Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Official Athletics Website

Coach Willingham Press Conference Transcript

Oct. 8, 2002

Q. You talked a lot about not showing a lot of emotion. Looked like you were frustrated at the penalties on Saturday.

COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m always disappointed. I think frustration doesn’t enter in because I believe if you’re frustrated, then you can’t change it. Obviously, we believe we can change most of the things that take place in our program.

But you’re always disappointed when you have penalties because those are what I call in some cases unforced errors. When you make unforced errors, you don’t have a lot of success. There is disappointment in those any time.

Q. After the game you called the penalties a little unusual. Looking back, it looks like Notre Dame is on a pace this season to have the most in 15 years, like 770 yards. Have you been surprised at the number that you’ve seen?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Again, I’m disappointed at the number. I didn’t quite notice the statistic that you were putting forward that we’re on pace for. I hope we don’t get anywhere near that.

Q. Obviously, the penalties hurt the offense some, with drives and things. You have a board in the locker room with goals and objectives. Some of the goals you’ve been pretty good at reaching, out scoring the team in the fourth quarter, but there are a number that have fallen short. On those goals, is that something you hit most of them most weeks or is that, you know, a high goal that you shoot for?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Those are factors that you hope will contribute to your success that particular weekend. There are things that you point to that you want to accomplish. But the ultimate goal is always listed first at the top of that chart, or any chart that we have, and that’s “win.”

Q. Jordan Black was saying he senses the offense is ready to explode. Do you sense that, that things are getting closer? Hopefully you won’t have to depend on the defense?

COACH WILLINGHAM: It should be noted that we’ll take winning any way we can get it. But you always want to perform in every area as best you can. Our offense is doing some good things, and those things should be acknowledged. I think rushing for nearly 250 yards is a pretty good thing.

Q. Can you talk about the defensive line? The past couple coaches you’ve played against, the teams have all talked about how key the defensive line has been, that they keep the offensive linemen from getting to the linebackers so the linebackers can make plays. Seems like they have made some key plays.

COACH WILLINGHAM: You need both. It all depends on your scheme. There are times you want your defensive line to excel and make plays, and there are times you want your linebackers well protected so they can make the plays.

Really what you want is a team full of play makers that are playing disciplined football within the structure of your team.

Q. Coach, you expressed a lot of confidence in kicker Nick Setta. He seems to be in a bit of a slump, having made two of his last nine. In your experience in pro and college football, can you ever identify maybe what gets a kicker in a slump? Is it just on the kicker? Is it the holder, the snap? Is it all of that?

COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, I haven’t seen a kicker that’s been in a slump. The one we have is not in a slump. He’s missed a couple of field goals.

Q. When you’ve seen kicking problems at other places in the past, have you ever been able to identify what happens, or do you simply not believe in kicking slumps?

COACH WILLINGHAM: One, I don’t believe in kicking slumps. That’s a personal thing. Two, sometimes you can notice certain things, but usually the young men themselves, because they are so well taught in their fundamental skills, will notice some things during films that may be off. But there is always that possibility that they just missed it.

Q. Not so much specific to Notre Dame, but just the fullback in college football at one time was kind of a featured figure. Has the change in offenses down through the years made the fullback less of a featured figure? Seems like he’s become more of a blocker, more an additional offensive lineman than anything else.

COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m trying to go back and remember when he was a featured player. In my time as a player, he was always a secondary guy, with most of the offenses I was familiar with. When was that?

Q. Well, maybe back in your time as a player. Certainly they carried more than a couple times a game.

COACH WILLINGHAM: I think we had one year in my playing days, a fullback, Levi Jackson, that did pretty well. Other than that, most of the time they were the guys that did the blocking and a few hand offs. At that time we didn’t throw, so he didn’t receive very many passes. But I think in most cases, you try to find ways to balance it out based on the ability that you have there. We would like a balance in ours, a fair amount of balance in ours.

