Willingham Knows Opportunity Can Mean Everything

Author: Kelli Anderson

When Tyrone Willingham was playing football for Michigan State in the early 1970s, the team had a pact: so the coaches wouldn’t know they were dogging it in wind sprints, everyone agreed to run together. Well, almost everyone. “Ty wouldn’t do it,” recalls former MSU quarterback Charlie Baggett, now the receivers coach for the Minnesota Vikings. “He’d be out in front, and the coaches knew he wasn’t the fastest guy on the team. We’d tell him to slow down, but he wouldn’t. He’d look at us like we were crazy.”

Willingham still can’t pass up an opportunity to push himself. And so it is that after seven years as the head coach at Stanford, the 48-year-old has taken over the helm of storied Notre Dame, where he faces tests on the field and off. African-American, non-Irish, non-Catholic and definitely not given to the rousing oratory Notre Dame fans cherish in their football coaches, Willingham represents a decided break from tradition. But in terms of football expectations, he is a perfect fit. Although his 44-36-1 record was considered illustrious in Palo Alto, it didn’t instill in Stanford fans the same high expectations they hold for, say, men’s basketball, where every home game is a raucous sellout. Willingham likes the fact that the anticipation of football glory is hard-wired at Notre Dame. “I think it’s understood that the expectation at Notre Dame is to be absolutely the best,” he says. “And that is what I’ve always expected of myself. No expectations from the outside will exceed my own.”

That may be true on the field, but off it? The biggest question swirling around this intense and private man is how he will stand up to a probing press and a large and demanding fan base — two things he never had to face at Stanford. While it is hard to picture the publicly taciturn Willingham bringing the Joyce Center pep-rally crowds to tears, as Lou Holtz often did, it is important to note he has a history of proving his doubters wrong. “Knowing Tyrone, he will handle the off-field demands just fine,” says Willingham’s long-time defensive coordinator Kent Baer. “I don’t think he relishes it, but he understands that it is part of the job here.”

At Stanford, it wasn’t. The handful of Bay Area reporters who sat through Willingham’s formal and almost comically brief once-a-week press conferences learned to recognize and appreciate his dry wit, but he wasn’t in a hurry to show it off. Nor has he ever been eager to give up personal details or deep inner thoughts. “People see him as being secretive, and that’s not the way he is at all,” says his wife, Kim. “He’s from the South and people there tend to be very private about private matters.”

What the public generally sees of Willingham is hardly a true picture of the man, add his associates. “He looks stoic, but he likes to have fun,” says Baer. “Our players had a lot of fun playing football for him.” Says Stanford’s defensive interior line coach Dave Tipton, “Ty is incredibly self-disciplined, but I think of a disciplinarian as a real hard-ass, and he’s not that. The players love him because he is very understanding, very warm and very consistent.”

Among the Willingham characteristics you can count on: his office will be orderly and he will be better dressed than you. He’ll be happy to talk about his team but will submit to a personal interview with reluctance. He will choose his words carefully, and he will speak in a voice so soft it nearly defies tape recording. Even on the field, he rarely raises the volume; in his huddles players bend toward him as though pulled by a great force. He will be gracious and polite with both friends and strangers. His preparation and attention to detail will be painstaking. Indeed, if he remains true to form — and when has he not? — Willingham will give his Notre Dame players and coaches a to-the-minute itinerary for every home game and road trip. (“For a whole week you know what you will be doing at 2:32, at 5:44 . . .” marvels former Stanford running back Anthony Bookman.) Punctuality will be enforced. (Though Kim insists that at home she and their three kids are always waiting for him, she once had to run after and pound on the side of the team bus he was on when it took off, right on schedule, without her.) Players who are tardy or guilty of even minor rule infractions will get a date with the early-morning Breakfast Club — usually attended by Willingham himself, who uses the opportunity to keep his trim 5-foot-7-inch frame in superb shape — for extra conditioning or trash collecting. Players who perform below expectation on the field get The Look.

That glare — or is it a pout? — is a Willingham trademark. It’s an expression of acute displeasure that involves a narrowing of the eyes and an extra little crease in the top lip. As minimalist communication, it’s masterful. Former MSU teammate Kirk Gibson, who went on to fame as a slugger for the Detroit Tigers and L.A. Dodgers after a college career as a wide receiver, remembers The Look well. “The Look would mean different things,” recalls Gibson, now a Tigers game analyst for the Fox TV network. “Ty would give you that look as opposed to retaliating or doing or saying something stupid. Or if he was in deep thought — and he is a very deep thinker. So I don’t think you could ever say it means he’s pissed off. It can mean different things.”

Among Stanford players, the most common interpretation of The Look was disappointment. And coming from Willingham, that was far more searing than anger. “For me, it’s a horrible feeling to think I’ve let him down,” says former Stanford wide receiver Troy Walters, released by the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings earlier this year. “He has done so much for me personally, taken me so far as a person and a player, that I want to do my best for him.”

You can expect that most Notre Dame players will eventually feel the same way. If he accomplishes nothing else, Willingham will put the fight back in the Irish. As survivors of his notoriously brutal conditioning program, Willingham’s players are tough and disciplined — in six of his seven years in Palo Alto, Stanford led the Pac-10 in fewest number of yards penalized — and they play with a never-say-die attitude. His teams fight hard in part because they fight together, which is no accident. Willingham takes few actions without considering their consequences. He doesn’t choose captains until the end of the season because that way “maybe you get more leadership and participation from other people,” he says. He doesn’t crow about great recruiting classes because he doesn’t want to alienate current players. Besides, new players will have to prove themselves on the field just like everyone else. His policy is simple: The best player plays, even if he’s a walk-on, and everyone will get the chance to prove himself.

Willingham knows that opportunity can mean everything. After he became the first black quarterback at Jacksonville (North Carolina) High, he walked on at Michigan State in 1972. He worked hard to prepare himself for the opportunity that finally came: When Charlie Baggett got hurt in 1973, Willingham started the last six games of the season. What followed was not a Heisman campaign or an NFL contract but what might be seen as the budding of the caring and unselfish coach Willingham is today. After finally getting his chance to star, he spent the off-season spurring Baggett to get back in shape. Just as he is not going to waste his opportunities, he’s not going to let anyone around him squander theirs, either.

Kelli Anderson is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated who covers a wide variety of sports. A version of this story appeared in the September/October 2000 issue of Stanford Magazine.