"The Sheriff" Rescued Stanford

At 6 p.m. Eastern, Notre Dame was not prepared to announce any plans for an introductory Tyrone Willingham press conference. Not wanting to leave you without anything Irish to talk about on New Year's Eve, IrishEyes presents here a comprehensive Willingham biography, penned by our partner site in Palo Alto, TheBootleg.com.

Copyright by Global Electronic Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes™

December 31, 2001

Willingham Bio Shows
Decisiveness, Strong Finishes

By The IrishEyes.Com NewsService
 (Willingham Bio Courtesy of Bootleg.com)

At 6 p.m. Eastern on New Year’s Eve, the Notre Dame sports information department was not prepared to confirm that there will be an introductory press conference on Thursday for Tyrone Willingham.

However, you’ll need some chatter for that party you’ll be attending tonight, so IrishEyes – with the kind assistance of our partner site at Stanford, TheBootleg.com – presents a comprehensive bio on the man who appears to be the new Notre Dame football coach.

Needless to say, the facts in this bio have been double- and triple-checked.  


Lionel Tyrone Willingham just completed his seventh year as the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football at Stanford University.  Though "The Sheriff" landed back-to-back bowl berths in his first two seasons at Stanford, the superlative records he has put together in two of the last three years are what have him on the lips of every recruit, writer and administrator in the country. Overcoming early recruiting shortfalls and coaching selections, Tyrone has elevated Stanford football to a national contender status. All of that while enduring easily the most stringent academic standards among competitive Division I football programs in the country.

But the road was rocky for a time. Expectations for 1997 were badly missed, and the 3-8 floundering of the '98 season had plenty of Stanford fans and insiders calling for Willingham's head. The defense was a laughing-stock, and his fourth season marked a steady but continual decline in winning percentage.  The Sheriff was now playing with his own players, and the pressure mounted. His early recruiting efforts had seemingly left the cupboard bare when he struggled in 1998, though he believed that he was close to breaking out. As it turned out, two of the more lightly recruited talents he brought in early in his career, QB Todd Husak and WR Troy Walters, paired up for the most potent air attack in college football in 1999. Overall, that Rose Bowl team was loaded with Willingham's seniors, on both sides of the ball, and their heart-stopping victories reflected the discipline and confidence that their coach instilled in them from day one. The same can be said of the 2001 team, which again has leveraged a senior-laden team to a new level of consistent excellence.

Along the way, Willingham has made no small improvements in recruiting, including three straight recruiting classes now that have been outstanding individually, and awesome collectively. It is apparent that the recruiting game was a part of the job that Tyrone had to learn on the fly, but his learning curve has been steep. Each year, the pool has been better scouted, and the staff better prepared on early sell jobs. The challenges of a difficult admissions hurdle have created a few disappointing losses here and there, but this head coach as become a master at closing on recruits. Elite talents have been wrought away from national powers, as exemplified by Kwame Harris, Luke Powell, Darin Naatjes, Amon Gordon, Teyo Johnson, Mark Anderson, JR Lemon, Michael Craven and others. If Trent Edwards comes to the Farm this next fall, as expected by many, Tyrone will have successfully netted arguably the top quarterback in three of the last six classes. To say that The Sheriff has turned the corner on recruiting is an understatement, to be sure.

The development of talent has followed the high level of talent he now attracts to Stanford, as evidenced by the three first-team All-Americans on the 2001 squad. Guard Eric Heitmann, free safety Tank Williams and punt returner Luke Powell have shown continual improvement under Tyrone's direction at the Farm, both on and off the field. Powell still has two years to play at Stanford. Additionally, Troy Walters was recognized as the top receiver in the country in 1999, receiving the Biletnikoff Award.