Q. You don’t see like a Jerome Bettis or Mike Alstott anymore. Is that just the nature of the change in football?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m trying to remember. I can’t remember where Bettis played entirely. If you ran split backs, you downplayed the true role of a fullback. I want to stay Alstott might have been more of a halfback, somewhat what we did with Tommy Vardell at Stanford. He became a fullback in pro football, but really he was a halfback for us when he had his best days as a back at Stanford.

Q. What are you impressed with about Pittsburgh? What have they done with their quarterback?

COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, it doesn’t take many minutes or seconds in viewing your film to realize this is a pretty good football team. Obviously, their record jumps out at you right off the bat.

But you look at what they’ve been able to do, especially what they were able to do last weekend going into the Carrier Dome, which most people have said is a tough place to play. They really just took that team apart. To play A&M right down to the wire I think is pretty good.

But I think first of all you need to start with what they are doing extremely well, which is their defense. It is an aggressive, get after it group that has a lot of confidence. They are really limiting what you can do offensively.

Then their quarterback probably jumps out at me, their three receivers, their ability to perform and make plays.

Q. You said Saturday after the game that you would have to look at the video to evaluate Pat Dillingham more fully. What did you see when you did take a look at that? What is the status of that position?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I never get into full critical evaluations in public of our players. But I thought Pat did a fine job, looking at the film. There are some things, as always, he would like to have over again, but I thought he did an excellent job. What our focus always is, is winning. You want to improve in all areas, you want to do well in this area, et cetera, but the goal is to win.

I think the latter part of that was, what is the status of the group? We’ll be working day to day to determine who will start at the quarterback position.

Q. This is something I know you can’t talk specifically about. But with recruiting, there’s been some news, not only Notre Dame, but in season commitments and visits, you and other head coaches spending time with recruits. How different is that than it used to be? If it is, why is there an emphasis on in season visits and commitments?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think to answer that question, there has always been in season recruiting for as long as I can remember. But the scale of it now is much larger. It seems as though the northern schools are trying to take advantage of weather and other conditions that really favor their recruitment of young people at that time.

It’s on a larger scale than it was I think some time ago.

Q. The media whines about this. What effect, if any, does the length of TV time outs have on you as a coach at Notre Dame or even a visiting coach coming in to Notre Dame? Seems like they’re longer here. Is that our imagination?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I’d probably suggest that you would time them and then I could accurately comment on that.

Q. The development of your offense, the evolution of your offense, you said would probably take a couple years to get fully functioning. Can you put a percentage on what has been run or revealed by Notre Dame’s offense up to this point?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Gosh, put a percentage on it? I think you’re asking, if I’m correct, like how much of the playbook, how much of the offense is in place?

Q. Do you have more to offer as the offense evolves?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I think you always have more to offer because it’s constantly changing, the offense, from week to week, year to year. What goes in it, what comes out of it, what works, what doesn’t work, what is suitable for the personnel that you have, it’s constantly evolving.

But what you hope that you establish is a foundation that you can do the expansion from, that there’s certain things that the guys learn today that will always be in the program tomorrow. Now, how you modify and change that week to week, game to game, year to year, always changes.

Q. I know you’re not surprised by much that happens on a football field. But when Shane Walton dropped to the turf and started doing push ups in the middle of the game, did that catch you off guard?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I’d say that caught me off guard, yes (laughter). I think it was not only Shane, but I think also Preston Jackson did the same thing.

Q. Are you okay with that?

COACH WILLINGHAM: We’ll discuss that.

Q. The players also revealed after the game or talked about some of the comments that were made at halftime by you. Does that violate the rule of keeping it in the locker room?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Does it violate the rule of keeping it in the locker room?

Q. You’ve often talked about what’s discussed in the locker room stays in the locker room. Did their comments regarding your comments at halftime violate that rule?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Maybe in some regards, yes. But I don’t think it’s anything that I’m concerned about.

