Feb. 5, 2003
Coach Willingham is here. We’re going to begin by taking some questions here in person, at some point we’ll go to people on the telephone.
Q. How do you assess this recruiting class? How would you describe how it all came together?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I always try to temper my enthusiasm. It may be hard to do with some of the things you all may write about the class.
But I think from our perspective, we believe it’s a very solid class. I say that from A to Z, with Abiamiri or Zbikowski, who ever you work in between. It’s a good, good class. But at the same time I will always say that the shape of what has to take place with our football team has to be led by our young men on campus. That’s going to be important to us.
But I think our coaches, first of all, did a great job of working to recruit this class, and it’s something that takes place longer than just the signing day. You’re looking at a process that our coaches embarked on probably just about a year in the making, that they really worked tirelessly, overtime, did all the things it takes to bring about a good, solid class. I’m excited about that.
I’m excited about the assistance we received along the way. When I say “assistance,” I’m talking about the spouses of our coaches that bent over backwards to help, our staff, the faculty, administration, all lent a hand into really presenting Notre Dame in a very positive manner so that we can have the class that we have or that we’re introducing this afternoon.
I think it’s a good class. I love the way it came together. The work that was put forth to make it happen was excellent. Of course, it was led by our coaches, and also our players had a tremendous hand in that because they’re the ones that entertained the young men on campus and really create the energy in your recruiting process.
Q. Going into recruiting, what was your focus? You talk about a good class. I’m assuming you accomplished what you set out to do. What was your main objective going into recruiting?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think we’ll be honest if we say at this stage, on this day, we accomplished what we set out to do, which was to bring some young players into our system that we think have some potential. Now the real work begins. Now that you have them, we have to do a great job of developing these players.
Hopefully in the next two to three years, we’ll be able to determine how solid a class this is and how much it helps us become a great football team.
Q. Did you target more than one quarterback this recruiting season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, we always recruit first of all to the best interest of the football team. If it meant bringing in two, three, four guys at a position, that’s the best thing to do for our football team, we would do that.
This year we felt like we needed one quarterback. That was what we demanded of the recruiting year. We went out and were very fortunate to get Brady Quinn and feel very comfortable and excited about what he’ll add to our football program.
Coach Tyrone Willingham answers a question from the media on Wednesday.
Q. Do you think any of these athletes will come in and contribute as a freshman?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know. I mean, that’s a question that the young men will answer. If you’ve been around our program, we say this not only to the guys on campus, but the guys that will be arriving on campus, we as coaches don’t want to determine who plays. We believe that should be left up to our players. Our players do that by showing themselves on the football field.
If Travis Thomas or any of our other guys come in and show themselves to be the best back, better than Ryan Grant, Marcus Wilson, etc, then they should play, that will help us be a stronger football team.
Q. Have you ever had a recruiting class with this many tough name pronunciations?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No (laughter). I’ve got a little work to do on that, so I’ll begin working on that process not today of course, but definitely before they arrive.
Q. I think we counted 33 visits, which is probably the lowest amount of official visits to come to Notre Dame. Did you anticipate having more visits and they just didn’t end up coming in or were you confident you could get such a high percentage of that 33 to sign?
COACH WILLINGHAM: To be honest, I was confident we could get a high percentage to sign. I’ve been fortunate that I believe our young men understood clearly what Notre Dame was about, and I think we communicated that well to them in the recruiting process with our coaches. We felt like we had targeted the right young people for Notre Dame. There might be a year that we miss and not get quite as high a yield. In most years, we will not do the recruiting style that I think you see at a lot of places, which is you bring a lot of people in, you make a lot of offers, and coaches end up reneging on offers as well as players reneging on their commitment. That’s not the nature of our program. Ours is one based on trust, honesty and integrity.
Q. What is the maximum amount you can bring in? Is it 56?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it is 56. Depending on the year, you might be able to rotate something over that. I haven’t dealt with that number in a long time, so don’t count me on that one.
Q. You were accustomed at Stanford to bring in an amount about like this?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes.
Q. Will you pursue a full time recruit coordinator, somebody with a title similar to that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We will probably restructure the position and do something in that area within the near future. “Near future” could be near or far.
Q. With such a specific number of targets, do you have contingency plans towards the end of the process where if you’re not getting the commitments or expecting the signing that you hoped for, do you have other directions you could go or would you rather take a smaller class?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It depends. Some years you may say a smaller class depending on what you feel is coming the next year. Other times, as you see the process unfolding, you might be midway and say that we need to add to the process.
Certain years create different scenarios.
Q. Was there any kid that you weren’t sure of, the name popped up, you were relieved or didn’t know they were coming in?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We had one that we were kind of waiting on. At the end we were a little unsure which direction he would go. He gave us certain indicators. You have to make sure you’re reading the language well sometimes. You’re not sure as a coach, because you’re awful nervous and anxious at the moment, you’re not quite sure you heard exactly what he said, or is your interpretation correct? Does he mean something else?
