N. Dame feels its choice is right

President Malloy says Willingham is great pick


College Football

January 03, 2002|By Ira Berkow | Ira Berkow,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - In the most famous college administration building in the world, under that shimmering golden dome, may be found the president with the nation's most famous college football program.

In Room 400, behind a modest desk and surrounded by books, sits the white-haired, 60-year-old Rev. Edward A. Malloy. In this room is also where the buck now stops in regard to all academic and extracurricular matters, including the Notre Dame staple, football. It wasn't always this way, but it is Malloy who will ultimately bear responsibility for the newest, headlined hire, Tyrone Willingham.

After Notre Dame fired Bob Davie, its coach for the last five years, on Dec. 2, then suffered humiliation when his replacement, George O'Leary, was found to be a serial resume reviser, the university settled on Willingham, the successful Stanford coach, whose credentials seem not only impeccable, but actual, too.

Malloy said a swift but in-depth search by a wide range of trusted people was made of all the possible candidates in Division I-A and pro football, and Willingham, Malloy said, "was the best candidate of all."

"I was impressed by him on several fronts when we met," Malloy said. "He was confident, focused, very eager to accept the responsibility of the job, and realistic about the expectations. We do have a storied football tradition, but we also have high academic standards and a challenging schedule of games."

This would hardly be earthshaking, since it would follow necessarily in the tradition of Knute Rockne (OK, perhaps there were a few player exceptions, like George Gipp, who seemed allergic to the classroom, but that was a long time ago) and Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz. But Malloy said he was impressed by something else Willingham told him: when asked about his most important role models, Willingham, who grew up in Jacksonville, N.C., did not mention a football coach or coaches, but his parents.

Willingham told Malloy they had set a foundation of love and strength for him and his brother. Willingham had been a standout athlete in high school, but few colleges were interested in him "because he was so small, about 5-foot-9, 130 pounds," Malloy said. Willingham went to Michigan State, where he made the football team as a walk-on.

"That demonstrates the tenacity to follow your goals," Malloy said. "And that's the kind of attitude that is significant for this position."

Until three years ago, Malloy was concerned, of course, with the hires of the athletic department, but, like most big-time college programs, the athletic department for the most part ran itself.

Then Notre Dame was placed on probation for the first time by the NCAA in December 1999 for rules infractions involving a former booster who provided some football players with cash and gifts.

"That forced the issue that the president of the school had to be more involved with the athletic program," Malloy said. "It was something that the Knight Commission had recommended for school presidents as far back as 10 years ago."

This doesn't mean Malloy now micromanages the athletic department, but he is more aware of its goings-on these days than ever before. The Knight Commission, which looked into major-college sports improprieties, also said there was too great an emphasis on winning. What if Willingham builds character among his players, helps them all graduate on time and performs as a teacher should, but his football team doesn't win?

"He doesn't get tenure," Malloy said. That means that, after a trial period of five years, Willingham, like Davie, would find himself past tense at Notre Dame.

Is that not hypocritical? "No," Malloy said. "Universities, like the world around us, are in a competitive environment. If the band, say, has poor staging, and doesn't hit the right notes, we get a new band director."

Malloy said Willingham did not try to be someone he was not. Willingham said he was not a comedian or a raconteur, but he was comfortable in front of crowds, coaching or speaking. And while Willingham has a reputation as someone whose talk is terse, his candor and genuineness help make him an effective coach and superb recruiter.

Willingham also had to be wondering something regarding his selection as Notre Dame coach, something on the mind of many people. Malloy was aware of it, too. Willingham is the first African-American to be a head coach at Notre Dame.

Malloy addressed the unstated question to Willingham. "I assure you," Malloy said to him, "that you were the best coach we could get, and we're delighted you're here."

"I am, too," Willingham said.

Pithy but pointed.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.