Living in a fishbowl is nothing new for Notre Dame first-year head coach Tyrone Willingham.
The throng of alumni, fans and media that accompany the most prestigious coaching job in the country is just a “larger fishbowl” in his eyes – another group of skeptics to dissect his every move.
No matter what he’s done or where he’s done it, “attention and scrutiny” have always followed Willingham.
But it doesn’t bother him in the least.
Becoming the first black head coach in Notre Dame’s history is just the most recent of many “firsts” Willingham has encountered in his 48 years. His determination and discipline have allowed him to break down barrier after barrier. But according to his best friend and college roommate, Charlie Baggett, it’s the road Willingham has paved for future generations that he will be remembered for.
“He’ll go down in history whether he wins or loses,” said Baggett, who is now wide receivers coach for the Minnesota Vikings. “He’ll win, but no matter what happens, he’s made history.”
A firm foundation
Willingham does his best to dispel all notions that he is a modern version of Jackie Robinson. Willingham claims that no one could know all the things that Robinson “had to endure on that course of his.”
But Willingham’s path wasn’t sugar-coated.
Born in 1953, Willingham was raised in a poor, all-black neighborhood in Jacksonville, N.C. in a military family. His father, Nathaniel, a strict disciplinarian, and his mother, Lillian, a school teacher, taught him about work ethic.
He would have to learn that lesson early in his life. Jacksonville was fully segregated when Willingham grew up in the 1960s. He lived with blacks, went to school with them and played football with them.
Childhood friend Marion Wigfall, who still resides in Jacksonville, lived in the same, close-knit neighborhood with Willingham. Wigfall said Willingham’s parents were always helping other families in the community. They even opened up their basement to give kids in the area a chance for recreation.
Willingham’s parents weren’t going to let the violence that was plaguing the South harm him and his three siblings. They sheltered him and kept him on track.
And that explains a lot. It sheds light on why Willingham disciplines his players like he does, and why he trusts them and pushes them to succeed like they’re his own kids.
“He has a chance to be a parent and a father away from home,” Baggett said. “I remember one time when I was talking to Ty about getting out of coaching. He said, ‘That would be the worst thing you could do.’ ”
Willingham played in an all-black football league at the beginning of his high school career. But with the late-’60s came desegregation and new opportunities – opportunities Willingham wouldn’t take for granted.
Willingham transferred to Jacksonville High School, joining one of the first waves of educational integration. High school teammate Michael Stevens said that the main difference was that “sometimes, the best athletes weren’t given a chance to play.” As a 5-foot-7, 140-pound black quarterback in a predominantly white school, most thought Willingham would spend his three years on the bench. But senior year, he won the job. It came as no surprise to anyone who knew him. What Willingham wants, he gets.
“He was able to go to a white school and play as a quarterback in the South,” said Jimmy Raye, who recruited Willingham to Michigan State. “That speaks something of the character and the perseverance of the young man.”
As Willingham’s high school career progressed, his stature didn’t follow. He was told he “wasn’t big enough, tall enough or smart enough” to play in the college game. Most expected Willingham to play for a traditionally black college as was required before desegregation. But he knew there was an opportunity elsewhere.
Willingham requested attention from hundreds of schools, sending them letters hoping for just one to give him a chance. His tireless belief in himself paid off, as Raye looked past Willingham’s size and took notice of his passing ability and natural leadership. The head coach at Michigan State, Duffy Daugherty, didn’t want to offer a scholarship to such a small quarterback, but Willingham accepted the offer to walkon with the chance to earn a scholarship in the future.
And that’s where he met Baggett, a high-profile freshman quarterback transfer from North Carolina, also recruited by Raye. Baggett was groomed to be the starter, Willingham the backup. It made sense.
It wasn’t until a year after Denny Stolz took over the reigns of the program in 1973 that Willingham was awarded a scholarship.
“I learned perseverance at Michigan State,” said Willingham, who went on to play wide receiver and return punts in his fifth year. “Because when you walk on, there seems to be insurmountable odds in front of you.”
Stolz said that he watched Willingham closely that first year and saw how valuable he was to the team, even as a backup.
“Mentally and leadership-wise, he was no backup,” Stolz said. “He was out front. He was so proud that he had overcome his physical limitations to earn a Big Ten scholarship.”
