Oct. 19, 2004
An Interview With:
COACH Tyrone Willingham
Q. I’m sure you’ve noticed the BCS poll just came out and you’ve always pretty much stuck to the line of whatever the system is that’s in place, you’re in support of that. But I was wondering if there is a system or an idea that you might have that might make better sense of this whole process.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Everyone understands that the purest way is just to play. That is the purest way of competition and we are not at that point for a lot of reasons. So again we are continually trying to fine tune the system to make it the best and we’ll see how this latest fine-tuning works, and it’s always premature to do that now.
Q. If it were ever to go to a playoff system, which I guess is likely at some point but seems unlikely at the moment, what do you think a workable number would be? Is eight a workable number or is 16 too much?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t even know. I have not speculated on that.
Q. You’re out of school this week, how do you balance the free time they have with their needs to emotionally recuperate from everything they have gone through academically?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s quite simple. You allow them to have as much free time as possible and you hope that they understand the responsibility of the position they are in. That they rest, hydrate and do all of the things they need to do and hopefully take some time to prepare themselves for their study and they are not chasing that at the end, but are much better prepared for the final weeks of class that they have.
Q. What has your experience been last few years in terms of what your team’s focus has been during an off week from school?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It has been one of relaxation and focus on that opponent.
Q. Have you played well? Do you find that you play better when they are able to focus more on football?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think you always play better when you have fewer distractions.
Q. Every week talking to players, somebody asks one of the players about, is this team a rival. How do you define a rivalry and how many can you have in a season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say that with the present state of Irish football that you almost have to look at every game on your schedule as a rivalry because every team looks at Notre Dame in that special light. So in order for us to be mentally prepared for those opponents, you have to look at them as a rivalry.
Q. But teams that maybe only have, two or three, they put extra energy into every game you play?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That’s one of the unique things about Notre Dame; that a player walks into this environment, it’s understandable that this is one of the things that makes the Notre Dame experience special and makes the Notre Dame player special.
Q. And just the fact that it’s two top Catholic schools, how much does that add to the game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it adds a great deal.
Q. How about the fact that I think some players didn’t like the way BC has celebrated some of their wins, tearing up the grass, trashing the locker room, do you let — do you remind the players of that, or do you think they reminds themselves or is that something to motivate them?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ve always said that you try to use everything that you can to motivate your team because different things affect players differently. But if you are aware of the great history and tradition of Notre Dame, you know that when teams win or when teams lose, they are always trying to get a piece of the turf because it’s something special.
Q. I think this is the latest Notre Dame has ever been ranked in a season since 1963. Are you surprised it’s been taken this long for the team to be ranked?
COACH WILLINGHAM: When it happens, it happens. I just go with the flow, I guess is the best way to say it.
Q. Do you don’t think there’s a point where you should have been ranked higher or sooner?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You would always like it to be sooner. I don’t think there’s anyone that sits around and says no, they want it to come later. You always want it to come sooner, but when it is most important.
Q. Does the fact that BC and the Bowl mix with Notre Dame, did you talk to the teams at all about that this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think that will add a little bit more to the football game.
Q. And listening to Coach O’Brien talking Sunday night or Monday night talking about, he was very disappointed in his team, on both offense and defense; that it was probably the worst he’s seen in a couple of years. Do you see something in the film that maybe you can take advantage of or that they had some problems there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: What I see is offensively a very big and physical group. (What I see is) that with past experience they will not play anything like they have played in any other game. That I know.
I know that defensively they have a very physical front, but they also have one of the best pass rushers in the country and that he is a very talented young man.
So if Coach (O’Brien) was disappointed with their play, I’m surprised. But at the same time, I know it will not be the (type of) play that we’ll see.
Q. You have a string of games coming up against teams with good run defenses. How are you comfortable at this point with your rushing offense?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We’ve been inconsistent with our rush offense. It’s something that you are continually trying to improve so that we can get better every week, especially against those teams that are good run (defense) teams.
Q. Can you talk about Marcus Wilson and Travis Thomas and how they fit in with that run offense at this point?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, we are still searching because Ryan Grant has been injured this year. So we are still trying to find that other back. I like what Darius Walker has given us, but I also think that if Ryan is not there we need to have another solid one – two punch. So we are looking for someone to step up and give us that. And I thought Marcus had a great play Saturday and has been giving us some good plays. But, I’m still looking for more in that area.
