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Tim Layden
January 07, 2002
Despite an awkward search process, Notre Dame ended up with the right man
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January 07, 2002

Willing And Able

Despite an awkward search process, Notre Dame ended up with the right man

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This much is true: On New Year's Eve, Notre Dame made the most of an unfortunate mulligan when it hired Tyrone Willingham as football coach to fill the void left by the disgraced George O'Leary. Willingham, the coach at Stanford for the past seven seasons, is tireless, principled and respected by his peers. Putting him in the corner office at the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center, across the street from Notre Dame Stadium, gives the school reason to congratulate itself for finding a good man.

Once that feeling subsides, however, thorny issues will confront the Irish. Athletic director Kevin White has a reputation as a slick, image-conscious administrator, but his search for a coach was clumsy, making Notre Dame appear ill-prepared and out of the loop. For instance, White first contacted Willingham shortly after firing Bob Davie yet didn't interview him until after talking to at least five other current head coaches. Two of them—Alabama's Dennis Franchione and Washington's Rick Neuheisel—were never plausible options, and one, Mike Belotti of Oregon, was 1-4 against Willingham.

White's rationale for hiring O'Leary—that he was "something out of central casting...second-generation Irish Catholic, great passion to be at Notre Dame"—is embarrassing. You don't cast a football coach, unless it's Pat O'Brien. More pointedly, while O'Leary was the guy who fluffed up his r�sum�, White was the guy who didn't check it out Notre Dame came out of the episode looking small-time. Willingham must make recruits forget that.

Willingham has other personal challenges ahead. He was 44-36-1 in seven years at Stanford, a winning percentage of .549 and good enough to be considered a success with the Cardinal. Davie was 35-25 in five years at Notre Dame, a percentage of .583, which was good enough to get him fired. Still, Willingham is the right fit. The Irish didn't hire him to advance the cause of minority coaches (although it might have that effect); they hired him because he's able. He's a voracious recruiter who got talent to Stanford despite more stringent admissions standards than those at Notre Dame. He motivated athletes to perform and is relentlessly organized.

In many ways Willingham's arrival in South Bend mirrors Lou Holtz's hiring in 1985. Holtz took over a slothful team and shook it to life with discipline. At the first squad meeting he famously commanded a returning starter to take his feet off a chair or be removed from the program. Similarly, Willingham demands maturity. "He sits so straight in the chair that he makes you sit straight too," said Stanford linebacker Chris Draft (now with the Atlanta Falcons) in the fall of 1995. "He's a little man, but you respect him immediately."

The mention of Notre Dame once commanded respect. Now, the place could use some.