Nov. 4, 2003
Q. A few years ago at Stanford you had the 3-8 season, I wonder if you learned something during that time about yourself and about how kids react to adversity that you can apply to the situation that you’re in right now?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think as a general rule, I can say yes to that. There were some things that you learn going through difficult times.
First of all, I believe with the young people we found out that they are in some cases more resilient than most of us. But at the same time, they need excellent leadership to help lead them through difficult times and they need people to believe in them when things are not going as well as they would like to. What I learned, I guess, during that time more than anything else is believing the things that need believing in, change the things that are not consistent, and keep looking toward your goal.
Q. Yesterday on Pardon The Interruption, Wilbon made the following statement, ‘For those of us who actually talked with him, he knew that this was going to be a down year because he was not going to throw his freshman and sophomores to the wolves.’ Do you remember that conversation with him and how would you assess that statement?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say this: That I always make a decision about our players in that our best players play, and that has never changed with freshman being involved and what their involvement would be. You play to win the game, and I think that’s always been my focus.
Q. Do you consider this team more lacking in discipline than, last year’s team or other teams that you’ve coached, not in behavior off the field, just lacking in the disciplinary things that you need in order to succeed?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, I don’t. I think we’ve had stretches where players get caught in things and do things that are somewhat uncharacteristic. I think we have had other stretches where it has been as consistent as any coach would like. I think we had one game which was in the last two or three weeks, two penalties, and you usually associate penalties and frequency of those kind of things with discipline, et cetera.
Q. People on the outside would say, for example, that the 12 men on the field, or rather, the 12 men in the huddle after the timeout, that’s an example of lacking in discipline. Would that fall under that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. Definitely not. That would fall under you get all of the right communications in all of right places. Everybody has to hear that and everyone has to be comfortable with that.
Q. Every game counts obviously for one win or one loss, but considering the nature of this that Notre Dame has won 39 straight against Navy and the fact that you are 2-6, does this game then take on even greater importance to you and this team because of the situation that you’re in?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think I’d venture back about three weeks, and it might have been somebody from this room that asked me that same question.
Q. Could that have been me?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It could have been. I’m not sure. But I think that question came up against another opponent that we have.
They are all important. They are all critical games, and that’s what makes college football so exciting is that every game has great meaning. So, yes, I guess, to answer your question, if you need a definitive answer.
Q. What do they play for right now other than pride, is there something out there, a goal, practice?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think we can play to have a strong finish this year and begin the stages for our seniors to leave with a very positive taste in their mouth with this football team and kick things in gear for our young guys next year.
Q. What major changes could we see this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We have to make sure is that it is dictated towards our opponent, first of all. I think if you go back and look at red zone and things of that nature, we have to find ways to get in the end zone. There are things we are definitely doing — there are things we are definitely not doing that we need to find solutions to.
Q. In a game like that, were you’re trying to do what you could to score? Do you consider kicking a field goal to get over the stigma of a shutout?
COACH WILLINGHAM: What I was trying to do in this particular case, I was trying to win the game. Obviously, I think at some point, you could have started kicking field goals when we had opportunities in the red zone. But I still believe that what you play for is to win.
Q. It seemed like a number of third downs, Brady threw about 3 yards short of the first down marker. Is that a play that there was nobody else open and that was the last person to go to, or was that a play you’re depending on a receiver being able to make the catch and get the extra few yards?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think you are playing for both of those. You are playing for the high?low read to get the first down and if that read is not there, hopefully you can get it with the run and the movement.
Q. The win streak, even in the past years, it’s weighed more heavily on Navy. Do you think this year it might weigh more heavily on your team to keep that streak going?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think for our team it’s just trying to get a win, okay, and we have not done that in a couple of weeks. We need to get back in the saddle of winning football games.
Q. It looked like some players came out injured, can you talk about Budinscak, Stevenson and Molinaro?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Kyle Budinscak will be out for this ballgame and maybe out for the next two ballgames. We’ll get some final word on that as we progress through the week. The other young man you asked about was Stevenson, right now, we’ll say Dan may be questionable.
Q. And Molinaro?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Molinaro should be, I think, fine.
Q. Is Budinscak the one you hate to lose because of his pass defense? Could that be a big concern this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It will be a very big concern with their scheme.
Q. And is it more vital to have him this game than for others?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. Because he’s been a vital player for us in every game that we play. I think almost every team that we face has had very good running attacks. So that has been a priority to make sure we shut those down and hopefully force them to be a one?dimensional team. So his loss will be important to us.