It worked out as we hoped it would.
Q. Who is that you’re talking about?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Won’t say.
Q. A lot of times at Notre Dame, the day of signing, has been a disappointment. Do you think this year is a sign that you have turned the corner in recruiting?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. The only sign I will take will be about two or three years from now. If we’re doing well, then that was a sign that everything went well.
Q. Comment on your philosophy, approach to recruiting players who have verbally committed to another school.
COACH WILLINGHAM: What is my approach?
Q. What is your approach or philosophy to that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It depends. It varies on the individual. Each case will present itself and you handle them in a different manner.
Q. Our perception is that people from the south, there is a tendency to stay close to home? Have you found that to be true?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I wouldn’t necessarily call it a strong tie to the University as much as I will call it a strong tie to the region. Having grown up in North Carolina, I think there’s a part of that part of the country that in some cases I hate to say it’s still fighting the war, because that can get controversial. But at the same time that region just has that feeling that that is a very comfortable place to be, I believe, and therefore some young people will not venture out of that region because it feels very comfortable to them.
I think other parts of the country, there may be a little more worldly exposure to some degree and they’re willing to venture around the country and see different things and have different experiences.
Q. This class has many players with the ability to play other positions, maybe more so than with other classes. When you start out targeting players, was that an emphasis?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it’s something that you always look at. If a young man has a lot of versatility to his play, that means that if something doesn’t work on his behalf, there is someplace else he could be used, and it strengthens your football team. If we can find guys that have that ability, I think it’s an asset to our program.
Q. You signed two offensive linemen. Did you want to sign more than that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, we are extremely excited about the two. We think both of them add some very special things to our program. I will not say whether that would be tomorrow, whether it would be a year from now. But we do believe they will have impact in our program.
They have great intensity, great drive and great desire.
Q. Were you looking to sign more than two?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We had others on our list. I think the way things shaped out, we’re very happy.
Q. (Inaudible) the way he fits into the defense?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m awful careful not to overstep my boundaries on any one player. The focus is always the team. But without the individual players bringing their individual skill, it’s very difficult to get the team that you want.
But we are excited about what Victor brings to our football team. We think he has what I guess I’ll label them some very Justin Tuck-like and tough like qualities, explosiveness that you’re looking for in terms of a pass rusher, and I hope in the future he’ll be able to add to our team in that category.
Q. Greg Olsen has a reputation as one of the best players in our country. Can you talk about the background with his family, his brother being here?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, we thank all of our coaches again, did a wonderful job in terms of recruiting not just Greg, but all of the guys. To be able to go into a house for the second time is special because they’re willing to entrust their young man to you. That means you’re doing something right the first time. We feel very privileged to have him in our program.
What I liked about Greg, I like, one, his intensity. I think when he plays, he plays with a great deal and a high level of intensity. Then the other thing that I like is that he is a coach’s son. You can hear that in the conversation. You can hear his mind turning as a coach’s mind would turn. Hopefully that adds something to his play and also to his maturity.
Q. How does the coaching staff feel about bringing Greg Olsen into the program?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know. We find all those things out once they arrive. Are we excited about his play, believe that he adds a great many of the things we’re looking for? Yes, indeed.
Q. The last couple of years in recruiting here, the final day has been kind of a disappointment, losing players. The last couple days, you really closed out very strong.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Thank you.
Q. How does that make you feel?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’ll take it (laughter).
Q. You picked up four players in the last two days. What was this last week like as far as being on pins and needles? What was it like for you, this last week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, it’s I guess the same type sensation you have every year going down to the wire. You’re running a race and you hope that you can make the last steps and the last moves to put you in the winner’s circle. In this particular case, we were fortunate to do that.
The addition of the Maryland guys, the addition of Mitchell Thomas, down the road, those were big gains for us we believe. We believe they’re outstanding players that will add to our football team.
Q. Are there any players that will step in to fill an immediate need?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think you saw some of that this year where the movement I think of Maurice, okay, and our receiving core, those guys were able to step in because of our need there as much as their ability. So I think when you have that situation present itself, it just allows more opportunity.
Q. How important was it to attract a player like Geoff Price? Do you look at that as more of a luxury this season? What was your approach to that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, you know, I guess our overall recruiting changed as we were going through the process. One year ago our scholarship list was probably not as large as it is today. When I say that, I’m speaking namely of the number of scholarships available to us. But with injuries and some other things, we gained some scholarships. So, therefore, it presented us an opportunity to add in that area.
