Four years ago, two programs with very proud traditions chose opposite routes to try to rediscover football gold.
Notre Dame fired Tyrone Willingham and hired New England Patriots offensive coordinator and owner of three Super Bowl rings in that time, Charlie Weis. The Washington Huskies, in turn, hired Willingham to replace Keith Gilbertson and try to return the Huskies to Pac-10 relevance.
Four years later, we look back on what has changed for the better, for the worse, and the future of both coaches.
Since Willingham's firing the Fighting Irish have gone a combined 26-17, while the Huskies have gone a mind-boggling 11-30, a record that is unheard of for Washington football and even Tyrone Willingham, who previous to taking the Washington job was a combined 65-52 as a head coach, including his 21-16 record in South Bend.
The first two Fighting Irish teams coached by Weis went to BCS games, combining for a record of 19-6 in Charlie's first two seasons. As Irish fans know, 2007 took a turn for the worse in a 3-9 campaign that included a pair of 38-0 losses against Michigan and USC and also featured a home loss against the Naval Academy.
Things have gotten better in '08 for the Irish, who after sneaking by San Diego State in Week One have totaled a 4-2 record and seemed primed for a bowl appearance, which is saying a lot considering where the team was a year ago.
Willingham stumbled out of the gate in '05 for Washington, going just 2-9 while defeating only Arizona in Pac-10 play. In '06 things seemed to be getting better as the Huskies reached five in the win total.
Sadly, that's as good as things have gotten under Willingham's watch. The Huskies went 4-9 in '07 and are yet to find the win column in '08, so far totaling an 0-5 record.
The biggest difference between the two coaches likely comes from events that do not necessarily start on the field of play. I'm talking about recruiting, something Willingham does not seem to grasp the concept of.
Part of the reason Willingham was fired from Notre Dame was because of the position he was setting the Irish up to be in, in coming years. After a great class which included the likes of Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, and Tom Zbikowski in 2002, Willingham's classes in '04 and '05 ranked 32nd and 40th respectively.
While in Washington, Willingham has recruited the 35th, 36th, and 24th-ranked classes in his three full classes, 2006-08 respectively. Talent has yet to be shown with these classes. His first full class was rated 35th in the nation, but the Huskies remain winless despite this class being juniors now.
Although early, Willingham's Huskies are only 91st in the nation while ranking verbal commitments so far.
Weis has severely outdone what Willingham has in the same amount of time, twice bringing in the eighth-ranked class while also having the number two class in recruiting a year ago. With his first full class now juniors, we are catching a glimpse of what Weis' Irish will be able to do in the coming years as this team has improved on a weekly basis.
It is safe to say that Notre Dame is not having the type of year that most fans are used to and like to see. However, compared to where this program was and where it was in great danger of heading, it is clear to me that Notre Dame made the right choice in firing Tyrone Willingham.
If Ty would have been permitted to stay longer, it's tough to imagine that Notre Dame would have only had one 3-9 season. The Irish were likely headed on a path straight towards bowl berths suddenly becoming a "great accomplishment."
Say what you want about Charlie Weis, about the University of Notre Dame, and about the racism the Irish showed. The fact of the matter is that Notre Dame football is under better guidance today than it was exactly four years ago, and nobody can argue that.
Many want to argue that Notre Dame was unjust in allowing Weis to continue after a struggling third year as they fired Willingham after a very average third campaign. However, look where the programs are headed now.
Ty Willingham's worst case scenario with the Irish played out the way we feared it may, while Charlie Weis' was a result of Ty's, with the best days of the Weis era still ahead of the Fighting Irish.