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Luck of the Irish

Scott Haynes, College Editor

On Campus Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - While some people feel that the journey to a specific destination is far more important than arriving there, Notre Dame faithful should take stock in the opposite right now.

In any quest, patience is the key to ultimate success, although the Fighting Irish surely didn't show any in their search for a new football coach. Eager to fill the most prestigious job in all of college football, the powers that be took little time to usher in their new head man, with Bob Davie's parking spot still warm.

Georgia Tech's George O'Leary was named the 27th head coach in Notre Dame history, joining such legends as Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine (just to name a few). However, before O'Leary could even begin to assemble his assistants, his tenure in South Bend came to an abrupt end. O'Leary had inaccuracies in his resume, that resulted in his dismissal (excuse me while I clear my throat), or "resignation" of the post, he had earned just days prior.

What will clearly be a blight on the Notre Dame mystique, O'Leary's actions embarrassed himself and the University.

I for one, thought the Irish sold themselves way short with O'Leary to begin with. Not that he didn't produce at Georgia Tech, but more because of the position itself and the others that walked the sidelines in South Bend before.

The perfect candidate would have to have an impeccable resume, peppered with the kinds of intangibles that differentiate good coaches from great ones.

The aura around South Bend has a way of choking the life out of average coaches (i.e. Davie, Gerry Faust), so the person to lead the Irish back to glory would have to be special indeed.

While the "O'Leary incident" (the term that will be used in Notre Dame circles from this day forward) was unfortunate, it may have been a blessing in disguise.

The situation gave the Irish a second chance to get it right, an opportunity to make amends.

The search should have always centered around a coach that had experience dealing with recruiting restrictions directly regarding academic achievement. Notre Dame has some incredibly strict academic guidelines that most colleges don't, thus making it more difficult to land the athletically-gifted, but academically-deficient prospects.

Don't get me wrong -- Notre Dame certainly lands its fair share of talent based on the school's lure, but the team's stranglehold on the prep talent, has certainly faded with each passing mediocre season.

Tyrone Willingham
Tyrone Willingham led Stanford to four bowl games, including the 1999 Pac-10 title and subsequent Rose Bowl appearance.
The perfect candidate was there all along in Tyrone Willingham.

The exact restrictions that hampered Bob Davie from turning things around in South Bend, are the same ones that Willingham manipulated so perfectly at Stanford.

No, Willingham didn't break the rules at Stanford, but rather he used them to his advantage. He didn't need a boatload of blue-chip prospects to field a winning football team. He took solid players and made them well-rounded young men. He concentrated on the discipline aspect on both sides of the football knowing that a smart football team doesn't beat itself. He also led by example and his character and leadership skills are unmatched at any level of the game.

After seven seasons on "The Farm", Willingham achieved a great deal. He led Stanford to four bowl games, including the 1999 Pac-10 title and subsequent Rose Bowl appearance (the school's first in 28 years). He also picked up Pac-10 Coach of the Year honors twice in 1995 and 1999.

In his first year at the helm (1994), he turned a 3-7-1 team (the year prior) into a 7-4 bowl-bound squad, picking up his first Coach of the Year Award, and Stanford's first since Bill Walsh earned the same in 1977.

A 1977 graduate of Michigan State, Willingham spent 17 seasons as an assistant at both the college and pro levels, serving six of those seasons under Dennis Green (three at Stanford and three with the Minnesota Vikings)

It is his undying dedication to his players as people that puts Willingham in a position to succeed. He sums up that philosophy by saying, "I believe that my style of leadership is one of example (vocal and visual) and expectation that change the dimensions of the student athlete's mind on what he can accomplish in any area that he chooses to battle."

Notre Dame should be lauded for its hiring of Willingham, but not because he is the first African-American coach ever at Notre Dame (in any sport), or because he is just one of four active African-American coaches at the Division I-A level (Michigan State's Bobby Williams, San Jose State's Dr. Fitz Hill and New Mexico State's Tony Samuel are the others).

No, the Irish should be given credit for their selection of Willingham because he was the most qualified to fill the position, especially in the light of the O'Leary fiasco.

The old adage that it's better to be lucky than good certainly applies in Notre Dame's case.

With Willingham in charge of the football program, the Irish have a chance to be both in the not too distant future.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Scott Haynes at shaynes@sportsnetwork.com.

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