We’re hoping that Geoff will be one of those special guys that kind of follows in the footsteps of Joey and becomes an excellent player. From his background, you see that he’s also a safety and played actively in football games. So, therefore, he brings a talent to his punting. That was one of the highlights of Joey and his career here, his ability to down the ball inside the 20, inside the 10 and inside the 5. That’s created in his mind, not necessarily because of his body.
Q. Do you keep a few scholarships in case something happens toward the end of the recruiting period?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I always like to keep one or two in our hip pocket. I think that’s always a good thing for young men that we have in our program. We have I think a fine tradition at Notre Dame of walk ons being involved in our programs. If they’re committed and have the skill, then we should reward them for that.
Q. Do you have any left now?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Have a couple.
Q. In reserve for transfers?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It could indeed, for that also.
Q. Would that be new ground here? Are you concerned with that? Is that something you have discussed?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The number one thing there, it has to be a match for the University as well as for the football program. When you say “the right fit,” it must be inclusive of all those things.
Q. Would one of those include Julius Jones for next year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Could potentially include Julius Jones.
Q. When would you know for sure he’s coming back?
COACH WILLINGHAM: When he goes through all of the University procedures. I left that as open ended as possible.
Q. On this list every year there’s a couple mysteries, (inaudible) into the defensive line.
COACH WILLINGHAM: We have no vision in that area (laughter). No, we don’t see any guy in that position today.
Q. Did you have a kicker coming in?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There’s opportunity for a kicker to come in, yes.
JOHN HEISLER: If we could take some questions from people on the phone.
Q. I know you said something about the true strength of this recruiting class will be evident two or three years from now. Obviously you hone your skills at judging talent, but talk about the inherent uncertainty in trying to project what a 16 year old or 17 year old will play like five years down the line.
COACH WILLINGHAM: That’s why I think it’s important that we as coaches utilize our experience in having done this for a number of years, that you recognize there’s a tremendous amount of growth that takes place in the individual, his years in college, and that you’re not always able to say that from day one he’ll come in and start and be a great player. But we need to provide them the opportunity to grow, adjust and develop.
Q. I’m wondering if you got a sense around the nation, how much excitement was back at Notre Dame? Maybe that’s why some of these players were signing with you, their confidence had been sort of restored.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think that was a very important aspect of our recruiting. In the country, you could sense that pride and that passion that the Notre Dame family has in the program, and therefore it’s reflected in the excitement generated by these young people and their desire to be a part of our program.
I think that was a major part of it. But I still go back and insist that coaches did a wonderful job, our players in terms of their hosting, our administration created a great environment.
Q. I know you don’t like to isolate on individuals. Is there a position or any of these kids that you could see, because of their skills and the need you have, that might be able to move into the two deep say in the defensive backfield, for instance?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Of course, we lost some very good players across the board on our football team. Obviously, that creates opportunities for guys on campus to step up. It also means there will be opportunities for guys new to our campus.
I think the mentioned the receiver spot last year was one of those positions that singled out for a special opportunity. One year ago on this day our linebacker core was a lot thinner than it was. That’s an area where there might be some opportunities. Also losing Hildbold, that might create some places there. Naturally by the attrition that’s taken place, that also might create some opportunity.
We always say in this program our goal is to play the best player. If our young guys walking on campus have that ability, then it makes us a much stronger football team.
Q. Trying to get the all around athlete, it looks like a lot of these players excelled in other things, from boxing to track, basketball.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think any time you can get a great athlete, and the thing that I think is sorely missing when it’s just a pure football player, is that a football player only has competition available to him in most cases 11, 12, maybe 13 times a year. But if you have a young man that plays multiple sports, has multiple interests, there’s a high level of competition, it helps him develop, helps him hone his overall skills. We’re always interested in young people that have that type of background.
Q. I want to specifically ask you about a couple of local kids. What led you to recruit Jeff Samardzija? What qualities did you see in him? Also the kicker, (inaudible)?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I did not mention him, but thank you anyway.
With Jeff, we are really excited because he’s another player that kind of fits our mold. He’s intense, he loves to compete, he has a knack for making the big play or the big hit. Those are the guys you just welcome in your program. Comes from a good, solid program that understands winning and understands the sacrifices that have to be made to be a winner.
Q. How much do you rely on your current players to give you feedback on the recruiting process?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, we think that’s important because we want to have a family atmosphere. If you have someone that doesn’t fit into that family, then it’s not the right mix and it makes things very difficult for everyone in the program.
I have this saying that I always say to our staff and to myself and at some point to our players, that water seeks its own level. Usually that individual, if this is not a comfortable and a level place for him, he will not choose it.
So I think it works both ways. Our young men do a great job of providing us with feedback on the individuals to assure us we’re on the right track in recruiting the kind of young men that have a great deal of success here.
JOHN HEISLER: Anything else from here?
Q. Can you comment on any walk on possibilities you might have?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I cannot right now.
