Willingham, Tyrone 1953–
Tyrone Willingham 1953–
College football coach
Just after the 2001 college football season Tyrone Willingham became the first African-American coach to lead one of college football’s highest profile programs, the University of Notre Dame. His career has followed the trajectory of many coaches, going from one job to another until finally garnering the contacts and experience to get a head coaching position. Willingham’s first opportunity to lead a program was at Stanford University where he was known as ‘The Sheriff.’ In his time at Stanford he led the school with perhaps the most demanding academic requirements in Division 1-A to its first Rose Bowl Championship in thirty years and was twice named PAC-10 Coach of the Year in his seven years at Stanford. It was this ability to succeed at a university with rigorous academics which led Notre Dame to name Willingham to one of the top positions in American sports.
Lionel Tyrone Willingham was born on December 30, 1953, in Kinston, North Carolina, to Nathaniel and Lillian Willingham, the oldest of the four Willingham children. Though his father only had a fifth grade education, the elder Willingham worked hard buying and maintaining rental properties to support his family.
His mother was an elementary school teacher who earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. In a time of immense social change in the south, Lillian Willingham served as an example for all the people of her community serving on the school board and on the Kinston city council. The Willingham children were raised in an environment where segregation still existed, but they were taught there were no excuses for not achieving a high standard in the classroom and on the sports field.
Played for MSU Against Odds
Willingham gained a desire to lead from his parents early on, integrating his peewee football team as the quarterback and team captain. At Jacksonville High he became the starting quarterback, even though he was only just over five feet tall. Willingham also played basketball and baseball in high school, and though by the time he graduated he stood only five-feet-seven inches tall, he had his mind set on playing Division 1-A football. He wrote over 100 letters to programs around the country, but only Toledo and Michigan State University (MSU) replied. MSU assistant and recruiter
At a Glance…
Born Lionel Tyrone Willingham on December 30, 1953, in Kinston, NC; married Kim, 1970s; children: Cassidy, Kelsey, Nathaniel. Education: Michigan State University, BS in physical education, 1977.
Career: Michigan State University, graduate assistant, 1977, secondary and special teams coach, 198O-82; North Carolina State, secondary and special teams coach, 1983-85; Rice, receivers and special teams coach, 1986-88; Stanford, running backs coach, 1989-91, head coach, 1995-2001; Minnesota Vikings, running backs coach, 1992-94; Notre Dame University, head coach, 2002-.
Awards: Second team all Big Ten in baseball, 1977; Big Ten Medal of Honor, 1977; Pac-10 Coach of the Year, 1995, 1999; Eddie Robinson Distinction Award, 2000; Home Depot National Coach of the Year, 2003; The Sporting News’ Sportsman of the Year, 2003.
Addresses: Office —Football Office, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556.
Jimmy Raye told the Knight Ridder Newspaper’s Ann Killion about recruiting Willingham to MSU: “I couldn’t convince them to give a scholarship to a 5-foot-7 quarterback. I had to arrange for a make-good situation. If he walked on, he could have the chance to play quarterback. I could see all the intangibles. He was committed, dedicated, he had the heart of a lion.”
Willingham chose to attend MSU and, despite being the smallest player on the team, got a chance to play during his freshman year when the two quarterbacks in front of him were injured. In the 1973 season he started four games and led the Spartans to three wins, completing 10 of 19 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown. His efforts earned him a scholarship for the following year.
Though he would not complete another pass in his career at MSU, Willingham did contribute as a receiver and as a punt and kickoff returner. In addition to football, he also played baseball. In his senior year he was named a co-captain of the football team and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. By the end of his time at MSU he had won three varsity letters in football and baseball and, along with his awards in baseball, was named the football team’s most inspirational player and received the Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor as a scholar athlete. This was also the year Willingham met his wife Kim.
Rode Coaching Carousel
Willingham graduated with a degree in physical education and then stayed at MSU for the 1977 season to begin his career as a football coach, signing on as a graduate assistant. After a year at MSU, Willingham spent two years as a secondary coach at Central Michigan University and then returned to MSU to coach the secondary and the special teams for three years. Willingham then went back home to coach at North Carolina State where Kim worked as a television anchor until their first child Cassidy was born in 1984. Second daughter Kelsey was born in 1988 in Houston when Willingham was coaching the receivers and special teams at Rice University. Kim Willingham told Knight Ridder’s about their lifestyle in those years: “We moved every three years like clockwork. By Year 2, I started to wonder whether or not I should paint the house because I knew we’d just move again.”
Willingham spent three years at Rice and then moved on to Stanford in 1989 to coach under Dennis Green. Green had been a coach with the San Francisco 49ers and met Willingham at a coaching clinic. When Green was named head coach at Stanford, he brought in Willingham the following year to coach his running backs. In 1992 when Green was hired by the Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League (NFL), Willingham went with him to Minnesota to coach the NFL team’s running backs. Willingham stayed in Minnesota for two years until he finally got his chance to be a head coach.
Stanford coach Bill Walsh had left the university after a 3-7-1 season. The program lacked talent and lacked discipline and Stanford Athletic Director Ted Leland remembered the quiet, intense man who had coached with Green. On the sidelines Willingham has the demeanor of an iceberg, never yelling, never out of control or upset whether his team is down by 20 or up by 20. Willingham told Alan Grant of ESPN The Magazine why he has adopted his steely demeanor: “When I was at Rice, we’d often be getting our butts beat at halftime. I remember coaches trying to get guys to play by yelling and screaming. But young people don’t need to be screamed at. What they need is a plan.”
