December 2, 2004

Dark Weather, Dark Day for College Sports

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Inclement weather has always played an intriguing role in the course of human affairs. The Bible tells us how Noah preserved life as we know it through a deadly rainstorm when God was a tad miffed. A thick and deceiving cloud cover allowed the Allies to storm Normandy virtually undetected during the Second World War. Here in Ithaca, meteorologists from around the globe converge to observe the cruelest and most merciless weather system on Earth. And last Saturday at the Coliseum in Los Angeles — in the most anticipated college football matchup of the season — the hostile gods of nature made their mark once again.

We were stuck in the rain outside the Coliseum trying to find a parking space so we could watch USC take on Notre Dame. It would be the 76th meeting in one of the most storied rivalries in college sports.

We should have known there was something ominous about being gridlocked on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Assassinated long ago, the civil rights leader seems to have streets in every city named for him. But he also has an enviable legacy of empowerment for African-Americans — a legacy Notre Dame has become a showcase for. For the past three years, the Fighting Irish — the most prestigious and recognizable team in college football — has had a black head coach, Tyrone Willingham.

Going into Saturday’s game, Coach Willingham had a 21-14 record over three seasons — not bad by the standards of, say, Cornell. But Notre Dame had not done well against its despised rival from Los Angeles. Coach Willingham lost to S.C., 44-13, in 2002 and got blown out again last year, 45-14.

As we looked for a parking space, my colleague and I monitored the pre-game revelry. Gusts of wind and rain perplexed the tanned local populace, inspiring all manner of unconventional behavior. Alumni clamored for refuge under tailgating tents while shirtless fraternity boys shot-gunned Bud Lights to the delight of ESPN cameras. Finally, a local Spanish-speaking homeowner let us park in his flooded driveway — for solamente $20. Shivering, tense, and far too sober, we waited for history to be made.

As we slogged our way to the stands, we caught the scent of FDA-condemned “bratwursts” being peddled by Third World urchin street vendors. We heard the unmistakable drumbeat of “Tusk,” the unofficial USC song, echoing from inside the giant stadium.

Even though the Irish were 23-point underdogs, there was something about this dark, rain-soaked late afternoon that seemed to inspire them. As sheets of rain pounded fans and footballers, the grizzled and water-resistant athletes of South Bend opened up a stunning 10-3 lead. After a rollercoaster season highlighted by marquee wins over Michigan and Tennessee, Coach Willingham had a chance to make a final, compelling statement against No. 1 USC. For the game’s first 20 minutes, it appeared as if he was destined to.

The drenched Troy faithful — dumbfounded, cold and desperate for a peppermint latte — struggled with the notion of LA’s latest championship team drowning in its own spotlight.

When the winds were blowing for Notre Dame, they out-gained USC by almost 100 yards. Trojan QB Matt Leinart looked like he was still lost in the Oregon State fog, Reggie Bush apparently assumed the game started an hour later and the entire Trojan defense spent the first quarter ogling the dripping sweaters of the song team.

Yet, before anyone could utter the phrase, Rudy Sucks, the Trojans scored two touchdowns in less than four minutes and systematically immobilized the Irish offense. USC coach Pete Carroll mumbled something about “making adjustments” or “improving execution,” but the true cause was as clear as day: the rain stopped.

As the rain ceased and the heavens — and the path to the Orange Bowl — opened up for LA’s remaining dream team, Coach Willingham’s demeanor became increasingly dried up. Leinart made the Irish secondary look like high schoolers, throwing five touchdown passes in the final three quarters. The Tojan’s monstrous linebackers devoured Coach Willingham’s offense — USC allowed only 135 total yards after the first quarter. The grand mystique of the gold helmets was withering in the storm’s absence.

Dark weather is a unique phenomenon in Southern California. Rainy days are humorously puzzling to native Angelenos and a bitter childhood memory for the immigrants from the Northeast. USC hasn’t had a practice conducted in the rain all season. Unbeknownst to him at the time, the rain could have saved Coach Willingham’s job.

On Tuesday, Coach Willingham was fired from Notre Dame. His departure reduces the number of black head coaches in Div. I college football to two. Some say he simply did not win enough. Some believe his recruiting was lackluster. The New York Times said Notre Dame was just itching to fire “the mulligan of [coaching] choices.”

Regardless of Notre Dame’s true motivation, Willingham’s departure marks a dark day in college athletics. The pinnacle of class, sportsmanship and honor, Willingham was revered by his players and respected by his peers. If only the storm clouds had lasted a bit longer.

Official Holiday Wish List:

-Rachel Bilson in a Santa hat with a bottle of body lotion. I think that’s self-explanatory.

-Carlos Beltran in a Dodger uniform.

-The men’s basketball team beats a Division I opponent.

Archived article by Kyle Sheahen