Aug. 30, 2002
Kickoff Classic XX
Notre Dame vs. Maryland
Moderator: We will get started again now with Coach Willingham. Again, Coach Willingham will make an opening statement about playing Maryland this weekend in the Kickoff Classic, then we’ll go to questions. We’ll have a microphone for questions.
Coach Willingham: It’s an exciting time for me as a head coach at the University of Notre Dame to have the opportunity to be in the Kickoff Classic. I think the one disappointing thing about this is that this is the last Kickoff Classic. You kind of like to have these things to kick off the season and add to the excitement.
But we’re eager to start playing someone else and stop hitting ourselves. It is great to be in this area especially this time of the year as we start to move toward a very unfortunate anniversary.
At this point I’ll take any and all questions that you have.
Q. Two? parter. One, about playing in the final Kickoff Classic, what it’s meant to the game over the years. A lot of the Maryland kids said that’s the start of college season for a lot of kids watching football. Also, your impressions of Ryan Grant, the way he has stepped up this year.
Coach Willingham: Well, you know, it’s unfortunate that this is coming to an end. I’m not sure of all the factors of why it’s coming to an end. But there’s no question that when you have some premiere games and premiere teams to kind of kick off the season, it has a great start to it. It just adds so much to the excitement of starting the college football season.
For that reason I think we’re excited to be here, to be able to participate. Yet at the same time you’re disappointed it’s coming to an end.
In reference to Ryan Grant, he has been most pleasing in not only his performance but his attitude. I am a big person on attitude, how a young man works at doing anything that he attempts to do. Ryan really wants to be a great player, and he works every day toward that goal. So it’s exciting when you have a young man that has that kind of attitude.
He’s not limited by attitude. He has some ability, too. It’s exciting to work with him and kind of incorporate him into our total offense.
Q. What are your impressions of Maryland linebacker EJ Henderson? Does he remind you of any players you coached or played against in your time?
Coach Willingham: Well, he reminds me of a young man that was at North Carolina State, which was Von Johnson (phonetic). I think he went on and played with New Orleans for a lot of years. He’s big, he’s aggressive, he’s one of those guys that can play all aspects of the football game. He’s a great leader for their team. He is most impressive in all categories.
Q. I know this is your first game at Notre Dame. In general terms, your anticipation of what other aspects teams bring to Notre Dame when they come to play you? Do they play you 1% harder because it is Notre Dame?
Coach Willingham: I wouldn’t be able to really estimate what that percentage is. But to say it is significantly greater, different, yes. I think it’s long been recognized by anyone that’s coached against Notre Dame that it is kind of the premiere school, the premiere program. You want to play your best game.
I can remember days at Michigan State when our coaches spoke to us. They talked about young men making a name for themselves, becoming All?American, because all the eyes of the world would be on you when you played Notre Dame.
It carries greater impact than playing just any other University.
Q. You talked about it being special being here in this part of the country as we near an anniversary. Could you expand on that a little bit. Are you going to address that or have you addressed that with your team?
Coach Willingham: No, I haven’t addressed that with our football team, but that is just a personal observation that I have. I think we all have been blessed to be a part of this country. But I think there’s some areas that might appreciate that blessing a little more than others because of the events and the proximity to those events. For me, as I said, I have always been a great fan of this country, okay? To be able to be a part of it now in an area that has a greater appreciation for how special this country is is a great start. Then you add the Kickoff Classic to that, it kind of brings everything together for Coach Willingham.
Q. Coach, how important is this game as far as kind of maybe reestablishing Notre Dame? Obviously reputation on the field has taken a bit of a hit lately. How important is it on a national stage like this to kind of let people know Notre Dame is here?
Coach Willingham: Well, some of that I never focus on that you mention. My focus is simply very simple: for us to be a good football team, for us to take the next step, level that we want to reach. We’re playing a Top 20 football team. When you play them, you have to beat them, otherwise you cannot be considered a great football team or move in the direction we would like to go.
A lot of things that you may factor in, I don’t ponder, don’t think about, don’t even consider, except that this game is the most important game we play because it is the next game we play.
Q. Have you had a chance to fathom the popularity that Notre Dame has in the New York metropolitan area with the “subway alumni” and the idea this game was sold out in a matter of hours, almost like a home game for you, maybe it’s going to be 60%, 70% pro Notre Dame? Have you began to fathom the idea of how popular Notre Dame is in this area?
Coach Willingham: No, I haven’t. But that popularity extends well beyond this area. You can take this team almost anywhere in the country, and everyone will tell you you have a great draw. When we were at Stanford, it was almost a home game, probably was a home game for us at Stanford. It’s not just unique to this area. This is what this team brings. It brings it everywhere in this country.
Q. You talked about this being the premiere program in the country. Is that one of the big reasons you came particularly after (inaudible) the first time? Is that the biggest draw?
Coach Willingham: No, there are a lot of things. I think they’re all very ?? all as important as recognizing that this is the premiere program in the country. Obviously, the attendance that was just mentioned is one big thing. The TV audience that you have each and every weekend following this team. No, I think all of that points in the right direction.