Q. Can you comment about the fumble rooskie Stanford called against you? Is that something you saw in the past in one of the films, something you devised at Stanford?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I thought that was a neat play that they put in. More than anything else, the timing for it was great. They came off a big gain, if I am correct, and they were hustling. Usually the opponent is kind of spinning at that point, trying to gather his faculties to try to figure out how to stop the next play. You move quickly, get everything going. I thought it was great timing on their part.

Q. Had you seen them use it on film?


Q. What’s the reason for the shift in the line, left to right, on PATs?

COACH WILLINGHAM: There are a couple things there. One, in case, just as with the fumble rooskie, just in case you’re a little relaxed, confused, not together, you can have a quick strike.

Two, it forces them to adjust, then readjust when we go to position for our extra point, which may slow down the rush. They may not be set quickly or know where they want to come from. From those two standpoints, it has some advantages.

Q. Usually around October the academic demands start to pile up, with midterm exams. Do you do anything as a football coach to scale back because of the demands? Does that play into preparing for the weeks to come?

COACH WILLINGHAM: No, we haven’t changed anything. In past years when I’ve been at Stanford and had very similar situations, we maintained our schedule. It’s just a tough grind for the young people to work through. But it’s also a great skill to have the ability to work through those situations.

Q. The D line, what do you think you’ve liked about what you’ve seen there this year? What kind of progress has there been? I know there was a lot of pressure on Saturday that caused a lot of big plays.

COACH WILLINGHAM: The number one thing that I think I love about our defensive line is their attitude and the way they go about playing the game. That is, I think, very consistent with the way the entire defense is played. I think one of the comments you’ll get from most people that watch that defense is they fly around. The defensive line has been some of the leaders in doing that.

Q. Some of that flying around, some of the players talked earlier in the year that’s something you specifically had said, to just go a hundred miles an hour. Is that something when you first came in, you said, “Don’t worry about mistakes, if you make mistakes, you’re going the right speed.” I know you don’t want mistakes.

COACH WILLINGHAM: We don’t want mistakes. We do want them going a hundred miles an hour. It’s always good if they’re going in the right direction.

Q. Is the running game where you want it to be right now?

COACH WILLINGHAM: There’s no part of our play that’s where we want it to be. Hopefully the goal is to continually get better, whether it’s our passing game, whether it’s our running game, whether it’s our special teams and/or our defense. Obviously, in some of those areas, we’re doing some good things. You can’t be 5 0 without doing some good things. But we’d like to be a lot better.

Q. I know we’ve seen a lot of great play from Courtney Watson since he’s returned to the lineup. A guy like Brandon Hoyte, do you have to say something special to him? Obviously, he performed very well. Now he’s back to a reserve role. How do you handle that as a coach?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, number one, we have a great respect for Brandon. I mean, he brings something to the table. He played well. We hope that he continues to play well. We’ve got to find ways to rotate him in, get him involved in the rotation.

At the same time, we think we have an excellent player in Courtney Watson. I think the players would be the first to tell you, that there are some things he does very well based on his experience and based on his skill, that they’re learning how to do.

You just have to find ways to hopefully develop your guys and keep them coming.

Q. Marcus Wilson had some nice bursts at the end of the game. Is he healthy now? Do you feel he can be more of a part of the rotation at running back?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, he’s not entirely healthy. He is gradually getting better. With that, hopefully we’ll have him also in the rotation, which will give us another little jump.

Q. You’ll be glad I am not repeating the question about Holiday’s health.

COACH WILLINGHAM: That’s okay. You’ll get the same answer (laughter).

Q. I thought you might be disappointed I didn’t ask. I wondered, in terms of just being able to practice, since it isn’t his throwing shoulder, do you still feel like he was in a position where he can make some strides, even though he didn’t play in a game last week?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Each day that he is practicing and working with the group, it gives him an opportunity to start to get back to the level he was, and hopefully exceed that. We’ll be looking forward to getting him involved more and more each day.

The number one thing you want to do is make sure that a player is able to protect himself when he plays.

