Copyright by Global Electronic Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com®
January 1, 2002
Willingham All Business
By The IrishEyes.Com NewsService
NOTRE DAME, Ind. (IE) -- Thank goodness there were no T-shirts this time. No pep band and little razzmatazz.
Just straight talk; or, as Tyrone Willingham referred to himself, "I am very much to the point."
Willingham, unveiled Tuesday as the 28th Notre Dame football coach (if you count the five-day tenure of George O'Leary), was a big hit in his debut, striking rhetorical chords Bob Davie would have died for. If Willingham can coach as good as he sounded, his hiring is a no-brainer. The only question (which we asked) is why didn't Kevin White sign him the first time around.
To listen to Willingham talk about how he used to sneak out of Methodist church services in time to watch Notre Dame replays at noon on Sundays, you know this is a dream come true for the former Michigan State walk-on who tutored as a coach under Denny Green and Bill Walsh.
His composite record during seven years as head coach at Stanford is an unremarkable 44-36-1 (.549), not as good as Davie's .583 winning percentage (35-25); but Irish fans shouldn't get hung up on that. That's about where Lou Holtz was after his first 81 games as head coach, and, as White observed, not unlike the record Ara Parseghian brought to Notre Dame from Northwestern.
Willingham was twice Coach of the Year in the Pac 10, which has a few schools that can recruit bandits. In contrast, Stanford typically recruits football players with the highest SAT average among Division IA schools. Willingham's team averaged 1,051 on the SAT for which the latest data is available while Notre Dame came in 12th with average scores of 899.
Listening to University President Monk Malloy and athletic director Kevin White introduce Willingham, you would never know their first choice on whom to succeed Bob Davie was a hurried and harried search that produced the forlorn O'Leary.
"George appeared to all of us like something out of central casting," White said as he tried to explain why he didn't hire Willingham the first time he interviewed him after Davie's firing. "[He was] second generation Irish Catholic, a good football coach with a good track record of success and a great, great institutional fit. On top of that, George expressed great passion for the job. It was a lifetime ambition to be at Notre Dame."
On Tuesday, White spoke of the same, great "institutional fit" Willingham provided, saying he was a strict disciplinarian who shaped winners on and off the field.
"As I visited with Tyrone the second time, his passion equaled or succeeded George's passion," White said. "Tyrone holds a lot of his emotions close to the vest, and the more time I spent with Tyrone I really came to believe that he was just as passionate about this position as anyone who has ever coached here."
(White's admission to IrishEyes that he interviewed Willingham earlier affirms earlier IrishEyes reports and is in direct contrast to other published reports that he did not.)
"To say it is a dream come true, is true," said Willingham, who reports said could be making as much as $2 million a year. (Sources at the university told IrishEyes the report is exaggerated.). "I am excited. I am eager to begin the work, not just of the football program but of this university.
"Yes, it is about great football excellence but also about the mind and the spiritual development of young people."
Nobody knows, of course, how this is going to turn out. Willingham must win, he knows it and his rhetoric reflected it.
Asked how he would respond to and assure Irish fans and others concerned that he was not the first choice for the coaching position, Willingham took firm grip of the podium and looked straight at the questioner.
"I have a very simple formula for addressing those issues," Willingham said. "And it really can't be addressed today. The way that I will address it, is to win." Willingham also is sure to score points with Irish fans on his view of the schedule, which next year opens with Maryland, Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State. The difficulty of Notre Dame's schedule had long been a sticking point with Davie and he, at times, sounded like he was using it as an excuse for his team's mediocre record.
Willingham made it clear he wanted to steer clear from anything that sounded like coach bashing; but he tackled the schedule questions head-on.
"When I talk to our football team, I will talk to them at some point about being what I consider a professional, more along the lines of being what I call a Road Warrior," Willingham responded. "We usually describe that as a business person that regardless of the circumstances goes out there and gets their job done, completes the deal.
"You have to finish what has to take place. That's the way that I will approach our schedule and anything else in our program. It is what we have and if that is it, we must prevail, we must win, we must go out and get the job done."
Willingham said he hasn't made a decision about his coaching staff. He intends to head back to California, wrap things up there, make some plans on a coaching staff and at the same time work "on what is always the most critical element of college football -- the recruiting process."
One possibility is the hiring of Dave Borbely, who was Willingham's offensive line coach at Stanford for three years until Borbely took the same position under Davie beginning in 1998. At Willingham's news conference Sunday, Borberly's wife renewed warm acquaintances with Willingham and his wife, Kim. Borbely has since taken a position with Kansas, but it's clear his wife wouldn't mind staying in South Bend.
It wasn't lost on the media that Willingham is the first African American to ever be a head coach in any sport at Notre Dame. Father Malloy noted that Willingham's hiring has "the potential to be described entirely as a kind of social statement. Surely, there's an element of that to it," noted Malloy. "What I want to say very straightforwardly is that the reason that coach Willingham was chosen after a very exhaustive search was because he was the very best coach who was appropriate for Notre Dame and all it represents."
Willingham said his being the first African American hired as head coach at Notre Dame is important "but I am first and foremost a football coach at the University of Notre Dame. The young men will expect me to be that, to be the kind of leader that they expect their fathers to be and that's the role that I will try to go for."
For the record, White said the only persons he offered the coaching job to were O'Leary and Willingham. He said Willingham was the first of five candidates he spoke to about the position. The others are believed to be O'Leary, Jon Gruden, Mike Bellotti and Steve Mariucci.
(For feedback on IrishEyes editorial coverage, please contact Managing Editor Alan Tieuli at email@example.com)