Notre Dame's cover blown

Notre Dame, football factory, fired its coach Tuesday.

The athletic director stressed that the football coach has done wonderful, inspirational work off the field. The academic performance has never been better, he said. The coach is a man of unassailable character who has recruited players of similar ilk.

"In a lot of ways," the athletic director said, "this program hasn't been this healthy in a long time."

Except for one way. The wins-and-losses way. Which is what truly matters at all football factories.

Tyrone Willingham committed the fireable offense of going 21-15 in three years. As AD Kevin White said, Willingham did great work Monday through Friday.

"We just were not meeting those competitive expectations on Saturday," White said.

Athletic directors, presidents and alums everywhere want the big lie: they want Harvard during the week and Oklahoma on the weekends. Clearly, the Fighting Irish weren't getting enough Boomer Sooner when needed.

This move makes one thing clear: the Golden Dome might as well be located in Auburn, Ala., or Lincoln, Neb., or Tallahassee, Fla. All the things Notre Dame used to hold dear -- the class-and-dignity stuff, the special-institution stuff -- is officially of secondary importance.

But here comes the reality check for the Domers. Now that you've licked Willingham's blood from your claws and outed yourselves as a football factory, can you win like one?

A stagnant decade since Notre Dame's last serious challenge for a national championship indicates that this is not a magic-wand job anymore. Even if the next guy is the Now Coach in college football (hello, Urban Meyer), don't expect to see the Fighting Irish immediately shouldering USC, Oklahoma, Texas and the rest of the elite out of the way.

This might come as a shocking revelation to the deluded Subway Alumni and others who believe that a decently trained mule can go 10-1 at Notre Dame, but it's not a sure thing in South Bend anymore.

If it were, Willingham would never have been hired to begin with. Bob Stoops, Jon Gruden or Mike Bellotti would have been. The fact that several big names were willing to take a pass on Notre Dame says everything about the program's slippery spot in the hierarchy. This is a challenging job, and the more distance Notre Dame gets from its last national championship, in 1988, the harder it gets.

The talent disparity between the Irish and Trojans on Saturday night was shocking (and, yes, much of that falls on Willingham's shoulders). That won't change overnight.

Recruiting is complicated by academic expectations that exceed those of your normal football factory. There are geographic challenges to recruiting as well. The schedule isn't easy. And as Utah, Louisville and Boise State have proven, more programs than ever are capable of competing at a high level.

So the new coach should come in with eyes wide open about the job. And about the timetable for a turnaround, now that Notre Dame has set its watches on Football Factory Time.

For the past 70 years, the Fighting Irish coach got at least four years. Gerry Faust (30-26-1) got five. Bob Davie (35-25) got five. Joe Kuharich (17-23) got four. Terry Brennan (32-18) got five.

Now, for the first time since the Hunk Anderson Era (1931-33, if you care), Notre Dame has changed coaches after three seasons.

The fact that an African-American coach brought in to resurrect a less-than-robust program was shown the door so quickly will be a hot topic this week. Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association, has got to be on the verge of an aneurysm. (Sixty percent of Division I-A's five black head coaches -- a pitiful figure -- have been fired or resigned this offseason.) The Rev. Jesse Jackson is on Line One.

The natural question: Why did Willingham, taking over a program that struggled under Davie, not receive the same administrative patience that Davie got taking over a healthier program from Lou Holtz?

The answers had better be good.

It's true that Willingham had given the school dramatically diminishing returns. After starting 10-1, to the astonishment of everyone, he went 11-14. His teams were blown out with alarming regularity, including three straight 31-point losses to the Trojans. And every big win (two against top 10 Michigan teams, at Florida State, at Tennessee) was undercut by a galling loss (three straight to Boston College, Syracuse, BYU).

But what, exactly, were the rational expectations for this Notre Dame team? Did anyone in August look at the roster and see the pieces of an elite-level team? Did anyone predict this to be a Top 25 team? Did anyone in August think that 6-5 would be an outrage?

A check of four preseason magazines showed the Irish ranked anywhere from 37th to 49th. A check of Jeff Sagarin's current computer rankings puts the Irish No. 29.

Looks like Notre Dame has overachieved.

But not by the new Notre Dame standards. For any self-respecting football factory, seven victories a season over three years won't cut it.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.