Q. I was curious, what improvements would you like to see in your offense in the second half of the season here? We’ve used the word “evolution” with it.

COACH WILLINGHAM: You’re not running out of terms, are you (laughter)?

Q. No. But I think we’re kind of humoring a little bit. We’re not saying it’s going backwards; we’re saying it’s evolving. I wonder, how would you like to see it evolve in that second half?

COACH WILLINGHAM: How would I like to see it evolve? I’d like us to eliminate the penalties. I’d like to see our rushing game remain extremely strong and be even more consistent, and our passing game improve.

Q. How about the defense? They’ve played so well. Obviously, you’d like to see improvement there, too, I would imagine.

COACH WILLINGHAM: Oh, yes. I’d like to see our defense find even more ways to score.

Q. Gerome Sapp, can you talk about what he brings to your defense?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, it’s amazing that when you talk about so many of our guys, it’s almost like talking about a mirror image. When you talk about Gerome, you’re talking about Shane (Walton), you’re talking about Vontez (Duff), you’re talking about Glenn Earl in that secondary. They’re all intense, fierce competitors that are giving us great leadership and great play on the field. It’s nice to be able to reflect on them, you see so many of the same qualities in those guys.

Q. Ohio State had a guy named Pete Johnson, a good fullback. Do you remember him?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I do remember him. That would be one program that probably featured the fullback pretty good. About the same time, though, I think it was Michigan that was probably tailback dominated.

Q. You often said in the past there’s no substitute for game experience. Having had Pat Dillingham go through a whole game, pace himself, learn to handle momentum shifts, how important is that for a quarterback, to understand the pacing of a full game, as opposed to being thrown in, and how much does that help his development?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I think there are phases of a game that more than other phases help a quarterback grow. I think usually those involve the most intense situations where you really have a chance to put yourself under pressure. But there’s always learning situations throughout the entire ballgame.

But I would prefer to be involved from a quarterback standpoint in those situations that demand the most. To say that he learned a great deal in closing out the football game, yes or no, but when the game is really on the line, that’s when that quarterback grows the most.

Q. When did you sort of realize with Pat, was it at some point in fall practice or spring, you talked about his poise, the way he handles situations, when did that first become apparent to you?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I think that was apparent in the spring. But you didn’t have, I didn’t have, we didn’t have the opportunity to really work with him a great deal at that time because at that time we had I think three or almost maybe four other guys involved in the quarterback position that were in front of Pat.

Q. A lot of talk about the defensive line this week. Can you talk about what Justin Tuck brings to the defensive line as a younger guy? Seems like he’s able to utilize his speed.

COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it’s pure athleticism. Justin is one of those rare young men that has great size and great size potential and is extremely explosive. It’s almost like having a young man with linebacker speed playing down. Those kind of guys make great pass rushers and provide great pressure off the edge.

Q. Is that explosiveness intrinsic or can that be taught in practice?

COACH WILLINGHAM: No. I think God gave him something that he didn’t give everybody else (laughter).

Q. Can you talk about Derek Curry’s development?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I really have been pleased with Derek. Derek has been one of those guys that’s been a starter for us after playing a backup position in the past. He’s been a guy that put the team first by volunteering being on a lot of special teams. When you get a young man that steps up to the plate in that manner, he’s giving you not only on field play but leadership in areas that sometimes your team is reluctant to step forward in, which is special teams involvement.

Q. Derek really is not a guy that has eye popping statistics at the SAM position. How do you evaluate production at that position?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, the first thing is to fit in the defense, you have to do your job, have the consistent across the board play that every player first has to do if we’re going to have a successful defense. For someone else to get tackles and interceptions, that means along the line others have to do their job.

He does that. He performs his job well. He’s been consistent for the most part in his play. That’s allowed to us have other guys make plays.

Q. The nature of having a guy do his job, is that easy to teach or convince a younger player to do all the time?

COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s not easy to do for any position because that means you have to defeat the guy across from you in doing your job. As I was told some time ago, they’re on scholarship, too.

