Willingham named Sporting News Sportsman of the Year

Posted: Wednesday, December 11, 2002

NEW YORK -- Just about a year ago, Notre Dame football was in turmoil, the program shaken by a 5-6 season and embarrassed by hiring a coach who had embellished his resume.

And then came Tyrone Willingham to smooth the troubled waters.

Willingham took the Irish to eight straight victories in a turnaround 10-2 season, the first year since 1993 that Notre Dame has won that many games.

He erased the bad taste created by the hiring of George O'Leary and brought back some of the swagger that had been missing at South Bend.

His accomplishments earned him the Sporting News Sportsman of the Year Award, presented on Tuesday.

Wearing a Notre Dame logo lapel button, Willingham recalled how when he lost out in the first hiring process, he shrugged off the disappointment, prepared to stay at Stanford. He denied telling athletic director Kevin White that Notre Dame had made a mistake hiring O'Leary.

''I had a great job,'' Willingham said. ''Stanford is a wonderful university. What I told Dr. White is I can do a great job. I don't demean or belittle other people. George O'Leary is a fine person and a fine coach. I didn't tell a previous administration they made a mistake. That's not me.''

Still, he faced a daunting task, piecing together a proud program that had fallen on hard times. Willingham accepted it with zest.

He explained his philosophy.

''If you see a mountain, it's difficult to climb,'' he said. ''If you see a hill, it's easier. I saw a great opportunity, a chance to coach the most elite program in the country, a chance to win.

''We went in to do the best we could. It's amazing in life when you go in with the right attitude, what you can accomplish. I was blessed with good athletes eager to be successful at a great university that prides itself on success. We were fortunate. You always have to be in football. The shape of the ball dictates that it doesn't always bounce right up.''

Willingham plunged right in, preaching a week-by-week approach.

''I never look at a season,'' he said. ''I look at individual pieces of a season. If we could beat Maryland, then Purdue, then the next team and on and on. It's impossible to defeat two opponents in the same week.''

So, one by one, they fell.

Notre Dame plowed through its schedule, soaring in the polls, restoring the pride. Willingham became the first Irish football coach to win 10 games in his first season. Now he's selling the opportunity to win No. 11 in the Gator bowl against North Carolina State on Jan. 1.

''The Gator Bowl is an exciting opportunity for our team,'' he said, ''an opportunity to win 11 games. Not many have that chance. We defeated four or five ranked teams. Not many did that. We defeated two ranked teams back to back on the road.

''North Carolina State is a fine team, one of the better ones. This is a great opportunity and a great challenge. That's the way I look at it and the way our young men do.''

Willingham is the first college football coach to win the Sporting News Award, which began in 1968. Last year's winner was Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling.

''This is one of those moments that makes you stop and think of your life and the responsibility to have to others,'' Willingham said as he accepted the award.

''I'm not worthy to accept this award as Tyrone Willingham. I will accept it on behalf of my staff, Notre Dame, the parents, coaches and players who have touched my life.''

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