For the faithful, this will be the toughest thing to accept about
Tyrone Willingham: He does not do crusades. He is not on a
mission. He does not take a college football game played before
75,182 boozed-up revelers, a national television audience and the
ghosts of every Notre Dame team gone by and try to make the
moment even bigger. With Willingham, football is never a morality
play, and it's never personal--not even when it is. Not even when
he arrives at a stadium as he did last Saturday, and the place
opens up before him like a palace he once had to beg to enter,
all but vibrating with matters as vital to him as his own
ambition, his own heart and his own skin.
On Saturday, for the first time since leaving the school where he
willed himself to become a scholarship athlete, where he met his
wife and began his coaching career, Willingham returned to
Michigan State. With his wife, Kim, and their 12-year-old son,
Nathaniel, Willingham rolled into East Lansing as the coach of
Notre Dame, a position considered by some to be the pinnacle of
the profession. He rode down the streets he once walked, past the
baseball field where he once played, past the statue where he
once posed for pictures. The sun shone. "I don't put much stock
on coming into Michigan State," Willingham said in his postgame
press conference. "There's no nostalgia. There's no emotional
Before kickoff, Willingham, a 49-year-old black man raised in the
segregated South, stood chatting with his Michigan State
counterpart, Bobby Williams, a black man who holds the job
Willingham once wanted. Soon they would match wits in the
highest-profile meeting of two black coaches in the pathetic
racial history of college football; never before had two such
storied programs met under the leadership of African-Americans.
"I don't know if that deserves any comment," Willingham said
afterward. "It was a great football game; I don't think it
matters who coaches it."
This is why the remarkable renaissance now taking place in South
Bend nearly didn't happen. This is why Willingham almost didn't
coach at Notre Dame, almost didn't snap the school's streak of
five losses to Michigan State with a riveting 21-17 win to go
4-0, the best start by the Irish since 1993. Willingham doesn't
gush. When Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White passed him
over and named George O'Leary coach last December, it was
primarily because Willingham wouldn't demonstrate the proper
amount of "Notre Dame zeal," White says. "It's very important
here to love this place. This place has an insatiable desire to
September 29, 2002
No, it was only after O'Leary had taken the job--and resigned five
days later, once his doctored resume had been exposed--that White
heard what he needed to hear. "You should've hired me the first
time," Willingham told him when contacted again in late December.
"I was your guy. I would love to be at Notre Dame."
But then, that's typical Willingham: so controlled, so
on-message, so intent on keeping himself under wraps that he'll
deny even the obvious. Dangling from a cliff, Willingham would
wait until he was down to his last fingertip before admitting he
might be in a bit of trouble. Of course he understands the social
import of Saturday's game. For years he has decried the lack of
opportunities for black coaches; the fact that there are but four
of them in 117 Division I-A positions, he said on Saturday after
all the TV cameras had been broken down, "needs to be brought to
the public's attention. It's not right. It's criminally wrong, to
be honest about it. In order to help things, I have to do a great
job...." He stopped himself. "No, we have to do a great job. It's
not about I. This football team is not going to respond to Tyrone
Willingham just because of this thing."
Such self-discipline can be almost painful to witness, but it's
clear that it also powered Willingham all the way from
Jacksonville, N.C., to Notre Dame and now has him steering the
program out of the doldrums faster than any shamrock-eyed
optimist expected. After toughing out wins over Maryland, Purdue,
Michigan and now Michigan State, Notre Dame is ranked 10th, and
even with quarterback Carlyle Holiday week-to-week after injuring
his left shoulder, the Irish can envision waltzing into their
Oct. 26 game against Florida State with a 7-0 record. Yes, it
took a few Michigan State mistakes and superb open-field running
by Irish receiver Arnaz Battle to give Notre Dame the winning
score with 1:15 left, but the players know just how much they owe
"Everything," says senior defensive end Ryan Roberts. "We had a
great defense last year, but we've improved. Our offense? He
turned it around. We're scoring points, and we're scoring at
opportune times. It's about time. I've been working hard for five
years. It's time to get the success I expected when I came to
play at Notre Dame."
The fact that Willingham and Notre Dame arrived at this moment
together is, of course, a happy accident, made even more
astonishing when you consider that the man and the university
rarely leave anything to chance. Yet because of O'Leary--the best
mistake, perhaps, Notre Dame has ever made--one of the nation's
most hidebound institutions suddenly seems almost cutting-edge,
with a new lease for the 21st century. "Divine intervention at
its best," White says. "That's what this represents to me and,
more importantly, to Notre Dame and Notre Dame football. Tyrone
should have been here. Thank God he is here."
If White sounds a tad overexcited, he has good reason. No one was
more on the hook after the O'Leary debacle. White had introduced
the upbeat Irish-Catholic coach as someone "out of central
casting." Notre Dame hasn't won a national title since 1988, and
last year's coach, Bob Davie, kept hinting that the Notre Dame
way had come to an end: The facilities were too old, the schedule
too rigorous, the academic standards too tough. Such chatter is
the norm whenever the Irish hit a losing cycle, but this time
there was real fear, fueled by the Internet and talk radio, that
Notre Dame's mission to be both Harvard and Nebraska was no
longer realistic. Rockne? The Gipper? The old mystique was about
as relevant to the nation's prep talent as a Bing Crosby flick.
