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Coach Willingham Press Conference Transcript

Nov. 19, 2002

Q. Obviously Rutgers is 1-9 and everybody looks at its record and dismisses them. But in seeing and looking at their season, they seem to have their best performances against the better teams in their schedule, so, in that respect, I guess they are a dangerous team.

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, first of all, thank you for beginning and asking a question about Rutgers.

Second of all, I think you are absolutely right. They have played their best football against the best teams, and, of course, they have played some of the really better teams in this country. So it is a frightening thought that a team that has the skill that they have will play their best game against us this Saturday.

But I think the one drawback that they have had is that they have committed those kind of self inflicted wounds that really do all the damage, the turnovers and things of that nature, that kept them from being successful. You eliminate those and you have a difficult time understanding why they are not winning.

Q. What is the status of Cedric Hilliard and Gerome Sapp? Have they recovered enough to play Rutgers, and do you think the bye week did allow the Irish to be refreshed and rejuvenated for these last two regular season games?

COACH WILLINGHAM: That was an important goal for us, to see if we could get our football team a lot healthier than in previous weeks, and also to get them refreshed and mentally energized so we could make this stretch run that we have got in two ballgames.

We’ll begin to find that out and all of those medical questions we’ll begin to answer today, because we get them back today. During the bye week, they were off Saturday and also Friday, and then we gave them off their normal day off at the beginning of any week on Monday. So today we’ll start to get some of the answers to those questions.

Q. What are some of the key things that made the turnaround from last year to this year?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I’ve said all along that our players have been very eager to be successful and that has not changed from their initial arrival until today. They are still very eager to be successful, and I think it is reflected in the success that we have had. And hopefully what we really have going for us is that appetite to be successful that we are not satisfied with where we are today and want to do just a little bit better.

Q. What did you do specifically to help with that transition?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t say I did anything, really, other than be ourselves and try to coach the way that we’ve coached prior to arriving at Notre Dame, which is to be very honest with our young men, to give them a plan and hopefully that they will be willing to follow that plan and have success in that plan.

Q. Your basketball counterpart said last night that he thought Notre Dame’s winning record in football has influenced other parts of the university, as well, including the basketball team; that recruits seem more eager to head to South Bend because of what you’re doing on the football field. Can you comment on that a little bit?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, it is a very kind thing for Coach (Mike) Brey to say, having the success that he’s had. It’s really a valued comment. But he has done such a great job; it’s probably us that’s reflected more in the success that he’s had, than, of course, the limited success we’re having on his program. Anything we can do to make all of the programs stronger we are eager to do.

And success, I think, in most cases, breeds more success and everybody gets excited and it just creates a great environment. Hopefully we can in some small way help everyone.

Q. Moving to the West Coast offense, now that you’ve had nine or 10 weeks to work with that group, what kind of percentage would you gauge that you have instilled from what traditionally you would have done in the past?

COACH WILLINGHAM: That’s always a very difficult question. I kind of back away from putting percentages off what we’ve installed and what we haven’t installed and how well they have adapted in all of these things. We are still in the learning process and we’ll probably be in the learning process for some time.

But that still does not qualify itself as placing any limitations on us in terms of the most important category, which is to win.

Q. Could you talk about Brandon Hoyte and his performance this year?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, Brandon is one of our inside linebackers and got his first starts when Courtney Watson was ill earlier in the year, and he stepped in and did a fantastic job and really showcased himself as what we believe to be one of our players that we’ll be able to count on in the future.

Since that time, he’s probably had limited playing time since Courtney’s return and limited playing time and been a real feature player on a lot of our special teams. But we expect great things from him because he has the ability to not only be a physical player, but also to be an outstanding leader and also a fine student at the university.

Q. What has Arnaz Battle meant to the team this year, and do you think he’s fully completed his transformation from a quarterback position?

