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Ty made Notre Dame a better place

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, December 3, 2004

Class is a dwindling commodity in the college football universe. At many schools, coaches and administrators turn a blind eye to players and recruiters who scoff at NCAA regulations, bending the rules in pursuit of dollars and fame.

Not so at Notre Dame. The University spent decades cultivating the reputation of a football program that exemplified integrity at every level – from the helmet-sprayers to the walk-ons to the starters to the head coach.

This reputation took a hit with the George O’Leary hiring, then firing fiasco in December 2001, and sank further in March 2002 when four Irish football players were charged with offenses ranging from rape to conspiracy to commit rape. The class that had been Notre Dame’s trademark was beginning to fade.

Enter Tyrone Willingham.

As the program’s new figurehead, the coach knew it fell to him to return the Irish to respectability off the field as well as on it. He knew that image problems are not acceptable at Notre Dame. So he eliminated them – by example.

His players quickly learned that he expected their conduct to be as impeccable as his own, their dedication to be as steadfast. Their respect for their coach was evident, and many tried to imitate his professionalism.

This mission was not just confined to the locker room. Willingham’s goal was not just to produce classy football players – it was to produce classy young men. He also succeeded on that front, as the team’s overall GPA rose admirably during his three years at the University, and his recruits seem to fit the Notre Dame mold of true student-athletes.

It also didn’t hurt that the program’s visible strides took place under a visible coach. Willingham was Notre Dame’s first black head coach in any sport, a heartening move by a University with a vastly white student population. And while white students certainly embraced him – from the “1812 Overture” salute to “I heart TY” T-shirts – many ethnic minority students felt a special bond with the coach. Willingham’s hiring also inspired black faculty and administrators at the University, as well as Irish fans across the country who turned on NBC on Saturdays and saw a face like their own.

But unfortunately, Saturdays were also the problem because at Notre Dame, you need to do both. As athletic director Kevin White put it in his Tuesday press conference, “We just were not meeting those programmatic or competitive expectations on Saturday. But I think I need to say, as I was thinking about it this morning, from Sunday through Friday, our football program has exceeded all expectations in every way.”

At a University known for its integrity and class, the coach brought back up to speed a football program that was lagging in both. At a University with demanding academic standards, he motivated his team to embrace and meet them. At a University with a distinctive character, his own never wavered.

The Notre Dame family knows that it was better off with him as one of its members.

That’s why – even though Willingham the coach stumbled on Saturdays – Willingham the man will be sorely missed at Notre Dame.