Sept. 17, 2002
Q. You seem to be avoiding the whole black coach thing, but you have two black coaches meeting in a high-profile game, and I think you’ve been in one other game, is there anything significant at all about the fact that you are coaching against a black coach this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think to be very honest about it, I don’t think I’ve ever avoided the issue. I think I’ve put it in the perspective of what I view it, which may be less than some others look at it.
But I think I consistently said that my situation here at Notre Dame, the fact that two coaches of African American descent will go against each other this weekend is significant, but it also points to a shortcoming in our system, and that is disappointing.
COACH WILLINGHAM: A great deal, because at that time the opportunity were limited for African American players to go to what is considered a major institution in the south. So door was just being opened in the south. Whereas in the northern schools, it was not an every day occurrence, but I think it was with a greater frequency.
Q. Talk about the opportunity to go 4-0, the best start for Notre Dame since —
COACH WILLINGHAM: ’93.
Q. First, what would that mean?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It would be very nice. (Laughter).
I mean, you know, how do you describe it? That’s what you want. That’s what we’re working for, is to win the next ballgame, but so are Coach Williams and Michigan State. It’s the next step, and hopefully we’ll be able to achieve it.
Q. Could you reminisce a little bit about your playing experience in this series against Notre Dame, I think it was in’76?
COACH WILLINGHAM: ’76, I think if I’m correct, somebody asked me about it the other day, threw some pictures out, which were not flattering, to be honest about it. But, gosh, I don’t know where to go, to reminisce at. I don’t do very much of that. You’re forcing me into an area that, gosh, virgin, I guess is the best way to say it.
Reminisce, ’76 might have been the one time that we beat Notre Dame and I’m not sure of that. Was that down here? ’75 was down here. Thank you. See, I can reminisce better with documentation, so ’75 is good.
Gosh, I think that was the year that I held on extra points, field goal. I think Tyrone Wilson had a run of about 75-some yards and Charles Aggy (ph) took it in for the score and we had an extra point for the field goal and we won the game.
Q. How did the Michigan State/Notre Dame rivalry compare to, say, Michigan State and Michigan?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s that intense. I think the coaches in my time knew this was one of the big teams in the country and they always urged our team to play its best football. If you didn’t play it any other week, you played your best football against Notre Dame and against Michigan and against Ohio State.
Q. Darryl Rogers (ph) said that he thought you were a coach before you were a coach. Did you always have those kind of aspirations?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think so, but they were probably hidden for a large part of my athletic career. I think they slowly emerged about my junior year at Michigan State; that that’s something I was really actively seeking, and Coach Rogers at that time was a huge participant of that because I did my brother and sistership under his tutelage.
Q. And besides the obvious, going 4-0, what does this mean to you, what does going back to East Lansing mean to you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, it’s a little bit different than the experience I had a few years ago when we played in the Bowl game. With this experience, because of the way you travel and the way you play the game, you don’t have the encounters that you had in the Bowl game.
The Bowl game, you get a chance to visit with old friends and really kind of sit down and go through some memories. In this case, it’s just go in, play the game, hopefully win and then you’re back out of town.
Q. No plans of getting together with any of those old friends back there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No.
Q. How good did the goal of becoming a head coach at your alma mater compare to being a head coach at Notre Dame?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think that question has kind of a larger answer to it. I didn’t necessarily know if I would ever be a head coach. My goal was to do absolutely the best I could, and if we created those kind of opportunities, then you take advantage of them. You have those thoughts, but what I look towards is just being best I could be.
Q. At Stanford, how serious was that a consideration, looking at that job, if it was open ?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, as you know, I don’t dare go into that. I knew it, but no, I won’t touch on any of that.
Q. Last week after the game, wonder if you had any opinion about the Carlyle Holiday touchdown that he fumbled; that he didn’t have possession when he crossed the end zone, wonder what the aftermath has been?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think you could probably go the other way and say that Ryan Grant was a touchdown. I mean, so you guys maybe a little bit of — I don’t spend much time on either one of those, but I will make this statement.
I think the officials do a great job in a game that is probably faster that be the human eye can stay with. I think that’s why the NFL has gone to the replay, to kind of help them be able to regular regulate the game, but I think the officials do a great job. I think this game, with the size of the young men and the speed of which they play is faster than most of us can keep up with, and I have the luxury of knowing the play and sometimes can’t keep up with what’s going on.
