UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME MEDIA CONFERENCE
November 25, 2003
JOHN HEISLER: One quick note. Our kickoff this weekend is at 5:07 Pacific time, 8:07 on the East Coast. Coach Willingham is here. We'll start with questions here with people in person, then we'll go to the phones in 15 minutes.
Q. I was wondering what your experiences were in the past with a football team at this stage of the season with a couple of games to go without the motivation of a Bowl game at the end of the line? How difficult has that been coaching a team in that situation?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, it's one of the goals or one of the things you try to target for your football team, to hopefully ensure success, ensure motivation. But there are other things you can focus on. At the end of the season, you're pointing toward team goals and individual goals. There are things that the individual can accomplish that can ensure a successful season, and you keep the team focused on those things because no one really does those alone. So in a case of Julius Jones, who has a chance to do great things, move up, statistically in terms of being one of the all-time top season rushers, the offensive line will be a major contributor to him having that success. You still have team focus even though you lose some of the other goals.
Q. Does that fall on deaf ears with seniors that may not have that motivation?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I hope not.
Q. It seems that in college football, when a team struggles, when they have a substandard season, the natural reaction or what oftentimes happens is there are changes on the assistant coaching staff. You have never been one to have a great turnover on your coaching staff from your years at Stanford. Is that strictly your call? Is that something that you would discuss with the athletic department or how is that decision made at the end of the season?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Hopefully, I hope that would rest on my shoulders. I do have a great deal of confidence in our coaches. And the coaches that you find yourself in that situation with, you make the changes necessary.
Q. Would you anticipate your staff coming back intact next year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I do.
Q. Is this still emotionally a tougher game for you because in some way the players on the other sidelines are players you recruited to Stanford?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don't know if it's I think you used the word "tougher." I don't know if it's a tougher game. I do know there will be emotions. It's hard not to have emotions when you spent that much time at one place. So there will be some emotion involved in the game.
Q. I think last year, whether this was happenstance, it seemed on the sidelines, that was one of the emotional games. At halftime, you were animated. That's when you said, "When Johnny is in danger..." Do you think your reactions may have played a role in that or was that coincidence that that was a game where you were a little more animated?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it was the nature of the game more than anything else because I think at the halftime break, our team needed to kind of come back and play the kind of football that I anticipated we'd be playing. I think up until that point, we hadn't done that very well, if I'm correct.
Q. You don't have much contact at all with the Stanford players, even during the off-season? They don't call you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I do get a few calls from some of them. Again, there's not a great deal of contact.
Q. Aside from this week, do you watch games much? Do you tape the games and watch them? Do you casually look at them, see how they did? How do you follow what they're doing?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You always check. But we tape as many games as possible around the country. So we try to get an idea of what everyone is doing.
Q. Any special plans this week going back to your former hometown, any special things you're going to do before or after the game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. Hopefully during the weekend I'll have a chance to see some friends.
Q. Stanford/Cal is one of the big games on the college football landscape. I'm wondering, when you were coaching there, what is it like to try to get the team back to focus for the next week after they've played "the big game," as it were?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think we went through it on one occasion, I believe it was. There's always that concern that there is an emotional loss that can't be recovered in that next ballgame. But you try to, again, target all the things for your team so they can come out and play their best ballgame. I think the ballgame we had in that situation was, indeed, the Notre Dame football game. We got off to what we thought was a slow start, then kind of gained momentum, had some breaks happen, it allowed us to get back in the ballgame.
Q. Is that anything that you feel like your team, Notre Dame, can exploit, the fact they're coming off that loss to Cal?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don't know, because you've got to know the personality of that team and how they're responding to that situation. Of course, I don't have that ability right now. But what we need to do, our focus is on Notre Dame, making sure that we get out to a quick start because anytime you travel, you're playing on the road, that's the one thing you want to do, is try to take everything out of that team, if possible, but getting off to a great start.
Q. You talked about some of the goal you still have for this team, helping Julius add to his rushing total. How do you balance goals like that with obviously one of the goals has to be ready getting ready for next season, especially since you had a lot of younger guys that played?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The focus hopefully for our football team hopefully is still to win. That's number one. Everything you do you want to lead to that. The involvement of other players, getting them opportunities, you hope that, one, they earned them. And number two, you do have an eye for the future, where you can see helping that process along, but at the same time stay very focused on winning.
Q. With the possibility of a Bowl removed, with some of the players who may be playing injured or at less than a hundred percent, do you start to make evaluations and say, "Maybe, if it will help recovery, we shut them down now rather than allowing them to play at less than a hundred percent right now"?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I don't think so. I think the young men are competitors. What they want to do is really compete and play, and play well. Hopefully our bye week, fortunate to have a bye week, kind of served as that kind of vehicle for us, so you can get them rest, get them healthy so they'll be able to play these next ballgames in better condition.
COACH WILLINGHAM: No.
