- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

It was a reminder of how things used to be at Notre Dame — and not the golden days when the Fighting Irish were the ruling class of college football.

The Florida State Seminoles’ war chant echoed through hallowed Notre Dame Stadium last Saturday in the final moments of the visitors’ 37-0 dismantling of the Fighting Irish. The mantra was heard by the dwindling number of Notre Dame faithful left in the otherwise silent football chapel. The lopsided loss was the latest piercing blow to college football’s most storied program, which owns an unseemly 2-6 record this season.

How quickly the mighty have fallen. It was only last season that the Irish and first-year coach Tyrone Willingham seemed to be rekindling the glory days of Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian — not to mention George Gipp, the Four Horsemen and the fictional Rudy — that yielded seven Heisman Trophy winners and 11 national championships. The Irish, whose only title in the last quarter-century came in 1988, bolted to an 8-0 record and into the top 10.

The Golden Domers were a factor again, and Willingham’s early success was being compared at least to that of such illustrious recent predecessors as Dan Devine and Lou Holtz. Now, with a 12-9 record at the South Bend, Ind., school, the magic is long gone.

The current team also is reviving memories from days of yore — the mediocre reigns, if that’s the word, of Gerry Faust (30-26-1 from 1981 to ‘85) and Bob Davie (25-25 from 1997 to 2001).

“How could they come to our place last year and embarrass us so badly and then lose six games this year?” said third-ranked Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who watched the Irish improve to 8-0 last season with a 34-24 win in Tallahassee.

Now Notre Dame is threatening to have its worst season in four decades going into tomorrow’s home game with Navy. The Irish are not only losing but getting beat by staggering margins; opponents have outscored them by a 232-114 margin this season. Notre Dame has suffered three straight home losses for the first time in 20 years and has been shut out twice — the first one by Michigan 38-0 — for the first time since 1960.

Since last season’s win over the Seminoles, Notre Dame has been in free fall. The Irish lost three of their final five games last season, including a 31-point loss to Southern California and a 28-6 drubbing by N.C. State in the Gator Bowl. This season’s thrashings include a 45-14 trouncing by No.2 USC.

The Irish are last among 117 Division I-A teams in passing efficiency and have scored just 11 touchdowns — the nation’s second lowest total.

“In a sense, I’m not frustrated,” insisted Willingham, the former Stanford coach who took over after George O’Leary was hired and then quickly forced to resign after a scandal involving misstatements on his resume. “I’m disappointed in the dropped passes or when we make mistakes and don’t get the calls in on time, or when we don’t get proper communications with personnel. … But I believe we can make the changes.”

The mounting losses could have long-term financial implications. The Fighting Irish are the only team in any sport — college or professional — to have its own national television contract. NBC pays some $9million annually in rights fees to televise home games.

But with Notre Dame well on its way to a third losing season in five years, there are questions whether the Irish will retain a similar deal when the contract with NBC expires after the 2005 season.

“Winning translates to ratings,” said Neil Pilson, a former CBS sports president and industry consultant. “Ratings translates into rights’ fees. One year’s record at Notre Dame is not the critical feature. Obviously, if losing records continue, it will have an effect on negotiations.”

Last week’s matchup with national power Florida State drew a 2.4 rating (2.6 million U.S. households) and trailed well behind ABC’s regional coverage telecasts and CBS’ Georgia-Florida contest. Notre Dame’s ratings peaked in its season-opening win against Washington State, with nearly a million more households than last week.

“We are in our 13th year of our terrific relationship with Notre Dame,” said Kathy Connors, NBC Sports manager of communication. “And beyond that, we have no comment.”

The school also counts on bowl money to support the athletic department. Since Notre Dame is a football independent, it does not get a share of pooled money from a conference. A berth in a BCS bowl would earn Notre Dame upwards of $12million. In 2001, in a move widely seen as based more on popularity than quality, the Irish went to the BCS Fiesta Bowl — and lost to Oregon State 41-9.

That setback was the beginning of the end for Davie, who guided the Irish to a 5-6 record the following season and was fired.

“They should win at least two national championships every 10 years,” said ESPN analyst Beano Cooke,who doesn’t foresee Notre Dame’s marketability diminishing despite its struggles. “This stuff about academics [limiting potential recruits], that’s pure malarkey. That has nothing to do with it. Willingham is a good choice. He did well at Stanford, and its academic standards are much higher than Notre Dame’s.”

Every season the Irish play one of the nation’s most difficult schedules. Five of their losses have come against ranked teams. The wins are over No.12 Washington State and No.25 Pittsburgh.

Notre Dame started the season ranked 20th despite losing several key players, including four starting offensive linemen. It did return two-year starting quarterback Carlyle Holiday and added star running back Julius Johnson, who missed last season because of academics. But Holiday struggled, and freshman Brady Quinn has started the last five games. The blue-chip recruit has been erratic, tossing five touchdown passes and 11 interceptions.

“I think [Quinn] has a tremendous future,” said Davie, now an ESPN commentator. “[But] the only game they have won since Brady Quinn lined up at quarterback was against Pittsburgh, and Julius Jones ran for [262] yards. Carlyle Holiday running the football creates plays. Scrambling may have been the answer in the short term to win more football games.”

The Irish hope up to finish on an upswing with their last four games against unranked opponents, starting this week against a Navy team they have beaten 39 straight times — a Division I-A record for consecutive victories against one team.

A strong month might temporarily placate Irish’s ravenous fan base, but Willingham clearly will be right back on the hot seat with another poor start next season. The coach called Notre Dame the nation’s “premier program” due to its rich history and tradition when he took over. He has refused to blame the brutal schedule or a lack of quality players for its troubles, although it is clear he anticipates big things when most of the players are his own recruits.

“I’ve said from the day I arrived, it’s not about three or five years down the road — it’s about winning today,” Willingham said. “I look forward to having guys that believe in all of the things that Notre Dame stands for and is about, and then winning is what I look forward to.”

So does a fickle fans base and an administration that has little patience with football losers.

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