COACH WILLINGHAM: To answer the latter part of that, no. I think Arnaz is still learning the position of being a wide receiver. But some days, he makes it seem as though he knows everything about the position, and that is really wonderful. But he’s meant a great deal because you count on your seniors, your better players to be the leaders of your squad, not only to play well, but to also help the younger players and to help mold the team attitude in a very positive direction.

Q. Over the last few games you’ve struggled a little bit. Do you have any concerns the team might be running out of gas with the long season?

COACH WILLINGHAM: There’s no question that it is a long season, and playing the physical teams that we play week in and week out takes its toll. So hopefully that’s why this past bye week will serve as a welcome relief for us and allow us to get energized and allow us to get back in that very aggressive mode that we were in earlier in the year.

Q. Chris Olsen, being a product from New Jersey, playing as a freshman and he wasn’t recruited, how does he fit into the system and what does his future look like?

COACH WILLINGHAM: One never knows the future; that’s why I never dare to project what the future to be. But we are excited about Chris. We think he will be an excellent quarterback in our system. He’s a young man that has an idea coming from the high school program that he had, which was coached, if I’m correct, by his father, and has a real idea about the passing game and the kind of strong arm you like to see in the system. He just has to kind of get into the system, really start to learn it, understand it and then be given the opportunity to do some great things.

Q. Could you give us a little further injury update going into this weekend?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I can’t give you much more than I gave earlier, simply because the majority of the injures within our own meetings but we don’t get a chance to see them until Tuesday afternoon. So I’m reserved about what I say about them prior to having a good chance to look at them.

Q. Could you talk about Ryan Grant and his performance, is it surprising at all?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Not surprising, but I think it is noteworthy that Ryan has had, I think, an excellent year. When we started this season, no one would have given Ryan or any of our other backs to be a 1,000 yard gainer. Yet Ryan sits, if I’m correct, roughly 70 yards away from that plateau. I think he’s had an exciting year and hopefully we’ll be poised to finish very strong in these last two games that we’ve had.

Q. In your first year at Notre Dame, you are now contending for a national title. Comparing yourself with Rutgers, what do you think the difference is between the two programs?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I find it very hard to see some differences when I watch the film. So I don’t really know how to answer that question.

Q. When you first showed up at Notre Dame, you did a lot to study the history, traditions, the lore of Notre Dame. Now you’ve been there for long enough to get a feel for it. Do you feel that now you understand what it’s all about?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I probably say I’m still learning, and probably will be continuing the learning process for some time, because I think there’s a great deal to this university that is not superficial. So therefore, you’ve got to dig a lot deeper to find out all of the meanings, all of the traditions and how everything fits together.

Q. Quick question on Maurice Stovall. I think he’s the same age as a lot of high school juniors. Can you assess his progress and also your willingness to play freshmen players? It seems like most top 10, top 20 teams play freshmen very infrequently.

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, first of all, I don’t believe you have a camera in front of you, so you can’t see me smiling at the mention of Maurice’s name. He is, I think, a football playing young man that has an extreme upside and that always makes most coaches smile.

So we’re excited about what we believe his future holds, but we are also excited about what he’s already given us to date and the progress that he’s made as a first year player in our system.

We don’t have a reluctance to play freshman. Our only guide is that we’ll play the best player, and if that’s the case, and a freshman fits in that category, then we welcome him on to the field.

Q. Lloyd Carr was asked about the incident with the fan and he said that he does fear for his safety on the field. Have you ever been in a position where you fear for your safety out there and is that a genuine concern for coaches and players these days?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I would think with the change in attitude of our communities, it is a genuine certain, and no, I have not.

Q. Is that the color (green) of the jerseys this weekend? You said that you would decide later what color jerseys you would be wearing this weekend. Has that decision been made?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Is that color okay?

Q. That’s pretty bright but that’s okay.

COACH WILLINGHAM: Then we won’t choose that one.

Q. You haven’t decided that yet?

COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I haven’t. (Laughter).

