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Coach Willingham Press Conference Transcript

Nov. 26, 2002

Q. You have obviously seen a lot of Carson Palmer. I think the first three plus years of his career he had thrown 39 touchdowns, 39 interceptions and this year the ratio is 24 to 8. Can you see the difference on film — what it is that he has done to make himself so much more effective this year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know if another coach can comment on exactly what he’s done, but I think it’s very obvious that he understands his system; understands himself, and the limitations of his teammates. So therefore he’s able to function in the system a lot better now. I think it’s obvious to anyone that is following SC football he is playing absolutely the best football of his career. I think most would probably say as well as any quarterback that may have ever played there.

Q. Talking to Coach (Ara) Parseghian, he said that you can almost ask any college football coach, at every place they have ever been, they usually have one team that kind of bedevils them. He said it does not have to be the traditional rival. For him, the team that he always had the toughest time with when he was at Notre Dame was USC. Did you have a team like that at Stanford, the one team — I haven’t gone through the records — a team that stands out in your mind?
COACH WILLINGHAM: University of Washington. For whatever the reason, we couldn’t get the calls, the plays or whatever it was, to get the victory.

Q. Talk about the job Coach (Pete) Carroll has done kind of reviving the program, the tradition at USC the last couple of years?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He’s done a fantastic job. He stepped in and really solidified everything that they have tried to be about; everything they are about, in that program and he has them back to playing football the way that university has traditionally played football — which is recognized as one of the finest football traditions in the country.

Q. I read something about when he was hired at USC, someone was quoted as saying that he may be more suited to the college game than to the pro game. Having been on both levels, what are the differences and are there things that make a coach more suited to one level or the other?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I am not sure about that. I have always said it’s about people, regardless of what level you are on. But maybe someone is more knowledgeable about that than I am. But Pete is just a fine coach and a fine person. Obviously he’s doing a great job in their program.

Q. It’s been, I think, 21 years since they have beaten UCLA and Notre Dame in the same season, even longer than that since they have done it in consecutive weeks. You’ve talked about the way teams play Notre Dame and the way that Notre Dame has to play every week to play to that level. What are those kind of rivalry games like and can the emotion of those games take something out of a team that can contribute to something like that where it’s been so long that they have been able to put it together?
COACH WILLINGHAM: In this particular week, in this case, I don’t think it will take anything out of their club. Obviously that was not, I think, the tightest game they have had in that series. And obviously I think that the things that they are seeking to accomplish just place them at a different emotional level for this last stretch run that they are having. So I don’t think it will take anything out of them.

Q. Do you think this is a team where the secondary is looking forward to the challenge? Is this the kind of a challenge that they really look forward to?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That one is kind of a mystery in a sense. I mean when you read the level that their receivers are playing at; that Carson is playing at, I mean, it’s kind of a — I don’t know if we can get anybody to show up, I mean, because they are pretty good.

Q. There have been suggestions the past week or two that Notre Dame might end up in the Orange Bowl whether they win or lose this game. As a coach, would it be fair for USC to be passed over if they beat Notre Dame this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Would it be fair for USC to be passed over if Notre Dame loses? Gosh, you make me think about a lot of things I don’t want to think about. I will kind of defer on that one.

Q. Paul Hornung on the radio broadcast indicated that in the spring or summer you had passed up an opportunity to address a speaking event for a fairly substantial amount of money and he indicated that you weren’t going to do any public talks throughout the season. Can you say a little bit about that and after the season will you be doing that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I will limit what I do outside of our football program simply because my focus is our football program and the young men in that program are first priority. So things that are outside of that should take a back seat to that. So I will limit my activity from that standpoint.

Q. Even after the season?

Q. You won’t be hitting the banquet circuit to a major degree?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I hope not. Is there something that I should be speaking on?

Q. No.

Q. You indicated you watch the highlights that the university provided, videotape, digital, film, whatever, rather than the network feed. I am just wondering how many cameras do they use? Do they isolate on just the offense, defense, how does that work?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Two camera angles, sideline and end zone. And it’s more just focused on what the coaches need. TV feed is simply to get more audio play in terms of what is being said about the game to give you a feel for it from that standpoint. But for the actual breaking down of a game it is the football coaches copy that does a better job of that.