Q. Do you have an opinion on college going to instant replay?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it’s prohibitive because of the cost to all of the teams around the country. Are there some major programs that could probably do that? Yes.
But at the same time, I’m a fan of the human factor, okay. I think that’s what makes it autumn so interesting, whether it’s the coaching and the coaching personalities on the sideline or the officials, their involvement or the player and their mistake, I think that’s what makes college football so fantastic, that human element.
Q. If the shoe had been on the other foot, if they had fumbled like that and won the game in a close manner, would you address that with your team, or does that fall under the category of nothing that you can do about or change; and so therefore, you wouldn’t dwell upon it?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I wouldn’t dwell upon it.
Q. You wouldn’t even discuss it with them, the impact of it?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Probably not.
Q. When you went up 22-17, you’re up five, you chose to go for the two-point conversion that failed, if you kick the extra point there and then moments later Nick Setta kicks a field goal and you’re up nine, two scores, that’s an easy second guess in retrospect —
COACH WILLINGHAM: (Laughs.) But you said it was easy, so you already answered the question.
Q. When you make that decision to go for two, is it based upon how you feel your team is playing and the chances of kicking that field goal then to take the nine-point lead, or is it just an automatic when you’re up by five that you’re going to go for two?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s probably a little bit of both. But in that particular case, I had no idea if we would get an opportunity for a field goal, so you can’t factor that in.
But at that time, what is the best situation? If you look at it statistically, it probably says two things about five points. It probably says kick early and go for two points or something to that effect. It could be fourth quarter, it could be early, late, depending on how the game is going, so I think you have to factor all that in.
Q. The swinging gate, is that what you call it —
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s a great term. It’s a great term.
Q. What is the philosophy there, when you line up like you do and shift over, what are you looking for? Who is going to get the snap? What are you looking for — you probably won’t tell me that —
COACH WILLINGHAM: You’re getting good.
Q. What are you looking for now that you’re going to shift over and kick?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The whole process is really two things. Hopefully you would like to get an easy score from a two-point play, hopefully they fall asleep, usually you don’t pay quite as much attention as you should, you don’t respond as quickly as you should therefore, you may get an easy score out of it, an easy point.
Then the other one is that if you do have a team that is very adept at rushing your kicks, that movement may be a little unsettling. So there’s some thought process behind it.
Q. You talked about things changing about the time you were make your decision to go to school. If you had not gone to Michigan State, where would you have gone and how might your life is have been different?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know the other option. The first thing is, again, there were limited options. But the other place that welcomed me as a walk-on was University of Toledo.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes. So I don’t know if that would have came through. Maybe I might have stayed in North Carolina and went to a smaller school there.
Q. You talk about three coaches at Michigan State that you had involvement with, Kenny Stoles (ph), Darryl Rogers and then an assistant for Buddy Waters?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I also had Duffy my first year, and they all were amazingly different, all amazingly talented. And it was a great opportunity for me at that time. I had no idea I would probably be a coach. But it’s a different school with different coaches there. They were all good, but different. Kenny was very intent, Darryl Rogers was very aloof, very casual. Mike (ph) was kind of probably a cross in between those, almost like a grandfather in terms of his approach, the way he saw things for young people.
Q. Where there a lot of people in East Lansing rooting for your team to win Saturday? When you were in Minnesota, or even at Stanford, how much attention did you pay to what Michigan State was doing?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, you always pay attention. I mean, that’s my school. And occasionally, especially for the big games, the Michigan game, you have on your tee shirt under your coaching gear. So we always did those kind of things. But no, I paid attention.
Q. Is there anything that you have to do to guard against the team getting too excited? Do you have to do anything in regard to preparation so that “five straight” does not become something to focus on?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s probably going to be very difficult for them to not focus on it. Because I’m going to guess that in this room each of you will probably write a story about it, and they will read it; and therefore, it will be on their consciences.
But we won’t change the way we prepare. And that’s the great thing about having a system, in good times and bad times, if you have a system you have confidence in, you can rely on that, you know where you should be, the things you should be doing and that gives you hopefully some stability, not only of action, but hopefully of a thought process.
So that’s what we’ll work on. It will be another great week for us to go out and see if we can notch a victory.
No Michigan State tee shirt this week. (Laughs).
Q. Wondered if you can talk about Kent Baer, when he was your position coach and then what you see and saw him that made you want to elevate him to coordinator?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, when I hired Kent, I think that was back in ’95, he had just been the coordinator at Arizona State, California and had an extensive experience as a coordinator; and therefore, I was overjoyed to have someone of that stature join our staff because I know that gave us great depth and great experience.
