An Unlikely Coach

by Bob Herbert

SOUTH BEND, Ind.The first thing you notice about Tyrone Willingham is how small he is.p. He’s 5-8 and very slight, almost delicate-looking. He dresses neatly, even fastidiously. He has a mustache that is carefully trimmed and his hair is cut very short. You might guess he was a high school teacher.

You’ll also quickly notice how soft-spoken he is. You may have to lean forward to hear him, or ask him to repeat a comment or two. On tape his voice sounds like a whisper.

If you went strictly by appearances, you would never guess that Mr. Willingham is the new head football coach at Notre Dame. Stereotypical he’s not. He’s excessively polite and does not seem particularly assertive. Notre Dame has been famously obsessed with football for the better part of a century, and has made a practice of devouring head coaches. If you didn’t know him, you might think of Tyrone Willingham as Mr. Peepers venturing into the lion’s den.

Moreover, Mr. Willingham is black. When I was a kid you could no more imagine a black person running the football program at Notre Dame than you could imagine, say, a black secretary of state.

If Mr. Willingham is concerned about any of this, he hasn’t shown it. At the press conference introducing him as the new head coach, he was asked if the fact that he was African-American was a major issue. “No, it is not,” he said.

When I interviewed him he stressed the twin issues of winning football games and making a powerful positive contribution to the lives and lifestyles of the young men he coaches.

There was not much small talk. He said academic achievement was important and he would demand that from his players. And he said the players’ behavior off the field was important, and he would demand that it be exemplary.

“When I started to develop my fondness, or my love, for athletics,” he said, “it was because athletics was a powerful way to influence youngsters to be better people.” He said that while his goal at Notre Dame was to win championships, he always felt that the ultimate goal of athletics “should be to help mold young people to be our leaders.”

We’ve heard this before, right? Every coach says it. Still, Mr. Willingham manages to sound convincing, even as he forces you to strain to hear him. And his track record tends to back him up. He came to Notre Dame from Stanford, where he won a lot of football games with teams that weren’t expected to do too much. And the latest statistics show that football players at Stanford had an 83 percent graduation rate. At Notre Dame, which also stresses academics, the graduation rate was 74 percent.

“As football coaches,” said Mr. Willingham, “we have the opportunity to further the development of youngsters who have the work ethic, who have the character, who have the toughness, who have the sportsmanship and who have the team-building skills to lead us through difficult times.”

Statistics or not, reporters listen with a cynical ear. Mr. Willingham pays less than no attention to that. He has no time for it. He is, he says, in constant search of excellence.

Throughout his comments, he sprinkles stories about family lifehis own family when he was growing up in Jacksonville, N.C., his wife and three children now, and his players, whom he frequently refers to as a family.

It’s as if he sees the idea of family as the initial key to success in any endeavor. When he talks about disadvantaged youngsters and the trouble that has beset so many of them, he says it’s important to try to envelop them in the equivalent of a constructive family.

“You have to be comfortable with being a role model and setting an example,” he said. “But then I think we have to reach a little deeper. At some point you have to get out and get to those who are still at that young age, maybe that kid that’s in a single-parent home, and let’s see if we can’t reach him before he reaches a point where he can’t be changed, or can’t be turned around.”

So here’s a guy who’s trying to win some football games, is trying to build character among a fiery group of athletes, who reveres the concept of family, who speaks respectfully and in low tones, and who’s not interested in drawing attention to himself or pointing fingers of blame.

Is Tyrone Willingham for real?

Let’s hope so.

January 24, 2002

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