In some respects, it's a minor miracle that football teams ever improve under a first-year coach. Consider that on January 1, 2002, Willingham and his staff were entirely unknown commodities to the football team and vice versa.
Willingham and his staff were faced with only six weeks to national letter-of-intent day, 15 practices in the spring to try to teach an entirely new system and then came fall camp, with the task of trying to integrate a crop of new freshmen into the system.
In most circumstances, more experienced players can be counted upon to do some of this teaching, but they too were on the steep part of the learning curve, all with a game against 2001 B.C.S. entrant Maryland looming. In terms of understanding of the offensive and defensive systems, N.D. had a team full of freshmen last year.
It's easy to pick out all of the things that didn't go well at the end of the season, but here's a short list of some things that were accomplished.
The Irish had their first double-digit-win season since 1993, three victories away from home against teams that finished the year with winning records (Maryland, Air Force and F.S.U.; there were only two such wins in the entire Davie era), three victories by 21 or more points (no Davie team ever had more than two in a season), two night victories (none in the Davie era) and six wins over bowl teams (Maryland, Michigan, Purdue, Pittsburgh, Air Force and Florida State; the 2000 Davie team had only two).
Willingham also joined a short list of coaches since Rockne who were able to either improve or hold steady the win total and improve the season point differential their first years. Here is that list with their N.D. win rates in parentheses:Elmer Layden (.770)
Frank Leahy (.855)
Ara Parseghian (.836)
Lou Holtz (.765)
Tyrone Willingham (.769)
Now, how about an encore? In most circumstances, recent N.D. coaches have had good second years and only one (Ara) has not improved upon his first year win total. Here are the first and second year win totals and season point differentials for the last five coaches before Willingham.
AraYear 1: 9, +210
Year 2: 7, +197
DevineYear 1: 8, +100
Year 2: 9, +136
FaustYear 1: 5, +72
Year 2: 6, +32
HoltzYear 1: 5, +80
Year 2: 8, +119
DavieYear 1: 7, +17
Year 2: 9, +80
As we can see, everyone except Ara improved on his win total from Year 1 to 2, though in Ara's case there wasn't much headroom after going 9-1 the first year.
Moreover, note that the point differential dipped only slightly. N.D. was unlucky not to have won 8 or 9 games that year and also suffered the graduation of a Heisman-trophy-winning Q.B., which is almost always a sign that a team will have a tough year the next (ask Nebraska fans how much fun 2002 was for them; U.S.C. fans take note).
On average, N.D. first-year coaches average 6.8 wins and +96 on points. By the second year this improves to 7.8 and +113.
Even N.D.'s unsuccessful coaches have had relatively good second years, though the seasons are stories of what might have been.
Faust improved his record modestly from 5-6 to 6-4-1 (and actually declined some on points), but in many respects Faust's 1982 team had the look of an impressive squad. That N.D. team beat Michigan and Miami (two teams that had pummeled them the year before) and beat then-#1 Pittsburgh on the road to raise its record to 6-1-1. N.D. stood on the cusp of a major bowl bid as the Irish entered a home night game against Penn State, who would eventually win the national championship. N.D. played quite well, particularly considering that starting Q.B. Blair Kiel was hurt, but lost 24-14. Still a good bowl berth seemed within reach, but Notre Dame inexplicably folded in its last two games, as the Irish were wont to do under Faust.
Davie improved from 7-6 to 9-3 in his second year. The Irish started off impressively beating defending national champion Michigan. N.D. then traveled to East Lansing for a game against an M.S.U. team that had lost its opener to lightly-regarded Colorado State and then suffered a humiliating 48-14 loss to Oregon (a team that would go on to lose 3 Pac-10 games and get beat in the Aloha Bowl). This time, though, the joke was on the Irish as M.S.U. scored 42 points before halftime en route to a 45-23 loss by N.D.. Still, though, it was a much better team than the weak 1997 squad. Only the injury to Jarious Jackson at the end of the L.S.U. game kept N.D. from a probable 10-1 regular season and the 35-28 loss to Georgia Tech. would turn out to be, by far, the best bowl showing by any Davie team.
Turning to successful coaches, Devine and Holtz both had good second years. Devine's second year team finished 9-3, including a convincing Gator Bowl win over Penn State. Holtz's 1987 team bore some eerie resemblances to Willingham's 2002 team. After earning their eighth win with monster victories on the road against southern schools (37-6 over Alabama in 1987 and 34-24 over Florida State in 2002), both squads had Irish fans dreaming of the near impossible: a national championship out of the blue. But both teams ran out of gas down the stretch, including bad losses to end the regular season and drubbings in bowl games.
Willingham at Stanford has a good second year. After going 7-4-1 his first year, his second year squad was 7-5, though more impressive than his first team in some respects. That Stanford team hit a rough spot with injuries early in the year, but then closed with five straight wins, including a 38-0 dismantling of a heavily-favored, Saban-coached Michigan State team in the Sun Bowl.
Of course, N.D. coaches are a pretty small sample, so I decided to sample other Division I-A programs to see if improvement from the first to the second year was common. Last year, of course, several second-year coaches has impressive seasons and improvements on their first year (Tressel of O.S.U. was 14-0; Richt of Georgia was 13-1; Carroll of U.S.C. was 11-2; Rodriguez of West Virginia was 9-4; Groh of Virginia was 9-5).
I took, however, a larger sample and chose at random 27 Division I-A programs (about 1/4 of them) and looked at their most recent coach's first and second years for win total and point differential. Here are the averages:
Year 1: 5.37 wins, -12.04 points
Year 2: 6.03 wins, +9.89 points
Interestingly, the results are quite consistent with experience of Notre Dame coaches. Of course, the win totals are lower because I sampled both strong and weak programs. But on average, second-year coaches have teams that are almost one win and 22 points better over the course of a season. Of the 27 programs I sampled, 16 coaches improved on their first-year's win total, two had the same number of wins and 9 declined.
Of course, this doesn't guarantee that N.D. will improve on last year's 10 wins, but it does make it a distinct possibility. N.D. might, for example, be a fundamentally sound team like Ara's 1965 team, Devine's 1976 team or Holtz's 1987 team, but still a year away. Time will tell, but there are large benefits to having a team in its second year with a coach and vice versa, and N.D. has yet to reap those benefits.