For the faithful, this will be the toughest thing to accept about Tyrone Willingham: He does not do crusades. He is not on a mission. He does not take a college football game played before 75,182 boozed-up revelers, a national television audience and the ghosts of every Notre Dame team gone by and try to make the moment even bigger. With Willingham, football is never a morality play, and it's never personal—not even when it is. Not even when he arrives at a stadium as he did last Saturday, and the place opens up before him like a palace he once had to beg to enter, all but vibrating with matters as vital to him as his own ambition, his own heart and his own skin.
On Saturday, for the first time since leaving the school where he willed himself to become a scholarship athlete, where he met his wife and began his coaching career, Willingham returned to Michigan State. With his wife, Kim, and their 12-year-old son, Nathaniel, Willingham rolled into East Lansing as the coach of Notre Dame, a position considered by some to be the pinnacle of the profession. He rode down the streets he once walked, past the baseball field where he once played, past the statue where he once posed for pictures. The sun shone. "I don't put much stock on coming into Michigan State," Willingham said in his postgame press conference. "There's no nostalgia. There's no emotional tie."
Before kickoff, Willingham, a 49-year-old black man raised in the segregated South, stood chatting with his Michigan State counterpart, Bobby Williams, a black man who holds the job Willingham once wanted. Soon they would match wits in the highest-profile meeting of two black coaches in the pathetic racial history of college football; never before had two such storied programs met under the leadership of African-Americans. "I don't know if that deserves any comment," Willingham said afterward. "It was a great football game; I don't think it matters who coaches it."
This is why the remarkable renaissance now taking place in South Bend nearly didn't happen. This is why Willingham almost didn't coach at Notre Dame, almost didn't snap the school's streak of five losses to Michigan State with a riveting 21-17 win to go 4-0, the best start by the Irish since 1993. Willingham doesn't gush. When Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White passed him over and named George O'Leary coach last December, it was primarily because Willingham wouldn't demonstrate the proper amount of "Notre Dame zeal," White says. "It's very important here to love this place. This place has an insatiable desire to be loved."
No, it was only after O'Leary had taken the job—and resigned five days later, once his doctored r�sum� had been exposed—that White heard what he needed to hear. "You should've hired me the first time," Willingham told him when contacted again in late December. "I was your guy. I would love to be at Notre Dame."
But then, that's typical Willingham: so controlled, so on-message, so intent on keeping himself under wraps that he'll deny even the obvious. Dangling from a cliff, Willingham would wait until he was down to his last fingertip before admitting he might be in a bit of trouble. Of course he understands the social import of Saturday's game. For years he has decried the lack of opportunities for black coaches; the fact that there are but four of them in 117 Division I-A positions, he said on Saturday after all the TV cameras had been broken down, "needs to be brought to the public's attention. It's not right. It's criminally wrong, to be honest about it. In order to help things, I have to do a great job...." He stopped himself. "No, we have to do a great job. It's not about I. This football team is not going to respond to Tyrone Willingham just because of this thing."
Such self-discipline can be almost painful to witness, but it's clear that it also powered Willingham all the way from Jacksonville, N.C., to Notre Dame and now has him steering the program out of the doldrums faster than any shamrock-eyed optimist expected. After toughing out wins over Maryland, Purdue, Michigan and now Michigan State, Notre Dame is ranked 10th, and even with quarterback Carlyle Holiday week-to-week after injuring his left shoulder, the Irish can envision waltzing into their Oct. 26 game against Florida State with a 7-0 record. Yes, it took a few Michigan State mistakes and superb open-field running by Irish receiver Arnaz Battle to give Notre Dame the winning score with 1:15 left, but the players know just how much they owe to Willingham.
"Everything," says senior defensive end Ryan Roberts. "We had a great defense last year, but we've improved. Our offense? He turned it around. We're scoring points, and we're scoring at opportune times. It's about time. I've been working hard for five years. It's time to get the success I expected when I came to play at Notre Dame."
The fact that Willingham and Notre Dame arrived at this moment together is, of course, a happy accident, made even more astonishing when you consider that the man and the university rarely leave anything to chance. Yet because of O'Leary—the best mistake, perhaps, Notre Dame has ever made—one of the nation's most hidebound institutions suddenly seems almost cutting-edge, with a new lease for the 21st century. "Divine intervention at its best," White says. "That's what this represents to me and, more importantly, to Notre Dame and Notre Dame football. Tyrone should have been here. Thank God he is here."
If White sounds a tad overexcited, he has good reason. No one was more on the hook after the O'Leary debacle. White had introduced the upbeat Irish-Catholic coach as someone "out of central casting." Notre Dame hasn't won a national title since 1988, and last year's coach, Bob Davie, kept hinting that the Notre Dame way had come to an end: The facilities were too old, the schedule too rigorous, the academic standards too tough. Such chatter is the norm whenever the Irish hit a losing cycle, but this time there was real fear, fueled by the Internet and talk radio, that Notre Dame's mission to be both Harvard and Nebraska was no longer realistic. Rockne? The Gipper? The old mystique was about as relevant to the nation's prep talent as a Bing Crosby flick. O'Leary hardly inspired visions of a new era.