So when the opportunity presented itself to change, okay, I rewarded, I think his efforts, acknowledging his experience with moving him to our defensive coordinator and he has done, in my opinion, an excellent job from that day forward and really did an excellent job as an assistant coach in charge of our line.
Q. When you came from Stanford to Notre Dame, were the schemes pretty much the same, or did you feel like he incorporated a little bit of what they were doing here at Notre Dame?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think you do all of the above. We did have a system that we liked, a lot of things that we were doing, but also some great things that were being done here at Notre Dame.
So there for you try to incorporate those things that blend with your system and I think I said this before, that coaches do a great job at borrowing information from other coaches. So there’s probably no totally pure system that belongs to just up with person or one group because it could be Monday night and we look up and see something that’s going on with the NFL and you say, you know what, if we modify that it might work very well with our system and our young men.
So you are constantly trying to change and adjust to make sure you have the best thing to make your team be successful and Kenny has done a great job with that.
Q. Derek Landri, can you comment on how he’s progressing physically and if he’s getting closer to playing or practice?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, he’s doing very well. His recovery is going well, and I don’t know if I could say he’s on pace because I don’t know exactly what that pace is. What we were interested in is just getting him healthy, and it’s not necessary that he play right now.
If he proves to be the best player, then we’ll play him.
Q. I wondered if a great Heisman Trophy candidate would emerge from a Notre Dame team, if you would look at that as a positive, or being a team-oriented guy, if you would think that maybe that wasn’t such a great thing?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would think that is a great thing because you have to have great players to have a great team. And they don’t have to be that — it doesn’t have to be that a great player cannot fit within a team structure. I think probably most of the great players have come out of strong team structures, and our team is no different. We want great players. If we can have players that can win every award that is offered in the country, still be 12-0 and the National Champion, that would be absolutely fantastic to me.
Q. Have you kept track of your old Stanford team, looking to see scores or stats?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, you’re always interested in how they are doing, especially if we have to play them.
Q. You said several times that your concern going into the game is on your team, but with the way Michigan State lost at home last week, I would imagine you would expect them to really come up with a — to be ready to play and fired up for this game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I am of the mindset that really what happened to Michigan State was probably they were looking ahead, and that’s something that all coaches guard against, regardless of how good or how much you try to prepare them not to; young people do that sometimes.
So the Michigan State team that we’ll see will not be the one that played last weekend.
Q. Ryan Grant, I know you said the other day that he’s been getting steadily improved and getting better and better. In what areas has he made the most improvement?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would think it is his running skills; that he seems to be more confident, and as he becomes more confident, he becomes — he sees things a lot better with that confidence. So his reaction is better. His readability is better, allows him to be more aggressive in his play.
Q. Given the short period of time, do you feel like the team has taken on facets of your personality?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Gosh, that one, I don’t know. Because I think there were some great qualities that this team already had and to say whether they have taken on my qualities, I don’t know that.
Q. What’s the most recent thing has given you a sense of acceptance by the Notre Dame community, and is there something that’s happened since your arrival that you still feel like an outsider?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There’s nothing that’s made me feel like an outsider. I think this is a football community that loves football, and we share that. So I felt like at home from day one.
Q. In terms of acceptance, I understand when you first came here you went through a drive through at McDonald’s and — inaudible — does that still happen?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There’s probably a few of those that still happen.
Q. Most recent one?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Got no specifics, but it does occur every now and then.
Q. The defense has been, obviously, one of the strong points, in particular the secondary, but what type of things does Michigan State problems present especially with their passing game and in a receiver like Rogers?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The thing is, it’s not just Rogers. The quarterback is very good. Probably one of the better quarterbacks in this part of the country and the country in general. The tight end is another outstanding player. And the running game, I think they have got a runner that’s averaging pretty hefty in his yardage. So the combination is what makes them as an offensive team most difficult to defend.
Usually you can match you pretty well, unless you have obvious weaknesses, but it’s when they have a multiple system that is effective. They are running well, the quarterback makes good decisions and they have the excellent big-time receiver. That makes them extremely definitely.
Q. Recently you mentioned that you were hoping that Justin could be a weapon of sorts, how is he progressing?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think he’s continuing to get better. He’s doing an excellent job — I think that’s been indicated. He may be able to help the quarterback on Saturday. I think it was his holding, or the holding call on him that allowed us to get the safety which was a big play and major contribution to us winning the football game.
