Football Head Coach Willingham Leaves Stanford For Notre Dame

Record at Stanford | Reactions | Photo Gallery: 1998-2001

Jan 1, 2002

Stanford, Calif. - Growing up in North Carolina, Tyrone Willinghamspent many fall afternoons sitting in front of the television, watching NotreDame play football.

It was the only game for him, he said.

With Willingham's hiring as Notre Dame's first black head coach, many arewondering why he chose to leave one of major college football's most relaxedjobs for perhaps its most scrutinized - particularly when he wasn't even NotreDame's first choice.

But the lure of the Golden Dome is strong for many who have spent a lifetimeaspiring to the best in the sport, even for a coach who had built a comfortableniche and a well-respected program amid the palm trees ofStanford.

In addition to his Saturdays watching Notre Dame, Willingham also recalledsneaking out of his family's Methodist church early on Sundays to catchhighlights of the Fighting Irish's exploits from the previous day. Though not adie-hard Irish fan, he knew what the program represented: the absolute best.

'Those things, somewhere, were laced in the back of my mind,' Willinghamsaid Tuesday, when he was introduced as Notre Dame's new coach. 'To say it isa dream come true is true.'

Ever since his days as a 5-foot-8 walk-on quarterback and baseball player atMichigan State, Willingham has excelled with a work ethic and a dedication hetraces back to his youth.

And though he has soft-pedaled the notion in the past, Willingham said healso feels a responsibility to open doors for other black football coaches. Heis one of just four black coaches at the 115 Division I schools.

'Part of my philosophy is that there's a greater good, that we're out thereto benefit not just yourself, that's important, but to benefit others,'Willingham said.

At Stanford, almost everyone likes Willingham, but few claim to know himwell. Though he has been an integral part of the university community for sevenyears - appearing everywhere from the stands at swimming meets to the campuscenter, where he was sometimes spotted on in-line skates with his daughters -he hasn't inspired the folklore built up around other successful coaches.

But Willingham, who turned 48 last weekend, earned a legion of friendlyadmirers in Palo Alto with his straightforward manner and his zeal for facingStanford's recruiting and academic challenges. Such adeptness will come inhandy at Notre Dame.

Like the Cardinal's successful basketball coach, Mike Montgomery, Willinghamtreated Stanford's high academic standards not as a hindrance, but as an assetto land the most intelligent, disciplined athletes in the country. He developedprograms to improve everything from his players' study habits to their tablemanners.

His current team, which went 9-2 before an uninspired loss to Georgia Techin last week's Seattle Bowl, is perhaps the most athletically talented inStanford's history, and it showed in its record. For perhaps the first time,Willingham built a team that was as impressive as his reputation.

Willingham gets another chance to see what he built when Stanford visitsNotre Dame on Oct. 5 with a roster comprised of the remarkable student-athleteshe sold on the Cardinal.

'We owe this to the coaches, especially Coach Willingham,' quarterbackRandy Fasani said after Willingham's seventh straight win over California.'We've got a program where we can succeed in anything we try to do.'

But for all the praise heaped upon Willingham, the Cardinal usually weren'tmuch better than average in his seven seasons. He went 44-36-1, with one win infour bowl appearances. As Bob Davie can attest, such numbers won't provide jobsecurity in South Bend.

After opening his tenure with consecutive bowl appearances, Stanford had alosing record in 1997, 1998 and 2000. But a conference title and a Rose Bowltrip in 1999 - in addition to the superb overall structure of Willingham'sprogram - were more than enough to please Stanford AD Ted Leland, who oftensaid he hoped to keep Willingham for life.

Opinions on Willingham's suitability for Notre Dame run wildly across theboard, even among the media who think they know him best. In Tuesday's SanFrancisco Chronicle, one columnist called Willingham an excellent hire, whileanother said Willingham made a horrible mistake and will be revealed as amediocre coach.

Willingham will have many more resources and enticements available to him atNotre Dame - along with all the distractions and pressure that come with them.

Willingham held one sparsely attended weekly press conference at Stanford.At Notre Dame, he'll have two - including one on Sunday, regardless of howfrustrated the coach may be from Saturday - and a weekly pep rally to attend.

Then there's attention from NBC, which televises Notre Dame's games. AtStanford, a spot on a regional television broadcast was cause for excitement -and some games, such as the Cardinal's exciting loss at Washington lastNovember, weren't televised at all in the Bay Area.

Willingham was always cordial with the media and alumni in northernCalifornia, but his assistant coaches characterize him as a natural introvertwho accepts but doesn't relish the public demands of his job. At Notre Dame,his every move will be public - but Willingham claims to be up to thechallenge.

'There's (no) question that this is the most high-profile university inthis country, and with that, it brings bright light,' Willingham said.

'But I have always said to my wife that if you are doing the right thing,it does not matter how bright the lights are or how many lights - but if youare doing the wrong thing, it only takes a flashlight.'