It was amazing because someone said this the other day, they can’t remember another University having a feature film made about their football program. I think all that points that, yes, this is a premiere program and well thought of around this country.
Q. Have you come in with the expectation that you’ll be facing more than one quarterback? How has that changed your preparation, if at all?
Coach Willingham: Our game plan will include thoughts on both quarterbacks. You have to, especially at this time because they’re both different in terms of their delivery with the ball, if nothing else. So, yes.
Q. You’ve had obviously since January to get to know your players and all. Now that it gets closer to the season, have you found yourself having a special bond with the players? Do they accept you and are in tune with you? And vice versa, do you have a chance to have a special bond with your players?
Coach Willingham: Well, that’s something that I think you find with time. In three to four, five, six, seven months, I don’t know if I can measure that. I would say you probably would be better served asking our players that question than Coach Willingham, to kind of establish how deep or how strong that bond is, or if one even exists.
Q. Since we cover so much high school football in this state, starting next week, Chris Nelson, there was some worry whether or not he would go to Notre Dame after his commitment. Now that you convinced him to show up, another question about impressions about that young man. We’ve seen him since he was pretty much a ninth grader. Your impressions of him, the way he seems to be adapting to college, playing for Notre Dame coming out of Jersey.
Coach Willingham: Chris has done very well. I say that in light that you have to kind of qualify that. Most freshmen that enter a program in a style of offense like ours, it’s very difficult for them as a quarterback. There’s more decisions and more information they have to process. He has done well with that. But he is still learning. Even though he has a very rich background in that style of offense, it is still new to him to be at this level and have to exercise all the things that we’ve asked him to exercise. But he’s done very well.
Q. Coach Friedgen was saying before that based on the success that his team and program had last year, he senses a confidence in his players at this time that they didn’t have last year at this time. This program, the Notre Dame program, has gone through a lot of upheaval in the past year. Do you have any kind of a sense of the confidence level of this team right now?
Coach Willingham: I think our confidence level will be high. I think our young men will be well?prepared to come out and play a football game. Even though there may have been something in the past, you have to understand, this still is a program that has the deepest, richest history and tradition in college football. It’s times when you have difficult times, that’s when you draw on that kind of history and that kind of tradition. Our guys are well aware of that.
Q. There has been so much talk about the new offense that you have brought to Notre Dame. Can you elaborate some on the defense, if there will be a lot of changes? A lot of people expect the defense to be a major strength of Notre Dame football, this year and always.
Coach Willingham: I hope it will be this year, especially on Saturday. “Always” sounds pretty good, also.
Now, our defense has been solid. You look at last year, it ranked very high in the country in terms of what is done. What we’ve tried to do is add subtle dimensions to it, not overhaul the whole defense, think there’s something wrong with it, but at the same time try to add some things to it that will enhance our play. That has been the goal of our defensive staff, to kind of add subtle differences, subtle changes, to add to the performance level of our guys.
Q. Since you’ve taken the job, there’s been a lot of attention about the circumstances of how you received it. There’s also been a lot of attention of being the first African American coach at Notre Dame. Does that maybe put even added pressure on yourself to succeed even more? Nobody knows what the pressures are like to be coaching at Notre Dame in the first place, but add into the mix being the first African American coach. Are those added pressures involved?
Coach Willingham: No, no (laughter).
Well, I mean, that is it: no, it hasn’t. You know, I guess I’m often amazed, if I might use that word, by the direction of that question to some degree because I think most coaches are interested in winning, okay? That’s what you want to do. And the pressure to that is the same. We want to win. That’s self?driven, okay? So being African American, being I think ?? what position did you put me in in terms of being in that race to accept the job? Did you have a number for me?
Coach Willingham: I was curious. It’s different everywhere you go.
But, gosh, you just want to win. You can go three, five, seven, doesn’t make any difference. You just want to win. That’s the goal.
So, no, those things don’t have any bearing on my thought process and what I’m interested in doing, other than winning.
Q. Given what Maryland did last year in the first year, I wondered if you have studied or paid any closer attention to what they did differently, especially to be able to do that? Is that the best?case scenario or even realistic for a first?year coach inheriting a program, to expect that?
Coach Willingham: Gosh, you guys are going to crucify me because it’s sad to answer a question with a question. You’re not supposed to do that, okay? But why not?
Coach Willingham: The part of that is you don’t really know as a coach because that’s inside the locker room, the stuff that goes on that creates the chemistry. Obviously, he brought in a different system, okay, to his liking, things that they did. At the same time it’s those inner workings with the players.
I think the question came about the bond, okay, how that’s developed. Those kind of relationships establish what happens with a football team on the field. The X’s and O’s in many cases will be very similar. You might even guess tomorrow we might run an offensive play that looks like one that Maryland runs. But it’s how it’s executed, the real zeal with which the team goes about executing those plays, the bond they have for each other, their coaches, what they believe they can accomplish as a program. To me, that’s something from one coach to another you really can’t see or get a sense of, of how that took place, what they did to do it, if you can take anything from that and bring it into your own team.