Q. Can you talk a step back and talk about what the season has been like for you personally especially compared to last season when you were 8-0 and now you are 2-6, what has it been like for you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: When you don’t win and don’t have success, it’s very difficult. Gosh, I think I used the term that even the water tastes better when you win. Okay, well, it doesn’t taste as good when you lose. So, everything fits in that category.
Q. What about the pressure, is it building or do you ignore it regardless of what your record says?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think you have to learn if you’re going to be a coach in this business for any period of time, you have to be able to handle the good and the bad. And never does anyone like handling the bad but you have to do it. So I figure out ways to do it and move forward to we can reach our goal.
Q. Any bright spots with the 2-6 record?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think the bright spots have been our young people, the way they have responded, the way they have been able to battle and put forth great effort, I think that is exciting to me. I think even with the loss of your seniors, that’s something that you can build on.
Q. What names jump out?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Gosh, first, I start with our seniors, they have been great role models for the young guys, bad — the Duffs, the Currys. You talk about the Molinaros, you talk about the young guys, Morton with his effort, Stevenson, you go with Ryan Grant, his effort, Julius Jones. We have a lot of guys that have given us good effort and leadership.
Q. Looking at the Florida State game, did anything surprise you? In terms of their offense or defense was there anything you were not anticipating?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I won’t say it’s surprised us because we have a major concern with them and their vertical passing game. I think we said that coming into the ballgame. We were hoping and believing that we would be able to defend them but we didn’t. In some cases, I look back and see one of the throws that — he hits him right in the mouth and yet he lost the ball down the left sideline, in just absolutely perfect position and there was nothing that our defender could do. So it would was not a surprise, but I think their ability to execute was excellent.
Q. Of what you’ve seen of the Navy highlights, how do they compare with any other teams this year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: They in a sense don’t compare because what they do is so different, so unique.
Preparation for the option really just changes everything that we do from a defensive standpoint and really affect how we even practice. So their scheme creates a lot of problems.
Q. How do you maintain your cool on the field? You must get angry after getting called for 12 men on the field or a dropped pass. We never see you slam your hat on the field or appear to be frustrated, I’m sure you are, how do you manage your anger?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, you allow me now to get on my soap box, so I will kindly get on it. I have believed for a long time that if one is frustrated, one cannot change the circumstances that he’s in. So, I believe the things that are happening, we can change, we can make a difference.
So, in a sense, I’m not frustrated. I’m disappointed in the dropped passes or when we make mistakes and don’t get calls in on time or when we don’t get the proper communication with personnel, et cetera, those things of that nature, I’m disappointed. But I believe we can make the changes.
Q. Is Nick Setta still out this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: He’s still out this week and possibly out for the next two weeks.
Q. The thing that stood out to me on offense was the consistent inability of the receivers to get past the first down marker on third down plays. Does your offense call for a lot of catch-and-run situations? Or why aren’t people more cognizant of the first down yardage they need?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think that kind of relates to the question that you had asked just a little bit previous, and what the system is designed to do is to do both of those, to be past the first down markers be in the position to catch it so that you don’t need any run, and some of those require that you do have opportunities to catch the ball and run. And some of that of course is dictated by the defense.
There are some good things that they do that force you in positions that don’t allow you to be on the positive side of the down marker. But the design is to accomplish both of those.
Q. The other thing, and maybe this is just my observation, it seems to me that you’re not running as many crossing patterns as you did earlier in the season. Has there been any change in that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: There’s a fair system, a very fair mix there. I think you’re probably seeing some different forms where they may not just come as a single guy crossing, but you have almost pick lining — I hate to use that word, it’s illegal — but almost pick situations where you get them across the field.
Q. On Saturday you said you thought this team was headed in the right direction. Can you elaborate on some of the signs or signals that you see that indicate that this team is moving where you want it to be moving?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I see some very positive things. If we are moving in the direction that we feel like, definitely winning football games, that’s the direction we really want.
But when you look at our teams, and I say coming out of Saturday’s ballgame it was a team that does basically nothing in terms of first?half offense. I think the total might have been around 66 yards or something along that line, and we recognize that Florida State wanted to stop every play; they made you stop on every possession that they had.
Saturday our football team came out and amassed at least 200?plus, 255 yards in the second half of offense and held their offense to 125 yards or somewhere in that ballpark figure. So, I like the fight of this football team, I like some of the things we are going doing but the consistency again, and I keep harping on that word and hopefully at some point it will be ingrained on our football team in such a manner that we will be consistent. But those are things of that nature that I like that give me indication that at some point we can put it all together.
