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Fighting back

After a string of subpar seasons, Notre Dame is ranked No. 7 in the nation and regaining its mystique.

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2002


After a string of subpar seasons, Notre Dame is ranked No. 7 in the nation and regaining its mystique.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tyrone Willingham didn't need much time to let his players realize things were going to be different at Notre Dame.

The former Stanford coach, chosen only after George O'Leary resigned following the embarrassing revelation he lied on his resume, walked into the meeting room in January, dimmed the lights, booted up a laptop computer and proceeded with a power-point presentation you would expect at a business seminar.

As if introducing a new marketing plan, Willingham clicked his mouse and a single word appeared:

WIN.

The room went wild.

"That set the tone right there," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "That let us know about his focus and his seriousness and there wasn't any bull about it. He laid it down how it was going to be."

Added linebacker Brandon Hoyte: "We knew it was time for us to change our attitude and get Notre Dame football back to the mystique it has had for so many years."

The Irish have made a power point of their own.

Entering Saturday night's game at Air Force and a week before a matchup at Florida State, Notre Dame has parlayed a stellar and opportunistic defense into an undefeated record and has soared to No. 7 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. That's the team's highest ranking since it was fifth in late September 1996.

Last year, Bob Davie's five-year tenure ended without a bowl berth and a second losing record (5-6) in the past three seasons.

"I think we have had a group of young men who are eager to be successful," Willingham said. "They have been working extremely hard during the course of the spring and the summer and now into the season. ... They have paid the price for us to have the success that we're having right now."

* * *

Willingham didn't just rely on high-tech presentations to change the atmosphere. In the team's first offseason conditioning workout, Willingham, 48, as svelte and fit as he was as a one-time walk-on quarterback at Michigan State, joined players for the 6 a.m. runs.

"When a coach beats you in a sprint, that makes you step it up," Tuck said. "It made us work that much harder."

Willingham, who learned from Bill Walsh and Denny Green, set up the first two weeks of fall practice like an NFL camp. The players and coaches lived in one dorm and everything, including a makeshift training room beneath a tent, was a short walk away.

"That NFL mentality, guys respect that," receiver Arnaz Battle said. "You come in here and take care of business. You block everything else out and it's football."

"That was big for us," cornerback Shane Walton added. "We don't have athletic dorms so the only time we get together is at practice. We lived together. We ate together. We did everything together."

The players could bring TVs and video games.

The coaches left their spouses behind for the two-week camp.

"It's about bonding, it's about chemistry," Willingham said. "The key to life is chemistry, whether it's a man and woman or a football team. It's how well do you work together. Having that opportunity to have our guys together in camp allows that closeness, allows you to have to work together, allows you to get to know that guy next to you, allows you to respect the guy next to you. All of the things are important ingredients if you want to have success."

Another element was to make football fun. It wasn't last year for the Irish. It is now.

At the start of a recent practice, Willingham lined up and ran pass patterns for the quarterbacks.

"When you see that, you become encouraged," quarterback Carlyle Holiday said. "You can see he really enjoys what he's doing, and he enjoys being involved with his players."

They enjoy being around him and have taken on at least one of his vital traits: unflappability.

Consider that Notre Dame has won four games by eight points or fewer and escaped with narrow wins against Michigan, Michigan State and Pittsburgh on interceptions in the waning seconds.

"We've been in a lot of games that have come down to the wire, and good teams, championship teams, find ways to win," Hoyte said.

They're not hoping for the Luck of the Irish.

They're making good things happen.

"Tyrone has an enormous amount of poise; he never gets rattled," former Irish coaching legend Ara Parseghian said. "That's how the team is."

"Let's face it -- Tyrone has done a hell of a job," said Paul Hornung, Notre Dame's 1956 Heisman Trophy winner. "He's got them playing hard and he's got them believing in themselves. They look like a different team."

To everyone.

* * *

While at a gas station last season, a woman approached safety Gerome Sapp and said what many Irish fans thought: "You all aren't very good this year."

"Me and Cedric (Hilliard) kind of looked at each other, looked at her and it was like (we wanted to say), "Who are you to say that?' " Sapp said. "This year is so, so different."

At Between The Buns, a popular sports bar near campus, there's seating for 195. On game days, several hundred huddle around the 25 TVs. Last year, especially toward the end, people could easily buy tickets.

Now? Good luck.

"It's been ridiculously hard to even go to events like the pep rally; they're turning people away," said Amelia Hoffman, a sophomore.

And strolling through campus, even on an unseasonably cool mid-October afternoon, you can't help but see someone proudly wearing the Kelly green "Return to Glory" T-shirt or bump into someone desperately hoping to buy one.

"It's just insane," said Carl Elkins, 19, a sophomore from St. Petersburg who helped choose the slogan, then designed the shirt.

Demand for the shirts, which incorporate images of The Four Horsemen, a hand raising the golden Notre Dame helmet and the immortal words of Knute Rockne on the back, have required three printings. More than 64,000 have been sold.

You don't need Irish eyes to spot them at games. Willingham has called it a sea of green.

"It affects a program in that it's a unifying effect, that now, everyone who's a Notre Dame fan that comes in is making a statement," Willingham said. "Their statement is, "We're part of it. We want you to be successful. We're going to work hard at the football game to ensure your success.' "

"It's been a while since somebody could motivate the fans to come out and support us like they have," said senior tight end Gary Godsey, a former Jesuit High standout. "It's just a new beginning, a new feeling around the program."

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