Willingham embraces the hype

As much as Tyrone Willingham would love to just not talk about it and play the game, there is plenty of context to go around, enough to fill Husky Stadium all by itself. There's last year's game, there's Willingham's termination from ND, there's the Irish hiring of Charlie Weis, and the dichotomy that exists between the two coaches. Willingham accepts the hype, but promises he isn't going to get swallowed up in it when the two teams meet this Saturday in Seattle.

"Isn't that what life is all about?" queried Willingham Monday as press gathered around him for an overtime version of his normal media gathering - a situation not unexpected by Willingham to be sure and one that he's trying to embrace without letting it get out of control. "Life always has some hype in it. There's a buildup about everything. The hype about the Air Force game could have been about the option, how do you handle it. For California, it could have been about the running back (Marshawn Lynch) or the loss of their quarterback (Nate Longshore). Hype surrounds the game and give it more of a presence. You always have to deal with it.

"Hype can suffocate you. If you don't know how to handle it, it can be a terrible thing. I'm pretty level-headed about most of it and knows where it fits in. None of this is going to change the length of the field."

No question, the field will still be 120 yards long Saturday, as the Irish (2-1) will try and remain undefeated in their series with the Huskies (0-1, 1-2). Washington has lost five straight to Notre Dame, in a series dating back to 1948. Last year Washington went to South Bend and got summarily trounced by a Willingham-led ND team 38-3.

It was after the 2004 season where Willingham was dismissed as the Fighting Irish Head Coach amidst plenty of controversy. His 21-15 record in three seasons wasn't seen as impressive enough, despite Notre Dame's long standing tradition of honoring the term of every first contract ever signed by one of their head coaches. When Willingham was fired, he had three years left on his contract.

While reporters on both coasts vilified Notre Dame for tarnishing their image with a 'win-at-all-costs' approach, Willingham was not willing to pile onto the negative sentiment. "Sometimes a defense is not visible," he said when asked about defending himself. "What did I do wrong? But that's life. Whatever happens, you've got to deal with it. I think I coached our young men well. I think I finished with a winning record. Did I win as many games as I wanted to? I've said it from Day One - no, I did not. I haven't won as many here as I've wanted to.

"But I did speak out about the situation. My problem is that I didn't say what somebody else wanted to hear, so it was just assumed. I said exactly what Tyrone Willingham wanted to say. The world's not ready for what I wanted to say."

And with that, it was bye-bye South Bend and hello! Seattle, Washington. "I moved on," said Willingham, matter-of-factly. "I'm hopeful that I take every experience and make it better. There should be no bad happening in my life, it's all about making it better." But those pesky subway alumnus are pointing to this game as vindication for their program - not only was Kevin White justified in firing Willingham when he did despite precident to the contrary, but that new Irish Head Coach Charlie Weis is a better coach and a better fit for ND Nation seeking and approving of one of their own. Even a win on Saturday won't stop the Willingham detractors wearing green from gnawing at this last question - posed as a referendum absolving Notre Dame of any wrongdoing - ad infinitum.

"What can I do to change that thought? It's a great question, but there's nothing I'm going to do that's going to change the surroundings or the trappings," said Willingham. "They are there, and they are great, it's fantastic. It adds something to life, it makes things exciting, it makes the ball game exciting. With all of that, you can't lose your focus. We have to play the football game. If we're caught up with the referendum, we'll probably forget to vote."

And much like his old team played for him in a 38-21 loss in the Insight Bowl to Oregon State, there's a chance Willingham's Husky team might decide to win their game for their coach. "If that motivates them and gives us an edge to win the game, let them say it," said Willingham. "But the truth is, we've got to play the game and I try and get our players focused on just the game. Don't get caught up in all the stuff that's going on around it, because there are different hypes to every ball game.

"I think they are going to walk right through it (the hype), grab some of it and use it as a plus, not let it weigh them down. Our guys will rejoice in this opportunity. We've got a top-20 team coming into our stadium, it's a great opportunity. This is a big game that will be highlighted and hyped to a great extent by a lot of people around the country. So that means a lot of attention and a lot of eyes will be on it. You get excited when you have those kind of venues to perform in front of."

And he won't let the game become the 'Domer Bowl' that many people are expecting. "That's all great for the media, but it's the young men that are going to play the game. And on the scoreboard, it will read the Huskies versus the Irish," said Willingham. "I think it's obvious that a game that has this much attention to it will pique everyone's energy levels, so I think they'll be excited about playing another football game. I think more than anything, they are looking at last year's game and trying to redeem themselves from what happened. They just want to flat-winning the football game. I think some of the other things that are going to be drawn into the game will be seen as overrated."

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