Q. You had the toughest schedule in the nation according to the most recent statistics, however, you have not really sousethat as an excuse for the record. Why is that, and do you feel the strong schedule is a factor for the 2-6 record?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, I don’t think you’ll see me bring up any excuses, and maybe I have inadvertently and I apologize for those if I have. But I don’t believe excuses are solutions. So you won’t hear me provide any excuses.
Q. Lastly, what were your thoughts on the numerous fans that left the game early on Saturday?
COACH WILLINGHAM: My thoughts were I enjoyed our students that stayed and did a wonderful job saluting our football team at the end of that game.
Q. I’ve heard you talk about Julius Jones on this offense. He seems to be not necessarily the only guy but really the most prominent one that can make a play, or make a guy miss, etc. What do you see from him just on the sidelines? Do you think that’s a fair assessment of his ability?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think that’s very accurate. Julius is stronger, and more explosive. I think when you look at his body, I believe he looks very muscular very toned. But he also has that ability to be elusive and make some people miss and that’s important. Because what I tell a back is that your responsibility is to gain yardage, and that’s blocked or not blocked. What you tell the line is your responsible is to block, so he does yet yardage. In most cases you need backs to be able to create things, and Julius can do that and that is a luxury for us.
Q. After the game, you described him as a guy that you just need to see a very small amount of daylight a very small hole and he can do the work from there; is that something you coach or just something a back has?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think in many cases it’s something that a back has, and that’s one of those things that is them. When you start talking about certain backs, you add the word “vision” and certain people have it and see things that other people can’t see and there are backs that have the ability just to get you the tiniest crack or just to reduce that distance that they are missed by just the smallest fractions, and he does a lot of that.
Q. The average yard for carries between Julius and Ryan is a difference of about 1.9 yards? What prevents Julius from taking on more of the lion’s share of the carries?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Probably Coach Willingham and just making sure you’re getting the right number, the right guy in and doing all of the right things he needs to do. That’s all.
Q. Looking back at the Navy game last year when Gerome Sapp went down in practice and the secondary seemed to struggle a little bit to curtail their option, what do you take from last year’s game and apply it to this year in terms of understanding their system or getting the secondary to understand the system; are there new wrinkles to it this year, or is it exactly the same where you kind of know their facilities?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. There’s some new wrinkles to what they are doing this year: Like he went from the 100 level class to the 200 level class; that he’s doing some new things and primarily doing some new formational things that really keep you off?guard, and our guys have to have a great awareness of what that is. And then you combining that with getting everyone to play their option responsibilities, that makes a very difficult system to adjust to.
Q. Is that maybe the biggest struggle last year, players maybe not understanding their responsibilities as much as maybe you needed?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say that our young men understood their responsibilities, but the execution and to see such a drastic change in one week is very difficult. And then the discipline that it takes to play the option scheme is very difficult. I think you have to be unbelievably disciplined to play against that system.
Q. And how do you coach that this week? Any differently with that much younger secondary than what you had last year, obviously with Dwight and Quinn and Lionel all new to this?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First thing you have to do is make sure that you simplify to a degree, make sure that you give them every opportunity to see those looks and practice against those looks as many times as possible so that they are comfortable with what they hope they will see.
Q. You played USC and Florida State, they are 2 and 3 in the BCS rankings.
COACH WILLINGHAM: And you would like me to compare the two of them. (Laughs).
Q. What team provided a more difficult match-up?
COACH WILLINGHAM: What team provided a more difficult match-up? Gosh, I have to kind of toss that one up in the air. I can’t give you a solid — I prefer not to give you a solid answer an on that one. How is that?
Q. Could you talk about your red zone offense and maybe what’s going on there? What isn’t happening or what’s going on that’s not allowing you guys to be as successful?
COACH WILLINGHAM: As coaches you have to see if you can get the best call possible. I think in some cases we have not helped ourselves as well as we need to. I think in many cases, our execution has not been there. And you combine those two things. And we have not been able to get the ball in the red zone.
Q. What do you attribute to youth at all?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. I won’t call to that as an out for us, no.
Q. I’m not trying to say that he was solely responsible for the offense’s struggles, but with Brady Quinn struggling like he was Saturday, was there any thoughts of putting Carlyle Holiday in there? He is the back-up quarterback and he has not played for a while.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, I did entertain those thoughts.
Q. Is it something that’s thought about a lot because he really has not played in I guess over a month. He is one play from being in there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: In my outlook, I want to make sure that when I put him in, it’s the right time for him to be in, as well as the right time to help our football team.
