- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 31, 2002

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Tyrone Willingham wasn't Notre Dame's first choice, but he sounds like any of his self-absorbed predecessors when he gushes about the state of Fighting Irish football even if the Golden Domers' golden days are slipping further into folklore.
"This is the premiere program in the country," said Willingham, the former Stanford coach who will make his Notre Dame debut tonight against No.21 Maryland in the Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium. "It's been recognized by anyone that's coached against Notre Dame that it is kind of the premier school, the premier program."
The once-dominant program, considered by some the most popular with its national appeal and coast-to-coast TV deal, has won 11 national championships and claims seven Heisman Trophy winners but none since many of the current players were in grade school a span of 14 seasons. The undefeated 1988 team coached by Lou Holtz is the Irish's lone national championship team in 24 years. The program endured losing records and bowl-less seasons under Gerry Faust and Bob Davie before and after Holtz, respectively.
The past year may have been the nadir. Davie was fired after his second losing season in three years. Willingham was interviewed but passed over in favor of Georgia Tech's George O'Leary. But O'Leary was forced to resign after it was determined he had lied on his resume about a master's degree and a football career at New Hampshire.
"I thought it was amusing," Willingham said. "It was sad but amusing. You hate to see that happen to anyone."
Willingham, one of four black coaches among the 117 in Division I-A, was hired to restore order to the hallowed program. The 48-year-old had success at Stanford, another school with high academic standards. The Cardinal had four winning seasons and four bowl berths in his seven years but only two in the past five seasons.
The straight-talking coach with an intense glare led Stanford to the Pac-10 title and Rose Bowl for the first time in 28 years in 1999, accomplishing something that eluded even Bill Walsh. The Cardinal went 5-6 in 2000, and last season they finished 9-3 after losing to Georgia Tech in the Seattle Bowl.
On New Year's Day, Willingham was named to the same position held by Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine a long way for someone who walked on as a quarterback at Michigan State before beginning his career as a graduate assistant there in 1977. Willingham is known for his cool demeanor and isn't apt to raise his voice often. He's a disciplinarian on and off the field and often runs through drills with players. He once left his wife behind when she was late for a team bus.
"He's not a 'rah-rah' guy," said Maryland offensive line coach Tom Brattan, who coached under Willingham at Stanford in 1999 and 2000. "Don't be disillusioned by how you see Coach Willingham on the sideline. He gives you a very cool demeanor there's a fire raging inside. It's not evident all the time, but it's there all the time. He's very calm, collected during the game as he makes the adjustments."
Willingham said he deals with the fishbowl situation at Notre Dame by taking care of the task at hand, letting the big picture take care of itself. He said he doesn't waste energy getting caught up in the unyielding hype and expectations of fans and alumni.
But he is keenly aware of what is riding on his stint with the Irish. Notre Dame's television contract will soon come up, and a winning program will mean millions of dollars for the university.
"I hope my tenure at Notre Dame transcends everything," Willingham said. " At some point, we're going to recognize that what you're looking for is someone to do a great job with values and believes in history and tradition."
Before he can move ahead, he must straighten out a program rife with problems. Five potential starters have been lost since his arrival. Three were charged with raping a female student and were expelled. Star tailback Julius Jones left school because of academic problems, and potential starting quarterback Matt LoVecchio transferred.
Still, Willingham makes it sound as if the Four Horsemen are galloping in to save the day.
"You have to understand: This is the program that has the deepest, richest history and tradition in college football," Willingham said. "When you have difficult times, that's when you draw on that kind of history and that kind of tradition."
Even a depleted roster from a 5-6 team can't temper the program's arrogance. Willingham refused to discuss whether Notre Dame should join a conference but seemed to suggest it didn't need to compete for a league title.
"You'll be surprised the championship we play for this year," he said.


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