The sunburn on the faces of Notre Dame football players after their first Insight Bowl practice on Thursday pales in comparison to the sting they felt Nov. 30 when coach Tyrone...
PHOENIX — The sunburn on the faces of Notre Dame football players after their first Insight Bowl practice on Thursday pales in comparison to the sting they felt Nov. 30 when coach Tyrone Willingham was fired after a 6-5 season.
“I didn’t see it coming at all,” senior wide receiver Matt Shelton said. “But in this profession, things like that happen. It’s unfortunate that it has to happen. We’ll just move on from there.”
That may be easier said than done considering some Notre Dame players, including team-voted MVP Justin Tuck, had to be persuaded to take part in Tuesday’s Insight Bowl against Oregon State.
“I didn’t want to come,” said Tuck, who evolved into the school’s all-time sacks leader under Willingham.
Tuck said he changed his mind after he and some of the other seniors discussed the situation with athletic director Kevin White, interim coach/defensive coordinator Kent Baer and a few other coaches.
“Any time you have a change that was as unexpected as that was it challenges the leadership of the team,” Tuck said. “Luckily, we have a lot of leaders on this team, and the coaches came in and did a great job of keeping this team together.”
Tuck said the players eventually voted on whether to participate in the Insight Bowl and about 70 percent said yes.
The program has endured negative publicity since Willingham’s departure — he was hired by Washington on Dec. 13 — and the eventual hiring of New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis two weeks later.
Willingham’s firing is still a sore subject for some of the players.
“What happened, happened,” senior cornerback Preston Jackson said.
Jackson misses Willingham. So do his teammates. So does Baer.
“I talk to him quite a bit,” Baer said. “Not daily, but enough where I have his cell number and I call it and he answers it. I tell him what’s going on. He cares about his players. Now he’s gone, but he’s a human being.”
The Irish want to send Willingham out a winner.
“He’ll be with us in spirit,” Jackson said. “If he’s not there in the stands, he’ll be the eye in the sky. He’s still our leader.”