Q. There’s always talk about how players mature as they get more experience, and there’s no substitute for experience. Can you talk about how coaches mature as they gain experience I think their head coach Greg Schiano, he’s the youngest coach in Division 1A.

COACH WILLINGHAM: I saw that. I think the first time you do any job, you usually don’t do it as well as do you it the 10th time or the 11th time, and I hope that’s the case with coaches. I’m not speaking to our opponent this week, but I’m speaking primarily for myself.

I think each day you’re at the job, you learn something new and hopefully allows you to be better.

Q. Courtney Watson, he’s obviously gotten a lot of attention this year. He’s leading the team in tackles, despite missing two games. Can you talk about his mental approach? It just seems like he wanted it really badly this year.

“What we try to work very diligently toward is making sure our young men try to stay focused on what’s important.”Head Coach Tyrone Willingham

COACH WILLINGHAM: There’s no question that Courtney wanted to prove and showed to a great many people the skills that he possesses, and I think it’s reflected in the fact that you have a player that missed that many games and is still leading the team in tackles, but his desire and also what he adds to the team. But I think his focus is not necessarily individual focus. I think he’s really focused on the team and the team accomplishment, and I think that by — and I think that he believes that by elevating his play he can best serve the team to be successful.

Q. He also mentioned that when he made the transition, he felt like linebacker was one of the hardest positions to play in the defense because there’s so much you’re responsible for, and he said he feels like he’s still learning the position. Can you assess him as a linebacker and sort of just the growth you’ve seen in the year that you’ve had him?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, the growth has been tremendous because we’ve asked our linebackers to do a few different things than they did, I think, it was in the past year, and Courtney has accepted that challenge.

But he also has accepted probably the most important challenge of being a linebacker, which is kind of being like a quarterback and directing the rest of the team and getting other people in place, along with playing well yourself. And that’s a very difficult task for a lot of young people to accept because it involves leadership.

Q. You said you looked at the film, and because of that you get the impression that you have respect for Rutgers talent, but sometimes 17 , 18 19 year old kids don’t see that; they see archrival USC the following week.

COACH WILLINGHAM: I think more writers see archrival in USC the next week, and they write it, which helps my kids get distracted. (Laughter).

Q. Are you blaming

COACH WILLINGHAM: No, no, there’s no blame. No blame.

Q. Do you do anything in particular to keep them focused on Rutgers and not looking ahead to USC?

COACH WILLINGHAM: That has always been the difficult side of coaching, is how can you get your young men to focus and concentrate on what’s important now. To do that, you really have to count on not only the leadership of your coaches, but the leadership of your players. They have to understand what’s important.

It’s amazing that around the country, no matter how many times, how many years coaches have said it before, teams get distracted because it’s human nature. What we try to work very diligently toward is making sure our young men try to stay focused on what’s important. We will use any trick and any tool that we can to get them focused on what we are doing this week and not the following week.

Q. With that said, is there anybody on your staff or in your office that has been assigned any notebook on a computer, wherever, that has a scenario that what has to be , A, B, C, D, all the way down to Z probably for Notre Dame to get into the Fiesta Bowl?

COACH WILLINGHAM: No. Okay, no. Not that assignment. I welcome

Q. I know you plan a lot. I just wondered

COACH WILLINGHAM: I would welcome your insight on that. So if you don’t mind, if I place that responsibility on you and I’ll call you and get that information.

Q. Okay. I need time on that. (Laughter). Each season that goes good or bad for a college football team, sometimes can be reduced down to sometimes a half dozen plays; that if they go one way, it signals one thing or another. It just comes down that way. If you had to off the top of your head think of a half a dozen plays or three plays, whatever, is that the case this year with as success as you’ve had, and what are those top couple?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know what those individual plays would be. Probably one that jumps out at me, just to throw in that category, would be Arnaz Battle’s play at Michigan State would probably fit in that category.