Q. How critical is it to have Gerome Sapp back there in the secondary and what is the likelihood of him playing Saturday night?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The likelihood is, we’re not sure yet. As always, Tuesday gives us our best chance to know where our players are. In his case, it may not be Tuesday that we have our first inkling. But as long as he’s back and moving at a sufficient pace later in the week then he will get strong consideration for playing and playing an awful lot. That in itself says a lot about the place in which I hold Gerome Sapp. I think he’s been not only a steadying influence in our defense, but he’s been a great player in our defense and that combination is always needed even though I was very pleased with the work that Garron Bible gave us and how he stepped up and he’s going to be a big hitter in our secondary also. He’s going to add something from that standpoint. But we would love to have Gerome back if he’s healthy and ready to go.

Q. With your experience in the Pac-10, how would you rate the Coliseum as a hostile venue and what recollection if any do you have of your own experiences there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think I’ve got mixed experiences there — some success; some failures — seeing the horse run too much, listening to the band too much. So it’s kind of a mixed bag there.

Q. I was wondering what the next step or steps are in the evolution of your offense — your wideouts have combined for about 90 catches and tight ends are catching the ball more than they have caught it here. Seems like Carlyle (Holiday) is getting the running backs the ball a little bit more than he had. What in your mind is the next step or steps as far as the evolution of that whole development?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The unwanted answer is win. The one that you prefer is that hopefully to be able to do all those things, when needed, is what this offense really should provide. If one day the defense allows us to really work to the running backs then that’s who gets the primary catches and involvement from a passing standpoint. If one day, it’s the wide receivers, then that’s where it goes. Tight end, et cetera, that the offense has the flexibility any day any Saturday to perform well and showcase a different group of athletes.

Q. A lot of times is that dictated then by what the defense chooses to try to take away from you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Exactly. Because the concept is, and I think most offenses will say this whether it’s the option or the passing style offense, that a defense shouldn’t be able to take away everything. If it does in most cases it’s got superior athletes — no matter what you are going to do you struggle. But there should be something. If they cover the flat, that means the curl may be open. If they cover both the curl and the flat, then maybe that tight hook over the middle may be open. So you just keep working your progression to where you find their weakness and hopefully that’s the skill of this offensive system.

Q. So then balance isn’t necessarily having that balance all in one game; it’s having the balance over the course of the season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is having the flexibility to win every Saturday.

Q. Over the last six games USC has averaged over 41 points a game. There must be more to this team than Carson Palmer. Could you kind of elaborate about the challenges that they present?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, this is probably ?? and I may not be the one to say this because some people will say I am biased in kind of stacking the deck in a sense. But this may be one of the better offenses they have had there in a number of years. You have got the great quarterback that’s up for the Heisman. You have got the running backs (Justin) Fargas and (Sultan) McCullough that have provided great energy and great depth in those two. You have got the incorporation of fullbacks that add to the passing game as well as to their power run game and blocking. You have got the offensive line that they have always been noted for and now the wide receivers probably could have their own track team and do well in Olympic competition. So there’s not much missing from this offense.

Q. What about Cedric Hilliard, what is his status?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Cedric will be just like Gerome (Sapp). We will start to find out today and in both of their cases it may be later in the week before we have the final answer.

Q. The position both Notre Dame and USC are in kind of speaks for itself in terms of national rankings, things like that. In addition to that, it’s a major rivalry game. Like Alabama/Auburn, Texas A&M, along those same lines. Does that create any differences in coaching when it is a big rivalry game, and can you draw from your experiences from the Cal/Stanford game because it’s one of the big rivalries also?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s not quite this big. This is a little bigger; not just in the number of miles that separate the two universities, but in terms of the amount of people that are drawn into this rivalry. This is huge, as I think a young person might describe it. So it’s different. What we’ll try to do is make sure that we don’t get our guys too excited too soon; that we’re able to peak at the right time and hopefully that’s Saturday afternoon between the hours of, I think it is, 5 and 8 on the Pacific Coast.