Q. How about where you are with your backup quarterback compared to where you were in August, how do you feel about that area?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We have not given our No. 2 enough playing time yet, and that’s something that you try to get when you think it’s possible in the game. That would be something I would like to see more of, but at the same time, I think they have gotten good work during our practices, as much as we can afford to give them.
Q. Was it true last week you did not practice in pads at all?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t think that was correct.
Q. Was it very little; was it reduced?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it was about the same as it was a couple of weeks back.
Q. I mean, do you do that for — what you do, bring it down a few notches for injury reasons, or are you trying to get fresh legs? What are you trying to accomplish when you do less hitting in a given week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Good practices.
Q. Good practices. What constitutes —
COACH WILLINGHAM: A good practice?
Q. A good practice.
COACH WILLINGHAM: A good practice. It’s one of those things you know when you get there.
Q. You promised you would be charming today.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’m not disappointing, I hope.
Q. We’ll give you one more try.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Thank you.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Please, don’t — (Laughter).
Q. I’m not going to go there. But I did want to ask you about one of your freshmen, Chauncey Incarnato, probably not spending a lot of time in your eye, but talk about his progress and what you’ve seen him from so for this year.
COACH WILLINGHAM: The year has gone just as I imagined it would, which is a real learning experience for him. The first thing is, I’m looking forward to Chauncey resculpting his body and changing over the year and looking forward to him really learning and understanding the nature of college football. I have always said that the game is at its fastest when played live because of the speed and all that is required. But I think he’s spending the year just as I thought he would, learning and growing.
Q. You’ve got three running backs that bring something different to the table or at least they did last week against Navy. Talk about the different styles that (Ryan) Grant, (Darius) Walker and (Marcus) Wilson have and the stress that that might put on a defense having to defend those three different styles?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Grant has been more of a slasher style of runner, which has added to the qualities of doing every area for us, which is inside as well as outside and in the passing game.
Darius has been, since Ryan’s return, somewhat of our No. 2 guy. And he’s been, I kind of call it my `vision guy,’ my kind of `elusive guy’ that has the ability to make people miss a little bit more than maybe some of the other backs. And Marcus has been kind of a guy that we’d like to have in our receiving corps, but also has been a solid runner for us.
Q. Everybody knows about the on-field impact Derek Curry makes, but talk about what he brings to the table off the field.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Derek has been a sound leader for us off the field and in the community. He’s a young man that values helping other people. That has really shown itself in school and in recreational programs throughout the communities. He has done an outstanding job there. When you have a man that does it on the field and also shows himself well in the community, it provides the right role model for all of our other players and that is really important.
Q. You mentioned pass rush, Matthias, the Indiana kid, talk about what makes him so effective as a pass rusher?
COACH WILLINGHAM: His quickness and explosiveness. When he can get an edge on you, he really takes advantage of it; and he’s also not just quick, he’s really fast. If you watch him on a lot of plays, he does a great job with his pursuit and running things down from behind. So he’s a player that you always have to account for, and that’s something that we’re looking at in our preparation.
Q. Do you see many players that big with that kind of speed?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No, you don’t.
Q. Every coach has characteristics, what would you say are the characteristics of tomorrow O’Brien?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Tough, physical, and play very hard.
Q. You’ve touched on some of these already, but basically the capsule form, but what do you look at the strong and weak points of Notre Dame against BC on Saturday?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know if you call them strong or weak points. They are things that we recognize we have to do if we are going to be successful. One, we’ve got to be prepared to play our most physical football game. BC will come to the town and they will be physical and we have to be prepared to that.
The way that both teams are designed, the run game will be important. So, you have to run and you have to stop the run. And once you can do that, then you have a chance to be successful. If we can do those things, we’ve got a chance.
Q. The other way around?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think they would look at us the very same way. If they can come in, harness our run game and make us one-dimensional and have to beat them with the pass, I think they will feel they have gained a leg up.
COACH WILLINGHAM: It depends. There are a lot of other things I’d like at. I might even talk to the individual and see where he is at on it. So there are a lot of things you would consider, not just the fact that he’s three yards short.
Q. Do you ever know if they are that close during the game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. Most cases I don’t because my focus is usually the team. But if they are someone that’s having a big game, then probably what I might do is call up and ask John (Heisler) or Doug (Walker) or somebody in our Sports Information Department and say, `what is going on with him?’ And if there’s a lead at that point and it’s something that is really important, I would let him go.
