Sept. 17, 2002
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Tyrone Willingham doesn’t show a lot of emotion when things are going well, or poorly, for Notre Dame.
When Willingham walked to the podium following Notre Dame’s 25-23 victory over Michigan – a win that vaulted the Irish from 20th to 12th in the rankings – he looked calm, serious and determined. But he couldn’t maintain the stoic appearance for long.
As he talked about what it meant to beat a team that had been ranked No. 7 before Saturday’s game, a team he was 0-8 against while at Michigan State as a student, graduate and assistant coach, Willingham finally, reluctantly, allowed a smile to emerge.
“This win was a lot of fun,” Willingham said as reporters laughed at his display of lightheartedness.
The game was fun for the Irish players, most of whom had never beaten a Top 10 team. Fun for the Irish alumni, who are enjoying Notre Dame’s first 3-0 start in six years. Fun for the hundreds of students wearing “Return to Glory” T-shirts who mobbed Willingham and the Irish players on the field Saturday.
Perhaps most importantly for Willingham, though, this run has been fun for the former Irish players, including members of the 1977 national championship team who were at the game for a reunion.
Willingham has stressed to the players the importance of playing hard to represent Notre Dame.
“The thing that we talk to them about, and will continue to talk to them about, is: When they walk off the field, that the guys who have worn this uniform before them is proud of the way they have played,” Willingham said. “The tradition and history of this place, we have to represent that well.”
The Irish have represented it well so far.
If Notre Dame can beat Michigan State, a team former coach Bob Davie failed to beat in five tries, the Irish will be 4-0 for the first time since 1993. That’s the last year Notre Dame seriously challenged for the national championship.
The players are beginning to believe they could challenge for a national title this year.
“I think this coaching staff has always believed that this team is going to win a national championship,” Irish receiver Arnaz Battle said. “I think guys on this team were saying it, but they truly, truly had doubts. Now, guys are starting to believe it more and more.”
Willingham won’t take credit for teaching the Irish to win, saying he simply tells his team to do whatever it takes.
Willingham was asked if he had the same stoic demeanor with players after the game as he did with reporters.
“I am more excitable in the locker room,” he said.
The excitement could build outside the locker room if the Irish continue to win.
-By TOM COYNE
AP Sports Writer