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Staying the course

Matt Lozar | Tuesday, November 4, 2003

How appropriate that Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham made a reference to watercraft in his post-game conference against Florida State with Navy coming to South Bend Saturday.

“The first thing we have to do is get a win this next weekend,” Willingham said. “We have to get our ship righted and pointed in the right direction.”

Everything seems to be heading downhill rapidly for the Irish, and suddenly fans don’t think Willingham seems like the man to turn around this program like he did last year. But that’s not weakening his confidence in the master plan.

“I don’t think it’s any question this is one of the toughest spots I’ve ever been in,” Willingham said. “But at the same time, I know what our goal is; our goal is to clearly build this program to be a great team. I still believe that can happen. Sometimes, it’s difficult to see. I think we are pointed in the right direction, and we will stay in that direction.”

While at Stanford, Willingham’s teams were very inconsistent from year to year. He started his head coaching career with the Cardinal in 1995 with back-to-back seven win seasons but followed those years with five and three win years.

However, Willingham led Stanford to the Rose Bowl in 1999 after that 3-8 season for the school’s first trip to Pasadena, Calif. in 28 years. Then Stanford followed that year with a disappointing 5-6 campaign before Willingham’s last year where the team went 9-3.

At Notre Dame, Willingham started last year with the most wins by a first year coach in Irish history but followed the pattern of his past head coaching career as the Irish are 2-6 this season.

But ask the players, and they haven’t lost faith in the man Alumni Association Executive Director Chuck Lennon calls the captain that sails the ship on the “Sea of Green.”

“How could you not believe in a man like that? He’s been driving us the whole time, and I put this loss completely on myself,” Irish quarterback Brady Quinn said.

With the Irish at 2-6, even winning four straight games would not put them in a bowl game since Notre Dame doesn’t accept bowl bids from the lower-tier bowls.

Therefore, all this team has left is to play for something that has become very common on the mouths of coaches and players once this season went south – pride. That’s the message the fifth-year seniors, who only have four games left in an Irish uniform, are trying to pass on to the younger team members with hopes of turning this sinking ship around quickly.

“For me, and this being my fifth year and my last year, it’s pride,” Notre Dame cornerback Jason Beckstrom said. “The way I try and go about it, and the things I try and tell the younger guys, is that this is a metaphor for life – that’s what football is. Despite the fact that we’re now 2-6, you can’t give up.

“In life, you’re going to get curveballs, you’re going to be down, the odds are going to stack against you, but you’ve got to keep going.”

While the players try to help the coaching staff and Willingham keep the morale up the locker room, ultimately, it comes down to the head man himself.

“That is always one of the most difficult jobs of any coach, when things aren’t going well to keep a team moving forward, to keep them positive,” Willingham said. “We will find ways to do that. I can’t tell you exactly what they are today. There are still things this football team can accomplish.”