Irish Eyes team. D.J. Murphy will be offering his opinions throughout the 2006 season and hopefully beyond. I think you'll enjoy his first offering.

On December 17, 1977 Elvis Costello and the Attractions were on stage at the NBC studios at Rockefeller Center in New York playing for the Saturday Night Live studio audience. They were last-minute stand-ins for the Sex Pistols who, due to the criminal records of various members of the band, were unable to get visas. Costello wanted to play "Radio Radio," a wailing indictment of the corrupt power of the record industry and, by extension, broadcasting in general (the lyrics seem almost quaint now, but at the time the song was considered downright subversive by media companies). Lorne Michaels, SNL's producer, forbade the song before the show and, seemingly, Costello acquiesced. For their second number of the night, Costello began performing a song called "Less Than Zero" but he stopped the band after only a few seconds. They then defiantly launched into a frenetic version of "Radio Radio." Costello was subsequently banned from the show.

But his banishment only lasted 12 years. He was invited back to play in 1989 and later even performed "Radio Radio" with the Beastie Boys during an SNL anniversary show.

The point is, as horrifying as the incident seemed to NBC, the negative feelings faded with the passage of enough time. Hatchets were buried, bygones were let be and most, if not all, was forgiven.

Will the same be true where Tyrone Willingham and Notre Dame are concerned?

Though the vitriol on various ND message boards has dissipated somewhat with the early success of Charlie Weis, the preoccupation with Willingham and his failed stewardship of the Notre Dame football program still has legs.

It's no longer the raw, open wound it was during and shortly after his last days on campus. But ND fans still cannot help but pick at the scab. As of this writing, there are two threads devoted to Willingham and bad coaching on the front page of the Irish Eyes members' board. Five hundred eighty-five days and one extremely encouraging 9-3 season after he was fired and we still simply can't let go of the complex emotions dredged up by this man. And why should we, when most of us feel he gutted the greatest tradition in college football through incompetence and sloth and then smeared its honorable name on his way out the door?

Actually, maybe the emotions aren't that complex. Rage is pretty simple.

But what effect will time and perspective have on the Willingham era and how we who care about the university and its team perceive him? There are three options. He will be permanently reviled, he will be eventually embraced, or he will be largely forgotten.

There don't seem to be any firm rules governing how we treat our failures. The sample size isn't really sufficient to spot trends. But if any conclusion can be drawn from history, Willingham's chances of being demonized in perpetuity are slim. Like most Americans, ND fans usually forgive and forget. Or just forget.

With one glaring exception.

The gold standard of Notre Dame head-coaching failure is Gerry Faust. Though Joe Kuharich's winning percentage was worse, Faust's demise, like his ascension, was more spectacular. In retrospect, given his curriculum vitae, his failure was practically assured. That a high school coach was able to convince the administration of the most visible, successful and tradition-laden college football program of all-time to hire him is testament to his passion for Notre Dame, his deep spirituality and simple goodness.

And those qualities are what plant him squarely in the lovable-losers camp. Coach Faust is a great guy who loves Notre Dame and was in over his head. It did not take the Notre Dame family long to welcome him back on campus with open arms.

Just keep him the hell away from a sideline.

Aside from Faust, all of the coaches who served for any length of time and could be considered failures – Hunk Anderson, Terry Brennan, Kuharich and Bob Davie – have faded from memory quickly (the speed with which Davie joined this group is astonishing, but he was an unremarkable man who did an unremarkable job).

Kuharich, as noted above, has the worst winning percentage of any coach in school history. You might think the person in that position would be universally and permanently scorned. But when I was a student at Notre Dame, I didn't even know how to pronounce the man's name. He has an 800-word Wikipedia entry that devotes exactly one sentence to his coaching days at Notre Dame. For all intents and purposes, the losingest coach in ND history is invisible.

Ty Willingham may continue to inspire loathing and poisoned message board postings well into the future. Given some of the unique facets of his departure, especially his willingness to throw Notre Dame under the media bus on the racial angle, Willingham could turn out to be the one coach we can't forgive or forget. But I don't think so.

Time blunts the sharpest pain. And what eventually mitigates the pain of losing, no matter who was leading the team at the time, is winning. Kuharich turned the reins over to Ara and Faust did the same to Lou. The time it will take to make Willingham a footnote will be dictated by Charlie Weis' success at Notre Dame's helm. And right now, that span looks comfortingly short.

Regardless of how long it is, one thing is certain: Ty will not be asked back for an encore. Top Stories