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‘Rudy'-like Willingham eyes return of Irish glory

Coach moving from Stanford to Notre Dame

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame found itself a "Rudy" to coach the Irish.

Their new coach, Tyrone Willingham, was a more successful walk-on at Michigan State than Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger was at Notre Dame. While Ruettiger got in for the last 27 seconds of his final game at Notre Dame — inspiring a movie — Willingham lettered three years for the Spartans playing quarterback and flanker.

Willingham, who coached Stanford the past seven years, admits to having some "Rudy" in him.

"I share that belief that you can accomplish anything and, if I might say so, I think my presence here today will speak to that issue in some regards," he said.

Willingham is dreaming of more than just coaching the Irish, though. He's dreaming of bringing them back to dominance in college football, a place they haven't been since they were ranked No. 2 at the end of the 1993 season.

"That's why I'm here. To reach that level of excellence that this university has always had. I believe it can be accomplished," he said.

Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White said that confidence from Willingham impressed him. White was even impressed with how Willingham took the news three weeks ago when White said he had hired George O'Leary as the Notre Dame football coach.

"Kevin, you're hiring the wrong guy," White recalled Willingham saying. "You need to hire me. You know you have to hire me."

White finally took the Stanford coach's advice and signed him to a six-year deal Monday night.

White recounted the conversation Tuesday as he introduced Willingham, the first black head coach in any sport at Notre Dame, and just one of four black football coaches at Division I-A.

Willingham's hiring ends an embarrassing chapter for one of the nation's most prestigious football programs. O'Leary resigned five days after being hired because of lies on his resume about his academic and athletic background.

Asked if Notre Dame did anything different to investigate Willingham's background, White said he had not. White said the school used an executive search company for both men, and university personnel spent extensive time conducting database searches.

"This is a slippery slope between confidentiality and due diligence when you're involved with a high-profile person," he said.

Willingham was the first coach White contacted after Bob Davie was fired Dec. 2. White didn't contact him again until Sunday.

The university declined to disclose financial terms. Willingham's agent, Ray Anderson, also would not reveal financial terms but said a $1.5 million a year salary cited by the South Bend Tribune was much more credible than an earlier report of $2 million to $3 million.

Willingham said he has a simple plan to answer questions boosters and recruits might have about the fact he wasn't Notre Dame's first choice.

"The way I will address it is to win," he said.

White said after Davie was fired, he had six possible replacements, including Willingham and O'Leary. He didn't say who the others were. After O'Leary resigned, White interviewed one additional person.

O'Leary and Willingham were the only people offered the job, White said.

White said the reason he initially selected O'Leary is because he believed he better met the criteria of being a head coach with a proven record and a great "institutional fit."

"We just really felt that George kind of brought us something out of central casting. Second-generation Irish Catholic, a great passion to be at Notre Dame. He espoused it, he gushed at us and we loved him. We thought he was a very good football coach," White said.

After meeting again with Willingham, White was convinced he is "as passionate or more passionate."

O'Leary, 52-33 in seven seasons at Georgia Tech, is brash. Willingham, 44-36-1 record in seven seasons at Stanford, is more quietly confident.

Willingham said he thinks being a black coach at the most prestigious football school in the country is significant.

"Part of my philosophy is that there's a greater good, that we're out there to benefit not just yourself, that's important, but to benefit others," he said. "So is this significant? Yes, I say it is significant."