Q. The last two-three games how would you evaluate your rush offense, specifically in terms of the ability to pick up the four-, five-yard gains to give you guys second, third and short where the offense could be a little bit more flexible?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I apologize because I am not sure what our numbers have been getting into second and short. I don’t have it in front of me and it’s not committed to memory. What I will — and I hate to say it because you hate to hear it, but as you know, as long as we win, that’s the most important thing to Coach Willingham. It means that we can be strong in one area, or weak in another area, but the ultimate goal is to win. Okay, so I am not able to really offer you that evaluation.

Q. Talk a little bit about USC’s defense, specifically their ability to stop the run?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I guess I’m ashamed that you sit and say so many great things about their offense and people forget that Coach Carroll is known for his defensive skills. And that he really coaches the defense, I think, more so than the offense. They have done, I think, a great job of being a really good defense.

Q. Anything specifically they do that kind of enhances that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Everything. That’s a good defense, the secondary plays extremely well. They are good at the corners. Of course, the great player they have, the safety, I think is (Troy) Polamalu. They have got great players every place and they play well. And probably the thing that’s probably most outstanding for them from being on the West Coast and watching them, they are playing as a team.

Q. Any advantage to the familiarity that you have with USC from your Stanford years?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it helps. I think there’s no question, having seen (Carson) Palmer before, you can notice subtle changes in him and how he’s doing things a lot better than he’s ever done them before. You know some of the players from having tried to recruit some of them and knowing about them. So it does help, okay, it’s not comforting, but it does help.

Q. You mentioned that Carson Palmer is up for the Heisman and there’s a lot of talk about East Coast bias in voting. A Pac-10 player hasn’t won the Heisman since 1981. When you were on the West Coast did you get a sense of an East Coast bias; is that a real thing?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is. Simply because of when you get the scores. We’ve improved so much in this age of, I call it, communication, with the internet that you can get scores and things instantly — but no matter how you cut it, if you play at 5 o’clock on the West Coast, it’s 8 o’clock; if you play at 8 o’clock, it’s 11 o’clock, and there’s certain people that fall asleep at 11 o’clock. So they don’t catch it until the next morning, so that does change perception.

Q. Coach (Ara) Parseghian was also saying that as a coach the losses always linger more than the victories. He said he can still give you a play-by-play of every game he’s ever lost and the wins all kind of blur together. Is that fairly true for every coach?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is true for almost every coach. I don’t know if I can go back and give you the play-by-play of each loss, but no, they stick with you. It’s hard to turn them loose.

Q. You mention this being a huge rivalry. I know it’s early in the week but has there been anything already that you have noticed that made you say that you know how big a rivalry this is?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, it is just S.C. and Notre Dame. You wake up on Sunday and know it’s that week, it’s just a natural.

Q. I am sure you were happy to give Carlyle (Holiday) and many of the starters a rest in the fourth quarter. And the Notre Dame faithful seem to really enjoy watching the reserves and walk-ons get a chance to get on the field. First, have you been approached by any officials of the movie studios about doing a version of Rudy II?

Q. Okay. (Laughs) A couple of questions. Actually three. Does Notre Dame have more walk-ons or reserves than Stanford or other schools that you are aware of?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would probably not say more than other schools. More than Stanford, yes.

Q. Could you tell us a little bit about these guys and what they have given to the program this year and how did you feel specifically when Tim O’Neill ran a power sweep to the left for 42 yards?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, first of all, having been a walk-on, you know that their contribution is really immeasurable because in most cases they not only add, in terms of the team’s attitude, the team’s fight, because they are guys that don’t come with great announcements about their athletic skill. They are guys that just want to be a part and battle and try to just add any place they can. Then in Tim’s case, Tim is always special because he is that young man that by stature, not a lot of people think a lot of and when he comes in and performs through the manner that he does, is just energizing to our entire football team. My concern is that Tim plays so hard that when he goes into a game like that, if the other team is kind of reeling or not giving the same emotion, he will score. And I don’t know if we needed a 49th or 50th point at that time.