Willingham was like an assistant coach to Stolz, as Baggett continued to lead the team on the field. Stolz said that he was the first Big Ten coach to signal plays in from the sidelines, and needless to say, Willingham ran with the new idea.
“He was my signal man,” Stolz said. “I don’t recall him ever making a mistake. He not only signaled the plays in, he developed the signals. I’ll never forget that.”
Another thing Stolz and Baggett will never forget is a speech Willingham gave to the team one Friday night in Bloomington in 1974. Coming off a monumental upset over No. 1 Ohio State the week before, Willingham could tell his teammates weren’t as focused as they should be on beating the underdog Hoosiers.
“Tyrone got up and said, ‘Hey guys, if we can’t beat Indiana, we don’t deserve all the accolades for beating Ohio State,’ ” Stolz said. “You could hear a pin drop.
“Here’s a guy who wasn’t even playing. He said some things that struck home.”
The Spartans won the game that week, and Willingham continued to win the respect of his teammates, especially Baggett, the man with all the glamour.
“He was a leader for all of us,” Baggett said. “We all looked up to him back then. He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he was a disciplined guy in all aspects of the word. He kept us straight.”
As straight-laced as he was, Willingham still knew how to have fun – just within reason. He took pride in his music collection – organized alphabetically – and nothing got him more excited than a competitive game of cards in the dorm.
“A lot of guys who lived in the dorm with us, they wouldn’t see that side of him until they got to the card table,” Baggett said. “He would slam cards down when he won. He wouldn’t do it outside those doors. He’s not a deadpan, he can have a little fun.”
Baggett remembers riding on the open highway with Willingham in his ’64 Chevy during the 12-hour drive from East Lansing to North Carolina, talking about their ambitions, goals, and anything else that came to mind. Their whole lives were in front of them.
“I knew whatever he did, he was going to be successful,” Baggett said. “When Ty set a goal, he drove himself to attain it.”
In 1994, after a six-year stint coaching running backs under Dennis Green at Stanford and for the Minnesota Vikings, Willingham accepted the head coaching job at Stanford. In 1999, he led the Cardinal to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 28 years. Expectations grew, but with that came national attention. It was just a matter of time before he received a more enticing offer, and that offer came rather unexpectedly in early January.
Willingham interviewed at Notre Dame along with Georgia Tech’s George O’Leary. You know the story. O’Leary was chosen over Willingham, but it wasn’t long before Notre Dame Athletic Director Kevin White found out O’Leary’s resume was as clean as the language on an Eminem track.
White had no choice but to save face and offer Willingham, known for his honesty and integrity, the coveted job.
“This is a classic case of divine intervention,” White said. “In my view, Ty was supposed to be at Notre Dame and at the end of the day, he’s the head football coach here.”
White said that Willingham’s color had nothing to do with his hiring. Regardless, Willingham represents a drastic break from tradition at Notre Dame. He’s non-white, non-Irish, non-Catholic and plans to incorporate a West Coast offense. He won’t name captains until the year is over because he doesn’t want to “limit the scope of his leadership.” He certainly won’t bring Irish fans to tears at their traditional Friday night pep rallies at the Joyce Center like Lou Holtz did countless times.
But he will work tirelessly, trying to turn around a program decimated by a lack of discipline on the field and in the classroom. One of Willingham’s first moves as coach was to dismiss star running back Julius Jones from the team because of failure to meet academic requirements. With that move, he lost his only proven offensive playmaker.
Fans and media are questioning his team’s offensive talent, but Willingham isn’t worried about that right now. In fact, he never did worry about that sort of thing.
He’s taken the hand that he was dealt and run with it, just like he has done each day of his life. Willingham’s past perseverance commands respect all by itself. But players respect him more for what he expects of them, the extra responsibility he entrusts.
Senior cornerback Shane Walton said his new coach demands perfection. Willingham has already introduced his Irish players to what Stanford linebacker Jon Austin called “the Breakfast Club,” where players are forced to run on Sunday mornings at the crack of dawn for each and every mistake they made the day before. Walton said Willingham addressed the team in February and said “We’re going to win now, not in a few years.”
Doesn’t sound like the “larger fishbowl” has had too much of an affect on him.