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RICHARDS: Willingham settles in at Notre Dame

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Darryl Richards

 
   
 

SOUTH BEND, Ind.

It is with the soft and measured tones that Tyrone Willingham discusses why he wanted to come to in the first place. Willingham came for the challenge. He came because he respects the tradition and the history of a program that will always be part of college football lore. And he absolutely loves the passion that so many people have for the program. "One of the things that is so attractive about is the passion," Willingham said. "Life is full and rich when you have passion." It's odd that Willingham talks about passion while being dispassionate. Perhaps that's unfair because passion is too often equated with extreme expression. Coaches throw hats, visors and fits. They yank headsets and facemasks. Coaches invade the personal space of officials and players and nobody asks what was on the breakfast menu. That's passion isn't it? Don't count on seeing much of that from Willingham because that's not his way. But the passion is there. Just watch Willingham at work and watch him pay attention to the smallest of details. Watch him plan. Watch him lay out his plan and go over each minute of the schedule like a corporate executive. Watch him use a computer and handle Microsoft PowerPoint like a nimble receiver going through an agility drill. Watch a 48-year-old Willingham go through conditioning drills alongside his players. We're not talking about standing beside them, we're talking about doing push-ups and sit-ups. Watch all of that and realize that you don't spend the countless hours and days meticulously going over each detail, if you didn't have passion. See that and understand that Willingham is a paradoxical man. Willingham is quiet but can communicate with a simple glare. He has the approach of an engineer, but he can be flexible. He rarely smiles, but can crack you up with his dry wit, and his former players say they have fun. Most important, the people around Willingham get it. "I think the thing I've been most impressed with is the fact he has a plan and he is a guy that is very organized and calculated," said defensive line coach Greg Mattison, the only holdover from Bob Davie's staff. "He knows exactly what he wants to do. I think that excited the players because they know exactly what to expect every day. Anytime there is a new situation, there is a lot of anxiety. But the fact that he has laid everything out and has said 'this is the plan and this is how we'll follow it,' makes people comfortable. I think it has bridged the transition." The administration figured it out too, but not before going through an embarrassing situation. When a coach is hired at a new school, an official will always boast about how he fits in. Willingham fit the profile in several ways. He had success at Stanford, taking the Cardinal to four bowl appearances, and never complained about the academic requirements. Stanford ran a clean program and was fun to watch. But in many ways, Willingham seems like a square peg being pushed into a round hole. How does a black, Methodist, stoic coach fit into a Catholic university with a history of glib coaches who all happened to be white? How does a coach who has had most of his success with the West Coast offense transform a program that was enamored with the option? How does expect to win a national title with an overbearing schedule and high academic standards? learned the hard way about being careful what you ask for. George O'Leary was glib, white, Irish Catholic and had a lifelong passion to become the head coach at . O'Leary also had a habit of stretching the truth and was out of a job five days after admitting he lied on his resume. That led to another scramble for the job and Willingham being hired as the school's second or even third choice. None of that matters to Willingham now. In fact, the way he got the job is a reflection of his life growing up in Jacksonville, N.C. Willingham saw his father, Nathaniel, and his mother, Lillian, take the smallest of opportunities and flourish. Lillian, an elementary school teacher and a frequent volunteer, always gave. The city of Jacksonville honored her with a park in her name. Tyrone Willingham would take the smallest of opportunities and make something big happen too. He was a good high school athlete, who wrote letters to 100 major programs asking for an opportunity even if it meant being a walk-on. Only and wanted a 5-8, 139-pound athlete. Willingham was accepted at where he went on to earn three letters in both football and baseball. Willingham was an All-Big Ten outfielder in 1977. It's because Willingham has a history of overcoming the odds that he isn't paranoid about his unique position. Willingham is aware that he is one of four black coaches in college football and the first black coach of any kind at , but he insists that he does not focus on that. Willingham knows he is being watched. If he succeeds, it may open doors for other black coaches. If he falls short, it may make the people empowered to hire football coaches even more hesitant. But Willingham also wants athletic directors and college presidents to come to terms on the reasons why the numbers of black coaches are so low. "In this country, there are how many African-American basketball coaches?" Willingham said. "We know there are