Oct. 29, 2002
Q. Do you find any benefit in the game ending in the manner that it did Saturday at Florida State?
COACH WILLINGHAM: One, you would hope it didn’t end in that manner. And two, whatever circumstances that we were confronted with, we try to adjust and make those somehow positive for us. So hopefully it will be an opportunity for us to learn a little bit more about ourselves and help us better handle the situations of that nature.
Q. Your thoughts about the current BCS system and would you propose any changes?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I am very comfortable functioning in the system that we have today.
Q. Would it be fair to look ahead obviously you don’t want to do this but if there are 3 or 4 unbeaten teams and only two are playing for the national title — would that be considered, in your mind, unjust to the teams that aren’t able to play for the championship?
COACH WILLINGHAM: If you are one of those teams you will be screaming bloody murder. That’s the way it always is.
Q. As you get into November, what are your means of figuring out the BCS and who you need to watch, those sort of things?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ll read your column. (Laughter).
Q. I am looking for some help.
COACH WILLINGHAM: (Laughs) Then obviously I am not the one to turn to.
Q. If I could just follow up briefly on what David (Haugh) asked about, do you think this is the best system we have right now? Do you have any thoughts or see any merit in doing it the way that it was previously done where conferences, that won championships, designated bowls and then the bowls just kind of filled out at large as they went? For instance the ’65 season ended up with three undefeated teams and then I think they all lost bowl games and Alabama was the national champion. Do you see any merit in reverting back to sort of a scramble where more games on January 1st influence the national championship than just one?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think the advantage there is that it has a lot more excitement to it and it probably has a lot more controversy to it, which means you can get more opinions about it from the population. But I probably would say that no matter what system we craft, it’s going to have some shortcomings to it. And that’s why I say this is one of the best systems that we have today and we’ll hopefully tweak it and continue to make it better until there’s a decision to change the system.
Q. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about Greg Mattison; what you saw in him when you decided to retain him and what values you think he brings to your defensive staff?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I have always looked for people that are positive coaches, that have a special love of the game and appreciation for the young people that play the game and then have knowledge and expertise to complement those feelings and Greg has all of those. He is an excellent coach. He’s an excellent man and an excellent example for our young men. He’s very demanding and he pays attention to detail.
Q. I had the fortune to talk with Coach Walsh a little bit. He mentioned an intern program that you were a part of with the 49ers, when you were an assistant coach at Rice. I guess that was your first contact with him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes.
Q. Can you talk about the value of that program and what you were able to get out of it and the presence of Coach Walsh who is a guy you ended up following at Stanford?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The first part of that question is the internship, at that time, it was a fabulous program. I have not been involved with it since then so I am not sure of the details of it now and exactly how it works. But at that time it allowed a college coach to get on the inside of professional football and really see the day to day operations and understand how the game was really put together from a coaching perspective. That’s a view that not a lot of people have an opportunity to get because when those college coaches go to a pro camp you are kind of at arms length; you are not inside; you don’t have a chance to really see the decisions, how they are made; why they are made. So that provided me with an immense background of knowledge hopefully to fall back on later. Best thing about that was I was doing it under one of the true legends of football in Bill Walsh and what he had done with the San Francisco 49ers. So it was of tremendous benefit to me. And Bill, I think as everyone knows and everyone has documented, is one of the finest football coaches ever to coach and he’s also a great teacher along with being a great, I think the term that is used and appropriately so, a genius at the X’s and O’s of the football game.
Q. When you followed him at Stanford did you try to incorporate some of the concepts from his offense; blend them with some of your own ideas? Was there any borrowing from his system?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Oh, you do if you call your offense anything near to a west coast offense, he is kind of the originator of that. I think there are some other people he learned from, but you have to touch on some of the theories that he used to be so productive with the 49ers and his time at Stanford.
Q. The other thing, when you were at Rice and some of your other stops, just looking at the records of some of those teams, it looked like will you had to deal with adversity, you had to deal with losing. As a coach what can you glean from those situations? I think it might have been 11 straight losing seasons maybe . . .
COACH WILLINGHAM: Nine. (Laughter).
Q. Sorry. What can you glean from those kind of situations?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, the first thing is you don’t want to go back there. Those are not a lot of happy days even though I spent some time with, I think, some outstanding coaches. But there are so many lessons you can learn perseverance; how to work with young people under very difficult circumstances; all those things can hopefully help you be a lot more positive in your approach, and at the same time, demanding to the young people, having had to endure some very difficult times.
Q. You’ve had Stanford teams that were picked middle of the pack or lower in the pack than preseason and then ended up being pretty good teams. Is there ever a point in the season, and maybe with this Notre Dame team, where you need to address when suddenly your team breaks through and now they are the favorites? Do you need to address it so they are not exhaling; so they are not satisfied with that; do you think this group is beyond something like that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I don’t think we’re ever beyond what I call the human conditions. You always have to battle those things the ups and downs and how you respond to them. But we have been pretty consistent in the course that we’ve kind of charted for this football team and it’s simply to just play one game at a time and understanding that the accumulation of those one games will either give us what we want, what we desire, what we work for, or not.
Q. Take us through your routine of post game video highlights. Let’s say it’s a home game, do you record the games at home or have someone do it for you and try and watch it as soon as you get home? Do you wait until the next day or do you use the tape or film that the university provides? Do you watch it alone, with the team, coaches; how does that work?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I usually don’t watch the game right after the game. I usually wait until the next day, come in and watch it usually by myself.
Q. In the office?
COACH WILLINGHAM: In the office.
Q. And then do you get with the coaches later?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes.
Q. Do you watch the TV feed?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. I sit down and go through it with the coaches play by play.
Q. You don’t watch TV with the replay and the slow motion?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No.
Q. Is it film or tape?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s digital so I am not sure what category it would fall in.
Q. So you can slow it down?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, still have the same ability.
Q. Watch it with some of the players, perhaps freeze frame it, slow motion, to constructively critique any of the plays?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Our coaches do that, yes.
Q. Talk a little bit about the run defense Saturday, particularly after Cedric left the game. What adjustments needed to be made and how were you able to successfully slow Greg Jones as the game wore on despite being down a man on the front four?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’ve always expected and hopefully it worked that way, that when one guy goes down, the next guy is able to step in and continue the excellent play. Our defensive front and linebackers and secondary have done that all year. We have been fortunate we haven’t missed a lot of guys on defense. But they have consistently played sound, fundamental defense. And we targeted, one of the things that we needed to do in this ballgame, if we were able to have success, was to be able to stop the run and that meant somehow limit Mr. Jones who is an excellent back. So we were just fortunate and played very sound and consistent defense.
Q. Talk a little bit about the value of having a guy like Kyle Budinscak who can play inside and outside — have you found that to be a rarity in your coaching career?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, it is not a rarity. Some guys based on your personnel may be even better inside than they are outside sometimes. But because of your personnel you try to get your best guys on the field and plug them in at all of the spots which hopefully makes you stronger than if not. But Kyle is one of those guys that can go inside and outside. He plays very strong, very physical at the point and that’s important for either the outside play or the inside play. So he gives us a nice combination there and allows us some flexibility in this case when Cedric went down.
Q. Cedric’s status?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He is day to day but he has some type of sprain of the knee.
Q. Can you talk about Boston College in general? They have a running back that’s on pace for a thousand yards again and an experienced quarterback coming in; even with three losses, seems like they can present some challenge?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it’s honestly a little more than “presents some challenges.” This is a football team that if you look at their losses and you always say who have they lost to. If I am correct, it’s Virginia Tech, Miami, and Pittsburgh. We know that two are considered probably two of the best teams in the country — and having faced Pittsburgh, I think Pittsburgh is an excellent, excellent football team. So if you go by all of that, Boston College is a heck of a football team and with the quarterback and the running back, which you thought there would be some fall off in the running back after they lost I think he was a first rounder, if I am correct, (William) Green, I guess you would hope for some fall off, but they have not. They replaced him with a guy that’s playing very, very well. So again and they have got the receiver, I think it is, (Jamal) Burke, if I am correct, or one of their receivers is playing extremely, extremely well. So it’s a group that presents a lot of challenges and on top of that, they are one that has an intense rivalry for Notre Dame. So it will be more than just a little challenge in playing this football team.
Q. I don’t know how much you have seen of them over the last few years but I think it is their fifth straight year where they are on pace to have a thousand yard back. Anything in particular that you see in their style that creates those kind of opportunities for like you were saying different backs, you almost expect them to fall off a little bit but for the last five years they haven’t?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, they have a coach that believes that that’s a critical part of their success. They focus on it. They recruit young men up front that are very physical in their nature of play. They have size. They work at it, good skill in their running backs and their scheme is designed to be a combination of run and pass and play action so that you have to keep yourself on your toes when you play this team.
Q. Talk about the development of Ryan Grant over the last couple of weeks, big game against Air Force; then some kind of tough yards against Florida State, and he ends up with, I think, 94, 95 yards?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Just missing the 100 yard mark. Would have been nice to have him get that hundred. But Ryan has really from Day 1 with the experience he’s gained with each game has really started to close in on being an excellent back. His consistency in his reads is night and day, I believe, from game one. The physical nature that he’s playing and running the football is night and day since day 1. He has just continued to improve and gotten better and better and better each ballgame. So it’s really pleasing. And, we need it.
Q. I have a couple of questions for you. First of all, after the Florida State game there were a lot of commentators talking about how well prepared the team is and how they think that Notre Dame is the best coached team in the country. Is that a tribute to your assistant coaches and the job they do getting the team prepared?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I can answer that with a strong affirmative, it is. Our assistant coaches from Day 1 have done an excellent job in terms of structuring and planning and outlining the steps that need to be taken for our football team to play well and be well prepared versus the opponents that we face this year.
Q. Most of your assistants came over with you from Stanford, but two on the defensive side, Bob Simmons and Trent Walters, came from other roles. Can you just talk about what their experience with Walters in the NFL and Simmons with being head coach at Oklahoma State, what that’s meant to your defensive staff having those two guys?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, any time you can add I think two coaches that the quality of those two, you got Trent Walters who spent the last seven to eight years in the NFL and coaching in the NFL is extremely demanding and you gain just a complete knowledge in so many areas. So when you can have Trent; you can have Coach Simmons, who has been a head coach and understands the demands from that perspective. He’s also been at some of the bigger programs in this country – Colorado one to name. And I think he was there when they won their championship or pretty close to it at that time, I mean, you gain a great deal. But what’s probably most important is that those two guys are very similar in terms of a philosophy to the guys that are in our program so it was an easy blend in terms of getting those guys on the same page with all the things that needed to be done in our system. I think that’s one of the reasons that we worked so well because of the similarities between the assistant coaches and the things that they believe in and how you coach and how you teach and how you work with young people.
Q. Finally, Carlyle has had two impressive games back to back now. To you, what has been the most important thing that he has improved on in the last few weeks?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I continue to say from Day 1 that it is not just his improvement in this area but it’s the fact that it is the critical element in playing this position in this system is the decision making process. If your quarterback can control that process; which means, one, he gets you in the right place, gets you in the right play, he understands the clock, he understands the game plan, and he does not put the football in places that are detrimental to your football team, you’ve got a chance to have success. And that’s what he has done for us. His decision making ability from Day 1 has improved and it has been strong. He’s throwing the ball now to the right places; he’s not making a lot of turnovers in most cases. And when you can do that, you have a chance to win.
Q. What were your impressions of McPherson at quarterback for Florida State the last few minutes and was that against your No. 1 defense?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It was against, if I am correct, our No. 1 defense and I thought he stepped in under difficult circumstances and did a very nice job. He seems to be a fine complement of pro and skill and also ability to make plays with his legs.
Q. Arnaz Battle got up a little bit sore from his second catch the other day and didn’t seem to be that involved for the rest of the game. How is his health and do you expect him to be at full strength on Saturday?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’re hoping that he will be full strength on Saturday. He has a slight hip injury and on that particular play lost his wind and the combination of those two slowed him down a little bit for the rest of the day.
Q. I wanted to ask you when a coach comes into a new job such as Notre Dame, a lot of coaches try and mold the program, but to what degree do you think the program at Notre Dame molds its coach?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Oh, I don’t know what percentage to place on it. But I would say it’s a fair question and a fair answer to say that it does do that.
Q. How do you feel it has molded you in this season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think learning the traditions, learning the history, and kind of blending those into the things that I think are important, are kind of the way that it’s shaped me and hopefully given me some insight in how to better coach our young men.
Q. After starting out 8 and 0 what have you come to learn about Notre Dame that you never envisioned or never completely understood?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know if I have an answer for that one.
Q. Florida State I understand that at the end of the game I read somewhere that someone had scrawled Boston College on the board there. Was that the handywork of one of your GAs, John DeFilippo?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I can’t respond to that one either. I didn’t see that.
Q. Can you talk about John and his association with BC through his father?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think it’s known, if it isn’t known, John’s father is the Athletic Director at Boston College and that’s a wonderful relationship to have as long as the father doesn’t ask for any playbook material. But John has done a great job in our program and the GA position is always one of those positions that kind of goes unrecognized for the hours and the commitment that they put in and John has been just exemplary for his work that he’s done for this program.
Q. You were talking about Boston College and teams that they played. They are very banged up, they have lost the three games, they have lost some key players. Is the wounded animal thing something that you have to worry about when you play a team like this?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would probably say no in this situation because I think it’s a good enough football team even with some of the injuries that they faced and that the nature of the rivalry and the nature of this game and what it means to both schools kind of defies that wounded animal theory. They will come in here to play great football and we have to be prepared to play great football to match and exceed their energy level.
Q. That’s kind of what I meant, the fact that they would be able to muster more than they might have for a different opponent because it is Notre Dame?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, but I don’t know if that needs to be a wounded animal to look at Notre Dame that way and I don’t think they do. I think they look at this as one of the most important games that they play this year and I am hopeful that our young men will view it the same way.
Q. I know that there’s work to be done and you have got things on your mind and one game at a time and all that, but have you, at any point, in all this, stopped and said, my goodness, we are 8 and 0? You are always optimistic going in, but this is an incredible way to start.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, thank you and we hope it continues at least this weekend. No, I haven’t. It’s just been simply focused on the next football game. And I think I am fortunate to be able to do that because I have been in this business 20 some years, I think it is, and it was noted by one of the writers here, went through a stretch where it was he said 11 years of losses, I said nine, the truth is somewhere in between. So you understand after a while the ups and downs of this business and you learn how to prepare and what is really important and it really is simply one game at a time that is important.
Q. Begging your pardon, I’d like to ask another BCS question. I know that good coaches concentrate just on winning football games on Saturday and try not to think too much about the polls. But you have probably noticed that Notre Dame is well ahead of Virginia Tech in the BCS, but you are behind them in the polls. I wonder if you could share with us, please, any thoughts you may have had on that discrepancy?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I really haven’t had any thoughts on that. We feel fortunate to be ranked where we are; to be positioned where we are in the BCS, and we’ll just try to see if we can continue to win football games and we realize at least I realize, that in doing that, that gives you your best chance to accomplish anything.
Q. A lot of the players according to them on Saturday and some of the defensive players, a lot of them talked about how much fun they had out there and how the fun can kind of be infectious when they get going. Is fun underrated as an element in a team’s success?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It may be, but it shouldn’t because when young people are having fun obviously it means that they are usually enjoying the things that they do, and I think most of us would agree that if we look at things as work, then it’s amazing sometimes how difficult the task becomes. But when there’s a fun element to it, it’s amazing how the time flies and how you are able to accomplish things and we are fortunate that right now I think our football team, both defensively, offensively and special teams, are enjoying playing the game and if we can keep that going I think it just enhances your chances for success.
Q. Is that a mindset that you noticed sometimes during fall camp or is that something that develops with success?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it’s something that we have tried to start from Day 1 that the game is too difficult if you are not having fun at it, because there’s so many demands on the young people. Our young men have to get up at often 6:30 in the morning and do workouts, and if you can’t find ways to have fun at that, that becomes a tough life.
Q. Wondering with your experience against Boston College last year, did you see any kind of elements of the west coast offense in BC’s game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I didn’t have to look very far for those elements. The offensive coordinator Dana Bible was my offensive coordinator at Stanford the first couple of years there. So, no, we have some idea about some of the things and some of the elements contained in that offense.
Q. Following up about Derrick Knight. You go from defensing a guy like Greg Jones to Derrick Knight — what concerns do you have in his escapability and ability to score through tackles?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, any time you face a quality back, you are concerned. What has been one of the strengths of our defense is trying not to rely on one young man to make the tackle but seeing if we can get as many players to the ball as possible. And for us to have success we’re going to have to continue that this weekend because he is a fine runner; he’s elusive and he makes things happen in their system.