Dec. 8, 2002
RICK CATLETT (Gator Bowl executive director): Kevin, Coach, what a great year. Unbelievable what you’ve been able to accomplish, Coach, with the program, turning this around. Kevin, he made you look like a hero for hiring him.
We’re excited and pleased to be here tonight to be able to extend to you an opportunity to play in the 58th annual Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, and please accept because it was a long ride up here (laughter).
KEVIN WHITE: (Notre Dame director of athletics): We’re pleased and honored to accept the invitation on behalf of the University of Notre Dame. Again, we have a long standing history with the Gator Bowl, we’ve played twice previously, and are again proud and honored to bring the Notre Dame football team to Jacksonville. It’s a very exciting community, a place wherein I think the Irish faithful have loved going in the past, have loved attending this Bowl, I believe in ’76 against Penn State, ’98 against Georgia Tech, if I’m accurate.
I think the faithful will really get excited about the opportunity to get to Jacksonville and participate. It’s a great game, New Year’s Day game, that excites the heck out of us, as well.
COACH TYRONE WILLINGHAM: On behalf of our football team, we do accept. We are delighted to accept. As a matter of fact, I just broke that news to them a few minutes ago in somewhat of an unofficial format, because you hadn’t given it to me yet officially.
It is exciting for this football team. We’ve had a good year. This is a great way to close out a year. If we can go down and have success and play Notre Dame football, it will be great for us. So I think our young men are excited, are eager to make their travel plans to get there, eager to represent Notre Dame.
RICK CATLETT: You deserve it, both of you, and the young men who play football for you deserve the opportunity to play on NBC on New Year’s Day. Obviously, NBC is our network also. To have an opportunity to have Notre Dame play in a Bowl game, any Bowl game in America would be absolutely standing on their head to make that happen. Some people, some other Bowls that decided not to take a 10 2 Irish, we’re thankful they made that mistake. We’re glad to have you. We’re looking forward to an entertaining game, and a good recruiting year for you.
Q. Jordan Black said after the USC loss that whatever Notre Dame gets at this point, they’ll deserve. Did that happen?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it’s fair to say we look forward to the chance to get back on the field again. We think the Gator Bowl provides us a great opportunity for our program.
Q. Do you think this team is a BCS worthy team? Do you think a mistake was made?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m never one to tell what someone else does is a mistake. But I do think this football team has played some great football this year. We’re defeated four ranked opponents, some would even say five. We’ve always said our wins and our losses will speak for themselves. I think in our case, our wins speak loud for this program.
KEVIN WHITE: I don’t think any of us that are here to serve the University of Notre Dame intimately involved with our football program are objective. We think over 12 football games, we’ve had a great run. We’re very proud of the progress this football program has made. You’re going to talk to three of them here in a minute. We’re thrilled with the progress we’ve made.
We think we’re a deserving football program.
Q. West Virginia coach was commenting on whether he felt slighted that his team was not invited to the Gator Bowl. He questioned why Notre Dame is involved in the selection process with the Big East. One of the things he said was, “I think the Big East is a great league and we can stand on our own. In my opinion Notre Dame either needs to get in or get out.” I just wanted to see if Kevin or Tyrone can talk about his comments and Notre Dame’s involvement with the Big East and the BCS process.
KEVIN WHITE: As I think everybody knows that’s on the call, we have a relationship with the Big East conference in almost every one of our other sports, football notwithstanding. We’ve been a proud member of the Big East conference in everything else. When I believe this opportunity was afforded to us to be a participant in what we call the secondary Bowl package, I think we agreed to it in good faith. I think it made a whole lot of sense for the Big East. Certainly it seemed to make sense for Notre Dame or we wouldn’t have participated.
I think we’ve all entered into an agreement, a relationship, and I think all parties have been well served to this point.
Q. Coach Willingham, how much do you know about North Carolina State’s football team, how the two teams might match up?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The little bit of knowledge I do have is from seeing them play on some of the televised games. No question they are a very potent football team. I think right now their strength is their offense, their great quarterback, receivers, young freshman running back, they will be a very exciting and challenging team for us to play.
