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The Life

November 1, 2002
Irish Wise
ESPN The Magazine

He changed my mind.

That was my first impression of Tyrone Willingham. He was the coach, but he was interested in my opinion. It was about 10:30 on an August night in 1989, my senior year at Stanford. The football team always stayed in Toyon Hall for summer camp and that night Willingham, then the running backs coach, came up to me and asked what I thought of the 11 p.m. curfew. Taken aback -- because he actually wanted my opinion, and no other coach in my life had ever been interested in what I (or any other player, for that matter) thought about anything, especially a team rule -- I said, "I guess that time is okay."

Notre Dame
"You don't think it's too early or too late?" he asked.

"Nah, I think 11 is cool."

And that's how Tyrone Willingham forever altered my perceptions of what a football coach could be.


The gym is dark, save for the spotlight bathing the little black man dressed in a taupe suit and dark tie. Twelve thousand people maintain a steady buzz of postadolescent energy as Willingham walks down a long blue carpet and leads his team to four rows of blue plastic folding chairs. It's the night before the Pitt game. The scene is one repeated every Friday at the ritualized Notre Dame pep rallies before home games: the prelude to that moment when Willingham deflects the spotlight from himself and thoughtfully pours it onto his team.

Students from each hall (as Notre Dame's dorms are known) sit in separate sections of the gym, dressed in same-colored T-shirts. The members of Knott Hall wear orange; O'Neill is in blue; Farley, in green; Dillon, in red. When Willingham takes the mike, instead of singling out his starters he chooses one of the halls, and he has the players from that residence stand to represent it. School spirit? Sure. An embodiment of the student-athlete ideal? No doubt. But more than anything else, it's an important lesson for the entire Notre Dame community -- when the players stand, the other students don't see just football players. "If I look at my guys as just football players, how are they going to see themselves?" Willingham says. "And how are other people going to see them?"

That's what this story and this season are all about. Throughout college football, perceptions are being changed. Stereotypical notions about athletes, about football coaches, about this team -- hell, notions about black men -- hopefully, mercifully, are falling by the wayside.

Sure, the haters would say, he was a 138-pound walk-on QB at Michigan State. Sure, he took over for Bill Walsh at Stanford. Sure, in '99 he took Stanford to its first Rose Bowl in 28 years. But let's see what he does in the house that Rockne built.

Now his team is 8-0, sixth in the polls, and the haters are waiting for him to lose, praying for him to lose. Because if he loses, they're hoping he'll become the angry black man they think all intelligent, opinionated black men are deep down, behind the mask. But Willingham, 48, walks right by the haters. With his straight-backed, upright walk -- symbolic of his straight-backed, upright approach to life and football -- he quietly, methodically and pridefully tramples stereotypes and changes perceptions.


It's a Monday night. Willingham sits in his office, the only sound coming from a small speaker piping in Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher." Bobbing his head, he smiles -- yes, it happens -- and says, "This is good music." It's a glimpse of the Tyrone Willingham few get to see.

He talks a little about his philosophy of the game. To Willingham, football is a simple game, and because of that he applies to it a simple bottom-line logic. You've heard it said a million times, and as long as he's roaming someone's sideline, he'll keep on saying it: "My only goal is to win. I don't care if it's by 10 points, one point or half a point."

Case in point: On Oct. 12, after the Irish had snuck past Pitt by eight, a reporter suggested that Notre Dame had been outplayed, since the Panthers had gained 402 yards and the Irish only 185. This made Willingham chuckle. He folded his arms across his starched white shirt and dark blue tie. "To say we were outplayed is to suggest that the other team made more plays than we did," he said. "If that were the case, then they would have won the game. But that clearly wasn't the case." Peering over his gold, square-rim glasses, he calmly explained, "They outgained us, and that's different."

That exchange reminds him of another misconception he would like to dispel. "The perception is, I don't like talking to the media," he says. "See, I have a purpose for everything. I just don't make frivolous conversation and give people quotes to play with. That doesn't have anything to do with winning."