Q. A lot of people in our profession were kind of debating whether Bowl practice or recruiting time for the coaches is more advantageous. Do you see any validity to the fact that this will help recruiting, the fact that you have more time, you're not focusing on a Bowl game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Anytime you can have a presence with the young men is a plus. But at the same time, the most important thing is to keep winning, at least I believe that is the case. But the more time you have to spend with the young men, the better you can become acquainted with them. I think the thing is, more face time that we're able to put in, the more they have an appreciation for you and understanding in your program.
Q. How would you characterize recruiting as going at this point? Do you feel like you're where you want to be at this time of the process?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think we're okay. I think, based on the time and based on our situation, I think we're okay. I'm looking forward to that process improving as we finish out the season.
Q. Along the recruiting lines, are you being received similarly to the last couple years? Do recruits have questions about the losing record at this point? How do you address that, if so?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I haven't had any of the players address me with that question. But the way we would approach it is that we've been in some ballgames and not performed the way that we'd like to, but we think there's a very bright future for our program, and the inclusion of some very talented young people will help us that with process.
Q. I know you'll help me if I misquote you here.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I will not (laughter).
Q. When you first came, you mentioned about expectations. I believe you felt your expectations would be as high or higher than the fans' expectations. You didn't think that was going to be a problem. I wondered, though, in terms of your expectations for the program, for the team, can you get the program back to where you want it to be? Are these things fixable in a year? Do you think these are longer-term goals?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We've fallen short of it last year, we've fallen short of it this year. The goal will be next time we line up to go and do that this year, next year.
Q. Do you think things that were problems this year are fixable in one year, though? Are they longer-term problems?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It will be our goal to find solutions to all of the things that have troubled us right away. We'll try to fix them this week, if at all possible.
Q. Along those same lines, can you talk about the secondary play this year? Again, maybe things that you feel will be challenging going into next year, things that you're encouraged about.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think the biggest thing in not just our secondary play, but overall our whole football team, and I've said this, is a little dose of confidence goes a very long way. It's amazing how when you believe, you make plays. We've got some young men that I think have the ability to make plays. They've demonstrated that on occasions. That's part of that other word used, being inconsistent. We need to work on all those things. But I think a dose of confidence will go a long way to helping our football team.
Q. Do you anticipate Nick Setta being available at this time?
COACH WILLINGHAM: At this time, I'm not sure.
Q. I wasn't clear. How did he hurt or suffer an injury? Was it kicking or making a tackle or doing something else?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It was kicking.
Q. I think last year you guys signed 22 players, you brought in 33 or made 33 offers. I don't know if I'm correct on that. Do you anticipate a similar type, not bringing in the full 54 this year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The numbers could be very similar in some regards.
Q. The target approach, is that something, you know, rather than throwing out all 54 visits, is that something that Stanford taught you, offering to fewer players?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It could be. The problem is trying to find people that are the right fit for the University in all aspects. It's very easy to go out and offer 54 scholarship offers or 54 visits. You want to find, I believe, the right people that are the right fit at Notre Dame, what we're trying to do.
Q. Why is it some schools will do more of the shotgun approach versus the more target approach? Has any coach told you why they do it one way versus the other?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No. I think that would be a great question, though (laughter).
Q. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Jeff Samardzija's development this year? What has prevented him from being more of a consistent presence in the offense over the last six games?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think we've probably focused a little bit more on Rhema and some other veteran players as we've gone through this last stretch of games, not as much on our younger guys.
Q. What has he done to impress you this season, particularly early on when he was catching, or things he's done in the last six weeks?
COACH WILLINGHAM: What I've enjoyed about Jeff is his confidence. I've enjoyed his poise, being able to step up as a true freshman and make the contributions, not just as a receiver, but in other areas of our football team. And we've needed that.
Q. In regards to Chinedum, he has one catch at this point. As you look back at the end of the season, is there any second thought to using your of eligibility on him this year considering he played such a limited role?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You always do. But there's more than just the limit -- shall I say the limited role that he's had as a receiver involved. He had some other roles, played on special teams, had some impact. That year can be a tremendous growth year for him in terms of gaining the experience, even though it may not all be at receiver.
Q. Philosophically for a guy that is going to play a role primarily on special teams, why, in your opinion, is it a good use of his first year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I'd say one thing is experience. There's nothing like playing in the game, there's nothing like being a part of the team, having that buildup for a game and that preparation for a game that can help you going into the next season.
Q. Recruiting, more on the philosophical tangent, as you go through and evaluate, you're talking to players, trying to gauge where they're looking, leaning, when it's time to turn your attention to maybe a different name on your list at a particular position, how many factors go into that evaluation where you may say, "Receiver X doesn't seem like he's looking, we should look at Receiver Y"? There are so many factors involved. How do you go through that and try to evaluate that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: That really comes through in your constant conversations with the young person so that you can really have a pretty good gauge on what his goals are, what his family's goals are, and the competition.
Q. Did you ever feel completely confident in that, because these are 17-year-old kids you're dealing with?
COACH WILLINGHAM: No (laughter). No is the answer to that one. Why some of the decisions are made, when some of the decisions are made, I wish I had an answer for why they make them, when they make them, could keep my thumb on that pulse. But I can't. You have to use your best judgment and hopefully your experience as a coach.