Q. Obviously a lot of us here saw the Southern Cal game. I know that had to be a bit of a nightmare. Do you feel that was an anomaly, that Southern Cal had the right game plan for you that day? Obviously, you feel that way. You say it’s a bad taste in your mouth. How bad a taste is it?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m trying to compare it to something that I don’t eat. I think that probably kind of sets the table for it right there.
No, we talk about winning. That’s the focus of our program. Any time we don’t do that, we’re not happy. Nothing is exciting about us or around us if we don’t accomplish that goal. I think our young men, their coaching staff, are eager if we can get back on the playing field and get a win. We recognize it will not be easy because there is a very, very good football team we’re going to play.
Q. Kevin, not only do you have the West Virginia coach unhappy about you being in the Gator Bowl, you go to the other side, under the old rules, Notre Dame would probably be in one of the four major Bowls. How do you feel about Notre Dame’s participation in the system?
KEVIN WHITE: I think we’ve all spoken to that. I don’t know what else I can add other than we’re really pleased with the opportunity to head to Jacksonville, Florida, and represent this great University that all of us are fortunate enough to serve. I think I speak to the team, the coaching staff, Coach Willingham, he’s already said that directly. We’re very excited to go to the Gator Bowl and to play and have an opportunity to win a Bowl game. That’s really important for us to complete the season on a winning note, win 11 games, and to get on to the next phase of recruitment and everything else that takes place with the college football cycle.
We couldn’t be more excited.
Q. What does having that extra preparation mean, particularly for some of your younger players that don’t get the chance to play much during the season, what the extra couple weeks will mean to your program?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think you can really describe it or characterize it as additional spring practice. That’s a real luxury. I think that’s what the better teams in this country have had, is opportunities to have those additional practices to develop their young players. It will afford us that opportunity to develop our young players, but also it’s important for our program, it gives us an opportunity to send our seniors out on a great note. You always like to win your Bowl game, you always like to win your last ballgame. It is our chance to send our seniors out on a great note.
Q. How do you expect the practice schedule to break down? When will you hit the practice field again?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think our report date is the 26th of December, so we’ll try to work both around the Christmas holidays and also around the young men’s finals schedule. Does not afford us as much practice time as we would like, but it will give us enough time to be prepared for this football team.
The first week, we’ll be limited with what we can do with them, maybe just one individual session on their own, follow the next week with that next weekend with hopefully a couple full fledged practices, and then off for finals, then pick up some more practices probably the following weekend.
Q. When do finals end?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Finals should end the 20th of December.
Q. Can you tell us the reaction of the team? Was it disappointing, the reaction to the Gator Bowl as opposed to a BCS game?
ARNAZ BATTLE: I didn’t watch the BCS Bowl selection. Like Coach Willingham said, this is another opportunity for us to finish on a positive note, finish the season out the right way.
GEROME SAPP: I didn’t get a chance to watch the BCS selection. The Gator Bowl is a great Bowl. It gives our program another chance to showcase its talent on a national level.
Q. Looking back over the last year, being able to play in the January 1st Bowl, how do you feel about the development of the program over the last year?
SEAN MAHAN: Obviously, we feel like we’ve come a long ways. Coach Willingham has brought a great work ethic with him, this team has really risen to the challenge. To be in a January 1st Bowl, we look forward to the challenge of playing a great NC State team.
Q. How eager are you to get out on the practice field again?
GEROME SAPP: Speaking for my teammates, I think we’re all very eager to get out and practice, get our game plans, practice for a great game. We all have a really bad taste in our mouth from the SC game. Like Coach Willingham said, we’re eager to get back on the field.
Q. This will be the last time you ever put the uniform on. Describe what that means.
BATTLE: Like you said, this is our last opportunity, we want to make the most of it. The last time to get out with our teammates and go out and practice. It’s nice weather in Florida. Just an opportunity for us to have a great time, enjoy each other for the last time, end on a positive note.
SAPP: This experience has gone fast, coming here as a freshman, to know I’m leaving, my last game. I’m just going to make it count, make it my best, have no regrets during this game, just give it my all for my teammates. Like Arnaz said, these weeks of practice and this game is basically my last time hanging out with the team the way I’ve done in the past. I’m just going to enjoy every minute of it, play my heart out.