Q. What is your mail like? For coaches at Notre Dame, no matter what they do, it’s critical, they can win by — and I’m quoting other coaches — you can win by 50 points and you’re criticized because you’re running up the score or you win by three points and they tell you should you have won by more, etc., etc. How is it going for you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I honestly don’t know.
Q. You don’t read your mail?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Very seldom.
Q. Do you get much mail?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know.
No, my mail is about what it normally is in terms of volume and flow. It’s sprinkled with a variety of things.
Q. Take us through, aside from practice, what’s your typical day like this year? Meetings I’m sure, but what else goes on behind the scenes? What time do you start?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It depends on the day. Somewhere between 8:00 and 8:15 most likely. Conclude the day probably around 11:30.
COACH WILLINGHAM: You do all of the above. I didn’t know this would be of interest to anyone and I’m not sure it still is, to be honest.
But you start your day, there’s organizational tasks that you have to do to make sure that all of the components of your football team are okay, from your trainers to your managers to your travel to luncheons to pep rallies to different things you review in the course of a day.
Q. Are you able to get out and about and go to a restaurant or wherever in public and people not want to talk football or whatever?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I very seldom get out because of my work schedule.
Q. How about in the off-season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I very seldom get out in the off-season.
The off-season is not exactly what you think it is. There’s road travel with recruiting, speaking engagements and then I personally like to play golf, so that usually occupies my time.
Q. One final question. When all is said and done, you have a week or two, what do you like to do for a vacation, get out of town?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Whatever my wife desires to do.
Q. Like a cruise?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Whatever she likes to do, okay. She sets the schedule; I just follow.
Q. It’s not any of the personal stuff, but I wanted to talk about the offensive line. What do you see right now?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ve said that we continue to grow, week-to-week. And we’re not as consistent as I would like us to be, but they are continually getting better.
We see at times the run game that would make us happy, at times we see the pass game and pass protection make us happy. At other teams we seem to slip back, move forward, slip back. It’s just inconsistency, but I like their effort, I like their focus and their effort to make our team better.
Q. What is the key to becoming more consistent? What do they have to do to become more consistent?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That’s a difficult question, because as much as anything else that also depends on who you play. If the guy across from you is your equal, sometimes it’s tough to be consistent; and maybe he wins 49 percent that week or maybe next week he wins 51 percent of the battles. So it’s a tough task. It’s not easy.
Q. And also I just want to talk to you, too, about the rivalry game recently with Boston College. What is it with that game, what’s made it such a rivalry over the past few years?
COACH WILLINGHAM: All of our games have become rivalry games. I don’t think there’s one that you look at that is not truly a rivalry game, but when you have the dynamics of the two largest Catholic schools in the country, you’ve played a few times now, that adds to make it a rival. You have a relationship and if you only play someone once that’s kind of tough to call that a rivalry. Yet at the same time because you’re Notre Dame it’s looked at different. People come into the Stadium saying, “Boy, this is our Super Bowl.” And it’s not just the fact that Navy said that last week but I think a lot of teams view it that way.
Q. Would you agree that there seems to be an extra bit of nastiness to this series with Boston College right now?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don’t know if I could jump on that bandwagon.
Q. Talk about the impact Bobby Renkes has had and how much easier it makes it knowing the other team is going to start at the 20.
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s an important element of football; the farther you can push that guy down in the hole, the more difficult it is to climb out. And when you can force teams to start from their 20 or even inside their 20, if he gets the right hang time on one of those, it could be caught right at the goal line; or you’re in that position where you have to move it forward and you have great coverage you stop inside the 20. The percentages say you just don’t score touchdowns when you’re doing that.
So that makes our defense a better defense, but it also excites the guys that are on the kickoff coverage team because they know they are getting a great kick, a deep kick and an extra coverage.
Q. Carl (Gioia) is on the depth charts, he’s ahead of Bobby, is that the way you plan or —
COACH WILLINGHAM: You know what, in Pete (Sampson’s) defense this time, I have not given him the correct depth chart.
Q. DJ (Fitzpatrick) has gotten a lot of accolades for his directional punting, how hard is that to develop, because a lot of people thought maybe (Geoff Price) has stronger legs than DJ; can you talk about that a little bit?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I could agree with that statement. I think Geoff does have tremendously strong legs, but the thing that’s happening right now is that D.J. is executing, he has great of confidence and it seems like he gets better each game because of that confidence; and therefore, he’s at liberty to take more risk. I don’t necessarily call it a risk, but he understands more; and therefore, he can be more directional with his kicking. Once you establish a confidence, then a guy can expand to do it more and that’s where DJ is right now.
