After Notre Dame finished the 2001 season 5-6, whispers that the Irish hadn't won a college football national title since 1988 grew ever louder. But the wins and losses were the least of the program's woes. Off-field trouble had dulled the mystique and muted the once-proud faithful who had long cheered, cheered, cheered for Old Notre Dame. A booster went to jail for plying players with gifts and trips, landing the school on probation for the first time. Four players were booted from the team for allegedly taking part in the sexual assault of a female student last March. The coup de grace came last December when newly hired head coach George O'Leary, less than a week into his tenure, resigned in abject disgrace after it came to light that he had doctored his resume. Once the gold standard for a college football program, Notre Dame was suddenly indistinguishable, it appeared, from every other State U. Then came Tyrone Willingham. The first black head coach in any sport in Irish history, he almost singlehandedly woke up the echoes and restored Notre Dame football to prominence. Earnest and quietly dignified, Willingham reintroduced discipline and accountability to the program. The archetypal leader-by-example, he joined his players in the weight room for early morning workouts and tirelessly stressed the virtue of details. The team responded. Nearly the same collective that couldn't win half its games the previous season won eight consecutive games before falling to Boston College in early November and finished 10-2, earning a bowl invite. How to explain the quick reversal of fortune in South Bend, all of which began with a bogus resume? "Divine intervention at its best," says Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White "That's what this represents to me and, more important, to Notre Dame and Notre Dame football. Tyrone should have been here. Thank God he is here."
Steve Rushin: Planet Notre Dame
Phil Taylor: Simply excellent
Sports Illustrated, Sept. 30, 2002: The savior of South Bend
Frank Deford: Father football
Sports Illustrated covers gallery: Notre Dame
Photograph by John Biever