Q. Two days ago you said that the significance of your first game at Notre Dame will be minimized by you and maximized by everybody else, or somebody else. As you get closer to the game, do you think it’s going to be more difficult to minimize it in your own mind?
Coach Willingham: It is if I have to spend more afternoons answering that question because you can’t help ?? you can’t run away from it. Every time it’s brought up, you have to have some thought along those lines. But for the most part, no. I mean, it won’t ?? we’ll still hopefully be able to keep all of it in the right perspective and be well?prepared ? I’m speaking of myself now ? to go out and execute the football game.
Q. Pressures aside, do you appreciate where you are in history as an African American? On Saturday you’ll be the first one to coach Notre Dame in any kind of sporting event.
Coach Willingham: It’s one of those things that you don’t ever allow yourself to appreciate at the time. It’s probably better served if sometime in the future you sit back in your lounge chair, relax, say, “Wow, that wasn’t bad.” Maybe some point down the road.
FastScripts by ASAP Sports…
Notre Dame Player Quotes
#92 KYLE BUDINSCAK – Defensive End
For a guy that grew up in New Jersey, how have you changed now that you are a Football player from Notre Dame?
“I love to keep my Jersey roots, I have a lot of my social life here. I think what has changed the most for Notre Dame is my focus and how I look at things and how I focus my attention towards things. I really just try to prepare myself differently for the things I have to do in life. That the main thing Notre Dame has had an impact on.”
On the Kickoff Classic:
“I use to go the game every year and I remember watching those teams and saying, it would be great to play in that game and here I am and it’s amazing. “
On the coaches:
“I really don’t think to make any comparisons. I have a lot of respect for coach Davie and Coach Willingham. I think the focus this year has been, and especially in practice, a fast past quality, never losing focus, never and sitting around too much. It sounds kind of clich? maybe but when you really think about it, everything you do is about winning and if you take that mentality to everything you do and every drill I say that’s the direction we are in”
“Coach is very poised obviously and I am sure he is very excited. Not going to come out and do too much show but we are all very excited.”
#52 JEFF FAINE – Center
Are you more comfortable with coach Willingham?
“I am more comfortable than I have been in the past, we have good team chemistry, the team is more comfortable and we are ready to play the game on Saturday.”
“Coach has done a great job preparing us in the off-season and the last two days and we are ready to role.”
“We feel as if we belong up there with the higher teams in the nation and we think we can come out and play with just about anybody.”
What are your feelings about Maryland?
“Maryland has a great team, great athleticism, a great defensive and great defensive linebacker they proved themselves last year and they are a force to reckon with and it will be a great game.”
Notre Dame has talent, but they have players who haven’t played a game in college before?
“The players will have to reach into the experience of the offensive line, that is where it all starts; the offensive line will be the big base of the team.”
Is it special to be part of the last Kickoff Classic?
“I think it’s a shame that this is the last Kickoff Classic. It’s always the big game you look forward to at the start of the season, its always hyped the most, but its great to play in the last one and make our mark.”
How about playing in Giants Stadium?
“I think it is great to play in Giants Stadium; it is like a home away from home. It s great to come to New Jersey, Rutgers was great; I hope we just keep it going.”
# 42 SHANE WALTON – Corner Back
I don’t know if you guys felt at all neglected in the pre season with so much attention on the offense with the changes at Notre Dame. Do you feel like the strength of the team is the defense?
First of all, I like the attention being on the offense. I’d rather just sit back and play. Second of all, I think our whole team is the strength-offense, defense, special teams.
How has Coach Willingham surprised you in any way with his style?
“Coach Willingham is laid back, but when he does have something to say everyone is focused on every word he says. The whole team is on the boat. We all love Coach Willingham and respect him and he teaches us the best way to get respect is to give it. I think that’s what he’s done.”
The first African American coach at Notre Dame. Does is mean something to you to see a guy in that position, a role model?
“Not at all. A coach’s job is to win whether he’s black, white, handicapped, short, tall. His job is to win and that’s what he’s trying to accomplish here.”
#3 ARNAZ BATTLE – Wide Receiver
Is it special being part of the last Kickoff Classic?
“Very Special, especially this one being the last one. This is the opportunity for some of the best teams in the country to match up and kickoff the season. We’re very excited, we are playing a good team Maryland ranked #20. This is an opportunity to start the season on the right track.”
What is the pressure like never losing in NJ 10-0 in Giants Stadium?
“It’s great we have lots of fans out here. We’re trying to go 11-0. This gives us the opportunity to go out and beat the #20 ranked team.”
You guys have lost the last 9 games. Could you shed some light?
“I don’t like to dwell on the past, however I think it’s a new start with Willingham and his staff coming in, A lot of things have changed within our program, as far as attitude and commitment. We are looking at cleaning the slate and starting over again. And hopefully we will be successful in all our games.”
First Reaction on Coach:
Very impressed, feels since he has been here he has made us a better man as well as football player. Have many principles and values.
How long have you guys waiting for this game?
Coming off of a tough season last year, the guys are really excited, hitting the weights, and practicing. The guys are ready to play.