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Willingham addresses firing with class

Matt Lozar | Friday, December 3, 2004

Tyrone Willingham walked to the microphone in the Joyce Center interview room Wednesday afternoon, with one thing standing out from his outfit of a gold blazer and black collarless shirt.

Unlike past press conferences, Willingham wasn’t wearing any Notre Dame apparel.

In his standard calm and collected manner, Willingham talked with the media for more than 15 minutes only one day after being fired as Notre Dame football coach.

“To say I am disappointed, I think that very much hits the mark, but at the same time, I understand that I didn’t meet the expectations or standards that I set for myself in this program, and when you don’t meet your own expectations, you make yourself vulnerable to the will of others,” Willingham said. “My goals have always been to inspire people to be the best they could be, on and off the field. I believe that I have been true to that in my time here at Notre Dame and appreciative of the opportunity and appreciative of what we have done, and I am disappointed with what I didn’t do more than anything else.”

Willingham said he became aware of conversations about his job security occurring Sunday afternoon, but was surprised at the Tuesday firing.

Even though he was surprised, Willingham knows every coaching job doesn’t come with a long-term guarantee for holding that post.

“Forgive me, but as a football coach – I think I said this at some point – there is no security,” he said. “It doesn’t exist. It’s not there.”

Willingham also understood the expectations at Notre Dame – realistic or not – are as demanding as anywhere in college football.

“I don’t get into what’s fair and what’s not fair. I am an optimist by nature, but I am also a realist, and that makes you deal with the events as they occur,” he said. “So I will deal with the events.”

Throughout everything Willingham has done as head coach of the Irish – from talking in students’ dorms to answering the media’s questions about his goals – Willingham always talked of one on-the-field goal. Willingham acknowledged Wednesday he didn’t do that one thing enough.

“There’s only one thing. Win. That’s it,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. Win.”

In the beginning, Willingham won at Notre Dame. He got off to an 8-0 start in 2002. The 13-15 record in the 28 games since that start, coupled with eight losses by more than three touchdowns, was a major factor in why Willingham was fired.

“We had some success. We didn’t have enough success,” Willingham said. “That is, I think, the bottom line. We didn’t reach the level that I wanted to reach.”

When the topic of being given three years was fair or not, Willingham answered those questions quickly, even cutting off one reporter who was asking that question.

“I’m not going there,” Willingham said.

Later, he explained the abrupt answer.

“Forgive me, there is not any anger associated with that, it’s just that is the truth,” Willingham said. “Someone else holds the answers.”

On another controversial topic regarding Willingham’s firing, he said plenty needs to be said about his feelings regarding the Black Coaches Association, but not at this time.

Willingham didn’t think it was necessary to discuss whether or not he was asked to make any staff changes.

As for his successor in South Bend, Willingham paused for a while when asked what one piece of advice he would give to the next coach of the Irish.

“It would be ‘Be yourself,'” Willingham said. “That’s always what’s important.”

After answering the questions, Willingham closed the press conference by wishing whoever takes over the program good fortunes.

“My wish will be that this program has great success in the future, and that whoever the coach is that he comes in and does a great job because I believe there’s some great young men in this program,” Willingham said.