Return to Glory: Inside Tyrone Willingham's Amazing First Season at Notre Dameby Alan Grant
In this work filled with behind-the-scenes drama, Grant tells the dramatic story of Tyrone Willingham's inaugural season as Notre Dame's first African-American coach.See more details below
In this work filled with behind-the-scenes drama, Grant tells the dramatic story of Tyrone Willingham's inaugural season as Notre Dame's first African-American coach.
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Return to Glory
By Alan H. Grant
Little, BrownCopyright © 2003 Alan Grant
All right reserved.
Chapter OneROCK BOTTOM
November 24, 2001, Stanford Stadium
THE NOTRE DAME HEAD COACH had fought through failures before, but when he saw his team collapse this time, he knew there was no coming back from it.
With over seven minutes left in the game, Bob Davie's team was leading Stanford 13-3. It was third-and-ten, and the Cardinal had the ball on its own 19-yard line. Stanford had no chance. Well, they weren't supposed to have a chance. But after Stanford quarterback Randy Fasani threw a strike to receiver Nick Sebes for a gain of 46 yards, something strange happened.
The Stanford team, in this case the "other" team, acted as though they were supposed to win. Even though they were the "academic" team that was supposed to just make things respectable against teams like Notre Dame, Stanford acted as though they were the dominant program in college football. They carried themselves as if they set the standards for excellence. That was probably because their head coach, Tyrone Willingham, thought anything was possible.
Even after Sebes's long gain, things looked grim for the Cardinal, but with the clock ticking down, neither Willingham nor his team seemed worried. They marched down the field, and Stanford fullback Casey Moore scored a nine-yard touchdown to make the score 13-10. A few minutes later, after the Irish failed to move the ball, Stanford got it right back, and Cardinal running back Kenneth Tolon scored from the one to make it 17-13.
That's the way it would end. That's why Bob Davie, Notre Dame's head coach, said what he did after the game. "In the second half of Stanford," Davie told the media, "we hit rock bottom."
That rainy night may have been when their coach and their fans realized just how fast they were sinking, but in fact, Notre Dame had been plummeting for a while. They had been in trouble back on September 29, after a 24-3 loss to Texas A&M left them at 0-3 for the year. It was the first time in history that any Notre Dame team had started the season with three straight losses. Though they continued to practice and prepare each week, their chances for a berth in a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) game had evaporated before the end of September, making it all but impossible to do anything but go through the motions.
It wasn't just the team, though. The spirit of Notre Dame had also declined, slipping from its rightful place in the pantheon of college athletics. The most conspicuous evidence was displayed during a game against Nebraska a year earlier, on September 9, 2000. The disheartening 27-24 loss in overtime wasn't the real tragedy; after all, the loss-to the number one team in the nation-was one of only three defeats the Irish suffered that year. The biggest blow was the overwhelming presence of Cornhuskers fans in Notre Dame Stadium.
Nebraska had been allotted just 4,000 tickets for the game. But when the Cornhuskers team emerged from the tunnel, 30,000 screaming fans greeted them-each and every one dressed in bright red. That afternoon, as Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch sprinted down the sideline in overtime for the game-winning score, that rowdy cartel of Huskers fans erupted in unison. Oh, they may have just been visiting Knute Rockne's house, but for the moment, those fans took over the stadium and treated it as though it were their house.
It was a sign of the times. Notre Dame fans were still coming to campus on Saturday afternoons; they just had other things to do once they got there. They had to take in a Mass, check out the Golden Dome atop the Main Building, pray in the Grotto, browse the bookstore, and tailgate all weekend long. But the actual football game, once the crown jewel of an autumn Saturday, had become merely another item on the list. So when Nebraska fans rolled into town, money in hand, looking to score several thousand tickets to support their team, Notre Dame fans said, "What the hell?" and gave them up.
Things had certainly changed since Bob Davie helmed the Notre Dame program in 1997. Davie was a coach who wanted to move the program forward. He once said that the administration, in terms of their standards of recruiting and expectations, was "living in the past." Davie would finish his Notre Dame tenure with a decent, though unspectacular 35-25-0 record, and in January 2001, he did take the Irish to the Fiesta Bowl, their first ever Bowl Championship Series game since the series was instituted in 1998. But at Notre Dame, a coach has to do more than just win football games. He has to embrace the university, with all its history and traditions. But Bob Davie didn't completely "get" the Notre Dame culture. And his failure to grasp it, as much as his record, led to his undoing.
