Without a doubt the big story of 2004 was the firing of Ty Willingham, and the subsequent hiring of Charlie Weis in December. Yet even after the ugly 5-7 season of 2003, no one would have predicted that by the end of 2004, Willingham would be wearing Husky purple and that Notre Dame would hire a guy with no head coaching experience above the high school level. So, how did we end up here? Let's take a look back on the topsy-turvy Year That Was for Irish football...
The year started in muted silence, as the 5-7 Irish stayed home for the holiday bowl season. The only Irish players making an appearance in a football game were Darrell Campbell, Julius Jones and Courtney Watson, who all played in the Senior Bowl. After such a disappointing season, many Irish fans turned to recruiting in the hopes that Coach Willingham could find some of those elusive "studs" (that many in the media assumed the Irish lacked) and breathe some new life into the program. By January Notre Dame had eight commitments and were still looking for a QB to back up Brady Quinn, another running back to compliment Justin Hoskins, and, stop me if you've heard this one before, a solid cornerback or two. Two recruits stood out as targets 1 and 1a for Willingham: QB Brian Brohm and RB Darius Walker. On the 20th, Brohm chose to attend Louisville, but Walker made Irish fans happy by putting on an ND hat on the 22nd. Six other recruits chose Notre Dame, but the Irish missed on some key recruits that had been targeted for a long time.
The big event in college football every February is National Signing Day. It's a day full of optimism and potential...and recently, heartburn and disappointment for the most devoted of Irish recruitniks who still flinch at the name Lorenzo Booker. Luckily, this year the Irish won a last-minute battle with Florida State for Booker's cousin, cornerback Terrail Lambert. Unfortunately, the overall grade for the class was notably average, and the Irish fell short at shoring up depth at key positions. For the second straight year, Notre Dame signed only two offensive lineman, and the class as a whole was one of the lowest ranked in recent history. It appeared that Willingham's strategy of doling out scholarship offers like golden tickets would leave the Irish empty-handed, with no backup plans once the A-list recruits turned down the Irish. And once again, Irish fans were left hoping that the class contained a few diamonds in the rough.
March started off an a sour note as defensive backs coach Trent Walters was hired by the Philadelphia Eagles as their new secondary coach. Walters was considered one of the best coaches on the staff, and many hoped that Willingham would take this opportunity to hire a top notch coach to assuage ND's perennial Achilles heel. As the month drew to a close, Willingham surprised the Irish faithful by tabbing Steven Wilks from Bowling Green. Wilks's inexperience raised more than a few eyebrows, but the players quickly warmed to Wilks during spring practice and some fans hoped that the young Wilks would be a shot in the arm for a staff that lacked many aggressive recruiters.
The entire offensive line would return in 2004 to protect rising sophomore Brady Quinn, and spring practices provided hope that the offense was starting to mature. As always, there were numerous positive practice reports, and the offense did not disappoint in the 75th Annual Blue and Gold Spring Game as the 1st-team offense won 35-7 in an impressive showing. More optimism appeared in the form of sophomore Tom Zbikowski, who had an interception and won the defensive MVP award. Three days later, the good news continued for the Irish program as six Notre Dame players were taken in the NFL Draft. Fan favorite Julius Jones just missed the first round (Bill Parcells selected him for the Dallas Cowboys early in the 2nd). Unfortunately Darrell Campbell, who suffered a knee injury while training for the draft, found himself undrafted by the time Mr. Irrelevant heard his name called.
After the draft, three more Irish players signed free agent contracts, giving Notre Dame nine players from the 5-7 team who made it to the NFL. Also in May was the groundbreaking for the new Don F. and Flora Guglielmino Family Athletics Center. When completed in mid 2005, the 95,840 square-foot, state-of-the-art Center will house all of the football offices and feature an expanded weight room, a larger film room, and a new locker room for practices.
In a fairly unprecedented move, AD Kevin White announced that the away game against BYU had been rescheduled to just before the Michigan game. This would give Willingham's team a much-needed opportunity to work out the kinks at game-speed before facing the Wolverines in South Bend. While Notre Dame historically has never backed down from tough opponents, some Irish fans felt that a slight "softening" of the schedule would be beneficial to Notre Dame's national championship hopes. Although not everyone bought this line of reasoning, most were happy that the wait until the kickoff of the 2004 season was reduced by one week.
A slow month in college football, fans on internet message boards wondered if this was the year that the Irish offense would finally click and become a force that didn't rely on the defense to win games. Announcements that Brady Quinn was named to the Davey O'Brien watch list and Anthony Fasano was selected to the Mackey Award watch list bolstered fan confidence and showed that even the media expected good things out of the Fighting Irish offense in 2004.
As fall practice started, early practice reports constantly trumpeted the good news that a crisp, efficient offense was really revving up. Eyewitness accounts of Travis Thomas, Ryan Grant, Darius Walker, and Justin Hoskins gave hope that the loss of Julius Jones would be minimized. Outside of the normal nicks and bruises, the Irish managed to avoid the injury bug, and as in every preseason, confidence was riding high. A rumored last-minute transfer by Tom Zbikowski that was quickly proven false was the only hiccup in a relatively smooth fall practice session. All eyes were on Willingham and the 2004 Irish in the all-important 3rd year of Willingham's tenure.
Ready and rarin' to go, and hoping to start the season off with a bang, the Irish instead shot themselves in the foot. ND stumbled to a 20-17 loss against BYU, and the optimism quickly turned to doubt. The program-low 11 yards rushing seemed impossible for a team returning an offensive line chock full of high school all-americans. With Ryan Grant out with a hamstring injury, Travis Thomas was summoned to carry the ball, and promptly coughed up three fumbles. Meanwhile, Darius Walker sat patiently on the bench. Depression hit Irish fans hard, many admitted they might be wrong about Willingham's chances for success, and most ND fans expected a second straight blowout loss to the Wolverines.
