SOUTH BEND — The Rev. John I. Jenkins says he called for the meeting of University of Notre Dame leaders that led to Tyrone Willingham’s firing and he was not pressured into action by members of the board of trustees.
Willingham was given no assurances when hired that he would have a five-year minimum to prove himself as head football coach, Jenkins, the university’s president-elect, said Wednesday in a meeting with the Faculty Board on Athletics.
“Although the program was strong in terms of its integrity and graduation rate, our success on the football field has not been up to our expectations,” the president-elect told the faculty board members, according to a copy of Jenkins’ prepared remarks obtained by The Tribune.
The meeting came a day after the Rev. Edward A. Malloy, the current university president, met with the same board. Malloy has publicly said he disagreed with the decision to fire the coach and was embarrassed to be Notre Dame’s president in the days following the firing.
The timing of the firing put Malloy in the position of being blamed for and having to defend a decision he opposed, Jenkins said, thus prompting Malloy’s public statement disavowing any responsibility for the firing.
“Father Malloy and I have spoken about this matter, and we each regret and have apologized for any difficulty each of us has caused the other. … We both deeply regret any damage we have caused the university,” Jenkins said, stating the two are committed to working together for the good of the university in the coming months.
Jenkins will become president of Notre Dame after Malloy steps down June 30.
The Faculty Board on Athletics includes seven faculty members elected by fellow faculty, four members appointed by the university president and four ex officio members — including the athletic director, Kevin White, and the head of academic student services, Patrick Holmes.
At least one board member — Steve Fallon, an elected representative from the College of Arts&Letters — expressed concern in recent days about the board being bypassed in the decision process that led to Willingham’s firing.
Fallon declined comment Wednesday. He and other members referred all questions to the board’s chair, law school professor Fernand “Tex” Dutile.
Dutile confirmed the board met with Malloy and Jenkins on separate days, but declined to provide any details. He said board members will meet again soon to discuss the matter.
“Until the board meets again, I don’t want to comment,” he said.
Jenkins and Malloy each have declined Tribune requests for personal interviews since Willingham was fired.
Jenkins said a number of high-level administrators at the university came to him in late fall to express concern about the football program. The team suffered a 41-10 loss at Southern California on Nov. 27, finishing the regular season with a 6-5 record.
Jenkins said the concerns expressed and the upcoming football recruiting season prompted him to urge the meeting that included himself, Malloy, three other administrators and two members of the board of trustees. Willingham was fired the next day.*
- See full statement from Father Jenkins to Faculty Boardbelow.(Notre Dame News and Information) *p. Statement to Faculty Board on Athletics
December 15, 2004
- p. I thank you for this opportunity to speak to you, though I regret that my first address to this body is regarding a somewhat contentious set of circumstances.
I will respond to your concerns as honestly and straightforwardly as I can, though I must respect certain confidentialities. These arise from university policy not to comment on the details of personnel decisions. However, I think I can respond to your main concerns.
I have been asked about the process that led to the decision to dismiss Coach Willingham. I can describe the parts of the process in which I was personally involved.
The decision to retain or dismiss a coach lies with the Athletic Director and ultimately with the president of the university. We are in an unusual position this year, because we have both a president and president-elect. It has been and remains my understanding that, although Fr. Malloy is president and holds authority for decisions, it is appropriate for me to be involved in decisions which will influence future years when I will be president. Although no formal agreement between Fr. Malloy and myself has been articulated about specifically which decisions I will be involved in, we have been operating successfully with an informal, good faith understanding that my voice will be brought in and influence decisions on matters relating to the period when I will be president. He has on numerous decisions asked for my input or simply deferred the decision to me. This informal arrangement has been the basis for a working relationship which has been up to this point cordial and unproblematic.
In recent weeks a number of high-level administrators at the university came to me expressing concern about the football program. We had had mixed success on the field during the past two seasons, and the concern was about the trajectory of what is clearly the most visible athletic program in the university. Although the program was strong in terms of its integrity and graduation rate, our success on the football field has not been up to our expectations.