significantly more than four. Whatever the number is, who hired them? "If those ADs can hire an African-American basketball coach because they believe he is the best guy, then why can't they hire an African-American football coach? Let's get down to the core. I'm opening up this can because it needs to be asked, because there is your problem. When you answer that question, you'll address it." Willingham has his thoughts on the matter, but declined to express them because he said he has emotional ties to it. Then there is another reason why he chooses not to answer it. "I'm not capable of answering it." What Willingham does have to answer is how to return to national prominence. It will not be an easy plan to execute. Willingham insists he will be flexible with his plan if it means winning. That doesn't mean massaging the rulebook, but it does mean playing to the strengths of his players. And Willingham is very specific when he says the players at are his players. Willingham will never say he needs time to develop a program with his kind of player. "It's building in excuses," Willingham said. "There is simply one young man at this university involved in this program and his title is University of football player. It's a belief. How would you handle an adopted kid? Would you tell him, 'Oh yes, you're adopted?' It's all the same." The Irish will need Gumby-like flexibility this season. The spring quarterback battle between and ended when LoVecchio decided to transfer — to no less. That made Holiday the de facto quarterback, even though he is deeply rooted in the option. Holiday, who chose over as a high school senior in San Antonio, started nine games at last season but was a more effective runner than passer last season. Holiday threw for 784 yards with three touchdowns and seven interceptions. The concerns about 's offense heightened when , the most experienced tailback on the team, was reportedly dismissed for academic reasons. Throw in an offense where the leading returning receiver had just seven receptions last season and there is no way anybody can get an accurate feel for what the Fighting Irish will do. The off-season took another turn when three players were dismissed from the university after being indicted on rape charges. It would be easy for Willingham to hang that on Davie because he recruited the players, but he took responsibility because the alleged incident occurred under his watch. "What's important is there are individual lives that have been hurt and those individuals may never recover," Willingham said. "When young people make mistakes, their lives are changed forever. That is what is disturbing." Willingham insists players will be tougher in both body and mind. Under Davie, student managers would retrieve the football when a receiver dropped a pass. Willingham requires receivers to pick up the ball, return to the huddle and explain the error of their ways. Face it, could use some tough love after going 5-6 last season. Davie had a bad postgame habit of saying his team was not ready to play and blaming himself whenever it lost a tough game. Eventually people started believing Davie and held him responsible. The Fighting Irish had 23 turnovers last season, which on the surface isn't bad. However, it was a dramatic drop from the 2001 Fiesta Bowl season when had a NCAA-record eight turnovers. There also were embarrassing moments such as USC being able to get off an uncontested touchdown pass because players were still waiting to receive the defensive alignment from the coaching staff. won the game, but the play underscored the problems in Davie's last season. It would be hard to believe that would ever use being ill-prepared as an excuse. Consider that Stanford led the Pac-10 in fewest yards penalized in six of Willingham's seven seasons. The difference between Stanford and is in the expectations. Willingham could have continued to go 8-3 at Stanford and receive pats on the back for a fine job. Go 8-3 at for too long and all a coach will receive is a nice dagger. Willingham tries not to let emotion get in the way of his job, but 's first five games will tug at his emotions. The Fighting Irish open the season on national television against in the Kickoff Classic. Then there is the home opener against and a big game vs. Michigan. The next two games certainly will test Willingham's focus. goes to East Lansing where it will play , Willingham's alma mater. Nearly three years ago, Willingham passed on a chance to coach the Spartans to stay at Stanford. The game also happens to be a meeting of the two most prominent black coaches in the country. When finishes a brutal September, it will play Stanford at Stadium. Willingham says he understands the challenges and the expectations that come with the job. He also said that doesn't change the goal of winning a national championship. "If one desires to win a championship, it's nice to be able to do it in a place that has won championships," Willingham said. "You want to be challenged. This program loves to be challenged. It loves to be thought of as being the absolute best in this country." It's obvious Willingham shares that same passion to be the best. Darryl Richards can be reached at his e-mail address, drichards@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Maryland, Michigan, Purdue, Michigan State, Indiana, Toledo, Stanford, Notre Dame, Nebraska

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