Q. In the current NCAA statistics Notre Dame is 117th out of 117 teams in passing efficiency. Can you react to that, does that surprise you or what?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, no, we have not had the efficiency that we are comfortable with. There’s a position that, no, we do not want to occupy — but with the lack of execution and the things that we are doing right now, were just not doing it well.
Q. I was wondering also if you were considering starting Carlyle against Navy rather than Brady, especially because Brady has such a low completion percentage.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I do like a lot of the things I’m seeing from Brady and the thoughts of starting him or not starting him have not entered my mind. I think Brady is doing a lot of things well and of course, you know that as you’re learning on the job, there are going to be some ups and there are going to be some downs. But I like the direction that Brady is going.
Q. Bob Morton was another lineman who was taken off the field in Saturday’s game. Is he okay for Saturday’s game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think he will be. We’ll find out as we progress through the week.
Q. When you watch Brady play, it seems, is he settling too much for underneath routes, it seems like he’s glancing downfield but then quickly throw underneath. Is that something the defenses are doing, or is he settling a little too quickly for that sort of dump-off pass?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think you could say it’s probably a combination of all of those thing. I think the defenses do some things to take his read down. I think there may be times where he may be quick and there may be times where we are not quite in those areas on the deeper routes as soon as we need to be.
Q. What needs to change, I mean you talked about execution and whatnot, but how do you get out form the bottom of that pass efficiency statistic?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, what we try to do with coaches is you try to make it as clear for your quarterback as possible. You try to enhance the routes that your receivers run to help them so that they can get only open and find better spaces. We try to do more with our run game; and therefore, that allows to us do more with our play?action which hopefully can force the defense to defend one area then have to quickly react to another area.
So you try to come in a combination of those things so that you can hopefully create a much clearer, cleaner picture for your quarterback, your receivers and the entire team.
Q. Are the players still comfortable with the job Brady is doing?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think so.
Q. Is Brady Quinn going to start this Saturday?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, he is.
Q. Two-thirds of the way through this season, I think Notre Dame and Alabama have combined for a dozen losses, traditional college football powers and everyone does talk about the parity in college football, especially after the 85 scholarship rule. Can you compare from back in the day when you were playing, having played at a traditional Big 10 power school. Just give us a sense of how the landscape has changed. How it is these days, places like Fresno State and Oregon State, can compete with the Notre Dames and Alabamas of the world?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I said that there are probably two major things that have changed in the last 20, 30 years. No. 1, of course you mentioned scholarships. I think the limitation is down to 30, because I think prior to 1972 there were some schools that probably had as many as 120 kids, young men, on scholarship.
And then you had also a change in the television landscape, which I think made a major difference.
And then you also had an opening of schools that allowed their own athletes the opportunity to compete. So I think I listed three things there that may have changed the landscape of college football.
Q. We hear a lot about how football has overtaken baseball as the most popular sport in the States. Do you find when you’re recruiting that football is that much more popular now than when you were playing high school football?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, when I played, everything was popular. It just all depended on the season. But I think now, with, again, television and the way the sports landscape is, I think clearly football dominates the landscape.
Q. How do schools and programs adjust their expectations, is it unrealistic to expect certain programs to keep winning championships year after year? Is it more a case of that there are going to be more competitors on the landscape and it’s going to be harder to do it just numbers-wise?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think you can expect certain teams to continue to win, but I also think it will become more difficult because I think athletes are choosing universities. At one time I think we took a survey, it was back in the 80s and you surveyed all of your recruits and the No. 1 thing for them was winning. And at that time a young man would go to a program and obviously be content, not content, but he would sit on the bench of a program to be part of a winner.
Today I think most of the young people want their opportunity to play, and want to be promised or in many cases even guaranteed that they will be playing. I think that mentality is also factored in.
Q. For the guys that are red-shirting, is it hard for them because they won’t really contribute in games. How frustrated have you seen them?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it’s very difficult for a freshman to adjust to college football. For the most part the young men that we have in our program have been the stars, have been the players at their different programs and that adjustment in itself is just very difficult, let alone college life, the college atmosphere and wanting to be a part and not having an opportunity and it was very difficult for them.
But I think for the most part, they come in, at least they were playing, I think some of them really see a golden opportunity to sit back a year, learn the experience and hopefully be better prepared in the future.