Another important improvement that Tyrone has shown in his Stanford coaching career has been his coaching selections. His early years saw encouraging success on the field, with the two bowl berths, but many have charged that he was riding the rich talent that Bill Walsh had left stocked deep and wide. That talent was expected to come to a crescendo in the 1997 season, when Walsh's last class were seniors. The 38-0 romp over Michigan State the previous December in the Sun Bowl was the supposed signal of a magnanimous season to come, and the media responded by dubbing Stanford as favorites or co-favorites with Washington to reach the Rose Bowl. Instead, the Card fell short of any bowl and were saddled with a losing 5-6 record in a grand disappointment. The offensive play calling was predictable and unimaginative, and behind-the-scenes strife pointed toward general dissatisfaction with OC Dana Bible. In that season and the next, DC Bill Harris struggled mightily on defense, unable and unwilling to shake his Big 10 schemes and adapt/react to the high powered offenses of the Pac-10. In what may have been the inflection point in The Sheriff's Stanford career, he fired his two coordinators after the '97 and '98 seasons. Bill Diedrick was brought in on the offensive side, and Kent Baer was promoted on the defensive side. Diedrick has enabled the most prolific offense in the conference in his four years, throwing and running for ungodly yardage - with scoring to match. Baer has brought incremental improvement on defense, which was a key to the 2001 season's success. Tyrone also shed his two offensive line coaches after the 2000 season, and his choices for 2001 brought the most dominant OL performance seen in memory.

One trademark of Tyrone Willingham teams has been strong finishes to their seasons. The 1996 Sun Bowl team turned a 2-5 team into a 7-5 team after the game in El Paso. The 1998 team was his poorest showing at Stanford, but his final two wins lifted a 1-8 season to 3-8, and very much created a springboard for the Rose Bowl team the next fall. And in this 2001 season, the Card finished the regular season with four straight wins.









5-3 (4th)


Liberty (L)

Pac-10 Coach of the Year



5-3 (3rd)


Sun (W)

38-0 W in bowl; toast of the town



3-5 (t-7th)



preseason Rose Bowl (co)favorite



2-6 (t-8th)



on the hot seat



7-1 (1st)


Rose (L)

Pac-10 Coach of the Year



4-4 (4th)



3rd straight loss to San Jose State



6-2 (t-2nd)


Seattle (L)

BCS #9







The discipline and strong character necessary for these finishes and the strong overall achievement at Stanford, unsurprisingly derive from the head man and the type of young men he recruits. He has earned unending respect and loyalty from his players, and their families almost universally sing the praises of this father figure on the Farm. As part of that package, Tyrone has also incrementally built a wall of seclusion around the team and program. He is a firm believer in the privacy of the team, both individually and collectively, and the sanctity of that team unit. He doesn't offer up quotable quips, and he'd just as well have the media completely absent from his sphere of influence. While the effect of that distance he puts between himself and Joe Fan have eroded some benefits that should come to Stanford football with this winning, it has not affected his winning formula on the field.

Tyrone played his college ball at Michigan State (Class of '77), a good distance from his native North Carolina, as a respected quarterback and recognized top student-athlete. He also played and excelled at baseball in East Lansing, which helped mold his positive predisposition toward two-sport athletes at Stanford today. That background and acceptance have helped bring in and nurture some very high profile dual-sport athletes to the football program, including Teyo Johnson, Joe Borchard, Chad Hutchinson, Darin Naatjes, Michael Craven and others.

After finishing his undergraduate years at MSU, he continued on as a graduate assistant, and later as a position coach for the defensive back and special teams. Tyrone would find his way to Stanford as the running backs coach in 1989 under head coach Dennis Green, and then moved with Denny to the Vikings in 1992. It was in Minnesota in 1995 that Ted Leland called upon Willingham to interview for the Sanford head position vacated by Bill Walsh's departure. Tyrone has also served as a position coach at Central Michigan, North Carolina State and Rice. Several universities and professional teams have called upon this hot coaching commodity over the years, including offers and overtures from Michigan State, Ohio State, the Indianapolis Colts and the San Diego Chargers.

 (For feedback on IrishEyes editorial coverage please contact Managing Editor Alan Tieuli at aatandsonspr@aol.com)

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories