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Coach Willingham Press Conference Transcript

Nov. 5, 2002

Q. Lou Holtz used to say there are two or three games in every football season where it’s difficult to get your team up emotionally. Would you agree with that? What does a coach try to do other than changing the color of the jerseys?

COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, we’ll get a lot of questions about color of jerseys, so we might as well just speak on that right now.

The color of the jersey had nothing to do with us not winning the football game or holding on to the football or any of those other things. The color of the jersey was not to get our football team up.

We recognized that Boston College was an important team on our schedule and with the things we wanted to accomplish, we needed to beat them. We just failed in some areas to execute our game plan, and therefore did not allow ourselves the opportunity to beat them.

Q. Do you agree with that statement by Lou Holtz? Is it just human emotions, human nature, that a football team week after week can’t do it every game of the season?

COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I don’t buy “can’t do it.” I think he is correct that it is difficult to get a team up every week and have them play at the same level. But, no, I don’t believe the human condition says that you can’t do something.

Q. Will you continue to wear green?

COACH WILLINGHAM: That will be a decision made when I feel like it’s appropriate.

Q. Carlyle Holiday came back in the second half, but did he continue to play in the first half after being shaken up a little bit?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t think so. If I’m correct, I think that happened about the time that he threw the touchdown, right around that time. Then I think he was out of the lineup.

Q. The rest of the half?


Q. You talked about not changing anything in terms of the turnover situation. Is there anything mentally you do with the team to try to get them past that or does talking about it too much kind of get it into their heads and you just want to move on?

COACH WILLINGHAM: We’ll keep our same focus and concentration on protecting the football and trying to create turnovers. We do that every day in our practice. We will go back and look at our fundamentals, as we always do, try to make sure everyone is sound there. We think that will probably cure the problems that we have or shall I say that we had coming out of the weekend.

Q. What is Rashon Powers Neal’s status?

COACH WILLINGHAM: We hope he’ll be ready to play. He’s been getting closer and closer each week.

Q. (Rhema) McKnight and (Maurice) Stovall had some big catches in clutch situations. Can you talk about their development, what it takes for a freshman to be able to make those kind of plays in that kind of situation?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, the first thing is it takes a great deal for anyone to make those plays in those clutch situations. But those two guys continue to get better and better each week. It’s such a simple thing, but when you start the process, you start with them not knowing a great deal about your offense. The majority of that is, even though they may have run a curl route in high school, it’s a little different when it comes to college, the college environment, college defense. All of that changes along with the vocabulary, then being able to put all that together.

Those two guys I think are doing a great job of continuing to learn the system and improve and be able for us to feel confident about putting them in those key situations.

“The most important game we will play will be Navy.”Head Coach Tyrone Willingham

Q. Can you talk about the reaction? Were you happy with the mood of the team afterwards? What do you look for when a team loses? Do you want them to be angry or do you want them to take it and reflect on it?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I want them to win the next weekend. I mean, that’s it, okay? Whatever it takes. It’s so difficult to say, “What is the right personality for a team?” Every team takes its own personality. Some guys will be very upset, might even want to throw chairs. I don’t think that’s necessary. But there’s a lot of different personalities along that spectrum. What we’re interested in is being able to come out the next weekend and win the football game.

Q. Anything special, do you change anything at all as far as how you address the team? Do you approach it the same way as you did the week before, or the week before that?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes. I think you have to be very careful. As disappointed as I am, as disappointed as our players are, to my knowledge we’re 8 1.

Q. Fans are talking bowl possibility. Do you talk about that at all? Do you let the players figure that out themselves?

COACH WILLINGHAM: No, we always want to have direction in our program. We want to know what’s out there, what are the potentials, what are the possibilities. Do you focus on that? No. It’s very easy in focusing on that big picture that you get away from what’s most important. The most important game we will play will be Navy.

Q. One of the interesting reactions I heard was from Courtney Watson. The defense has carried the play in a lot of the games, but instead of pointing fingers, he pointed to the defense saying, “This was our fault because we didn’t force enough turnovers to put the offense in a good situation.” Is that the kind of thing you look for, players taking responsibility, not trying to say some other aspect of the team failed?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say that’s the defining attitude of a true team. I think a championship player, a player that believes he is a great player, will look at his performance and not be satisfied with it, say he can do more. I think our defense expects that of themselves. I think our offense expects that of themselves.

Q. You acknowledge the program has direction. Do you actually reference upsets, what happened last year in the final weekend before the final poll came out? Do you actually talk about that specific type of thing with your team?

COACH WILLINGHAM: It depends. I think the best example I could give you of that is just this past weekend. I mean, there were a few other people that failed this weekend besides us. It created an interesting scenario for college football.

Q. Looking at the quarterback situation with Carlyle (Holiay), who has had a few injury problems up to this point, did anything that happened Saturday, the way Pat (Dillingham) handled it, affect your evaluation regarding Chris Olsen? Does that make you feel like you have to get him more ready in the next three weeks?

COACH WILLINGHAM: No. If you’re looking at Pat, he had basically one bad decision, one bad play. Over the course of our ballgame, I’m willing to bet we had several players in that ballgame that had one bad decision and one bad play. We don’t like any of them. I don’t think the young man likes any of them. But, no, I’m pleased with what Pat has done to date.

Q. Last week in talking to Kent Baer, I think he mentioned he called Gerome Sapp the team’s MVP, or the defensive MVP. He kind of holds things together back there. How would you assess the type of season he’s had? If not calling him the most valuable, is he as valuable as anybody that you do have back there?

COACH WILLINGHAM: As you know on our defensive team, our offensive team for that matter, we have a lot of guys that fit into that category, that have done exceptional jobs. Some of them have great stats and some of them don’t. Without any one of them, we would not be the same defensive or offensive team or team in general and have the success that we’re having. But there is no question that one of the key ingredients to our success is Gerome Sapp. He’s been a play maker. I think as you look at the interception he had Saturday, that had to be one of the finest interceptions that I’ve seen in a long time. But he not only does those type of plays, he also provides great leadership, is very much a quarterback in our secondary. He does take on that kind of persona of one of the most valuable players in our defensive scheme.

Q. Following up on the question about Courtney Watson’s comments after the game, any concern that maybe the defense puts too much pressure on itself to make those kind of plays game in, game out?

COACH WILLINGHAM: No, none whatsoever. I think, again, anyone that is a real competitor pushes himself to that level. That’s why we’re having the success we’ve had with our defense. They do push themselves to that level.

Q. I understand that there was some excessive damage in the opposing team’s locker room Saturday. Is that anything you could comment on?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Nothing that I would care to comment on.

Q. Your impressions of Navy, the team in general?

COACH WILLINGHAM: If you’re looking at them, their real strength has been their offense. They are running the football at a pace that puts them as one of the Top 10, Top 5 teams in the country. That has been their strength. As always, when a team comes with the option, it makes it very difficult. We have I guess the luxury of saying we have defended the option once this year. But it will come at us in a little different package; they will do things a little bit different. What will be my greatest concern is that we don’t take that fact for granted — that we have played the option — yet pay great attention to detail because this will be a different package and successful package.

Q. How is it different than Air Force?

COACH WILLINGHAM: They do some different things. Their motion is different. Their blocking schemes are different. Where they try to put their focus is different.

Q. Against Boston College, when it comes to ball security, there were a few instances of not necessarily a running back having the ball stripped, but a missed handoff. Is there any rhyme or reason to that? The ninth game of the season, is that surprising to see that?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it’s surprising to everyone to see that. That was something that we didn’t anticipate. There were no inklings of it before or things of that nature. It just all of a sudden showed up. But what we’ll go back and do as always is stress our fundamentals, work on those things to make sure we alleviate any and all problems.

Q. With Rhema (McKnight) and Maurice (Stovall), can you talk about their recruitment? Maurice, as of January 1st, was already interested. Rhema was not. Can you talk about their recruitment, how you dealt with that over the month of January to attract them?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I think both guys at some point had some fairly high interest. I’m not sure where Rhema was at that point because of the events or what. But we just simply went in and hopefully showed those two young men that we felt they could be productive in our system. We didn’t know when their productivity would show itself, whether it would be as freshmen or whether it would come later. We were committed to giving them the opportunity, as we do with all our players, to demonstrate their skills. If their skills show up better than the next guy, we’d find a way to work them into the lineup.

Q. As a former player at Michigan State, do you have an emotional reaction to what has gone on there?

COACH WILLINGHAM: With Coach Williams’ dismissal, it saddens me. I know it saddens the Michigan State family because in the coaching fraternity, you hate to see that come to any coach. It’s disappointment, sadness, but at the same time I wish him well and also wish the University well.

Q. You said you weren’t going to change much in terms of approach. When a team loses a game, much less the impact on a national championship game, do you worry at all about sort of an emotional hangover? Have you noticed anything like that? Have you been pretty happy with the attitude of the kids from Saturday through today?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Once again, we really get our young men for the truly first time today. Tuesday is the day that we basically start the week. We start to shape and see all the attitudes. But, one, you have to have an awareness, but sometimes you don’t want to look for a certain thing. In looking so hard for it, you can create it. What we want to do is stay the course. We’ve been very strong, very positive to this date. Our young men are focused. There’s still a great deal we can accomplish. If we go out with that mindset, we’ll probably eliminate some of that hangover. There’s no question that when you lose, it hurts. It hurts coaches, it hurts players. That’s there. That’s why you compete. Those emotions are part of it. But at the same time I think our young men are mature enough and pointed in the right direction that we want to go out and accomplish some great things, and the next group that stands in our way is the Naval Academy.

Q. Off the topic.

COACH WILLINGHAM: I get concerned when you go off topic. I want to you know that (laughter).

Q. In looking at future schedules, do you have any input, thoughts about places you might want to play this (Navy) game? If going abroad is on your radar screen?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Is there any place you’d like to go to? I’m just asking (laughter)?

