Given the religious underpinnings of Notre Dame football, it's not surprising that followers of the Fighting Irish tend to elevate their best coaches beyond legendary status to something more beatific. Tyrone Willingham received the beginnings of that treatment a year ago when he resurrected the Irish from their recent mediocrity, leading them to a 10-3 record and the Gator Bowl in his first season. Banners hung from dorm rooms promoting TY FOR POPE, and placards outside Notre Dame Stadium proclaimed IN TY WE TRUST.
But it turns out that Willingham, 49, is mortal after all. Notre Dame is 3-6 and had lost three straight home games before pulling out a 27-24 win over Navy last Saturday. Fans have left games early, and the ones who remain often do so to boo. FireTyWillingham.com has sprung up, detailing Notre Dame's least flattering statistics, and one columnist suggested that the school's famed Touchdown Jesus be replaced with a mural of St. Jude, patron of lost causes. It is a measure of just how far Notre Dame has fallen that the win over Navy, which once would have been a formality, was a major relief.
One of the few things that hasn't changed from last season is Willingham's sideline demeanor. He is still the stoic commander, impervious to the boos he heard during a 37-0 home loss to Florida State on Nov. 1. Still, the Irish's struggles have left him at least a little bit shaken and uncertain. "One of the most difficult jobs of any coach, when the team isn't going well, [is] to keep the team moving forward, keep them positive," he said after the Florida State debacle. "We will find ways to do that. I can't tell you what they are today"
Though Willingham would sooner post his playbook on the Internet than make excuses, he has a few he could lean on. The Irish, as usual, have played a brutal schedule: Seven of their first eight opponents are now nationally ranked. Seven players from last year's team were NFL draft choices, including four offensive linemen. Senior quarterback Carlyle Holiday was ill-suited to Willingham's West Coast offense, forcing the coach to switch to true freshman Brady Quinn after three games.
Willingham's critics suggest that last season's success was a smoke-and-mirrors aberration, but any judgment will be premature until he has recruited and developed his own players. Willingham's Notre Dame tenure is following a pattern similar to his years at Stanford (1995-2001), where he engineered an immediate but temporary turn-around largely by running a tighter, more detail-oriented operation. The Cardinal jumped from three wins the season before his arrival to seven in each of his first two years. Then the talent gap caught up with Willingham, and Stanford went 5-6 and 3-8 in his next two seasons. In his fifth year, when the team was made up almost entirely of his recruits, it went to the Rose Bowl.
Willingham will have time to duplicate that success in South Bend—he has a six-year contract worth a reported $12 million—which may be why he seems un-fazed by the discontent. He is equally unconcerned about the possibility that the public will leap, Limbaugh-like, to the conclusion that last year's success was overblown because he is the first African-American to coach the nation's highest-profile program. "That is something that I just can't worry about," he says. "There is too much to do in terms of getting this program back to the proper level to concern myself with those kinds of outside issues."
Willingham has won before, and he will win again. He may have a less patient fan and alumni base than he had at Stanford, but he also has a greater football tradition with which to lure recruits. In time the Notre Dame faithful will come to realize that they may not have a candidate for sainthood, but they do have a solid coach, and that can be a blessing too.