Q. After the game he was pretty forthright, saying that he’s a long way from being able to play the run at this point. What are some of the things he needs to do to make himself a little bit more complete?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I will take his assessment as he says he’s a long way, but he’s just got to grow, and I say that — but I mean, grow in the game. Until you play it, there’s so much that you don’t understand about it. You can be in it every day, but until you actually play the game, there’s so many little things that now he’ll begin to factor in: Down and distance, certain releases, things that happen that now mentally he’ll gradually begin to be better and better and better; and therefore, the physical talent that he has will express itself.
Q. How do you guard against a letdown, or your own team looking ahead as maybe Michigan State happened to last week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That is always a dangerous position to be in, and I think every coach around the country fears that at some point during the season.
But what we will try to do is be very consistent in all we do, consistent in the manner we work, consistent in our schedule, consistent in how we talk to your young men. And that conversation has started well before the season; that to date, we have not placed any game any larger than any other game. We understand that each victory takes us on the course of where we want to go.
Q. You’ve talked a lot about how when players are injured, you just want the next player to step in and continue playing. When a guy like Jeff Faine limps off the field and Carlyle Holiday gets banged up like he did in the game, what goes through your mind in that situation where the backups have not had as much a chance to play?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, the thoughts are the same, but obviously when you have players of that caliber, okay, there is in most cases a difference.
Jeff Faine is obviously I think the best center in the country, and I don’t know if the next guy is of that level. But at the same time, you expect him to come in and be prepared and make a strong contribution to the team being successful; and that thought process, we don’t change.
Q. What do you do to prepare them when you they don’t have as much opportunity to play any games or get the reps in practice?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, that’s the difficult thing in the manner he that we practice because of the fact that it’s a limited number of repetitions that we take, you can’t get everyone the reps that would be necessary to play the game. That’s why that player has to do more on his own in terms of visualizing and working through the play of the other player during practice. So it’s an important skill that they have to learn.
Q. And can you talk about how the challenge that Coach Diedrick had coming in, with having to install a new system with players who are not familiar with it and the job he’s done?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I’ve said all along I’ve been pleased with the progress of our offense. At some points we have not executed as we would like to, but the overall progress has been excellent and the job that Coach Diedrick and our offensive coaches have done, I won’t say it borderlines on being fantastic because we still have a lot of ground to cover. But at the same time I think it’s been a very solid job to bring our offense to a point where it has the potential at some point to really be explosive.
Q. I know you don’t like to single out one group, but the offensive line had two false starts and three holding penalties on Saturday, and false starts have been a problem all year. Have you been able to determine a reason for that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I haven’t. But it’s something that we try to work on every day to ensure that we don’t get those. It’s just basically built into the structure of our practice.
Q. Rashon Powers-Neal got hit in the first quarter, got up, and didn’t come back, do you know what happened to him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I thought he did come back.
Q. Did he?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Later in the ballgame.
Q. It wasn’t — just checking. It wasn’t like a concussion or anything?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I don’t think so.
Q. Coach Baer was quoted as saying even though you know all about Notre Dame from a distance, when he got here, he was still surprised at the intensity of it. What did you learn coming here that you could not have even from the outside?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You can’t — and Coach Baer, I think hit it right on the nose. Even though having knowledge of how something takes place doesn’t allow you to really experience it. You have to have that experience.
The overall Notre Dame experience, the intensity of it, yes, I knew of it, but it’s greater and larger than what you perceive from the outside.
Q. Do you remember the moment that that struck you? Were you standing someplace? Was it walking on campus? Was there any one thing that crystallized?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. Not just one thing.
Q. Seems like you are always described as a private individual. Can you give us any insight into what you would be doing during the rest of your time — most of it is devoted to football right now, but when you go home on Saturday night, do you pick up a book, a movie, what are other things you would be doing besides looking at film?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I sit down and watch SportsCenter, the 6:30 edition. (Laughter).
Q. Is there a reason why 6:30?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That’s as soon as I get home.
Q. That’s about it?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That’s about it. Isn’t that enough?
Q. I don’t know. Thanks.
COACH WILLINGHAM: You’re welcome.
Q. What kind of player were you at Michigan State?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Terrible. (Laughter).
Q. Can you elaborate?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think terrible is as descriptive as you can get. (Laughter).