Q. Derek is a guy in high school that was not only a three sport athlete, but a three sport captain. Do you see that in his play, leadership, maturity?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I think in my statement about him volunteering to be involved in the special teams is something that you don’t get from a lot of starters. Most of them would probably prefer to spend their time starting and focusing on that particular role. But to have him step forward and volunteer to be a part of our special teams says a whole lot, says a great deal about his leadership.

Q. During a game, how much gamesmanship is there between coaches and officials, pointing things out you want officials to look for, holding, rushing the center? How much of that goes on during the game, working the officials? I don’t know if that’s a good term.

COACH WILLINGHAM: That’s a pretty good term.

Q. How much of that does go on?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t spend a lot of time on that one. Maybe that’s what happened on that center call.

Q. With Marcus Wilson a little healthier and the way Ryan (Grant)and Rashon (Powers-Neal) played last week, do you feel like you’re developing the committee at running back? How do their differing styles give the offense kind of an advantage?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, if the talent level is there and the guys are contributing, making the plays, we will try to involve as many people in our offensive scheme as possible. You’re starting to see I think the emergence of Marcus a little bit with his plays at the latter part of the ballgame. He’s shown that he has that make you miss ability. That’s something you always need in the offense because hopefully that gives you that home run, that big play threat that every offense needs. If you can generate five to six really big runs over the course of a ballgame, that has the ability to change a football game.

But I’m pleased because with the group we’re seeing right now, Ryan Grant is giving us that, Rashon is giving us that. It’s great to see that kind of ability display itself from all of those guys. It would be a welcomed addition with Marcus.

Q. Other positions have shown that kind of depth. How does your preparation work in terms of your practice structure and other ways to prepare backups to be able to step in when they’re needed?

COACH WILLINGHAM: In some cases, it’s difficult. Probably in all cases it’s difficult because the backup can never get the number of snaps that the starter gets. They’ve got to be bright young men that pay attention during practice and kind of learn through the eyes and the body actions of the other player.

It makes it difficult in some regards, but it also forces a young man to concentrate, which should help them any time they’re involved in a play.

Q. The emotion we heard about from you at halftime, is that something that goes on more than what we see or do you consciously make a decision that the time is now to show them, be a motivation or inspiration?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ve got to be careful here because I’m not sure exactly what you heard about my emotions. I don’t want to be speaking about things I’m not sure of. It probably goes better without saying from both of us on that.

It’s like a story I was told once by another coach I was with. He said, “If you can imagine that little Johnny is in the middle of the street, there’s a speeding car coming down the street, and Johnny is definitely in harm’s way, do you say ‘Little Johnny, please get out of the road'”? (State in a low, calm voice) I’m not sure that would be appropriate.

Q. So Stanford was the speeding car coming down the street?

COACH WILLINGHAM: We were in harm’s way (laughter).

Q. Dillingham and Holiday are two different style quarterbacks, or maybe they have different talents.


Q. When you devise a game plan for Pittsburgh, do you devise the same game plan that both of them can run? How does that work?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, what we’ll try to do there is find those things that we think make Pittsburgh vulnerable. That’s number one. We have to figure out the best way to attack them within our offensive structure. Then you let the athletes’ abilities take over, which means on some cases there’s some things that definitely would be in for Carlyle because of his running ability, in addition to his passing skills, and some things that would be taken out for Pat because he doesn’t have those skills and you focus on what he can do.

Q. Normally the starter gets the overwhelming majority of the snaps during practice. Do you have in mind how things are going to be divided this week?

COACH WILLINGHAM: We’re thinking about that. We haven’t layed it down in terms of concrete numbers exactly what they’ll be. We know we probably have to get a lot more work.