Q. Kickoff, is that even more pertinent this week with a player like Blackman back there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is critically important because Blackman I think is leading the country or pretty close to it; and it’s not just kickoffs but in every phase and also in punt return. So we have to do a great job with distance, with hang time and with direction in all of our kicking this week.
Q. Where do you feel like your kickoff coverage needs to improve?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The first real positive for us was Bobby (Renkes). His ability to kick the ball and force a deeper return by getting it in the goal line, I think he had either two, one, three last week, if I’m correct, that were unreturnable and that makes a huge difference. Just the spirit of that group, though, it makes them feel like they can hustle down and therefore, they can be more confident.
Q. Greg Pauly, how would you describe the year he’s had so far?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say it is an excellent year. Not only was his play excellent last week, but the entire front did a great job against a very difficult scheme. But Greg has made some plays and provided great leadership for our guys.
Q. Over the course of the season, where do you feel like he’s kind of put everything together to have the kind of year, he’s at 30 tackles, which I believe is more than Darrell (Campbell) had last year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We anticipated that group would succeed — and still we are rotating that group, they are not just going in to play 80 plays. So we felt like they would be more active and that’s what they have given.
Q. One thing that’s unique to Greg (Pauly) is he was fairly touted coming out of high school and has been referred to by some media elements as a `bust’; can that be an extra source of motivation for him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I’ve never talked to him about that. He has been very positive about his role in our program, and different things happen at different times. Maybe the time for him is right now. Maybe it wasn’t two years ago. Maybe there were things going on that didn’t allow him to get to this point but now they are here. So I’m pleased with what he’s done, and I like the leadership and the play he’s given our football team.
Q. Lastly the topic of starting fast is something that the offense talks about essentially every week; what goes into that and why do you feel like maybe you’re able to get over humps on that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s always a week-to-week proposition. You’ve got to go out every game and execute. All it takes is one penalty to throw you off track, a holding call, off-sides or something of that nature. Now you’ve got a down-and-distance that’s more difficult to deal with that puts stress somewhere else.
So, you’ve got to be perfect. You’ve got to have great execution, everybody’s got to be on the same page; and in the game of football, as much as we’d like to think it doesn’t happen all the time, there’s probably a mistake on every play.
Q. The topic of scripting play is well-linked to the West Coast offense; do you still do that and how much do you do it if you do?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We do.
Q. How far does that extend?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It depends. There are times that you may jump out after a couple of plays. So you go in and out with it. We’re probably anywhere from a 12- to a 15-play script team.
Q. With the running game, does that go hand-in-hand with not being able to start fast than if you were able to run the ball consistently?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Because of that, we got some very timely passes in there just to keep things going and keep them off balance. But getting your run going and getting the ball to your playmaker are the things that you like to do early in the ballgame.
Q. Starting fast and being able to play with a lead, how does that change the flow of a game, change what you’re doing as a coach in terms of play calling on both sides of that, whether you are down early or up early?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Probably where you see more of that is late than early. When you see teams that have a lead late in a ballgame where they have become a little too conservative. The only thing from a coaching standpoint you worry about early are your players, sometimes when you score fast, you score early, the players have a tendency to think this will be easy or it will be that way all day; and therefore, you lose that edge. That’s more of my concern to start; don’t lose your edge and keep it going. Therefore, you can keep doing the things that you’re scripted to do or that you believe you’re capable of doing.
Q. So it’s less of an issue of if you get up earlier, players are more free and not putting pressure on themselves; you don’t see that as a benefit?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s always which way you take it. If you’re relaxed and comfortable and confident and still have the edge, that’s a positive.
But if all of the sudden, you’re overconfident you relax a little bit and you don’t have the edge, then it’s not an advantage.
Q. Going back to the idea of how everything is a rivalry game for this team, how does it complicate your task as a coach to prepare your team not to as a team, but carrying the heavy symbolic burden that Notre Dame does?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You have to first of all understand it, and understand that it’s going to be there, and then be willing to accept that responsibility.
My attitude is that you try to coach very consistently, you try not to get yourself and your team on that up-and-down roller coaster that you try to understand that every game is critical, every game has a rivalry-type nature to you and try to prepare for it that way.
