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Willingham righting the ship

Andrew Soukup | Tuesday, December 2, 2003

PALO ALTO, Calif. – For the umpteenth time, Tyrone Willingham jogged off the field at Stanford Stadium with a win, pumping his fists as the crowd cheered.Except that Willingham’s 26th win in football-indifferent Palo Alto came with the visiting team celebrating a win, with the coach wearing a blue Notre Dame shirt, and with green-clad fans cheering the Irish head coach while the home crowd chanted, “Ty, you suck.”Not since 1996 has a Notre Dame team put so many points on the board, and there’s little coincidence that Willingham hung half a hundred on a team he used to coach in a city he knows intimately well. There’s no mistaking which team Willingham coaches now, and with Notre Dame’s ruthless victory Saturday, he let everyone know it.But that didn’t stop some of the Stanford players from wandering up to their old coaching staff to talk for the briefest of seconds. Stanford quarterback Chris Lewis, who last year interrupted an on-field NBC interview at Notre Dame Stadium to talk to Willingham approached his old coach with tears in his eyes before embracing his former mentor.The upperclassmen in Palo Alto so miss their old head coach that they still call the Irish coaching staff even though Notre Dame’s present coaches have tried – and failed – to make a clean break from the Stanford program.Stanford assistant coach David Kelly said as much in a story Saturday in the Alameda Times-Star, when he blasted the Irish coaching staff for their relationship with current Stanford players.”No comment,” was Willingham’s official response, even though an edgy smile let everyone know both that he read what Kelly said and his reaction to it.The coaches may have insisted Saturday’s game wasn’t personal, that Stanford was just any other opponent, but they weren’t kidding anybody. And maybe that’s why the Willingham-coached Irish did many uncharacteristic non-Willingham things Saturday.Did the Irish intend to intentionally disrupt Stanford’s pre-game senior ceremony by classlessly running onto the field? Did Willingham intend to embarrass his former team by calling for a fake punt with the Irish up seven touchdowns in the fourth quarter? Did offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick want to make a statement about his long beleaguered-offense by continuing to call long pass plays late into the third quarter?”I thought we did call off the horns,” Willingham coldly said after the game.After the shelling, Stanford players mixed regret that Willingham had left with frustration about how he had returned. But their reminiscent responses, coupled with what Willingham has accomplished with Notre Dame over the second-half of the season, suggest that the Irish should be lucky Lionel Tyrone Willingham wears blue shirts instead of red ones.An offensive line that was once among the worst in the nation has now gelled to the point where it can help Julius Jones produce 200-yard games at will. A Swiss cheese-esque defense now can set up the offense with good field position. A squad that seemingly had lost its direction with three 30-plus point losses to future BCS teams now is reincarnated into a machine that leaves Irish players – and fans – wondering, “What if?”To see the impact Willingham’s calm demeanor has had on the Irish, look at what happened two years ago when Notre Dame played Stanford with a 4-6 record. Led by Bob Davie, an ineffective Notre Dame offense sputtered in the rain as players seemed to be more intent on returning to South Bend than playing football. Players were visibly angry after the loss, and Davie was fired a game later.Now, even though the Irish are 5-6, Willingham had the Irish singing the fight song so loud it echoed outside the visitors locker room at Stanford Stadium. Where the Irish gave up two years ago, now they don’t know how to give in. Where coaches searched for answers two years ago, coaches found them this year. Where players struggled, Willingham’s crew improved. Now, the Irish have a different attitude – one this cocky and overconfident team was missing at the beginning of the season.”It’s just sad we couldn’t have done it earlier,” Jones said. “But what’s done is done.”Admittedly, the Irish are soundly beating poor football teams. But to see the impact Willingham can have, look at the team he left, and then crushed.It may not be as easy to see when the Irish are 5-6 as when they were 10-3, but riding a three-game winning streak into the end of the year, Willingham has Notre Dame pointed in the right direction.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Andrew Soukup at asoukup@nd.edu.