"There was this perception that Notre Dame was a smash-mouth program," says Courtney Watson, a junior linebacker from Sarasota, Fla. "Athletes from Florida, Texas and California don't want to be part of that; they want to run down the field and catch the ball, score 50 points a game."
According to recruiting maven Tom Lemming, style wasn't Notre Dame's only problem. It lost many top recruits over the last decade partly because the program simply stopped competing for the five-star player and partly because rivals harped on the notion that South Bend was an unfriendly place for African-Americans. Willingham has already helped on both fronts. He removed the Irish's biggest competition for academically driven black players—himself at Stanford, where he coached for the last seven years—and signaled that he'd go after the nation's best when he began calling the country's top recruits soon after his arrival. Running back Reggie Bush of San Diego's Helix High, considered by some to be this year's No. 1 prospect, lists Notre Dame among his top five choices.
"It's a very big step," says Irish corner-back Preston Jackson of Willingham's hiring. "It's going to bring a lot more talent here. He's a perfect fit."
And not just for the athletes: When, at an alumni dinner in Chicago in April, Willingham said he would scrap the option in favor of a West Coast offense, the crowd stood and gave him a raucous ovation. Since then Willingham has worked to endear himself to alumni, whether by racing to speak at 16 reunion dinners in one night in June or by reaching out to former players with an energy that Davie had lost by the end of his tenure. But more important is that Willingham has, faster than anyone expected, rebuilt the idea that Notre Dame football can still work.
"The tradition of Notre Dame had pretty much broken down," says Ara Parseghian, who came to South Bend in 1964 after the school had endured nine years of futility and was the last Irish coach to have started his first season 4-0. "The circumstances for Tyrone were very similar to when I came here. A lot of people said, 'They're done; Notre Dame can't do it anymore; the admissions requirements are too tough.' But we both believe these are not handicaps."
"Oh, yes, the mystique of Notre Dame can paralyze some people; some get that deer-in-the-headlights syndrome," Willingham says. "Some people don't."
That he doesn't is due entirely, he says, to his parents. Tyrone's mother, Lillian, was a community-minded teacher with a master's degree from Columbia. His father, Nathaniel, was a property manager with a fifth-grade education. School was important in the household, but so was self-reliance. Nathaniel, though hobbled by a leg shortened by a dislocated hip, walked Tyrone to exhaustion on hunting trips, and when one of the houses he managed fell into disrepair, he insisted on tearing it down by hand, by himself—in his 80s. The parents raised Tyrone and his three siblings to ignore the snubs of segregation in North Carolina. When Tyrone and his brother, Jerome, desegregated their little league football teams, they expected to play quarterback.
Just once, after losing the quarterback job during his junior year in high school to a white kid he'd outplayed, Willingham allowed himself to stir things up. "That was the one time there was an outward ruckus," he says. "I got the job back. But [the disruption] was not the best thing for our football team. That didn't help anything." He didn't indulge the impulse again. Instead, he walked on at Michigan State—one of only two schools to respond to 100 letters he wrote asking for the chance—and, though just 5'7" and 139 pounds, he earned a place on the team. He did push-ups day and night, all the while chanting, "Got to be strong, got to be better." Midway through the 1973 season, injuries to the quarterbacks ahead of him threw Willingham into a starting role as a redshirt freshman, and he led the Spartans to wins over Purdue, Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa—the last three on the very field where he won again, 29 years later, on Saturday.
An hour after that victory Willingham stood in the shadow of Spartan Stadium, delivering his stern assessment of the day's events. The moment he turned from the press to speak to a player, an equipment manager or an old friend, Willingham's demeanor softened; he became warm and loose, as if cut free of a straitjacket. When two former classmates poked their heads over a wall 12 feet above him, Willingham cackled and yelled to one of them, "Hey darlin'! You know what? I'm doing well!"
After the pack moved away, Willingham went quiet, then said, "I am very emotional. I'll share this: One of the special memories did happen here. It was the time I got the opportunity to start, and on Friday morning of that week, the day before the game, my mother calls me and says, 'Tyrone, I don't know where your dad is, but he's coming to East Lansing.' " Everything has changed since then. Tyrone's mother died in 1984, his father in 1996. But that memory remains. "That is special," he says. "I've been blessed."