EIGHT YEARS AGO, when Notre Dame went looking for a head football coach, the advice from here was: Go West. When it comes to college football, it doesn't get much more West than Stanford.
Not that anyone around here was in a hurry to lose Tyrone Willingham. After inheriting the wreckage of Bill Walsh's second tenure at Stanford, he led the Cardinal to four bowl games in seven seasons. But you couldn't deny that Willingham was everything Notre Dame was looking for.
He was successful, always the conversational opener when discussing prospective head coaching candidates. Even more impressive, he was successful at an institution that insists athletics be administered with the same guiding philosophy as, and in direct proportion to, other endeavors on campus.
In other words, Willingham wasn't favored with a monstrous athletic department budget, eye-popping facilities (remember, his teams played in the old Stanford Stadium) or relaxed academic standards for athletes. He earned his success. Better yet, he was respectable, respectful and dignified. He was everything Notre Dame likes to think itself to be.
Meanwhile, the advice to Willingham from here was: Take the job. You've earned it.
You know the rest. Both Notre Dame and Willingham were ahead of the advice curve. Willingham was hired to great fanfare, led the Irish to seasons of 10-3, 5-7 and 6-6, and was shown the door — prematurely, it says here, though Willingham's subsequent work at Washington (11-37 over four years) renders that argument problematic.
Now Notre Dame is once again looking for a head football coach. Our advice remains the same: The guy you're looking for is kicking butt at Stanford.
Jim Harbaugh took over a program that was worse than awful. After post-Willingham seasons of 2-9, 4-7, 4-7, 5-6 and 1-11, it had fallen off the relevance map. Now in his third year, he has produced a Heisman Trophy candidate (running back Toby Gerhart), a highly regarded quarterback (freshman Andrew Luck) and he's made the Cardinal bowl-eligible for the first time since 2001.
He's defeated USC twice in three tries, which would appeal to Notre Dame. He's earned the ire of USC coach Pete Carroll, which you figure would generate universal appeal. Not only has Harbaugh won inside the Stanford bell jar, he won before that at the University of San Diego, which doesn't offer scholarships. Apparently the man can coach a little.
Again Notre Dame is ahead of the advice curve. Most every account of its search, still in its embryonic stage, identifies Harbaugh as a person of interest. Duh.
But this time the advice from here has changed regarding the Notre Dame job. To Harbaugh we would say: Let some other poor soul take this position. You can (and will) do better.
Willingham's time in South Bend was an eye opener. He was fired before getting a chance to coach his first recruits as upper classmen. Then he was replaced by Charlie Weis who — and we may be overstating the facts slightly here — at halftime of his first game signed a 238-year contract extension. By the time his team had been knocked off by Harbaugh and Stanford last Saturday, even Weis was conceding it was time for him to go.
That's what the Notre Dame job does to people. It sets them up to underachieve. Everything is outsized there — the mythology, the expectations, the scrutiny. The football team has won 11 national championships and produced seven Heisman Trophy winners. Administrators, coaches, players and fans alike presume a certain entitlement, all season every season, willfully ignorant that college football is now a big business, with a number of big programs throwing big money at a chance to win the national title.
It's too bad. The Irish have won one national championship in the past 32 years and produced one Heisman Trophy winner in the past 45 years. At some schools, that would be cause for celebration. At Notre Dame it's a standard by which coaches are canned. And while this was the case nearly eight years ago when Willingham took the job, the desperation has become more palpable in the years since, the expectations more out of touch with reality, the entitlement as relevant to the modern college football experience as a raccoon coat.
Harbaugh has established himself as a shooting star. He'll have plenty of plums from which to pick his next job. Better he avoid the one where the best-case scenario is proving yourself half the man Knute Rockne ever was.
Contact Gary Peterson at email@example.com.