But I would say that every game we play, every game we play, there are two or three decisions that the head coach has to make, four or five plays that if they go the right way, you win and if they don’t got right way, you lose and they are always critical. Sometimes they are hidden. You don’t dare not be thinking Arnaz Battle catches and runs for a touchdown, and there may be something changes in momentum or something that impacts the football game. I would say that includes every game and not just looking at a season.

Q. You mentioned Arnaz and a lot of the seniors, they get a lot of the headlines. Jordan Black is a guy whose played lot of football at Notre Dame. What kind of season has he had and what are some things that he does and brings to your lockerroom or to your program that we don’t see?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think he’s had a steady football season. I think he’s been a steady football player for us, and that’s what we expect out of our fifth year guys. But I think he would be the first to say he wants to contribute more and wants to give more to the football team in these last remaining games.

Q. He’s also somebody who has been pretty quotable over his career,which has been good for us. Has that ever been a concern, that part of it?


Q. You mentioned a minute ago about distractions in a week like this where you’re playing a team that a lot of people overlook. The past two games have been similar situations and they have not gone probably as well as you would have liked. Do you change anything this week, since the previous weeks maybe didn’t go as well? How do you approach trying to change?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ve always tried to be very consistent about our approach and the things that we tell our young men and the goals that we set for them, believing that eventually that consistency will allow us to have success week in and week out. So there’s not going to be a great deal of change. Yes, some small things we’ll try to alter, to make sure that we get their attention. But for the most part we’ll stay fairly consistent with the things that we’ve done.

Q. One thing that has not worked very well in recent weeks is the defense forced some turnovers and I think the goal was three turnovers a game, and the only game that’s been accomplished in the past four was Florida State. Do you think maybe the defense was worn down a little bit or are teams just doing a better job of handling the ball?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I would think that, one, teams are looking at kind of the things that have been successful for us and are trying to avoid those as much as possible. And I think that’s not anything new. I think every coach starts every week with his sermon about, get turnovers, create them and don’t turn the football over. We are no different. We will say the same thing four weeks ago that we’ll be saying this week in terms of turnovers. We’ve got to win the turnover margin. If you win that, you’ve got a great chance to win the football game.

And if winning that turnover margin, if you can score off a turnover, then you enhance significantly your ability to be successful. So that is preached every week.

Q. Were you concerned at all about Ryan Grant’s confidence at all? It seems like after the Navy game, he was questioning himself. Are you concerned about that at all?

COACH WILLINGHAM: No, because I think he’ll bounce back and play very well for us.

Q. Do you think the problems that he had was mainly just mental?

COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I don’t know whether it’s mental or whether it’s physical. All we know is he did have some turnovers, but the young man has had an excellent football season. He is, if I am correct, 70 yards away or something of that effect from being a 1,000 yard rusher, and may even have an opportunity to rush for 1,200 yards or something along that line. That’s a very productive season.

I’m very pleased with what he’s done and he himself would say no, he wouldn’t want to have turnovers, the football team does not want to have turnovers, but he was not alone in having some of those turnovers.

Q. Can you talk about Ryan Roberts? He seems like he’s somebody that goes about his job quietly. From what I understand, people in the lockerroom say he’s a bit of a character in there. Could you just talk about that?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I haven’t seen that side of it, so I won’t dare comment on that. But, you know, the term “steady” I think can kind of be down played to a degree when you hear that about a young man. I think we’re so eager to hear someone flashier, flamboyant in the way they play, and I think steady is a great thing and Ryan has been that for us. He is a guy we can count on to make plays in the ballgame; a guy in the lockerroom that has provided some excellent leadership. The character part of that I’m not sure of, but he’s provided some excellent leadership for this football team.

Q. You talked about Rutgers earlier. Can you talk specifically about some of the problems they will pose for you this weekend?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think the one thing I’ve noticed when looking at the film, they are athletic, especially at their skill positions, and that is inclusive of the tight end. And this might be the better tight end that we’ve seen in the country. They have the ability to make things happen.