Tyrone Willingham's Coaching Record at Stanford

Year School W L T PCT
1995 Stanford 7 4 1 .625
1996 Stanford 7 5 0 .583
1997 Stanford 5 6 0 .455
1998 Stanford 3 8 0 .273
1999 Stanford 8 4 0 .667
2000 Stanford 5 6 0 .455
2001 Stanford 9 3 0 .750
Totals 44 36 1 .549

TED LELAND(Stanford Athletic Director)

'I have supported Tyrone Willingham in all decisions he has made over the last seven years as Stanford's head coach and I support him in his decision to become the new head football coach at Notre Dame. Tyrone has done a fabulous job during his tenure at Stanford and we know that he will continue the great tradition at Notre Dame. He is a man of integrity, moral character, is very committed to the student-athlete and is a great football coach. He will do a wonderful job in leading the Notre Dame football program. We wish him and his family nothing but the best in South Bend.'

DENNIS GREEN(Minnesota Vikings head coach, former Stanford head coach)

'I think Tyrone is an ideal selection for Notre Dame. He has the great combination of being demanding and understanding, and I think that he is going to help the players reach their goals-and that's what it's all about. He brings the mindset that achieving is something that everyone can accomplish. He is going to coach all the players at Notre Dame, not just the guys who were considered a top 20 player in the country, which there are never enough of. He is going to coach every single player they have and, as a result of that, he's going to develop every single player they have. And that is going to make them a very successful program.'

BRIAN BILLICK(Baltimore Ravens head coach, worked with Willingham at Stanford and Minn.Vikings)

'Tyrone is as fine a coach and person as any that I have ever worked with. He has all of the qualities that Notre Dame has been highlighting as prerequisites for that job. He brings a unique balance between being so demanding of his players but by the same token they know he cares about them and has their best interests in mind, and that's why they respond to him as they do. This is a great hire for Notre Dame. College football needs people like Tyrone Willingham.'

TONY DUNGY(Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach, worked with Willingham at Minnesota Vikings)

'I've known Tyrone for a long time, going back to the days when I was a quarterback at the University of Minnesota and he was at Michigan State. One of the first things that stands out about Tyrone is his approach to things and his personal dedication and that rubs off on his players. He also has the ability to communicate to anybody as a player, whether it be a Hall of Fame running back like Roger Craig, a rookie trying to make the team or a high school senior during the recruiting process. He's just a very focused and goal-oriented person who is a success at anything that he does.

'When I think about Notre Dame and the things that it stands for, to me that's what Tyrone is about as well. He sets high goals and expects excellence both on and off the field. I think that he is going to be a great fit. It's good for Notre Dame to get someone that everyone can look to as a leader, who knows the game of college football inside and out, and who is well-respected by everyone he comes in contact with.'

KAILEE WONG(former Stanford All-American, current Minnesota Vikings linebacker)

'Obviously coach Willingham means a lot to me. He is a great coach and Notre Dame is very lucky to have him and he's going to do great things there. I am sad to see him leave Stanford because he means so much to everyone involved with Stanford. He's going to come in and create a lot of discipline, but it's not the overbearing discipline, it's the kind of discipline that every player wants. He really gets the most out of all of his players. At Notre Dame he is going to have the top, elite athletes and is going to be able to recruit all the type of players he is going to want. It's a good fit for Notre Dame and I wish him all the best.'

TROY WALTERS (former Stanford All-American, current Minnesota Vikings wide receiver)

'I think it's a great hire. Coach Willingham is probably the top coach in the country. He gets his players to play hard. He gets the best out of his guys on and off the field. With him going to Notre Dame, where he can get better athletes than he can at Stanford, he's going to be successful and turn that program around.'

JOHN ETCHEMENDY(Stanford Provost)

'Stanford is very sorry to see Tyrone Willingham leave, but at the same time, we wish him the very best as he takes on new challenges at Notre Dame. Coach Willingham has been successful at Stanford because while developing a top-notch program he never lost sight of his commitment to his players as students and human beings. It is that kind of character and integrity that makes him such an excellent coach and speaks so well of Notre Dame's choice. We wish him and his family every possible success in this new endeavor.'

KENT BAER(Stanford defensive coordinator)

'... (Tyrone's) very witty, but he doesn't show a lot of that to his team, or even his staff. He's a lot of fun, but the way he comes across to the media and the team and even the alumni, he can appear (a different) way. It's his coach face. ... Kids trust him and that's a motivation in itself. He's not one of those guys to get up and yell and rah-rah. He'll put his points on the overhead (projector) and tell them what they need to do to win. ...'

SHARCUS STEEN(former Stanford linebacker)

'I've never seen a man as focused and determined as he is.'

CHRIS JOHNSON(former Stanford cornerback)

'He's a very good person outside of football, someone you don't hesitate to go to when you need advice. He's down to earth.'

CHARLEY DEAN(former Stanford receiver)

'I couldn't ask for anything more in a coach. He demands as much of himself as he does of us. We love playing for him.'

AP Sports Writer

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