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University of Notre Dame
Tyrone Willingham knew he was accepting a large challenge when he took over the football program at Notre Dame. It is the most storied football program in America with a passionate, and demanding fan base. And times were hard.
The Fighting Irish had finished the 2001 season with a 5-6 record and no one was bothering to wake up the echoes in South Bend because the glory days of Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz seemed just a distant memory.
But Willingham’s arrival changed all that. Under his direction, Notre Dame improved its record to 10-3, the third best single-season turnaround in school history and the fourth best in Division 1-A in 2002. Willingham is the first Notre Dame coach to win 10 games in his first season and he did it by knocking off four teams ranked in the Top 25.
Willingham was a landslide winner in the voting for the 14th annual George Munger Award presented by the Maxwell Football Club to the College Coach of the Year. He received 466 of 956 votes cast, far outdistancing Jim Tressell of Ohio State (203 votes) and Larry Coker of Miami (102) who finished second and third respectively.
“The poise he has exemplified, that’s what we alums want Notre Dame to be,” said Allen Pinkett, the former Notre Dame running back, now radio broadcaster on the Irish football network. “It’s like he was born to coach at Notre Dame.”
The 48-year-old Willingham was a successful head coach at Stanford prior to accepting his post at Notre Dame. The Irish players nicknamed him “The Prophet” because he came in last spring and gave them hope. At the first team meeting, the new head coach addressed the players for 45 minutes and concluded with a click of the video projector. One word filled the screen: WIN.
Early in the season, the Fighting Irish struggled on offense, in part because the personnel Willingham inherited from the previous regime did not fit his West Coast passing game. He adjusted by modifying that offense and, with tailback Ryan Grant and wide receiver Arnaz Battle improving each week, the Irish were able to win games aided in large part by a stout defense and excellent special teams.
With a strong recruiting class on its way and a solid veteran nucleus now familiar with Willingham’s style of football, Notre Dame is looking forward to even bigger things in the 2003 season and beyond.
Athletic director Kevin White said: “The Notre Dame family prides itself in two personal characteristics: respect and humility. Ty has taken those two ideals to another level, just by being extremely humble, just by being himself.”