At the end of the regular season (November 27th), these concerns were brought to a head. Because December through February is so critical to recruiting for a football program, and because clarity about the future is so critical to recruiting, it was clear a decision had to be made quickly either to retain and support the head coach, or dismiss him. __ Because the decision facing the university was about who should be coach in the 2005 season and beyond, the period when I would be president, I felt it appropriate for me to have significant input on this decision. Consequently, on Monday morning, November 29th I went to Fr. Malloy’s office to discuss this situation, and urged that we should have a conversation with other leaders of the university about it. Fr. Malloy made it clear that he did not favor making a change, but expressed a willingness to have such a discussion. Consequently, that afternoon Fr. Malloy, myself, Nathan Hatch, John Affleck-Graves and Kevin White gathered to discuss this matter. Because this was a decision about such a high-profile issue, we included Patrick McCartan, chairman of the Board of Trustees, and Philip Purcell, Chair of the Athletic Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees.
All parties in that meeting expressed their views. Fr. Malloy made it clear that he opposed a change of head coach, but, because the decision was for the 2005 season when I would be president, he would accede to the recommendation of the group. After sleeping on the issue for one night, the university administrators decided, with the concurrence of the trustees, to make a change. In accord with his position that he would not stand in the way of such a decision, Fr. Malloy accepted the recommendation of the group.
I will now make four points about this decision and the process which led to it.
- First, it has been said there was inappropriate Trustee involvement in this decision. As to me personally, I was not pressured into any action I took by any member of the Board of Trustees. As I said, senior university administrators did contact me to express concern (though not to pressure me), but neither the Chairman of the Board nor the Chair of the Athletic Affairs took the initiative to contact me about this situation. (I took the initiative to ask their respective opinions.)
- Secondly, my understanding is that in 2004-05 Fr. Malloy is the president and has all power to act as such. Because I will take over next year, I believe we have had an understanding that I will be involved in decisions which have an influence beyond this year. For example, Fr. Malloy has asked my advice about appointments which take effect next year; I have been heavily involved in the budget planning process for the 2005-06 budget; and I have been heavily involved in major development efforts for the coming campaign. In all this, I understand that any power I have comes from Fr. Malloy granting it to me for decisions which will influence the future. It is under this arrangement that I was involved in the decision about the termination of Coach Willingham.
- Thirdly, several people have spoken to the press and to me about the traditional five-year contract for Notre Dame football coaches. My understanding of this is as follows. When Fr. Ted Hesburgh hired football coaches he invited them to his office, told them they had five years, and sealed the agreement with a handshake. (At least that is the story Fr. Ted tells at the dinner table.) Indeed, except for Joe Kuharich (who coached from 1959 to 1962), all coaches have coached for at least five years. However, as you may know, today all coaches now have sophisticated agents who would not stand for such an informal agreement. Consequently, Coach Willingham had a contract that specified in great detail the consequences if either party terminated the relationship at any given point in the employment. It anticipated that either party might terminate the relationship before the term of the contract expired. (Five years, I believe, was nevermentioned as a minimum.) It was under such a contact that Notre Dame hired Coach Willingham, and it was under such a contract to which he agreed to coach here. Had there been an assurance given to Coach Willingham or anyone else that he would have a minimum of five years, my position on this would have been different. However, I don’t believe there was such assurance, and no one has ever said anything to the contrary.
- Finally, as I said at our recent press conference, success in our football program consists of three things: 1) acting with integrity, 2) giving our students a superb education, and 3) excelling on the field. Success in only one or two of these areas is not the success we seek. Just as we would not tolerate a program which failed to graduate its students or to act with integrity, so we should not be content with one that fails to succeed on the field. I feel these three goals have always defined success for us in Notre Dame football, and this will remain so in the future. I assure the Faculty Board on Athletics that academic success and integrity are central to our concerns.
In closing, I want to say something about the relationship between Fr. Malloy and myself. As is obvious to all, he and I disagreed about the dismissal of Coach Willingham, although he deferred to me on this decision. Although I did not fully appreciate it at the time, this put Fr. Malloy in the very difficult position of being blamed for and having to defend a decision he strongly opposed. It was for this reason, I believe, that Fr. Malloy made some widely reported comments, which put me and the university in a difficult position. Fr. Malloy and I have spoken about this matter, and we each regret and have apologized for any difficulty each of us has caused the other. It is not easy for anyone to operate in the glare of such intense media interest, speculation and criticism. We both deeply regret any damage we have caused the university. I am confident, however, that we are committed to working together for the good of the university in coming months.
Thank you for your time. I will take questions.