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Monday, December 31
Updated: January 1, 11:47 PM ET
Willingham accepts 6-year deal to coach Irish

Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tyrone Willingham pledged to return Notre Dame to the championship levels of its storied past when he was introduced as the new Irish coach on Tuesday.

Tyrone Willingham
Tyrone Willingham left no doubt that he intends to return Notre Dame to national championship contention as new coach of the Irish.

Willingham, 44-36-1 in seven seasons at Stanford, signed a six-year contract with Notre Dame on Monday and said he believed it was a great opportunity for a football coach.

"I am excited, I am eager to begin the work, not just of the football program, but of this university," said Willingham, the first black head coach at Notre Dame in any sport.

Willingham gets a guaranteed contract with a base salary of about $1.5 million per year with bonuses that could increase the yearly total to $2 million. Notre Dame associate athletics director John Heisler declined to discuss the financial figures.

It is believed Willingham's deal would make him only the third coach to earn at least $2 million annually, joining Florida's Steve Spurrier ($2.1 million) and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops ($2 million).

Willingham insisted the obstacles of playing for a national championship while meeting Notre Dame's tough academic standards can be overcome.

"I believe that can be accomplished and that is why I am here," he said.

Mon., Dec. 31
Stanford athletics director Ted Leland is always prepared, thinking ahead toward what might happen if he loses a coach. He had a short list of candidates in case Tyrone Willingham was hired elsewhere, as he has now at Notre Dame. The possibility of Willingham leaving has been an issue every year because the NFL, Ohio State and Michigan State have cited interest the last few years.

Personally, the coach who might be the best fit to succeed Willingham would be Ron Turner of Illinois. Not only is he a proven head coach, but he is also a Bay Area native who served as the offensive coordinator at Stanford for three years under Dennis Green and runs a similar style of offense at Illinois.

Athletics director Kevin White said he talked with many coaches who worked with Willingham, including former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, before offering Willingham the Notre Dame job.

"Every one of them regards him as one of the top coaches in college or professional football," White said.

Notre Dame President Rev. Edward Malloy said while some would see Willingham's hiring as a social statement, he was hired because of his reputation as a coach who upheld the highest academic standards.

"He knows what our standards are. He embraces them," Malloy said. "He is excited to be at Notre Dame and we are so excited to have him as our new football coach."

Willingham emerged as a possible successor to Bob Davie shortly after Davie was fired as Notre Dame's football coach on Dec. 2. Willingham replaces former Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary, who was hired on Dec. 9. Five days later, however, O'Leary resigned after it was revealed he had made false claims about his his academic and athletic achievements.

It was one of the most embarrassing moments in school history.

The news of Willingham's hiring drew praise from prominent black leaders.

"It's a victory for fairness and equal opportunity to succeed or fail," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who previously urged Notre Dame to consider black candidates. "To even the field for athletes, you have to be willing to even the field for coaches."

Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association, said: "This opens up a lot of doors for a lot of people. We have minority candidates out there that just haven't been considered before. There are other Tyrone Willinghams out there."

Some Stanford players met Willingham's hiring with disappointment. Luke Powell, a redshirt sophomore wide receiver, described the players' reaction to Willingham's departure as both stunned and disappointed, according to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, because they were confident that the coach who brought them to Stanford intended to return for an eighth season.

In fact, Powell and offensive lineman Paul Weinacht were among the players who met individually with Willingham after the Fighting Irish fired Bob Davie on Dec. 2, according to the Chronicle.

Players told the newspaper that Willingham quashed speculation that he was a candidate at Notre Dame. Weinacht, a fourth-year junior, recalled that Willingham "was almost laughing at" reports linking him to the opening, a stance the coach also took with the media.

Willingham's introduction Tuesday was much more low key than when O'Leary was hired. That introduction was part news conference, part pep rally, with the public invited to attend, the Irish band playing and cheerleaders performing as university personnel passed out O'Leary T-shirts.

Willingham appears to fit the criteria White listed when he fired Davie. Willingham has been a head coach for seven seasons, he has a winning record (44-36-1), and he knows how to recruit at a school with high academic standards.

Players said they were happy with the hiring.

"With all the things that have gone on the past few weeks, I think they've looked him over pretty close and I think he'll be a good choice," cornerback Vontez Duff said.

While Willingham's winning percentage of 54.9 percent is worse than Davie's 58.3 percent (35-25), Stanford doesn't have the storied history of the Irish. Notre Dame coaches historically have done better than at their previous stops.

Ara Parseghian was 36-35-1 in eight seasons at Northwestern. Dan Devine was 25-28-4 in four seasons with the Green Bay Packers, including 6-8 his last year. Both won national championships at Notre Dame.

Willingham has been a perennial candidate mentioned for other vacancies. Ohio State considered him last year, while North Carolina State and Michigan State -- Willingham's alma mater -- were interested in him after the Cardinal made the Rose Bowl in 1999.

Stanford was 9-3 this season, and Willingham has led the team to one Pac-10 Conference title and to four bowl games.

Willingham, Dennis Green's running backs coach with the Cardinal from 1989-91 before a stint with Green's Minnesota Vikings, succeeded Bill Walsh at Stanford after the 1994 season.

Though Stanford had a winning record in just one of four seasons from 1997-00, Willingham maintained his status as one of college football's best organizers and managers. He led the Cardinal to a Pac-10 title and the Rose Bowl in 1999, and never lost a game against rival California in seven seasons.

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