Found Success at Stanford
Willingham was brought in to restore order to the Stanford program, and he succeeded brilliantly in his first year despite the fact that skeptics complained all year long that he was a life-long assistant and that he did not have the experience to be a head coach. Willingham led the previously rudderless ship that was Stanford football to a 7-4-1 record in 1995 and was voted the PAC-10 Coach of the Year. He followed up that season with a 7-5 campaign and a 38-0 win over his alma mater MSU in the Sun Bowl.
Willingham then endured two losing seasons, but in 1999 his team won the PAC-10 and made its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1972. Willingham became the first black coach ever to lead a team to the Rose Bowl. He commented about this milestone to Gage Harter of The Orange County Register, “I think it does carry some significance. I don’t know whether it’s important or as important to me as I think it is to some others. I think my first responsibility is to my football team. I don’t think my football team cares what color I am as long as I can provide them with the leadership that they need. Probably my sense and feeling on the situation is I’m probably saddened to a great degree that it’s coming to this day. My question is, why not sooner?”
The Cardinal lost 17-9 to Wisconsin, but the team with the strictest academic standards in Division 1-A finished with an 8-4 record and a major bowl appearance. Willingham had brought back the Stanford program and quieted those doubters who claimed that teams from universities that require their athletes to also perform in the classroom would never be able to field a decent football team. Willingham’s team finished 5-6 in 2000, but the following season saw the Cardinals win nine games for only the second time in 50 years.
Moved on to Coach Notre Dame
While Willingham was succeeding at an academically demanding school, another similarly rigorous school was floundering, but this time it was not a brainy west coast institution, but the most storied program in college football. Notre Dame was experiencing another year of mediocrity and critics were beginning to question whether big-time football and an exacting academic environment could coexist at the same place. After firing coach Bob Davie, Notre Dame interviewed Willingham, but he did not get the job. Willingham was not the rah-rah coach who was filled with awe about the history of the institution. Notre Dame ended up hiring Georgia Tech coach George O’Leary, an Irish Catholic who remained on the job for five days and then resigned when it came to light that he had made false claims on his resume. When it seemed that there was no one else to turn to, Notre Dame turned to Willingham to pull the program out of the mire.
From the first meeting with Willingham, the players knew that they were in for a completely different experience than what they had been used to. Willingham introduced himself to his team with a detailed power point presentation, which layed down the expectations that he had for all of his football players. Senior wide receiver Arnaz Battle told Wayne Drehs on the ESPN website, “You could tell instantly that he was going to change things. He had this list of what he wanted, what his demands were, and you could just feel the anticipation in the room. You could tell he was as good as advertised.” Everything about playing football at Notre Dame changed—workouts at 6:30 in the morning became mandatory, practices were planned down to the minutest detail, and any effort less than 100 percent by any member of the program was now intolerable.
In his first season the greatest change in the Notre Dame program was in the win column. Against all odds the Fighting Irish started the season 8-0, with wins over many of the top programs in college football. The Irish knocked off Maryland, Pittsburgh, Air Force, Michigan, Michigan State, Florida State, and Willingham’s former school, Stanford. The team moved up the polls from being unranked before the season to the number four team in the nation. Suddenly Willingham was the most prominent college football coach in the nation appearing on the covers of Sports Illustrated as “The Savior of Notre Dame” and being compared to great Irish coaches of the past like Ara Parseghian and Knute Rockne. Through it all, Willingham kept the same cool intensity that he has maintained throughout his career. Notre Dame cooled off at the end of the season losing to USC and then losing to North Carolina State 28-6 in the Gator Bowl, but the Irish finished the season with a 10-3 record and a number 17 national ranking. Willingham was named the Home Depot National Coach of the Year and the Sporting News’ Sportsman of the Year for his turnaround miracle at Notre Dame.
In the second year of his tenure, Willingham discovered the type of negative scrutiny that can come along with the head coach’s job at Notre Dame. The Irish ended the season with a 5-7 record and no bowl game, and in certain games during the 2003 campaign the team was completely overmatched. Internet sites such as Fire Tyrone Willingham popped up and critics were calling his previous winning season a fluke. But through all the turmoil Willingham remained the same person. Notre Dame receiver Maurice Stovall told The Houston Chronicle about Willingham’s demeanor: “Coach Willingham is very humble about things. He’s always the same whether we win or lose. I think any other coach more likely would yell at the team or scream at them. But Coach Willingham, on the other hand, will tell you what you’re doing wrong and tell you to fix it.”
Though everything about Notre Dame football had changed from one season to the next, the man at the center of it all remained the same coach he always had been. Willingham told Jonathon Okanes from Knight Ridder Newspapers about his focus through whatever conditions surround him: “I’m not capable of really trying to develop something for five years, because I don’t know what’s promised to me for five years. As I understand it, I have today. My focus is to be absolutely the best you can today. That’s always been my focus. If you do the best you can today, that gives you the best chance to be the best you can tomorrow.”
Houston Chronicle, October 5, 2003.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, December 25, 1999; January 9, 2003.
Orange County Register, December 20, 1999.
“Irish Eyes on Willingham’s Changes,” ESPN, http://espn.go.com/ncf/s/Willingham/notredame.html (January 26, 2004).
“Player Bio: Tyrone Willingham,” Official Athletic Site, Notre Dame, http://und.ocsn.com/sports/mfootbl/mtt/Willingham_tyrone00.html (January 26, 2003).
—Michael J. Watkins
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