Given the religious underpinnings of Notre Dame football, it's
not surprising that followers of the Fighting Irish tend to
elevate their best coaches beyond legendary status to something
more beatific. Tyrone Willingham received the beginnings of that
treatment a year ago when he resurrected the Irish from their
recent mediocrity, leading them to a 10-3 record and the Gator
Bowl in his first season. Banners hung from dorm rooms promoting
TY FOR POPE, and placards outside Notre Dame Stadium proclaimed
IN TY WE TRUST.
But it turns out that Willingham, 49, is mortal after all. Notre
Dame is 3-6 and had lost three straight home games before pulling
out a 27-24 win over Navy last Saturday. Fans have left games
early, and the ones who remain often do so to boo.
FireTyWillingham.com has sprung up, detailing Notre Dame's least
flattering statistics, and one columnist suggested that the
school's famed Touchdown Jesus be replaced with a mural of St.
Jude, patron of lost causes. It is a measure of just how far
Notre Dame has fallen that the win over Navy, which once would
have been a formality, was a major relief.
One of the few things that hasn't changed from last season is
Willingham's sideline demeanor. He is still the stoic commander,
impervious to the boos he heard during a 37-0 home loss to
Florida State on Nov. 1. Still, the Irish's struggles have left
him at least a little bit shaken and uncertain. "One of the most
difficult jobs of any coach, when the team isn't going well, [is]
to keep the team moving forward, keep them positive," he said
after the Florida State debacle. "We will find ways to do that. I
can't tell you what they are today."
Though Willingham would sooner post his playbook on the Internet
than make excuses, he has a few he could lean on. The Irish, as
usual, have played a brutal schedule: Seven of their first eight
opponents are now nationally ranked. Seven players from last
year's team were NFL draft choices, including four offensive
linemen. Senior quarterback Carlyle Holiday was ill-suited to
Willingham's West Coast offense, forcing the coach to switch to
true freshman Brady Quinn after three games.
Willingham's critics suggest that last season's success was a
smoke-and-mirrors aberration, but any judgment will be premature
until he has recruited and developed his own players.
Willingham's Notre Dame tenure is following a pattern similar to
his years at Stanford (1995-2001), where he engineered an
immediate but temporary turnaround largely by running a tighter,
more detail-oriented operation. The Cardinal jumped from three
wins the season before his arrival to seven in each of his first
two years. Then the talent gap caught up with Willingham, and
Stanford went 5-6 and 3-8 in his next two seasons. In his fifth
year, when the team was made up almost entirely of his recruits,
it went to the Rose Bowl.
Willingham will have time to duplicate that success in South
Bend--he has a six-year contract worth a reported $12
million--which may be why he seems unfazed by the discontent. He
is equally unconcerned about the possibility that the public will
leap, Limbaugh-like, to the conclusion that last year's success
was overblown because he is the first African-American to coach
the nation's highest-profile program. "That is something that I
just can't worry about," he says. "There is too much to do in
terms of getting this program back to the proper level to concern
myself with those kinds of outside issues."
Willingham has won before, and he will win again. He may have a
less patient fan and alumni base than he had at Stanford, but he
also has a greater football tradition with which to lure
recruits. In time the Notre Dame faithful will come to realize
that they may not have a candidate for sainthood, but they do
have a solid coach, and that can be a blessing too.
1978." --CUT DOWN, PAGE 26