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Remembering, then moving on

Pat Leonard | Friday, September 23, 2005

Just a year ago, Notre Dame fans were chanting his name: “Ty! Ty! Ty!”

They meant their words in earnest. They were supporting their head coach, the man who every player on the roster answered to.

And this Saturday, Irish fans – and players, too, perhaps – will do a double-take when they see Tyrone Willingham wearing a purple polo shirt. There’s nothing wrong with feeling something – a slight memory-jog of what was.

Sure, the game itself is about football, and only football.

But the event, the meeting of Willingham and the players he recruited for the Irish, is much more.

Imagine this scenario: you are a standout high school player being recruited by 40 to 50 schools, maybe more. A coach from your dream school calls, talks to your parents, visits your house, offers you a scholarship, brings you to campus, introduces you to the team, involves you in practice, teaches you life lessons, begins his tenure with eight straight wins and after three seasons … he’s gone.

Understandably, any athlete with a heart in addition to 4.3, 40-yard-dash speed would be at least affected by such a decision.

Last season, some Irish players displayed shock, disappointment and confusion.

But there was a time for those feelings to show themselves.

And even though players like Darius Walker say Willingham taught them some of their most important lessons – in football and in life – Walker and the rest of the Irish know what they have to do Saturday on the field.

Perhaps strong safety Tom Zbikowski, a Willingham recruit, himself, said it best Wednesday when asked about the distractions of facing his old tutor.

“I’m lining up against their receivers,” he said, “not their coaches.”

Critics hear comments like that and throw up red flags.

‘Notre Dame is a football factory,’ they say. ‘All they care about now is winning.’

Well, one thing is for certain. Football factories don’t hire people like Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis. They hire people regardless of character or history, as long as they win.

When Willingham was hired at Notre Dame on Jan. 1, 2002, then-University President Father Edward “Monk” Malloy cautioned all who were listening.

“This is a very difficult job, maybe one of the most difficult jobs in the sporting area,” Malloy said, “and yet there’s a lot of rewards that go along with it, as well.”

That is why Willingham is no longer head coach of Notre Dame: not because of discriminatory hiring practices or because he isn’t a good person.

It is because being head coach of Notre Dame is a difficult task.

And that is why Charlie Weis, in this week’s Tuesday press conference, began by immediately broaching the subject of Willingham and giving it due credit and respect.

Then his tone changed.

“Washington, since 1981, [is] 47-7 at home versus non-PAC 10 teams,” he said.

Weis was acknowledging that Willingham means something to the Irish players but was saying, in his own, indirect manner, ‘Let’s move on.’

That’s his way. Weis is all business when it comes to football, which is how it should be.

Willingham gave everything he had while at Notre Dame, as a person and a coach. Everyone associated with the program and the University respects him for that.

But for every football Saturday as far as the Irish eye can see – and the Irish ear can hear – chants of “Weis! Weis! Weis!” will ring from Notre Dame Stadium.

That’s how Notre Dame does it. Willingham got his chants, and now, Weis does, too, because they are both men who epitomize what Notre Dame is about, one not more so than the other.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Pat Leonard at pleonard@nd.edu