The same logic applies to the issue of race. As James Brown's hoarse voice comes across the speaker, Willingham says, "You know, they wouldn't play James Brown on the radio back when I was young. You couldn't say things like 'I'm black and I'm proud.'" Willingham is black and proud, but he doesn't have a whole lot of time for frivolous conversation on that topic, either. Oh, he knows there are only four black head coaches in Division I-A football, but, as is the case with all distractions, he's not focused on it, because he understands hatred and discrimination are aimed not just at blacks; they pervade the world. "It's not just us," he says. "There's a lot of racism and hatred. In the Middle East, women are bought and sold like cattle. And there are some parts of the country where being Jewish isn't such a good thing."

A few weeks earlier, I'd asked Ty about being a highly visible black man in a mostly white community. We were sitting on a bench outside the Joyce Athletic Center. He had just come from dinner, and he spooned vanilla ice cream from a plastic bowl as he thoughtfully considered my question. As if on cue, students walked by and a short, stocky blonde girl shouted, "Great game! It was really fun to watch."

In his usual solemn baritone, Willingham replied, "Thank you." But as the fan moved on, he shrugged it off. "People congratulate you because you're the coach, but it comes with the territory," he said.

But the fame that comes with football wasn't the only challenge that awaited him when he took over at Notre Dame in January. Willingham entered a religious school that had fallen into a spiritual abyss. Fittingly, he invokes the sixth chapter of Mark to explain his reasons for coming. "Those disciples didn't need Jesus when the water was calm, did they?" he asks. "It's when that storm hit that they needed leadership."

Coming off a 5–6 season, still in the wake of the George O'Leary résumé fiasco, and with three players accused of raping a female student, the most storied program in the country needed a leader. Willingham waded headfirst into the storm. "There was still some energy here," he says. "There's always been that around here. But it was energy fighting against itself."

Tyrone Willingham
The pride is back at ND, thanks to Ty Willingham.
About a week after he was hired, Willingham funneled that energy into the Loftus Sports Center, where each morning at 6:30 the players reported for off-season workouts. Ironically, the man who hates anything to be about him molded this team in his image with a workout regimen similar to his own. At 5'7" and a taut 140 pounds, Willingham has a frame built not by the excessive repetitions of weight training but by a strict routine of jumping rope, push-ups and sit-ups, which allows him to maintain the same physique he had when he played 33 games at Michigan State from 1973 to '76. On a good day he can break off 70 push-ups in a row. And of course, there's a carefully thought-out theory that accompanies his workout philosophy: He won't have any of his players do anything he isn't willing to do himself.

But Jordan Black, a senior offensive lineman, says no one was doing it like that last winter. "Oh, man, those workouts. You name it, we did it," he says. "Sometimes we had some guys laying on the ground, some throwing up." But as odd and grueling as those sessions were, Black says one thing was missing: resistance. "We'd been without a coach for a month, so we had no leadership," he says. "We had no direction."

So only a month into the Willingham era, Black and his teammates were believers. They saw a coach who not only cared about them but respected them. "He was a friend, a leader, he was anything you needed him to be," says Black. And Black says when there's a decision to be made, Willingham solicits the seniors' input. That, in and of itself, is unusual, because most newly hired coaches alienate the short-timers -- the seniors. It may have been a small gesture to ask what movie they wanted on the three-hour bus trip to East Lansing for the Michigan State game back on Sept. 21, but as they watched The Count of Monte Cristo, it meant a great deal to Black and the other seniors.

After a broken wrist in 2000 and a broken leg last year, Arnaz Battle limped into his senior year. But he isn't limping anymore. After Battle's last-second, 60-yard touchdown catch beat Michigan State, Willingham told Battle he hadn't needed that play to change his perception of him. "I never stopped believing in you," he told Battle. Because of that, Battle's perception of Willingham will likely never change either. "He's there for me socially and spiritually," says Battle. "He's concerned not only with what's going on now, but with my future."

At practice before the Stanford game two weeks later, Willingham called the defense onto the field. He blew his whistle and the first unit ran, screaming at the tops of their lungs, to the middle of the field. But Willingham sent them back to the sideline. He blew his whistle again and they returned. Once again, he sent them back. Before summoning them a third time, Willingham offered an explanation. "It's not the noise," he said. "It's the intensity. You're yelling and screaming, but you're not sprinting."