Q. I’ve never met a coach that hasn’t subscribed to the theory you’re never as good as people say you are when you’re winning or as bad when you’re losing. What’s your reaction when you pick up a national magazine like Sports Illustrated last week and they’ve anointed you The Savior of South Bend?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I laughed. I mean, no, it’s the same thing. You’re not as good as people say you are, and you’re not as bad as they say you are. Sometimes if you’re in this business long enough, you experience both of those. So, no, I didn’t pay honestly any attention to that at all.

Q. Can you talk about how opportunistic your defense has been, how you’ve been able to turn turnovers into touchdowns? Is that something you work with or they just have a knack?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think it is both. I think it’s something where we have a group of young men that are playing a very aggressive style of football and have great confidence in their skills to make things happen that they can take balls and put them in the end zone, intercept balls, pick up fumbles, et cetera. But I also think we have a coaching staff that is doing a fine job of teaching those young men those skills.

I think it is a combination of the two that’s allowed us to have some success at it.

Q. You’ve said one of the things you find attractive about the Notre Dame job is the intensity of interest in the football program among the University population at large. Could you please comment on how that passion for this team has helped the team so far this year? Has it helped you at all?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, in helping the team, it certainly helps me. I think if you even go back as short a time as just this past Saturday and look at that ballgame, there was a stretch in there that our crowd and that passion really displayed itself. I think it started, gosh, may have been with Darrell Campbell’s sack down near the goal line. All of a sudden they just raised the bar in terms of their energy. That kind of intensity and that kind of passion, your team just feels it. Therefore, our team raised the bar. I think at that point the offense might have taken the next drive in or within a couple of series took one in, then all of a sudden the defense gets one, the defense gets another one, the offense goes on another drive.

Any time you can create energy, emotion in a positive manner, it helps. Our fans have done a great job with that.

Q. You guys are 5 0 with a lot of the same players who were not quite as successful last year. What was the most important thing that you’ve done with this team, with these guys, to get them to play at as high a level as they’ve played?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, first of all, thank you. We’ve been blessed to have had some quality young men on the campus when we arrived. We’ve just tried to work with them within the structure of our system, the way we do things, believing in them, believing in our structure, and tried to get them to see that we could be successful.

Q. You talked a little about attitude before. Is that a key to what you’ve tried to accomplish?

COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think attitude is a key to life. How you approach this world makes all the difference in it. I think we have a very positive, positive approach and a very positive attitude about our teachings and our young men have a very positive attitude about themselves.

Q. Have you ever been on the other end when you’re preparing a team you’re not sure which quarterback is going to be the starter, and if that causes any kind of problems preparation wise during the week because you don’t know, if that would be maybe the case for Pitt?

COACH WILLINGHAM: It does create some problems, especially if the two young men are drastically different. In a lot of systems you will see very similar quarterbacks simply because that program recruits to a certain type of personality, as I would call it. But it can be a very difficult thing to prepare for.

Q. So you wouldn’t want to be on Pitt’s end as far as preparing for the QBs?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m not sure how tough it will be for them.

Q. Walt Harris was an assistant at Michigan State the same time you were there. Can you give me an indication of what kind of memories you have of Walt and what it’s like to meet him as head coach?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m trying to document those years exactly because I think that might have been about the time that I was either finishing up as a player and/or becoming a graduate assistant in the program at that time.

Walt at that time was a very professional coach, had a great rapport with his players, and demanded a great deal of them. I don’t think that’s changed in his coaching style at the University of Pittsburgh. He is very demanding of his team, has great knowledge and expertise, and has put together I think a very, very talented team.

Q. I hear you referred to as a disciplined coach. What does that mean?

COACH WILLINGHAM: I honestly can’t tell you. The word I use is “flexible.” I think you have to be. I have said this many times. I have children that are teenagers. I don’t think discipline goes a long way. I think you have to have some discipline, but you have to be flexible. I think when you deal with young adults and teenagers, you have to be able to do that. Do they need ground rules? Yes, they do. Do they need structure? Yes, they do. But at the same time you have to bend a little, give a little, and help them through a tremendous growth period in their lives.