O'Leary hardly inspired visions of a new era.
"There was this perception that Notre Dame was a smash-mouth
program," says Courtney Watson, a junior linebacker from
Sarasota, Fla. "Athletes from Florida, Texas and California don't
want to be part of that; they want to run down the field and
catch the ball, score 50 points a game."
According to recruiting maven Tom Lemming, style wasn't Notre
Dame's only problem. It lost many top recruits over the last
decade partly because the program simply stopped competing for
the five-star player and partly because rivals harped on the
notion that South Bend was an unfriendly place for
African-Americans. Willingham has already helped on both fronts.
He removed the Irish's biggest competition for academically
driven black players--himself at Stanford, where he coached for
the last seven years--and signaled that he'd go after the nation's
best when he began calling the country's top recruits soon after
his arrival. Running back Reggie Bush of San Diego's Helix High,
considered by some to be this year's No. 1 prospect, lists Notre
Dame among his top five choices.
"It's a very big step," says Irish cornerback Preston Jackson of
Willingham's hiring. "It's going to bring a lot more talent here.
He's a perfect fit."
And not just for the athletes: When, at an alumni dinner in
Chicago in April, Willingham said he would scrap the option in
favor of a West Coast offense, the crowd stood and gave him a
raucous ovation. Since then Willingham has worked to endear
himself to alumni, whether by racing to speak at 16 reunion
dinners in one night in June or by reaching out to former
players with an energy that Davie had lost by the end of his
tenure. But more important is that Willingham has, faster than
anyone expected, rebuilt the idea that Notre Dame football can
"The tradition of Notre Dame had pretty much broken down," says
Ara Parseghian, who came to South Bend in 1964 after the school
had endured nine years of futility and was the last Irish coach
to have started his first season 4-0. "The circumstances for
Tyrone were very similar to when I came here. A lot of people
said, 'They're done; Notre Dame can't do it anymore; the
admissions requirements are too tough.' But we both believe these
are not handicaps."
"Oh, yes, the mystique of Notre Dame can paralyze some people;
some get that deer-in-the-headlights syndrome," Willingham says.
"Some people don't."
That he doesn't is due entirely, he says, to his parents.
Tyrone's mother, Lillian, was a community-minded teacher with a
master's degree from Columbia. His father, Nathaniel, was a
property manager with a fifth-grade education. School was
important in the household, but so was self-reliance. Nathaniel,
though hobbled by a leg shortened by a dislocated hip, walked
Tyrone to exhaustion on hunting trips, and when one of the houses
he managed fell into disrepair, he insisted on tearing it down by
hand, by himself--in his 80s. The parents raised Tyrone and his
three siblings to ignore the snubs of segregation in North
Carolina. When Tyrone and his brother, Jerome, desegregated their
little league football teams, they expected to play quarterback.
Just once, after losing the quarterback job during his junior
year in high school to a white kid he'd outplayed, Willingham
allowed himself to stir things up. "That was the one time there
was an outward ruckus," he says. "I got the job back. But [the
disruption] was not the best thing for our football team. That
didn't help anything." He didn't indulge the impulse again.
Instead, he walked on at Michigan State--one of only two schools
to respond to 100 letters he wrote asking for the chance--and,
though just 5'7" and 139 pounds, he earned a place on the team.
He did push-ups day and night, all the while chanting, "Got to be
strong, got to be better." Midway through the 1973 season,
injuries to the quarterbacks ahead of him threw Willingham into a
starting role as a redshirt freshman, and he led the Spartans to
wins over Purdue, Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa--the last three on
the very field where he won again, 29 years later, on Saturday.
An hour after that victory Willingham stood in the shadow of
Spartan Stadium, delivering his stern assessment of the day's
events. The moment he turned from the press to speak to a player,
an equipment manager or an old friend, Willingham's demeanor
softened; he became warm and loose, as if cut free of a
straitjacket. When two former classmates poked their heads over a
wall 12 feet above him, Willingham cackled and yelled to one of
them, "Hey darlin'! You know what? I'm doing well!"
After the pack moved away, Willingham went quiet, then said, "I
am very emotional. I'll share this: One of the special memories
did happen here. It was the time I got the opportunity to start,
and on Friday morning of that week, the day before the game, my
mother calls me and says, 'Tyrone, I don't know where your dad
is, but he's coming to East Lansing.'" Everything has changed
since then. Tyrone's mother died in 1984, his father in 1996. But
that memory remains. "That is special," he says. "I've been
Then he walked out of the stadium, amid the shouts of his name,
stopping when he found the son he named for his father.
Willingham crooked his arm around Nathaniel's neck, then began
looking for Kim. "I gushed over my wife pretty good," he had said
earlier in the week, recalling their courtship. "They make you
work." Now he passed some autograph seekers without stopping, now
he headed toward the bus, now here was Kim right before his eyes.
"There you go," Willingham said softly, and his wife grinned and
said, "OhmiGodddd," and the two hugged and then he looked her in
the eyes and kissed her. Nothing fancy, you understand. There's
only so much gushing a man can do in a day.
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"Divine intervention at its best," White says. "That's what
this represents to Notre Dame football. Thank God Tyrone is
"The mystique of Notre Dame can paralyze people," says
Willingham. "Some get that deer-in-the-headlights syndrome;