Q. Looking at Stanford, they've had two full years, offensively how has their system or philosophy maybe changed from what you tried to run? How is it maybe different from what you tried to do there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: With his -- gosh, when you look at them this year, the difficulty they seem to have on the offense line has maybe even changed some of his own thought process about what they're trying to do. What we sought to do was to be really balanced as we could be, be a strong running team and yet a strong passes team. I think it was in either 2001 or '99 I think it was, we may have had about 260 passing, about 200 running. That's really not a bad balance. That keeps a team in pretty good position, whether someone crowds the box or whether they lay off you and allow you to run the football.
Q. What is your interest in adding potentially a 12th game to the schedule next year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: My interest will be if we can position ourselves well to have success and to prepare ourselves for some of the competition we have to play earlier in the year.
JOHN HEISLER: We can take some questions from the phone.
Q. How difficult was it for you to watch or observe even from a distance the difficulty that Stanford appeared to have in their transition year last year? To what degree do you think this is a better team this year?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think having a year under Coach Tevens has obviously given them a little more knowledge of their own system, hopefully the things they're trying to do. The question as to my difficulty watching, you know, so many of the young men that were involved in the recruiting process, their families, et cetera, that you wanted them to have success. Of course, that is success all but one game. I guess you struggle with them to a degree, with the lack of success last year.
Q. How does the dynamic for you change? Facing Stanford last year at Notre Dame at your place, this year going back to Stanford, does it change the emotional dynamic for you at all?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it adds just a little bit more emotion to it, simply because The Forum, as it's called, I've walked that Forum for 10 years. You have some memories there.
Q. What was the hardest part of leaving Stanford for you?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think leaving the young men and knowing what we had tried to build and start there, along with all the friends that we had accumulated over the years.
Q. Do you feel a responsibility to hold up the Notre Dame tradition? What do you feel that tradition is?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it is a tradition built on excellence, winning football games, developing quality young people, having a program that's run with great integrity.
Q. Do you feel a responsibility about all that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes, indeed.
Q. In the media, you're perceived as very serious and hard-nosed. Some of the assistants I talked to say that's not true at all. How do you want to be perceived?
COACH WILLINGHAM: They're not supposed to say that, number one, okay? But, no, to be very honest, I'm not overly concerned with that perception. What I want to do more than anything else is do the goals of the program. I highlighted those quickly: win football games, develop quality young people, and be a person that runs a program of great integrity.
Q. You talked about the program that you tried to build and start at Stanford. Is it tough for you to see what they've gone through since you've left? There was so much that happened during your tenure there, and now it seems like they're kind of back to square one. Do you view this mostly as a cyclical kind of thing?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, coach is going to do a great job. Look at some of the things he's doing, some very positive things there. Unfortunately, that has always been somewhat of a Stanford cycle, that you've had some ups and you've had some downs.
Q. Could you talk about what is the biggest difference between Stanford and Notre Dame for the head coach when the team is not doing well? Is it a different experience than it was at Stanford when you had your struggles there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think I've characterized the entire experience with the word "more." That's whether winning or you're having difficult times. It's just more.
Q. About playing freshman, do you ever play a freshman because you have the notion that he may not be the type of player that's going to stick around for five years anyway? Would that affect a young person's playing time?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, it could. I think you have to factor all those things in. There are no guarantees. Most of our young men are on track to graduate in four years. I don't think there's a guarantee that some of them at the end of that time will feel the same way about football that they did as freshmen or that they will have that opportunity to go on and be pro athletes. I think you have to factor in a lot of things. But where you start at, you start with the belief that this young person, if you're putting time into him, will have the ability to help the program at that time. Of course, there are a lot of adjustments that young people go through the first year in college that can influence that or change that as you go through the year.
Q. Do you openly discuss that with a freshman at a certain point in the season where a freshman is not playing, do you discuss that with a player, "We're going to preserve your year of eligibility"? How open are you in those discussions?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I'm pretty closed on most of that for the most part. What I do is try to make sure that they understand. It does reach a point where it's not advantageous to put them in a football game. At that point you try to advise them of what you believe their situation to be. Before that, what I tried to do is maintain as much of an entire team focus about playing as soon as possible because the one thing I don't want to do is have a freshman not develop in that first year because he says, "I'm not going to play."
Q. Last year someone asked you what you missed about Stanford. You said all you missed was the hot tub.
COACH WILLINGHAM: That term was a little more inclusive than just a hot tub. There were some other things that go with that (laughter).
Q. Someone asked what you missed most. I think that was the response.
COACH WILLINGHAM: It was a lighthearted response. I hope you caught that.
Q. Can you tell us some of the things, after being away for two years, what you miss most about Stanford?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I had a great group of friends there that were well-respected. I enjoyed the kids in the program, the program itself, what the program was built around. Those are the things I think that kind of highlighted my time there that you miss. You gain things when you move some other place.
JOHN HEISLER: Thank you very much.
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