Q. Why were you terrible?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I just wasn’t any good. (Laughter).
Q. What’s your feeling on both recruiting two-sport athletes or athletes who excel in football or other sports, and having several with you this season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I enjoy recruiting athletes that play a variety of sports. I think because in most cases you get a young man that is truly gifted and truly talented, and that’s what we want in our program, truly talented individuals.
The difficulty of the situation lies in how that young man can balance his academics at university more so than it does balance the athletics. So, no, I love having those individuals in our program, but you have to work with them to make sure that they can balance the academics.
Q. And also, you said you were a terrible football player, but in baseball, I notice, if this is right, that Michigan State figures had you for 11 assists as a junior. Would those all have been outfield assists? That’s an extraordinary number.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it was. And honestly, I can’t remember all of that, and I don’t even try. But if you can document it, I’ll accept it.
Q. Did they think a small guy could not have a rocket arm and throw anybody out? Were they running on you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You know what, I don’t remember. And I apologize for that. But it’s just something that for me, I don’t spend a lot of time — and it kind of relates to the other question I had earlier about reminiscing, I don’t spend a lot of time reminiscing.
I much prefer to go forward. But if it was 11 assists and that seems like a great number, then, gosh, maybe I was a little better than I thought.
Q. If my math is right, the six sacks that your quarterback got and is 15 rushes, that sounds like about 21 hits. How concerned are you about the number of hits Carlyle is taking in these games?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You’re always concerned, especially as it relates to those that are contributed by sacks.
We don’t want our quarterback sacked because at some point, that means you probably give up what I call a free runner, and that’s a guy that just nobody blocks and he’s got a free hit at your quarterback and knows the kind of hit that catches your quarterback by surprise that usually result in injury.
So we are always very concerned about that and want to see if we can protect him even better, or at least to the point where we don’t have any sacks.
Q. In your mind, how do you chalk up those sacks, to the rush or your pass protection or Carlyle’s decision process or a combination thereof?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We have always said it’s a combination. Because what a lot of people don’t see sometimes is that maybe a receiver runs a route too deep and the quarterback has to hold the ball; that’s something most people cannot see. Maybe a back makes a poor decision on his blocking responsibility. Maybe the line just has a breakdown. Maybe the quarterback is slow with a decision. Maybe it’s all of the above.
Q. Can you express your sentiments, how do you feel going against a team that’s been embarrassed? Would you prefer the alternative?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. I don’t worry about that. That’s something that we can’t control. What we recognize is that Michigan State is a about football team. As a matter of fact, they are a very good football team. I think in most of the preseason polls, they were probably suggested to be the Big 10 champion.
So we know they are a great team. They have great players, a Heisman Trophy candidate in the wide receiver. The quarterback is one of the top quarterbacks in the conference. So this is an excellent team, and Michigan State has always played physical defense. And of course, we know, having been at Michigan State, I know the mindset that they will bring into this game when playing Notre Dame.
Q. Speaking of Michigan State, did you have any association with Rolly Dotch (ph)?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, I think I’ve met him. I’m not sure that my association was very close, but I did remember, I think meeting him, yes.
Q. Could you discuss your philosophy of running a football team in terms of discipline? Where was that perspective shaped?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You’re asking about team discipline?
Q. Yeah, just your philosophy of how to run a football team, where that came from and who maybe taught you a few things that you have instilled?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Okay. I think my philosophy is kind of, hopefully fits my personality, but also, learned from the experiences I’ve had with other coaches, how they have done things and tried to determine what is the best way to do things.
Also, I incorporate some of my life in this — and I say some of my life, when I make reference to my own kids, I think when you have teenagers, you learn that the Willingham Way, as some people might describe in life, or the way of a parent is not always the right way to go. But you have to have some flexibility in all that you do in young people.
So I think in our program, we do have some flexibility in terms of the things we asked them to do and the structure of our program that hopefully allows them to be themselves, but you have to understand at the same time, you have to understand the sacrifices that you have to make to be a part of a team.
Q. Many members of the media have given you a lot of praise for the good record and also the attitude and confidence that surrounds the Notre Dame team this year, but at the same time, some have questioned that whether the players at Notre Dame now and recently are well equipped enough and talented to compete at the BCS level. Do you feel those comments fail to do justice to the players on the team, and could you comment about the quality of talent issue, as it’s been applied to this team?
COACH WILLINGHAM: To be very honest, those comments won’t register very high on my mind. I won’t pay very much attention to them.
As long as we can keep doing what we’re doing, I’m perfectly comfortable with anything that they write about us.