New coach on Notre Dame's stage

Willingham's expectations are higher than fans'

College Football

August 30, 2002|By Avani Patel | Avani Patel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Somewhere along the line, perception and reality became disconnected. His eyes told him one thing, but his frozen fingers and toes sent another message altogether.

"It was a perfect blue sky," Notre Dame football coach Tyrone Willingham recalled. "And you have an association in North Carolina - when you get a perfect blue sky, it's going to be a warm day. Even if it's winter, you can put on a little light jacket or something and you're OK. Well, that particular morning, it was not OK."

Willingham, then a freshman at Michigan State, had just returned to East Lansing from a winter break spent in his hometown of Jacksonville, N.C., where sunshine usually translates into heat. Things were a little different in Michigan.

"By the time I crossed the street, everything I had was frozen," Willingham said. "So you have to go back in and reconfigure your plans for the day."

He did. And in doing so, he figured out not just how to survive at Michigan State, but also how to prosper.

It is a lesson he has carried throughout his life.

All along, people have counted Tyrone Willingham out. And all along he has found ways - ingeniously, tenaciously, stubbornly - not just to stay in the game, but also to come out on top. Now, the diminutive kid who could is going to have to prove he indeed can - on one of college football's biggest stages.

Already a success at Stanford, where he twice was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year and led his 1999 squad to the school's first Rose Bowl berth in 28 years, Willingham is going to have to be even better to meet the exacting standards of Notre Dame fans and alumni.

The Irish - who open the season against Maryland tomorrow night in the Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium - already boast the most national championships, 11, and most Heisman Trophy winners, seven, of any major college program in the country. But they have been without either for 14 and 15 years, respectively. Willingham's task? Add to the bounty, and the sooner the better.

If history is any guide, the kid who wasn't believed to be big enough to be a Division I college football player will be up to the task.

"Most of the major colleges thought I was too small," Willingham said. "And as a coach, I would agree with them."

Nevertheless, he would earn three letters in football at Michigan State.

The player, privileged to walk on for the Spartans after home-state rival Charlie Baggett was wooed with a scholarship, bested the bigger, stronger Baggett by going 3-1 as his replacement at quarterback in 1973. And the quarterback whose 5-foot-8 frame made it difficult for him to see over his own linemen kept his eyes on the prize simply by looking around the roadblocks.

Family friend John Thomas passed along one of the tricks Willingham described using.

"Behind the big linemen, he would watch his receivers' socks," Thomas said.

"Being able to look down there and see the socks, that's how he was able to strike.

"He always has been cool, calm and calculated."

Childhood friend Michael Stephens, now a teacher at White Oak High School in Jacksonville, says the soft-spoken Willingham always knew how to make himself heard.

"He was able to pull things out of other people that they didn't realize they had within them during times of competition," Stephens said, recalling a high school game in which Willingham persuaded him to stay on the field despite a sore ankle. Jacksonville, of course, won.

"He always has been a motivator," Stephens said.

Stanford assistant coach Dave Tipton, who worked with and for Willingham for 10 years, said Willingham's greatest motivational tool is his own confidence.

In 1999, coming off a 3-8 season, the Cardinal traveled to Texas with high hopes for its opening game. After a 69-17 drubbing in 107-degree heat, most of the team returned from Austin dejected and downcast.

"Everything we did was wrong," Tipton said. "It was just one of those days.

"We had a team meeting the next day, and Ty looks around and says, `I know there's a champion in this room.' The team responded."

In a big way. By Jan. 1, 2000, when Stanford took the Rose Bowl field as Pac-10 champions for the first time since 1972, that early-season nadir had been long forgotten.

This year's Irish squad is looking to Willingham to help it rise from the ashes of a disappointing 2001 season.

"The anticipation is unbelievable," kicker Nicholas Setta said. "With a new coach coming in, you don't see rebuilding. I don't think the expectation is anything less than the national championship."

That expectation is probably unreasonable, given Notre Dame's lack of depth and difficult schedule. But Willingham learned the alchemist's art early.

Born into the segregated South, Willingham never really followed his home state's beloved Tar Heels.

"You almost weren't allowed to root for those teams, because there was no opportunity for someone of color to really participate in those programs," he said.

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