Next week however, in what became a hallmark of Willingham's tenure, a completely different Notre Dame team showed up and pushed around the Top 10 Michigan Wolverines, beating them 28-20. Notable in this game was the debut of freshman running back Darius Walker, who provided the offensive spark missing in the BYU game. Walker rang up an impressive 115 yards and two touchdowns in 31 attempts in his first collegiate game. Emotions and expectations rose up again as the Irish played a great game, and the vaunted #3 jersey appeared to have found another worthy owner. Little did Irish fans know that the Michigan game would be the high water mark for Darius the rest of the season.
Under the lights in East Lansing, the Irish put away the Michigan State Spartans 31-24 in a game that ended up a lot closer than it should have been. Zbikowski had perhaps the play of the year on a stripped fumble returned for a touchdown, but after Willingham emerged from the bowels of MSU Stadium in the third quarter (was it a bathroom break, coach? "None of your business", replied Ty), the Spartans mounted a comeback that made more than a few Irish fans uncomfortable. The Irish hung on to win.
Closing out September, Willingham and the Irish impressed ND fans and members of the Husky athletic department with a very convincing win over hapless Washington 38-3.
Purdue came into Notre Dame Stadium looking for their first win since 1974 and unfortunately, they had no trouble getting it. ND continued its recent trend of enhancing the Heisman hopes of opposing QB's as Kyle Orton looked unstoppable in the 41-16 romp. The game also added another disconcerting blowout loss to Willingham's ledger -- another 25-point home loss and shaky secondary play brought out a few more calls for Willingham's job as the Irish failed to show much improvement from the first game of the year.
Facing Willingham's former employer the next week, the Fighting Irish became the second D-1 football team to reach 800 victories, but still needed to bat down a pass in the end zone to secure the 23-15 win over the Cardinal.
The Irish then cracked the Top 25 with a 27-9 victory over Navy. But another speed bump came in the form of the Boston College, where for the second straight year Notre Dame scored the same number of touchdowns and field goals as the Eagles, but lousy second-half defense and frustrating miscues on PAT attempts left the Irish short on the scoreboard 24-23.
Consistent only in their inconsistency, the Irish followed up the loss to the Eagles with an upset of #9 Tenneessee 17-13 in Knoxville, and the questions continued: how could the Irish could defeat top-10 teams like the Volunteers and Wolverines yet stumble to the likes of BYU?
Again the roller coaster 2004 season continued when Notre Dame fell in the closing seconds to Pittsburgh 41-38 and Pitt QB Tyler Palko set a Notre Dame stadium record by throwing for five touchdowns against the Irish in a game.
Not to be outdone, Matt Leinart threw for five touchdowns of his own as the Irish lost to USC by 31 points for the third straight year 41-10 and cemented Leinart's shot at the Heisman Trophy. And while most Fighting Irish fans didn't expect a victory over the high flying Trojans, many could do nothing but shake their heads in disgust. As they had done the previous two meetings with USC, the Irish had early success on offense, but were unable to counter any of the defensive adjustments by the Trojans, and were ultimately overwhelmed.
The regular season was now over and Willingham's Irish stood at a decidedly average 6-5. Hoping to end the season on a good note, the Irish accepted a bid to play in the Insight.com bowl against the Oregon State Beavers. Not thrilled that Notre Dame accepted the bowl bid, Irish fans resigned themselves to playing in a subpar bowl and turned to recruiting for any good news. But on the last day in November, something happened that hardly anyone had expected: Tyrone Willingham was fired.
DecemberThe final month of 2004 started in disarray as the Fighting Irish found themselves without a head coach and the Football Banquet and accompanying recruiting trip weekend were abruptly cancelled. Notre Dame message boards were flooded with rumors, half-truths, and wild accusations about how the firing transpired and who the next coach would be. The immediate choice seemed to be Utah coach Urban Meyer. Notre Dame officials flew out to Utah to close the deal with the former ND assistant only to find that he was further along in negotiations with Florida than anyone under the Dome realized, and Meyer rebuffed the Irish. The search quickly went underground while the media attacked the decision to fire Willingham and stoked the rumor mill with new coaching names released on almost an hourly basis. Finally, after 13 long days, Notre Dame officially introduced Charlie Weis as the 28th Head Coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
While perhaps unknown to many Irish fans at the beginning of the search, Weis's NFL accomplishments and Notre Dame diploma gave cause for new hope. After a stirring press conference brimming with confidence, Weis immediately set out hiring a coaching staff and picking up the recruiting baton where Willingham's staff had left off. Weis shored up Irish-committed players' confidence and aggressively pursued assorted longshots, and inspired Irish fans who had been used to the low-key Willingham approach to recruiting.
Meanwhile, Willingham's assistants stayed at Notre Dame to coach the Irish players for the upcoming Insight.com bowl while Willingham returned to the Pac-10 as the new coach of the Washington Huskies.
As the month and year came to an end, no new assistant coaches had been officially announced and the Irish traveled to Phoenix to play the OSU Beavers in an indoor baseball stadium. Staying true to their Willingham-inspired form, the Irish appeared unfocused and inconsistent, and dropped yet another game 38-21 to finish the 2004 season a lackluster 6-6.
It's been quite a year. Yet despite the disappointing season, Irish fans everywhere seem optimisic on the future. 2004 left us breathless and exasperated (and ultimately shocked and surprised) but as 2005 begins, Notre Dame faces a fresh start, and Charlie Weis offers much hope for Irish football.
Here's to the new coach, the new attitude, and the New Year. Cheers.