A Notre Dame football coach's third season usually brings a lot more luster to the Golden Dome. Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz each won national championships in their third seasons at Notre Dame.
But as Tyrone Willingham prepares for his third season in South Bend, Ind., the Fighting Irish have more modest goals -- such as beating Navy for the 41st time in a row and scoring a touchdown against Michigan.
Only two years ago, after he was hired in the wake of the George O'Leary's resignation shortly after accepting the job, Willingham seemed like a savior when he won his first eight games at Notre Dame. But the Fighting Irish have gone 7-10 since then, losing nine of their past 14 games, including a trifecta of embarrassments last season: 38-0 at Michigan, and 45-14 to Southern California and 37-0 to Florida State at home.
With Notre Dame again facing a demanding schedule -- including home games against Michigan, Washington, Boston College and Pittsburgh and road games at Tennessee and Southern Cal -- Fighting Irish fans were heading to the Grotto more than usual this summer.
"It's always very difficult for fans to have confidence in teams when things are going poorly," Willingham said. "Yes, we got beat. Yes, some of the scores were sizable. But unless we're wrong, they were truly only one loss [apiece]. If we come back and win this year, I think that will vindicate everything.
"Fans are very often quick to praise or perish, if I could use that. Coaches see the long haul and see things as they are."
Here's how things are at Notre Dame in 2004:
* The Fighting Irish finished 5-7 in Willingham's second season, the third time in five years they've finished with a losing record;
* Notre Dame hasn't won a bowl game since 1994 and has played in a Bowl Championship Series game only once, losing 41-9 to Oregon State in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl;
* Just as importantly, NBC's television ratings for Notre Dame games last season were the lowest since the network signed an exclusive contract with the school in 1991.
Willingham, who had a 44-36-1 record at Stanford, is already feeling heat from Notre Dame alumni. After Syracuse beat the Irish, 38-12, to knock Notre Dame out of a bowl game last season, a group of more than 400 alumni sent a letter to the school's board of trustees, demanding a coaching change if the program didn't show significant improvement this season. Paul Hornung, one of the school's most recognizable former players and the 1956 Heisman Trophy winner, angered Willingham and the administration when he said the school needed to lower its academic standards to recruit more black athletes.
"If you're going to tell me the pressure on Coach Willingham is any different today than the day he arrived, that's news to me," Willingham said.
There are a few reasons to believe Willingham can turn the Fighting Irish around this season. Notre Dame plays four of its first six games at home, and will probably be a sizable underdog to only Michigan on Sept. 11. Sophomore quarterback Brady Quinn played admirably as a freshman, throwing for nearly 1,800 yards with 15 interceptions and nine touchdowns. The Fighting Irish lost leading rusher Julius Jones, who was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, but senior Ryan Grant returns; he ran for 1,085 yards in 2002. Converted quarterback Carlyle Holiday leads a deep receiver corps that could be Notre Dame's best in several years. Six starters are back on defense, including defensive end Justin Tuck, who broke the school record with 131/2 sacks last season.
"Coming off the season we had last year, we know we're a lot better than that," Tuck said. "We're real hungry this year -- you can tell from the look in people's eyes."
. . . enters season 3