On defense, they are aggressive and you have not seen very many teams run the football against them very well. They have given up big plays occasionally, but you have not seen the consistent kind of grind it out that you would think you would see with some dominant teams where they just take the ball and march it, march it, march it right down the field.

It’s a team that we have to gear up for, to play a very physical game. And it’s been noted, they play their best against the ranked teams.

Q. With Shane Walton being named a finalist for the Bronco Nagurski Award, can you talk about how that speaks to not only him, but the defense and the program?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I think Shane would be the first to say it, he is excited about the individual honor, but he recognizes that you don’t get individual recognition unless you usually have a core of teammates around you to support you and do things very well. So he’s excited. He’s had an exceptional year. I think he’s looking to elevate his play, along with that of his teammates.

Q. Did you watch any games last Saturday?


Q. Which ones?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Won’t say. (Laughter).

Q. The offensive line, can you talk about the adjustments they had to make in learning a new system and how you feel like that process has gone this year?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, it’s been an up and down and process to be very honest about it. Yet at the same time we have done some good things in that learning phase. The offensive line compared to what it had to do a year ago, it’s just doing more, okay. At some point last year, they threw the football. This year, we are hopefully doing it more. We are doing it in a variety of manners, a variety of protections and that’s challenged them from learning and being able to make the adjustments that are necessary to be a good pass protection and pass execution football team. So as I always say, offense is not just about the offensive line, success or failure. It’s about all of the components working very well together because you can have great protection and run the wrong route and end up with a sack.


Coach Willingham is happy with the progress of his offense.



Q. Do you feel like next year just by being in the same system there’s going to be a natural maturation, there’s going to be a natural progression?

COACH WILLINGHAM: There will be some of that. And there will be some new players that will be getting their first start and they will be lining up in the game for the first time, and they will have that “deer in the headlights” look when they do that, and that’s just natural. You go through a different learning curve with them, as compared to having a whole team go through it at the same time.

Q. A few weeks before the BC game, I asked you about the team shift and the mental approach from being an underdog nobody, respecting them, to suddenly getting respect and having to play with that. How that process is doing and how tough of a challenge is that for a coach to make that shift?

COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s always difficult to get your team to perform at a high level all the time. That’s whether from the underdog role or the championship position, and that’s always a challenge of a coach. It’s always the challenge of a player. Really, what you’re trying to do, is defeat human nature in both of those categories.

So it’s always that struggle. It’s always there. That’s the challenge of trying to be the best.

Q. Texas lost last week. I think you’re probably not one to pay a lot of attention to polls and BCS standings and so forth, am I right about that, or to a certain degree?


Q. What did you think about that and where you stand right now, do you still think you’re in line to achieve your goals this year?

COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s an amazing thing because our goal has been to try to find a way to be the best team in the country. But yet at the same time, our focus has been one game at a time, because it’s the accumulation, I’ve always said, of each of the individual contests that will allow you to get the final product.

The goal this week will be to beat Rutgers, and it we can do that, that puts us in line to have an opportunity to accomplish something good if we are able to defeat USC. And then we’ll look at our season and people will line us up and put us and I’ll call on David, matter of fact, to make sure that we are lined up at the right place.

Q. Do you like that system we are operating under right now personally?

COACH WILLINGHAM: It is the best system we have.

Q. Can you talk about Carlyle Holiday’s progress and what you think he’s contributed to the team this year?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think any time you have a football team that’s 9 1 to date, the quarterback takes, I think, a huge portion of that success. Of course, we know he can’t do it alone, but the quarterback, his leadership, his play aids the football team in having success and Carlyle has done that. He has done, in my opinion, an excellent job of helping this football team be successful. His growth in the system has been, I think, tremendous. I’ve said all along that it is not the physical skills that will excite ; it will be his ability to make the right decisions. And I think he has done an excellent job in the decision process and seems to get better and better and better as we progress through the season.