Q. What about any preferred walk ons?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, let me talk about the label. A walk on is usually the young man that comes into your program without any assistance. The preferred walk on is a young man that has received some recruiting information from you and a telephone call, I think it is more than one telephone call from you. That now puts him in the category of preferred walk on. If he ever plays, his status changes in relationship to a scholarship. That’s why the distinction is there.
To answer the question, yes, there will be more than one young man that we’re interested in getting into our program in that category.
Q. Was there anything consistent this year in terms of that you had to address, whether it’s negative recruiting or other rumors?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it’s the same things that you could imagine. Overcast, there’s nothing to do, it’s hard academically. I think those are some of the things that we hear. But when you throw those things out from your opponents, it really is a vessel for us. It’s very easy to say that you want to be in an institution that challenges so you can be prepared for this world you’re going to live in.
I think any time you have a group of 10,000 18 year olds, 19 year olds, 20 year olds, when have you ever seen them not have fun in their lives? Those things are very easy I think to discredit once they’re thrown out there, but they’re things we constantly hear each year.
Q. From a football standpoint, did you have to address the offensive problems over the last two years?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. I think our players once out there clearly see the direction we’re going. Even though not as productive as we’d like to be, there were times which we executed some very outstanding offense, scheme wise and in terms of execution.
Q. What did you say about the weather?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We have to bring them in on these great days that we have (laughter).
Q. When a recruit comes to you and says they’re not feeling as comfortable as they thought, do you wish them well, or do you try to resell them?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think first of all we thought very highly of David (Marrero) in this case, and most kids that fit in that category. If we offer them a scholarship, we think highly of them and their abilities to help our program.
What we do, I go back and try to make sure that the things we initiated the contact with, the things that we thought were important to his having success at Notre Dame, are represented to him, and hopefully in such a manner that he can clearly see those.
At the same time if he feels that this is not the right place for him, we would be the first to encourage him to not to be here because we want young people in this program that want to be at Notre Dame because I’m excited about being at Notre Dame, our coaches are excited about being at Notre Dame, our young men already on campus have got off to a great start this winter in terms of their preparation for next year, so they want other people that are excited about being here and are here for the right reasons.
Q. Recruiting is more than just a 12 month process, you initiate contact early. Can you tell me, were there guys that were on your target list while you were still coaching at Stanford?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Actually I’m not sure, but I think there were some that we had in camp when we were at Stanford. There’s probably a few. I’m not sure what that raw number is, that either took junior visits or sophomore visits possibly to the campus or were in our camp.
Q. You mentioned that you won’t know about this class until two or three years down the road. Is it almost comical to you how people rate these classes, speak so definitively about this team has the best class, guarantee their future?
COACH WILLINGHAM: How hard would you like me to laugh? There is no question about that. It is comical because when you look at the NFL, the NFL spends a great deal of money on their draft picks. They miss a great percentage of the time. I mean, how many of those first rounders really turn out to be all that they claim they would be? They spent just an amazing amount of money in terms of research, development.
For us to believe that this or that class is the best ever or whatever category they put on it, it’s kind of difficult to do. But it’s fun.
Q. Does the new angle that recruiting has taken on, kids demanding to go on live TV to announce their signing, affected the athletes you choose to recruit?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, no, I think you still want to pursue the athlete if he is the right mix for your University, your program. I don’t think the change in the times should alter that, if he is the right fit for your University. But if he’s not the right fit, and sometimes it’s difficult to see that because we all can get caught up in his skills, his ability, all of other things, and not see all of the things that make this young man the young man that he is.
But if he’s the right fit, no, I don’t think whether he announces on a merry go round or halftime of a ballgame has a lot to do with it.
Q. The recruits question you about any future NFL coaching positions?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, they did, because that was probably one of the other things that I didn’t elaborate on that you hear from the opponents that we have to deal with, that they would constantly tell a young man that he’s not going to be there, he’s going to the NFL. It’s something you have to deal with.
But I always asked the families is to please ask that particular recruiter, “When is the last time you talked to Coach Willingham?” Of course, I pause. Then I ask them, “When did you talk to Coach Willingham?” They usually say, “We’re talking to you right now, coach.” I say, “okay, you got the answer.”
Q. Do you do anything different with the kids that commit early and might change their minds?
COACH WILLINGHAM: They made their announcements very early in the process. I think there’s some young men that need to wait and get the information and make that decision. Then there are some that feel comfortable feeling they have all the information.
In his case, I think there was an attraction to Notre Dame, some of the things we stood for. I think there were some second thoughts on his part. Once we were made aware of that, we ran to Florida just as fast as we could get there. It worked out very well for us.
Obviously, with his bloodlines, gosh, there are a lot of great angles there. Father is a Hall of Famer. I think he offers a great deal and we’re excited about having him in the program.