Irish coach finding way to smile

Posted: Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Sooner or later, Tyrone Willingham is bound to crack. A smile. In public.

In postgame interviews, he does, occasionally. In the locker room, absolutely. ''It's not like coach ever tells jokes or anything,'' Notre Dame receiver Omar Jenkins said the other day, ''but at least he laughs at ours.''

And on the sidelines?

Nothing. Not even after the final whistle.

''I'll have to work on that,'' Willingham said Sunday afternoon, but he wasn't smiling then, either.

Just four games into the gamble of his professional life, Willingham's future looks so bright, he has to wear shades. A last-minute win at Michigan State on Saturday kept Notre Dame's newest coach undefeated. His team is already looking forward to next weekend off.

It should have been difficult to stop smiling. It wasn't. It reminded you what somebody said about Bill Belichick, another pretty good football coach, just before the last Super Bowl: He smiles so rarely, the only person who's seen his teeth for certain is the dentist.

''I know how hard it is to win,'' Willingham explained. ''Especially at the level we play.''

Willingham is as good as his word. He said several times last week he'd treat the game against Michigan State like any other. All the available evidence screamed the opposite.

Willingham graduated from MSU in 1977. He played a pretty fair center field there. He was a walk-on in football who saw much of his playing time while holding for field goals and point-after kicks. His junior year, Willingham recognized his future was along the sidelines, not between them. As a senior, he was the conference scholar-athlete of the year. The year after that, MSU coach Darryl Rogers gave Willingham his start in the business as a graduate assistant.

But stirring up old memories wasn't the end of it.

Willingham is one of just four black head coaches among the 117 Division I programs, and one of just two in charge of a high-profile program. His friend and MSU counterpart, Bobby Williams, is the other. Both men are forceful advocates for equal opportunity. In that sense, the game was not just important in the rankings, but meaningful in a way only they could really appreciate.

And topping it all off was how the Fighting Irish won: with their starting quarterback wearing a shoulder sling while a walk-on throws a strike to a former quarterback, who runs 60 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

You can argue whether this latest escape merits a spot alongside the Gipper speech, the Montana comeback and all the others in the yearbook section listing the ''Top 20 Moments in ND History.''

But there is no doubt how much time Willingham spent savoring it. Or how long he expected the hero of the moment, walk-on QB Pat Dillingham, to celebrate.

''Now what happens is, he gets all the phone calls from the relatives. Old girlfriends that hadn't paid attention to him will pay attention now. Media will find him,'' Willingham said. ''So he's got to be able to put that all aside and be able to focus on what he does.''

Dynasties like Notre Dame reinvent themselves at some point or disappear. The Fighting Irish have won a record eight national championships, but none since 1988. They've produced seven Heisman Trophy winners, more than any other school, but the last one was in 1987.

This season began with modest-enough expectations. It's already featured several of the twists and turns that made past ones memorable. The temptation is to call it the luck of the Irish, except Willingham seems to have charted every move.

Next weekend, Stanford visits South Bend and Willingham goes from playing his alma mater to playing his former employer. He is insisting again that nothing about his preparations will be different.

At the end of Sunday's meeting with reporters -- some were on hand in South Bend, others participated by phone -- a caller asked Willingham about his practice schedule for this week. Before he answered, Willingham asked the caller to identify himself.

''Because you never know,'' he explained, ''who's on the line.''

That got some laughs, but a moment later it was clear Willingham wasn't kidding. A second caller asked for a clarification about the practice schedule.

''Is this Jack again?'' Willingham asked.

''No,'' the second caller replied, then identified himself. ''Sorry coach.''

You couldn't be sure, but you imagined at that very moment the hint of a smile was already playing at the corner of Willingham's lips.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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