Q. You have got three freshmen that are going back to their home state for this holiday weekend. I wonder if you can talk about how hard it is as a freshman to be away from home for this much time and just what it would mean for them to go back?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, it’s very difficult for a freshman and especially those that are involved in actual playing when a holiday arises especially because that’s the time for most of them that they have been able to be home; they have been able to sit in their living rooms and watch the college games, and now they are a part of that. But the transition of being separated from family and friends for the extended amount of time that they have, roughly from August until basically the first of December is very difficult for them. So it’s a great opportunity when you have a chance to go back home and now reunite with family and friends and then on top of that, have an opportunity to play in a game of this nature, I think it takes a little bit of the sting away from that loneliness and that homesickness that young men get.

Q. You were a long way from home when you were a freshman. Do you kind of remember those moments? Was that I guess, hard in any way to be gone that long?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, it is. It’s just difficult. It’s the transition, the first part of it is just the transition in college in general that most freshmen go through. Now when everyone else gets the chance to go home you don’t have that opportunity. So it’s nice that we have a ballgame of this nature and that they have a chance to go back home, again reunite with family and friends, again, I say it takes a little bit of the sting out of the difficulty of that situation.

Q. What changes this week for you with practice as far as Thanksgiving goes and the way that that falls this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well we have got both Thanksgiving and travel that kind of impact our practice plans to a minor degree. For the most part, we’ll stay with the system that we have used. We’ll just jockey the times, just a little bit.

Q. Just wanted to get a reaction to you guys winning 42-0 Saturday and actually falling in the BCS rankings; was that a surprise to you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: A surprise, but no reaction to it. That’s the ups and downs of how the computers rank things and really, I don’t think I found out about that until maybe last night. So it wasn’t that important.

Q. Following up on the schedule for the rest of the week. Are you guys going out to L.A. Friday or Thursday?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’ll depart Thursday evening.

Q. I was wondering your thoughts about having a four- or five-loss team in one of the BCS Bowl games.
COACH WILLINGHAM: That would be which team?

Q. Looks like Florida State this year.
COACH WILLINGHAM: That probably still means that they have won their championship?

Q. Yes.
COACH WILLINGHAM: If you win your championship and the other teams didn’t win the Championship and didn’t do better, I think they still deserve to be there.

Q. Are there other teams that might deserve to be there as well?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That could be.

Q. As you know, the USC defensive line has really played well this year. I was wondering if you, on video, if you see a real play-maker up there that kind of stands out above the others?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I think they have been very consistent across the entire front. Again, for lack of a studying, but I think (Kenechi) Udeze, I don’t want to pronounce it wrong because they will be mad at me. I think he’s been one of guys that they kind of lean on for a lot of their leadership and a lot of their good play.

Q. Having dropped down to No. 7 do you hold out any hope at all of having enough things happen to climb up and somehow amazingly make it to the National Championship game in the Fiesta Bowl?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I mean, you always hope. You always wish. At this stage of season with so few games to go, that possibility starts to kind of slip away. But you never know. There’s still a lot of things that could happen. You have got championship games that have to be played. I don’t have any idea how those will impact the computers or what rankings or things will change with losses. But you always hope and you always wish, but the number one thing for us is that we have to take care of what we can take care of. And we have one regular season game remaining against a team that’s clearly thought to be one of the best and the hottest teams in the country right now and if we can somehow find a way to win then we’ll do the thing that best would help our case.

Q. Talking about the holidays. What are your thoughts on playing every year in Notre Dame’s west coast swing which is either L.A. or Stanford and have you looked at future schedules and thought about adjusting that to where you are not playing over Thanksgiving weekend?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, we’ll have some talk about the future schedules and the right direction to pursue for our program. That’s always important. But at the same time I think we’ve established these games, to some degree, as part of the tradition as of late at Notre Dame. So I think they have a place also.