Q. Last year after the game in Baltimore you said your team was not as focused as it should have been. Do you think that will not be a problem after Navy almost won that game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, first of all, I’ve always said that Coach Johnson has done an excellent job with his program prior to his arrival at Navy so we have a lot of respect for him from our coaching staff. I think our players, for whatever the reason, some people said it was a Boston College hangover. Some said we took them lightly. But I do remember, if I’m correct, that our team came out, stopped them in the first drive, if I’m correct, and then we had a long pass that we fumbled, I think we were 9?7 at the half. So we were doing some things well, definitely not as well as we needed to be but I think definitely we had a change in our energy level later in that ballgame. What we seek to do is not to have to change our energy level but start at the right level, all focus, right level of concentration for whatever reason at the beginning of the ballgame and not at some point between.
Q. Is it difficult when you’ve beat a team 39 times a row that they are a threat or does the situation you’re in preclude that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say the current situation should allow us for a change of minds, the change of mentality, but I would also say that our football team, the present one that we have, or last year’s team, had not beaten them 39 times in a row. It is simply this game that counts and this game that is most important, and I think as a competitor, you recognize that. You recognize that the past is great, especially when it’s very successful from your viewpoint, but at the same time you have to play the game today and that’s the only thing that counts.
Q. I notice, and I’m not on this teleconference every week, but an hour of questioning and very few questions have been on this upcoming game, but so much on the big picture of your program; is that what you deal with on a weekly basis, so many issues that so many people want to know about, is it hard to sometimes focus in on the upcoming opponent?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think the latter part of that question I can address, but I’ll turn it over to the audience to answer the beginning portion of your question.
But, no, it’s not. This program has — I believe I’m correct in saying this — a worldwide appeal, and there are a lot of people from a lot of areas that want to know about this program, and I think it gets great coverage from that standpoint. They do want to know about the things that go on in and sometimes outside of that program.
As a football coach, you come back and focus on the things that get you ready for this next ballgame, and I think everyone realizes that’s what I do, and for the most part I’m not distracted by all of the other things and have the ability after being in the business for 20?some years to do that.
Q. What kind of differences do you see between this year’s Navy team and the one you’ve had to prepare for and play last year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think the biggest thing is that they are advancing to a degree with their system. One, I think that the personnel are probably more suited this year to what he wants to do. And I think No. 2, they seem to be more knowledgeable about what they are doing. And three, I think he’s put in some subtle adjustments that really keep you on your toes.
Q. Do you see that more on the offensive side of the ball or defensively?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it’s more offensively because I think that’s where we have to have — at least I’ve placed my biggest concern as we go into the ballgame, not discounting their defense at all, but I think from an offensive standpoint they have put a lot of pressure on you, because, one, we don’t see the option every week.
I think we may have seen only as many as ten snaps of it or less this year from different teams who just try to throw in a sprinkle at us, and it’s not to the sophistication that Navy has and will bring to us. Because what we see in their system, they have used it a lot, they work with it every day. So every time you counter and before you can almost get your counter on the field, they have an adjustment to that. So it really causes you to work and be on top of your game. And again it’s something that we don’t see every week, so that makes it extremely demanding on us.
Q. Going back to last year, was that 8-0 start sort of a blessing and a curse that it raised expectations so much?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think there are many that would say that. But my sense is that any time you can win a football game, you win it helps because that’s what you play to do. I would take 8?0 any year.
Q. The after affect of it, everybody is saying Notre Dame is back.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think you just have to deal with that. But I’ll take victories any time.
Q. As far as building a foundation, can you state in three years or five years where you are and how many years —
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ve said from the day I arrived, it’s not about three or five years down the road. It’s about winning today. Every time we take a step in that victory column, I think it makes your stronger for the future. So for me, it’s right now.
Q. But till you have your recruits in and your base that you feel, would that be a fair evaluation of how you are doing?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m sorry.
Q. Till you have your people in place and your recruits, obviously this is pretty much only your first class in there right now.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think maybe there is some truth in what you’re saying or trying to imply. But I’ve always said that these kids are Notre Dame football players and they are mine.
Q. What you said about the possible quarterback change, what made you decide to not make a change?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I didn’t say possible.
Q. You said you thought about playing Carlyle?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes.
Q. Why didn’t you ultimately?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Because it was the timing of the game, I didn’t think it was right.
Q. Do you look at all of the guys you recruit as yours as opposed to one class?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know if I look forward to my class. I look forward to having guys that believe in all of the things that Notre Dame stands for and is about, and then winning is what I look forward to. That’s not a direct answer to your question, but that’s my thoughts in terms of how I’d like to see the program.