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Fans’ expectations even higher

Andrew Soukup | Thursday, September 4, 2003

Somewhere between the glory of the past and the expectations of the future, Tyrone Willingham tries to coach a Notre Dame football team in the present.

He holds a job in which the standard for success equals perfection and where his every decision is analyzed by millions of fans across the nation. He is stuck trying to return a tradition-filled program to the level set by coaches like Rockne, Leahy and Parseghian. He feels pressure from fans who, instead of asking, “When are we going to win a national championship?” ask, “Why can’t we win a national championship this year?”

But Willingham, a master at making the most clichéd clichés sound like Chinese proverbs, says he doesn’t notice. He says he is focused on winning the next game. He ignores statistical trends – like the fact that, since 1996, Notre Dame teams follow three-loss seasons with six- or seven-loss seasons – in favor of discovering what his team can do next.

Whether anyone believes him is another question.

On Willingham’s second day as a Notre Dame employee, a half-hour into his introductory press conference, the new Irish coach glanced at his watch. He had grown tired of standing in front of the television cameras, and the sudden glance to his left wrist told reporters his time was almost up.

But even as Willingham looked at his watch, Notre Dame fans started looking at their calendars. While Willingham measures time in minutes and seconds, Notre Dame fans measure time two ways – how long since the Irish last won a national championship, and how long until their next one.

Willingham’s successful inaugural season under the Golden Dome only served to whet the appetites of Irish fans hungry for success. The Irish last ended the season at the top of the polls a decade and a half ago, and they have only flirted with title dreams twice since then.

But even as Willingham tries to lead the Irish back among the nation’s elite, he also must deal with fans who want what Willingham wants, but faster.

“Our fans have individual games they want us to win,” the coach said earlier this month. “But as a coach, you can’t get caught up on that.”

In Alan Grant’s book “Return to Glory,” in which the author and former Willingham protégé spent a season following the Irish coach around campus, Grant writes of a time when Willingham received a request from a fan to sign a jersey already emblazoned with signatures of Parseghian, Devine and Holtz.

Willingham has something in common with each of those men – all offered Irish fans a glimpse of a national title. All but Willingham have captured a national title.

Yet Willingham shrugs off comparisons to past teams, only wanting the Irish to win their next game. “And if we win 12 of those next games,” he said earlier this month, “we’ll be right where we want to be.”

The spring before Tyrone Willingham became a household name, the Irish coach wandered from dorm to dorm telling students the team had to get rid of an “Eeyore Cloud” that, just like the donkey from Winnie the Pooh, hung a negative attitude over anything Willingham wanted to do.

Willingham chased the clouds away in one season, and now fans who fell in love with the man players call “The Prophet” wonder if he can summon a No. 1 ranking just as quickly.

Earlier in the week, someone asked the Irish coach to identify his favorite spot on campus. Was it the Grotto? The Basilica? The Dome?

Nope.

“The Stadium,” the coach answered.

But even there, the expectations don’t change.

The opinions of this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Andrew Soukup at asoukup@nd.edu.