Prior to becoming the Irish defensive coordinator in 1994, Davie had been the defensive coordinator for the Texas A&M Aggies. When Davie was named Notre Dame's head coach in 1996, some Irish fans thought he'd never really left his old school behind. And Freudian slips of the tongue, like replacing the word Irish with the word Aggies at Notre Dame pep rallies, didn't exactly endear him to Irish fans. But the truth was, Davie was just the kind of coach the administration wanted at the time.
The Notre Dame football universe is no stranger to peaks and valleys. It's a program that operates on a regular cycle, as the university tries to balance wins, losses, and image. When the football team is winning, all is good around the Dome. But when it gets a little too big, when Notre Dame football eclipses Notre Dame the university, the administration feels the need to remind themselves and their fans that their primary mission is scholastic. That's when admission standards for athletes receive more attention. And as the university solidifies its academic image, the high-profile football coach, still the school's most visible representative, suddenly becomes persona non grata. The shift usually involves hiring a new, less dominant coach-at least until the university and its alums start itching for more wins on the field again.
You might recall the Gerry Faust era, from 1981 to 1985.
Perhaps no other coach, save Knute Rockne himself, loved Notre Dame more than Faust. He knew what Notre Dame was about and tried to uphold the tradition of the student-athlete. He was Catholic, had coached at Cincinnati's Moeller High School, a Catholic powerhouse, and he had always dreamed of coaching at Notre Dame. He recruited and signed a lot of great guys. Problem was, he didn't sign a lot of great football players. As a result, he never won more than seven games in a single season. His woeful tenure came to an end on November 30, 1985, inside Orange Bowl Stadium. There, the Miami Hurricanes put it on the Irish 58-7.
Enter Lou Holtz in 1986. The diminutive fire-and-brimstone leader was handed the reins and told to restore the program to its rightful place. Holtz instantly obliged. He'd come to Notre Dame because it was his dream job. The crown jewel in Holtz's first recruiting class was a marvelously talented quarterback from Woodruff, South Carolina, named Tony Rice. Rice was one of the few Notre Dame players ever admitted under the NCAA rules of Proposition 48, which stated that in order to participate during his (or her) freshman year, an athlete must (1) be a high school graduate; (2) have a high school grade point average of 2.0 in an 11-course core curriculum; and (3) have scored 700 (out of a possible 1600) on the SAT or 17 (out of a possible 36) on the ACT. If he (or she) failed to meet those standards, the athlete would not be allowed to play or practice with a college team his (or her) freshman year. And that was the punishment-just three years of athletic eligibility.
That was the case with Tony Rice. Because he had scored just 690 on his SAT, Rice wasn't eligible to play for the Irish during his freshman year. In the past, Notre Dame may not have relaxed its standards to admit a Proposition 48 student. But allowing Rice entrance paid handsome dividends. Two years later, on January 1, 1989, Rice led his teammates off the field of the Fiesta Bowl with Notre Dame's eleventh consensus national championship in tow.
During Lou Holtz's 11-year reign, the Irish came within two games of winning two more titles after 1988. Holtz had come in and done exactly what he had been asked to do: restore the power of the football program. But for the folks up top, whose priorities were slowly shifting back to academic pursuits, that was just about enough. For Holtz, the beginning of the end came in 1995. Coming off a 6-5-1 season, Holtz tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the admissions department to embrace a fleet "precocious" kid named Randy Moss. At the time, Moss was the West Virginia high school player of the year in both football and basketball, and he had committed to come to Notre Dame. But after Moss had been in several fights at school and was arrested for kicking a student who he mistakenly believed had written racial slurs on a desk, Notre Dame withdrew its commitment to him.
Had it been 1985 rather than 1995, things may have been different. But that trophy from 1988 still maintained a pretty fresh glow, so the admissions department decided it could do without Randy Moss. Soon it became fairly apparent that Notre Dame could do without Lou Holtz as well. But it was more than just his "ambitious" recruiting that led to his departure. A dynamic and colorful public speaker, Holtz was paid thousands of dollars by corporations for his appearances. As the Notre Dame team gained more success, the demand for Holtz grew, and before long, his face was everywhere. The administration never wants its coach to upstage the university; friction was unavoidable.