Q. How do you personally deal with the fact that many people out there see you not just as a football coach, but almost as a guardian of sacred trust?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I was aware of that coming in and hopefully I’ve handled that responsibility respectfully to all of those that have gone before.
Q. And what’s your sense of what Notre Dame football means to people and to college football as a whole these days; does it mean the same things as say in the 1940s or 50s?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That would be one that I could not speak to because to some extent, it’s never changed. To others, it’s different. It would depend on, maybe you need to break it down to age-group wise or break it down in other manners.
Q. After the game Saturday, Brady Quinn called it his worst game of the year. How would you evaluate the passing offense against Navy?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We did the things that we needed to do and we felt very good about our run game. Brady’s assessment, I don’t think I quite agree with, but I love it when our young men are more demanding of themselves than even our coaches.
Q. Is that one of the things that makes him special, is he has such a — he sets such high standards for himself; that he wants to live up to them?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It is a great thing, but I always tell our players that you have to be very careful with that standard you place on yourself, that you don’t beat yourself up. I tried to assure them that there are enough people out in the world that are trying to do that so you don’t need to add to it.
Q. And just to get something else on the quick-start thing, you got off to such a quick start against Navy. Was that just what happened last week, or is there something that happened in that game that you can translate to this week and beyond?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The thing that you’re trying to translate is that attitude, that approach, that mind set that we can do that and therefore what will follow will be the execution and the finish that’s necessary to get that done. And that’s something that you are trying to build on each week so that it becomes something permanent.
Q. This is the first time in a long time that (the opposing team does not have) any seniors on their offensive line, what have you seen of them and is the experience factor or lack thereof markedly visible to your eye?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It was not. That’s why I was surprised they when I heard that Coach O’Brien said it was their worst performance or something to that effect. I want to make sure I’m quoting the right thing, in case I turn around and see it tomorrow. I thought they have shown themselves to be not only big, but physical and what they are doing on the offense it seems amazingly productive to me because they are right around almost 400 yards per game. So to me that’s pretty good.
Q. Throughout Tom O’Brien’s tenure at Boston College they have always had a tailback, a singular tailback that is a superstar that they rely on. Last year it was Derek Knight and this year they are playing more by committee, and what are you seeing out of that and what adjustments have they made to continue to be successful in the rushing game, even though they don’t have that one singular guy?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I really believe that they do have that one singular guy. What has really happened is this year they have had injuries; so therefore, he has not had a chance to be the lineup.
You had one guy start this week and then make go a week or two and something happens and the next guy comes back. So they have not had an opportunity to really get that one guy going. But I’ve seen three guys that are pretty good at carrying the football team.
Q. Obviously a nice turnaround this year to this point last year, 2-5, 5-2 this year. What do you point to as the biggest thing that’s led to the big turnaround?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It’s still not complete yet. There are still a lot of games for us to play, and I try to make sure that evaluation comes at the end of the season.
But I’ve said all along that one of the major things that allows you to be successful is confidence. And when you have it, it’s amazing how you play better you are. You run faster you can hit harder. You do all of those things a lot better and our team is no different. Our team is a much more confident team in many aspects than it was a year ago.
Q. How much are you continuing to see improvement in the confidence area week-to-week? It looks like on the field we are all seeing improvement in the X’s and O’s and those type of things.
COACH WILLINGHAM: It has. But in those down moments, that’s when you really have a chance to see the confidence of this football team because they have not stopped, they have kept coming. And because of that, good things will happen.
Q. Is this a time of year, do you start to talk about Bowl games, obviously one win away from being eligible; when does the B word kind of come up?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We started the season with that. That was one of our long-range goals was to see if we can be a major Bowl team. Now what we have to do is finish the season and see what happens.
Q. Could you talk about, are you getting everything out of Mike Goolsby as you had hoped? He seemed to have rebounded well off the injury.
COACH WILLINGHAM: He has rebounded well and he’s been well on the field and he’s been well off the field. Those are the areas that I asked Mike and all of our players just to give us 100% and Mike has done that.
Q. Has anything really jumped out at you as far as his strengths on the field this year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The absence last year helped him a great deal. Because sometimes when you stand back and you watch things from afar, as he did not being able to play, it gives you an even greater appreciation of what you do and what others do. He’s taken that and learned a great deal from it and gone to even raised his level of preparation, which has allowed him to be more knowledgeable about the game; and also the injuries have forced him to work very hard to be more physical about the game.
Q. Is this a guy we could see playing on Sundays?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I hope it is.