Q. I don’t know, Rome?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ll bring it up at the next discussion.

Q. Same subject, coach.

COACH WILLINGHAM: You want to go to Rome, too (laughter)?

Q. Every year this game hasn’t been really competitive for a number of years, 38 straight wins. Do you think this is a game that Notre Dame should continue on its schedule? Is there a reason to play a team that really seems to have no chance of beating Notre Dame?

COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, I guess I beg to differ with the latter part of that. I don’t want my answer to be associated with the latter part of that. The truth of the matter is this relationship is a little bit deeper than just a football game, if I am correct. Therefore, there is great precedence for this game and this rivalry to take place.


Coach Willingham is pleased with Maurice Stovall’s play so far this season.



Q. It seemed like Notre Dame was punished for its defeat in the polls more than some of the other previously unbeaten teams. Do you take that as a slight at all to Notre Dame, there was skepticism that Notre Dame was very good in the first place?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I really haven’t. I’ve been asked I guess several questions about the rankings and different things throughout the year. That has not necessarily been our focus. I think I consistently said it’s great for people to say nice things about you. I’m not sure exactly what number we are as we report today. I still think there are people saying nice things about us, and that’s good. But we have to go out on the field and prove it. If we do it on the field, people will eventually respect what you do.

Q. They said at the game Saturday that Rhema (McKnight) hadn’t caught a pass since the Maryland game. When you’re dealing with freshmen, do you have to sort of do anything to keep them up in practice when they’re not seeing the production in the games they’re used to, coming from a successful high school program?

COACH WILLINGHAM: That is a very valid point. I think all of our freshmen, whether they’re playing or not playing, it’s a very difficult transition. To be the stars in their high schools, the stars in their state, they’re coming here, not getting time, getting some time, it’s not the time they’d like. We try to make sure in our program that everyone is focused on one thing, and that’s our team. It’s not about the individual, even though the individual is extremely important. We try to make sure that our focus is our team. The biggest aspect of that is winning. We all should get great satisfaction when we win and seek to make every contribution that we can. In some cases it may not be in your production. Eventually, in the case of these two freshmen, their production will come.

Q. Do you do anything with freshmen sort of off the field to try to get them acclimated, whether it’s pairing them up with somebody at their same position, setting up a mentor for them?

COACH WILLINGHAM: At different parts of our camp, we’ve done those things, especially if we believe they’re going to play. Otherwise, you want them to be similar in their experience being with another freshman. There are things we try to do along the course of the season in terms of my visiting with them or visiting with the entire class to make sure they’re all on the same page.

Q. With all the reaction to the loss, all the reaction to the green jerseys, did the reaction to that catch you by surprise, about how much was made of that?

COACH WILLINGHAM: No. Coming in, I think I weighed all of that knowledge, that anything we do as a college coach nowadays, half will approve and half will disapprove. Whether we had won or not, you’re going to get that type of reaction. That’s the environment we live in. But I felt like that particular decision was a good decision. We went forward.

Q. I don’t gather from your resume that you’ve played Navy during your coaching career. What are your thoughts on facing a service academy? Even though this series has been lopsided in terms of results, there have been games where Navy has played Notre Dame tough. Their kids get up huge for this game because it’s the biggest name opponent they play. Is that something you thought about? How do you approach that with your players?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, we’ve consistently had to face the latter portion of your question each week. That was something I knew coming to Notre Dame. For most of the teams we play, it would indeed be the biggest game of the year. I think our young men are aware of that. We’re also aware of the fact that if we don’t play well, we will not win that football game. That for us is consistent every week. Every team we play, if you don’t play well, you don’t win. Then you have to have things fall your way. I think our young men on our team are aware of that. I don’t look at it, I know our coaches don’t look at it, as though someone on the outside might, that we won a certain number in a row, and therefore the law of averages dictate this or that. We understand you have to go out and play football next Saturday. If we don’t do that, then we won’t be successful.

Q. Some comments were made after the BC game. This is also always the case when things don’t go well, that BC seemed to have the right defense in many situations. Can you tell us what you’re aware that teams are doing and what you do in terms of using computer statistical modeling to see what patterns other teams are using in various situations?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I think we’re all pretty much on the same page, that we try to look at any and every tendency that you can find: field position, down and distance, formation, personnel. Just about everything you try to put down in some form so you can statistically look at it, analyze it, see if you can come out with the right call. There’s no question Boston College did some good things on Saturday. I think at the same time we did some good things and had we not come up short with some fumbles and miscues from that standpoint, it could have easily been a different ballgame. But that’s not what’s important. What’s important is we didn’t make those plays, and they made the ones they needed to win the football game.

Q. How much of that analysis now is being done by more sophisticated computer modeling as opposed to coaches taking down stats?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say all of it’s being done by computer. It first has to start with the hand. The hand has to take it off and put it on the computer, which is probably able to break down more factors, include more factors in the breakdown than maybe we might have been doing by hand years ago.