Willingham ready to take the reins at Notre Dame

Posted: Wednesday, January 02, 2002

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- When he learned three weeks ago that Notre Dame had hired George O'Leary as its football coach, Tyrone Willingham told Irish athletic director Kevin White he had made a mistake.

''Kevin, you're hiring the wrong guy,'' White recalled Willingham had told him. ''You need to hire me. You know you have to hire me.''

White finally took the Stanford coach's advice and signed him to a six-year deal Monday night.

White recounted the conversation Tuesday as he introduced Willingham, the first black head coach in any sport at Notre Dame, and just one of four black coaches at Division I-A.

Willingham's hiring ends an embarrassing chapter for one of the nation's most prestigious football programs. O'Leary resigned five days after being hired because of lies on his resume about his academic and athletic background.

Asked if Notre Dame had done anything different to investigate Willingham's background, White said he had not. White said the school used an executive search company for both men and university personnel spent extensive time conducting database searches.

''This is a slippery slope between confidentiality and due diligence when you're involved with a high-profile person,'' he said.

Willingham was the first coach White had contacted after Bob Davie was fired Dec. 2. He didn't contact him during the second search until Sunday, 17 days after O'Leary resigned.

The university declined to disclose financial terms. Willingham's agent, Ray Anderson, also would not reveal financial terms, but said a $1.5 million a year salary cited by the South Bend Tribune was much more credible than an earlier report of $2 million to $3 million.

White said he was impressed by Willingham's response when he told him the first time he hadn't been hired and again when he contacted him a second time.

''He's a strong and determined guy, a very capable guy, a very skilled guy,'' he said.

Willingham displayed the same confidence at Tuesday's news conference, saying he has no doubt he can help lead Notre Dame back to being a dominant team.

''That's why I'm here. To reach that level of excellence that this university has always had. I believe it can be accomplished,'' he said.

Willingham said he has a simple plan to answer questions boosters and recruits might have about the fact he wasn't Notre Dame's first choice.

''The way I will address it is to win,'' he said.

White said he talked with many coaches who worked with Willingham, including former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, before offering Willingham the Notre Dame job.

''Every one of them regards him as one of the top coaches in college or professional football,'' White said.

White said after Davie was fired, he had six possible replacements, including Willingham and O'Leary. He didn't say who the others were. After O'Leary resigned, White interviewed one additional person.

O'Leary and Willingham were the only people offered the job, White said.

White said the reason he initially selected O'Leary is because he believed he better met the criteria of being a head coach with a proven record and a great ''institutional fit.''

''We just really felt that George kind of brought us something out of central casting. Second-generation Irish Catholic, a great passion to be at Notre Dame. He espoused it, he gushed at us and we loved him. We thought he was a very good football coach,'' White said.

After meeting again with Willingham, White was convinced he is ''as passionate or more passionate.''

O'Leary, who had a 52-33 in seven seasons at Georgia Tech, is brash. Willingham, who had a 44-36-1 record in seven seasons at Stanford, is more quietly confident.

Willingham said he thinks being a black coach at the most prestigious football school in the country is significant.

''Because part of my philosophy is that there's a greater good, that we're out there to benefit not just yourself, that's important, but to benefit others,'' he said. ''So is this significant? Yes, I say it is significant.''

The Rev. Edward Malloy, the university president, said St. Thomas Aquinas described things as being essential or being an accident.

''The essentials for Tyrone are outstanding coach, excellent reputation, great record, great institutional fit. Accidents are that he is a high-profile African-American coach, in a high profile position,'' Malloy said. ''He is an excellent example of what is possible if you work hard and have high ideals for yourself.''

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