Holtz resigned after the 1996 season. But since he had such an intense passion for his job, many Irish fans are convinced that he was forced out of Notre Dame. He won't say anything against the school now, but Holtz once complained to a South Bend Tribune writer that "not only do they want you to win every game, but by big scores." There was talk that Holtz was "burned out" and that coaching had passed him by. But after a two-year stint as a college football commentator for CBS, Holtz returned to the sideline at the University of South Carolina in 1999. There, Holtz transformed the Gamecocks into winners, while Bob Davie was leading Notre Dame down the path of mediocrity.
Notre Dame isn't the only university concerned with its image. There's a certain status that accompanies any scholastic university with successful sports teams. Take Duke University for instance. Some folks in Durham, North Carolina, swear that there's a vested interest in keeping the performance of the school's football team well below that of its storied basketball team. There's a reason for that. To field a good hoops team, you need just two or three excellent players. Schools like Duke, and Stanford for that matter, can dominate on the hardwood without visibly compromising their academic integrity. But football demands more than two or three bodies. It demands at least 50 guys who can compete with anyone in the country. And with 117 schools on the Division I-A level, all vying for those same players, it's just a fact that you can't routinely sign enough guys to fill your team without sacrificing some of your academic standards.
In other words, if you field a consistently dominant football team, your school's "meathead factor" is raised exponentially. Therein lay the rub for Notre Dame. They wanted it all. They desperately wanted to compare themselves to Duke and Stanford in the classroom, but they also wanted to be like Nebraska and Miami on the football field. Bob Davie had repeatedly said that what Notre Dame was asking him to do, compete for the national championship with players who were held to a higher academic standard than their opponents, was impossible. This was the same struggle that had plagued Notre Dame football for decades. It made the position of Notre Dame head coach one of the most demanding in college football.
Offensive guard Dusty Zeigler, a second-team All-America at Notre Dame in 1995, summed it up nicely. "They've got to decide what they want to be-an academic school or an athletic school. They've made it very hard to recruit because of their high standards. Maybe they should take a look at another program to teach them how to do it. Stanford has very high academic standards, and they seem to be able to get quality athletes."
It was an interesting point, and it wasn't lost on the Stanford coach. Tyrone Willingham had spent a lot of time thinking about academic standards. In the late 80s, Willingham had noticed the guy who was coaching the Duke football team. Willingham knew that the Blue Devils had never produced a winning football program until Steve Spurrier-an ultracompetitive cat much like Willingham-had arrived on the scene. On Spurrier's watch, Duke went 20-13-1, even winning an ACC championship. After Spurrier left Duke in favor of a big-time program at the University of Florida, Willingham continued to keep an eye on him. While at Florida, Spurrier won seven SEC titles, and in 1996 he won it all when Florida beat Florida State for the national championship. Spurrier's path-from unprecedented success at an academic institution, to even more success at a big-time football program-captured Willingham's imagination. He didn't know exactly how Spurrier had succeeded at Duke, but he knew a part of it centered on making players believe they could win.
In 1999, perhaps taking a page from Spurrier's playbook, Willingham led Stanford to its first Rose Bowl in 28 years, a feat not even NFL coaches Bill Walsh and Denny Green had accomplished while there. And his 2001 team, along with a 9-3 record, would go on to compile an 83 percent graduation rate. Academic achievement coupled with football success underscored one of Willingham's basic philosophies. Wherever competition manifested itself, on the field, in the classroom, or in any social realm where success or failure could be tangibly measured, Willingham had one purpose. "The goal," he said, "is to win."
High academic standards were not an insuperable barrier to athletic success, but the academic culture at Stanford affected Willingham in other ways. Despite his success on the field, the university had never rallied around his team. Football simply would never be a prominent part of Stanford's identity.
On the November evening of Stanford's unexpected win over Notre Dame, Willingham was reminded of how Stanford's attitude toward its football program had limited him. Before his team took control of the game in the third quarter, he noticed an unsettling presence in Stanford Stadium.
Excerpted from Return to Glory by Alan H. Grant Copyright © 2003 by Alan Grant . Excerpted by permission.
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