For the past 25 years, he's applied the same intensity to his style of coaching. After short stints coaching the secondary at Central Michigan, Michigan State and North Carolina State, Willingham spent 1986-88 coaching receivers at Rice. It was there that Willingham became convinced that intense preparation, not extreme noise, nets results. That's why he roams the sideline with the calm demeanor of a rational thinker, not like some power-hungry loon. "When I was at Rice, we'd often be getting our butts beat at halftime," he says. "I remember coaches trying to get guys to play by yelling and screaming. But young people don't need to be screamed at. What they need is a plan."

And he always has a plan: to outprepare his opponents, then pressure them until they crack. The way the Irish play mirrors their coach's demeanor. When dogged preparation meets white-hot intensity, it leads to the kind of success that silences doubters. Like those four minutes in the third quarter vs. Florida State on Oct. 26. Before then, Willingham was pleased to have won seven straight, with six decided in the final minutes. But he had challenged his team to develop the killer instinct that defines a champion. That's why the three Irish scores off turnovers that buried the Noles were especially satisfying to the ultracompetitive coach. "I always look for that one play in the game where I can say, 'Yeah, we got 'em,' " he says. The second that Carlos Pierre Antoine forced a fumble on a kickoff return in front of the Notre Dame sideline, Willingham rose from the turf. He leaped and pumped his fist because his plan was coming to life directly before him.

It's behind a solid cream-colored door with a simple gold nameplate that Willingham develops his plans, for how to win football games and for how to turn boys into men. One evening in early October, Willingham sat in his office on the tan sofa, four boxes of footballs at his feet. As he picked one up and scrawled "Coach Ty" across it, he was already planning for the next bye week in November. "I'll give them Friday and Saturday off," he said. "Just let them be college students."

Willingham feels the same way about the dearth of true student-athletes as he does about the shortage of black coaches. "There are always two people at fault," he says. "The system and the individual." When you sit behind a big shiny oak desk with a statue of Knute Rockne to your left and a copy of Colin Powell's autobiography behind you, you are the system. And with Willingham running the show, the system will always demand the most of the individual -- and the individual will reap the benefits.

Minutes after Notre Dame's seventh victory, 21-14 over Air Force, Willingham was flanked by safety Gerome Sapp and running back Ryan Grant, who had just gained 190 yards, at a postgame press conference. A reporter asked the coach about Grant's rushing performance. Willingham chuckled, "I'm sure he could tell you about it himself." Did he defer to the sophomore because he's a "players' coach"? Nah. Willingham wants each of his players to have his own voice, his own identity.

Tyrone Willingham
Ty Willingham has changed the attitude around Notre Dame from day one.
That isn't lost on Sapp. The senior, who is majoring in finance, prides himself on being seen as a complete man. At those pep rallies, when Willingham has him stand with the other residents of St. Edwards Hall, Sapp stands tall. "In the past, it was just starters who were introduced separately at those rallies," says Sapp. "But now we're not only more team-oriented, we're seen as students. And that's just much cooler."

Cooler still is Willingham's impact on this generation of students. When a mostly white, conservative school like Notre Dame has a black coach, the statement resonates beyond the field, the polls and the college football landscape. As Ty likes to say, "I believe in the greater good." And in this case, the greater good is that not just the team but the entire Notre Dame student body gets to see a dignified authority figure who just happens to be a black man. Sarah Tynan, a junior, is a student manager. She told me about a recent victory dinner. "I've never seen anyone command as much respect as he does," she says. "When he stands up, all these really large guys just stop chewing. It's amazing."

Today the Irish are off to their best start since 1993, and the student body is crazy about Willingham and his team. They may not know the man, but they respect the man. But I've been hanging with him here since July, and if they were 0-8, I'd still be here, and I'd be telling you pretty much the same story. If you don't believe me, then you probably didn't see what happened after the Stanford game. Minutes after getting their butts beaten 31-7, the Stanford players, one by one, lined up at midfield to embrace their old coach. See, this isn't just about football. Their perceptions of Tyrone Willingham, the man, hadn't changed.

And, after all these years, neither have mine.

This story appears in the November 11 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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