Q. Is it too early to tell, but have you seen any difference in the way he helped engineer the comeback against Navy, will it give him a boost in confidence?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I think every day he’s on the field adds to his confidence, and as long as our team continues to win and has success, I think he grows in the success of the football team.

Q. Can you talk about Darrell Campbell’s development throughout the season, going from a consistent player to making plays as the season has worn on?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I think that’s problem the right way to describe Darrell. He’s becoming a playmaker. That is a guy that really steps up large when you need it most, and I think Darrell has grown from a year ago, really, to be that kind of player that we can count on and that we can depend on not only for his play on the field, but for some solid leadership off the field.

Q. Are there some specific points throughout the season where you saw him take the steps to become a playmaker?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it started pretty early. I think it was about in the first two or three games that he started to really gain some confidence from making some plays and being instrumental in the success of the defense, even though in some cases, his success was not reflected in his own individual play, but in the play of Courtney and some of our linebackers.

Q. He is also a very quotable guy after games usually. Can you talk about his personality?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I must have missed his quotes then. (Laughter). I think we have a group of guys, hopefully that loves to have fun and enjoy life and play football with that kind of attitude. I can’t dare comment on his quotability because I’ve not seen anything that’s registered on my radar, yet. But he should be and is a fun guy to be around.

Q. When you watch a video of Rutgers or when you show video of Rutgers to this team, do you show them a lot of the game against Miami early on and the first half to get their attention?

COACH WILLINGHAM: We show them what Rutgers and who Rutgers is, and that includes all of the games. You just can’t limit it to those teams to use it as attention getters. Our young men are smarter than this and they have more resources than that.

So we have to show them what Rutgers is, okay. And the first thing is, our young men should be competitors and a competitor understands that you’ve got to prepare the right way every time you go out, and if you don’t, then you’re preparing to fail, and that’s what the formula is. So that’s the first thing we have to understand.

Then we have to have respect for our opponent, because we know that if you’ve played the game long enough that any team can beat you. It doesn’t matter who you are; you can get beat if you don’t play well. So if we start with those things, and hopefully our young men have enough wisdom and experience to understand that message, and then prepare themselves the right way along with our leadership.

Q. Is there a difference in coaching up here in the north as opposed to down south in terms of preparation? The Purdue game is played in sweltering heat; Rutgers, probably rain mixed with snow and temperatures in the 30s. Do you do anything different? I know you can’t change the weather, but you have to play in the conditions that you’re in, but as a coach do you do anything to make it more difficult because of the changing seasons and things like that?

COACH WILLINGHAM: You have to be prepared to alter game plans with the weather conditions, because there are certain things that may not work in the weather, or certain things you may not be able to do against the wind if it’s such a stature that it really affects the football game. So all of those things you have to be prepared to adjust and hopefully try to do that in practice.

If you know you are going to be in a climate with rain in the game, you work on slippery ball fields; you incorporate those that into your practice plan. So you do have to alter and change just a little bit, yes.

Q. This Saturday is November 23, and the last time Rutgers was here, it was November 23 and it was also the last game that Lou Holtz coached at Notre Dame Stadium. Can you talk about his legacy, and now that was a very memorable day here, and what he did at Notre Dame and your relationship with him?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m glad you went that direction. I was trying to see if you were going to say this is my last game here. (Laughter) Whew, I feel better now.

When you mention Lou Holtz, you are talking about one of the finest coaches in all of college football that’s had success every place that he’s been and has done a great job; one of the most respected in college football, along with his coaching skills.

So, I mean, any association that I can draw from Lou Holtz or anything that I can take from him that’s of a learning sequence, I’m delighted to do. But obviously, he had, I think, a fantastic run here. If I can do half of that, maybe I’ll be happy.

Q. Have you had a chance to talk with him?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Earlier in the year, yes.