Knowing Willingham

As a new member on the beat, I remember the first few days of covering the Irish. I'd recently just moved to South Bend and I was just finding my way. It was an exciting time for me. It was an exciting time for Irish fans. Second-year Irish coach Tyrone Willingham had awakened the echoes and everyone was along for the ride.

My first official duty as a credentialed writer was the spring football press conference. I was the new kid on the block and everyone certainly looked at me with interest, including Willingham.

I'll never forget my first conversation with Willingham. After the second spring practice, I introduced myself to Willingham. I explained that I didn't feel right asking him questions in the press conferences because he might not know who was asking the question.

Willingham looked at me with a stone face and bluntly said "I know who you are, I know everyone at my practices" and turned and went on his merry way.

No pleasantries, no smile, just the intimidating stone face and strong eyes.

I was shocked, stunned and speechless. But I quickly realized Willingham was testing me and I realized I better be up to the challenge. I let out a big laugh to his display letting this imposing figure know that he wasn't going to intimidate me.

And then Willingham turned to me as he was walking away and gave me a little smile. It was my first test, and I had passed.

That was the way it was with Willingham during these past two years. He was serious, he was focused, he was determined.

But he could also be engaging. At times he would just sit down in the interview room, let down the guard and just talk football. He'd ask our opinions on the conference talk, the BCS and football in general and truly seemed interested in our opinions.

But one thing never quite seemed right to me with Willingham as head coach at Notre Dame. He just never seemed comfortable with the bright lights under the golden dome. He never seemed to accept or embrace the spotlight—and there is no brighter light than at Notre Dame.

The only time Willingham did seem truly comfortable to me in my two seasons of covering Notre Dame football was on the football field, coaching his guys, and competing.

I've had a unique look into Tyrone Willingham--the man--that I don't think a lot of journalists have had. Speaking to hundreds of recruits that have personally been recruited by him over the years, Willingham's formula for success started with the being a good citizen.

Being a good citizen was usually the first thing Willingham talked about with his prospective recruits, and he recruited a number of good citizens to play football at Notre Dame. The jury is out on how many good football players he recruited, but my opinion is he recruited more good football players than people will give him credit for.

Parents loved Willingham and what he stood for, and the players loved him and wanted to play for him. There was no question the Irish players loved Willingham, and for the most part played hard for him.

It was just the wrong time for Willingham. The stakes were too high, the pressure too great and patience too thin.

Willingham leaves the Notre Dame program on sounder ground than when he accepted the responsibility—there should be no question about that.

His time on watch as the keeper of Notre Dame football will likely quickly be forgotten, but he won't be forgotten by me. I'll always remember what Willingham stood for, and what he stood for is everything that is good about athletics.

Like the rocky road Notre Dame traveled to find Willingham, they'll be back on the same path to replace him.

A quick decision would be ideal, a coach who understands the responsibility a must, but he also better also understand the lights.

As one Notre Dame assistant coach once told me: "You can't possibly understand the magnitude until you are actually here doing the job."

For the Irish to get back to the top, they'll need to find a guy who does understand the magnitude, and will embrace and paint the town with it.


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