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Silent reaction not unexpected

Matt Lozar | Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Tyrone Willingham stepped to the podium on Jan. 1, 2002 and took over perhaps the most demanding coaching job in college football.

The way Willingham got there was quiet and not flashy- just like his personality.

Growing up in Jacksonville, N.C., Willingham faced many problems because of his race. The city was integrated when Willingham was 12. On his high school football team, instead of complaining or quitting about the lack of playing time, Willingham kept working hard and eventually got his chance at quarterback when the starter got hurt.

During the coaching search to replace Bob Davie in December 2001, Willingham was one of the mid-range candidates, according to the media and fans. When George O’Leary had to resign, Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White went back to the man who he called first – Willingham.

But nobody knew about that initial phone call until Willingham was hired.

After not getting the job the first time, Willingham stayed focused on coaching Stanford in the Seattle Bowl.

Many people saw Willingham as a candidate White settled on at the end of the coaching search. Willingham went his own way in demanding the respect of his players, fans and students.

The well-known PowerPoint presentation with the team at the first players’ meeting in January that ended with a slide saying “WIN” set a precedent from Day 1.

When Willingham went to the dorms in spring 2002, he connected instantly with the Notre Dame student body by having the right answer to every question and saying he had one goal – winning. His speeches weren’t rah-rah, but down to earth and honest with the students that came to respect him instantly.

In the 8-0 “Return to Glory” start when Sports Illustrated named him the Savior of South Bend and his players called him The Prophet, Willingham never stole the limelight. He stayed quiet on the sidelines, not letting his emotion overtake him even for a second.

He gained everyone’s respect.

Then the honeymoon ended.

The Irish started losing – much more than is acceptable in South Bend.

Students, fans and alumni started to believe he couldn’t win consistently under the Golden Dome.

Throughout all of the comments about his coaching ability, Willingham never strayed from his true character.

Looking back at the Notre Dame record books decades from now, people will only see the 8-0 start followed by the numerous lopsided losses and 13 wins in 28 games.

But looking past that, there’s a man people won’t see.

They won’t see a coach who had the support of many of his players Tuesday, despite the substandard results of the past two years. Just like their coach, the players stayed silent in another period of turmoil in a program that has seen more than its fair share.

They won’t see a coach who had only three seasons to take players recruited for an option offense and put them in a pro-style attack. Willingham never complained about not having his players in the system and neither did his players.

They won’t see a coach who was as good a representative of the University as anyone in a leadership position at Notre Dame. Willingham was just as concerned with his players’ academic and spiritual development as he was with their football development. He led by example on the field and in the interview room. But he didn’t do it in high-profile events or in front of the media – it was about quiet professionalism.

As surprising as Tuesday’s firing was to almost everyone – players, media and students – Willingham didn’t stoop to the level of spouting off about how unfairly he was treated and disagreeing with the administration’s decision.

He didn’t hold his own hastily arranged press conference and vent against his management.

He didn’t release a statement voicing displeasure.

Silent, professional and in the background, Willingham left the Notre Dame program Tuesday.

If you didn’t expect that, then you don’t know Tyrone Willingham.