MAHAN: I’m definitely happy to play again, especially after the SC game. A January 1st Bowl is one of our goals every year. Playing a team like NC State is a great challenge for us. I think we’re looking forward to playing Notre Dame football, showing the nation what we’re capable of.
Q. Did any of you hold much hope after the SC game that you would make it in the BCS?
MAHAN: I don’t think the team really worried about it too much. It was out of our hands. I think we’re just looking for an opportunity to go out and play again. We felt we were a better team than that. We were looking for that opportunity to go out and show the nation who we are.
Q. How important is this game?
SAPP: It’s very important. At the start of the season, no one gave us a chance but us. Losing the way we did to SC, I think a lot of doubt has creeped into a lot of people’s minds again. Going out and playing a great game this game, really in the future, is really going to make a statement towards the program and towards the people in this program. It’s really important we go out and win this game, play Notre Dame football the way it should be played.
Q. Arnaz, talk about your experience in the ’98 Gator Bowl)?
BATTLE: I was the backup quarterback, but I didn’t play. Just the experience while I was there was great. I think you couldn’t ask for a better situation for this program, just go out and have this opportunity. This is a chance for us to win this last game for the future. I think this program is back where it’s supposed to be, but I think the best is yet to come. We have a lot of great players in this program, a lot of recruits looking to join this team, help build this program to the championship level.
SAPP: We all came here to win every day. We’re here to win. Our last game in the Gator Bowl is a perfect game, great challenge. That’s our main concern right now.
Q. You guys talk about Notre Dame getting back to where it needs to be. You certainly have made some strides this year. How important is the Bowl game, especially given the fact that the program hasn’t won a Bowl game in almost a decade?
SAPP: Any time you’re faced with an opportunity to play a great team, in our situation it’s NC State, that speaks volumes for your program if you win. Not winning a Bowl game the last five years kind of puts a shadow on our program.
Going out and playing our best game, winning this game, really bolsters the program and bolsters the University. We all plan on doing that, going out and winning.
Q. Is there any sense of relief knowing where you’re going after that week of uncertainty?
SAPP: We can channel a lot of our anticipation and aggression toward somebody. After walking off the field at USC, “When are we going to find out where we’re playing and who we’re playing?” Now it’s actually tangible. We get our game plan soon, start focusing on an opponent.
Q. Did you watch the UCLA game yesterday? What was your reaction if you watched it?
ALL THREE PLAYERS: I didn’t watch it.
Q. Nobody watched it?
ALL THREE PLAYERS: No.
Q. How close is Notre Dame to being where you want to be?
BATTLE: We played some great games this year. I don’t think we played our best game. I don’t think we put it together as a total package. This gives us an opportunity to do that — special teams, offense, defense, just go out and play 60 minutes. I think this team understands that Florida State was a great game for us up until the last five minutes. I think we went out and really dominated.
That’s what we’re supposed to do, Notre Dame is supposed to dominate across the board. We have the guys in this program to do that. NC State is a great team. We’re going to take our best shot. This gives us a chance to go out there and reestablish.
Q. Why hasn’t everything clicked in the last four games?
BATTLE: I don’t think anyone can really put their finger on it. I think it’s a new system. I think guys are still buying into it, still learning. It’s going to take time. With the changes we’ve had in this program, we’ve done a tremendous job this year stepping up and accepting that challenge. I think guys are just excited, really looking forward to the future of this program.
Q. You talk about it’s a new system, guys are still learning. Do you feel like you’ve begun laying the foundation for greater things in the future?
BATTLE: We believe the best is yet to come. We have a lot of great players in this program, a lot of guys still learning. I think the staff does a great job in developing those young players, not just preparing for us a game, but also getting the younger guys to practice, a little bit of experience of what is yet to come. This program is hungry for victory, championships. I think it will be here soon.
Q. Did you spend any time thinking about the games over the weekend and what they meant as far as maybe playing in the BCS?
SAPP: We realize there’s some things that we have no control over, so it makes no sense to worry about things that we don’t have any control over. We knew we had a team meeting with Coach Willingham tonight. We just figured he’d let us know where we’re going then.
Q. So you didn’t know until the meeting where you were going?
THE PLAYERS: I hadn’t really heard.