Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
While some people feel that the journey to a specific destination is far more
important than arriving there, Notre Dame faithful should take stock in the
opposite right now.
In any quest, patience is the key to ultimate success, although the Fighting
Irish surely didn't show any in their search for a new football coach. Eager
to fill the most prestigious job in all of college football, the powers that
be took little time to usher in their new head man, with Bob Davie's parking
spot still warm.
Georgia Tech's George O'Leary was named the 27th head coach in Notre Dame
history, joining such legends as Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and
Dan Devine (just to name a few). However, before O'Leary could even begin to
assemble his assistants, his tenure in South Bend came to an abrupt end.
O'Leary had inaccuracies in his resume, that resulted in his dismissal (excuse
me while I clear my throat), or "resignation" of the post, he had earned just
What will clearly be a blight on the Notre Dame mystique, O'Leary's actions
embarrassed himself and the University.
I for one, thought the Irish sold themselves way short with O'Leary to begin
with. Not that he didn't produce at Georgia Tech, but more because of the
position itself and the others that walked the sidelines in South Bend before.
The perfect candidate would have to have an impeccable resume, peppered with
the kinds of intangibles that differentiate good coaches from great ones.
The aura around South Bend has a way of choking the life out of average
coaches (i.e. Davie, Gerry Faust), so the person to lead the Irish back to
glory would have to be special indeed.
While the "O'Leary incident" (the term that will be used in Notre Dame circles
from this day forward) was unfortunate, it may have been a blessing in
The situation gave the Irish a second chance to get it right, an opportunity
to make amends.
The search should have always centered around a coach that had experience
dealing with recruiting restrictions directly regarding academic achievement.
Notre Dame has some incredibly strict academic guidelines that most colleges
don't, thus making it more difficult to land the athletically-gifted, but
Don't get me wrong -- Notre Dame certainly lands its fair share of talent
based on the school's lure, but the team's stranglehold on the prep talent,
has certainly faded with each passing mediocre season.
Tyrone Willingham led Stanford to four bowl games, including the 1999 Pac-10 title and subsequent Rose Bowl appearance.
The perfect candidate was there all along in Tyrone Willingham.
The exact restrictions that hampered Bob Davie from turning things around in
South Bend, are the same ones that Willingham manipulated so perfectly at
No, Willingham didn't break the rules at Stanford, but rather he used them to
his advantage. He didn't need a boatload of blue-chip prospects to field a
winning football team. He took solid players and made them well-rounded young
men. He concentrated on the discipline aspect on both sides of the football
knowing that a smart football team doesn't beat itself. He also led by example
and his character and leadership skills are unmatched at any level of the
After seven seasons on "The Farm", Willingham achieved a great deal. He led
Stanford to four bowl games, including the 1999 Pac-10 title and subsequent
Rose Bowl appearance (the school's first in 28 years). He also picked up
Pac-10 Coach of the Year honors twice in 1995 and 1999.
In his first year at the helm (1994), he turned a 3-7-1 team (the year prior)
into a 7-4 bowl-bound squad, picking up his first Coach of the Year Award, and
Stanford's first since Bill Walsh earned the same in 1977.
A 1977 graduate of Michigan State, Willingham spent 17 seasons as an assistant
at both the college and pro levels, serving six of those seasons under Dennis
Green (three at Stanford and three with the Minnesota Vikings)
It is his undying dedication to his players as people that puts Willingham in
a position to succeed. He sums up that philosophy by saying, "I believe that
style of leadership is one of example (vocal and visual) and expectation that
change the dimensions of the student athlete's mind on what he can accomplish
in any area that he chooses to battle."
Notre Dame should be lauded for its hiring of Willingham, but not because he
is the first African-American coach ever at Notre Dame (in any sport), or
because he is just one of four active African-American coaches at the Division
I-A level (Michigan State's Bobby Williams, San Jose State's Dr. Fitz Hill and
New Mexico State's Tony Samuel are the others).
No, the Irish should be given credit for their selection of Willingham
because he was the most qualified to fill the position, especially in the
light of the O'Leary fiasco.
The old adage that it's better to be lucky than good certainly applies in
Notre Dame's case.
With Willingham in charge of the football program, the Irish have a chance to
be both in the not too distant future.