UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME MEDIA CONFERENCE
October 7, 2003
JOHN HEISLER: Kick-off this weekend at Pittsburgh is 6:00 eastern time, probably be a couple minutes after, I don't know that we know anything more specific than that in terms of an exact time. Basically it's 6:00 eastern, 5:00 here in South Bend. Coach Willingham is here. We'll take questions from here in person, then go to the phones in about 15 or 20 minutes.
Q. Speak briefly about Pittsburgh and Fitzgerald.
COACH WILLINGHAM: It's one of those situations where you try to figure out what adjectives, what positive adjectives you use to describe this guy. We've been, I guess you can say, fortunate or unfortunate to be able to see two really great receivers in the last two years. Without question, he is at the top of that twosome. He is very consistent and spectacular. That is a very difficult combination for us to defense or even attempt to defense. As of right now, no one has really done a good job of doing that.
Q. From a coach's perspective, just watching him on tape, also watching Mike Williams who is on the schedule, are they similar in a lot of ways? Maybe what are some of the differences between those two guys?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would almost hate to make a comparison, but I would think that Fitzgerald is quicker, faster, not quite as big, but both of them make plays, and they make spectacular plays. When you think you've got them down and out, they come through with the big catch.
Q. What kind of evaluations were you able to make on the offensive line? Looking at some new guys, new starters potentially.
COACH WILLINGHAM: We're always looking at trying to improve ourselves, trying to put our team in the best position to be competitive within the position and for the team. So the week gave us an opportunity to continue to look at our guys, hopefully develop their skill level, improve technique, and get them to be more comfortable and confident because no matter how you cut it, an offensive line group, like any group, needs to work together. And hopefully the more time they can spend together, the more productive they become.
Q. Are you at a point where you worked some new guys into the first team or in a rotation potentially?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think for most of the week we were pretty consistent in terms of the guys we were working. I think it's been Ryan and one of the guards, Stevenson at the tackle, Molinaro at tackle, LeVoir at guard, and Morton at the center.
Q. Talk about the attitude of the team as they went through the bye week. Talk about the attitude you saw. Do you lean on some of the veterans to keep it positive? Do you put that more on you and the rest of the coaching staff?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It always falls, I think, on the head coach first. So then, of course, that falls on the coaches, then to our players, our leaders, our seniors, et cetera. You can't accomplish anything, I don't believe, in a negative state of mind. So you've got to stay positive, you've got to be motivated to be positive. That's one of life's lessons, as I call it, that the game of football hopefully teaches you. Not only will we be able to use it for ourselves, but we can demonstrate it to other people so they can benefit from it.
Q. Is that what you do, stay positive?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Life is never easy.
COACH WILLINGHAM: You're welcome.
Q. In your last game you threw for almost 300 yards, which was a little bit of a spark for an offense that has struggled. How do you now strike a balance between a "short-term fix" of throwing the football, balanced with your obvious need and desire to run the football?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think you hit it right on the head. Throwing the football is great. It's exciting. Fans love it. But if you go by the statistics of it, usually if you're throwing for 300, 350 plus yards, with no running game, then you usually don't fare well. So we've got to be committed to the run, we have to be patient with the run, and that's very difficult to be patient because the only thing that makes you really patient is success at it, and you want to stay with it. We have to make sure as coaches we're doing all the right things to have the right approach, the right attitude, and give that to our players so that they can be comfortable, patient, confident, and get some things done.
Q. So you have to be willing to live with second-and-nine if you have to just to make the attempt to continue to establish the running game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Your choice of "willing," no, we don't want to be willing to live with that (laughter). We've got to do better. That's what allows you to keep coming back to it. But on occasions, if you have to endure that to give it an opportunity to be successful, yes. Because no one moans or groans when you throw one incompletion. But if you have one run of less than three or four yards, then the whole - and coaches are the same way - the world is, gosh, in a downslide. So we've got to understand that. That's where hopefully the experience comes in, you can be patient with it and say, "Okay, let's keep grinding it, keep grinding it." But at the same time you can't rely on that and you're not being productive.
Q. What is your previous experience with a quarterback throwing 59 times in a game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Statistics say that you don't win.
Q. But you've had quarterbacks throw that much?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think on a few times, I have, yes.
Q. They were in negative situations?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We've won some; we've lost some.
Q. You mentioned a couple times "confidence." Is that one of the key things right now, getting the team confident? The next two teams are not easy to get confidence with.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don't know if there is a team on our schedule, from day one, that has been easy to gain your stripes against. Everyone knows this, this is not anything new. We play one of the most, if not the most, demanding schedule in the country. It's not an easy road, okay, to gain confidence or produce it. But the truth of the matter is, you always battle that which comes first, as they say, the chicken or the egg, success or confidence.
Q. During an ESPN conference call last week, Bob Davie was saying one of the problems that Notre Dame has is scheduling, there are no easy games. Do you wish that Notre Dame would have a game or two, a time when things are going bad, you could gain that confidence?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The truth of the matter is today that game doesn't exist. We're seeing an unprecedented level of competitiveness on every team that you play. So I don't think in today's football that that exists. You're probably better off having the schedule that we have, provided you can be successful.
Q. Is it safe to assume that Brady is starting?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Yes.
Q. Do you try to get Carlyle in somehow? Is there a role for him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We will look at some things. I am not at liberty to tell you all the things we'll look at. But, yes, he's an excellent athlete. He has a very strong presence on our team - he should have a strong presence on our team. To incorporate him in the right way is the right thing to do for our team and the right thing to do for him.
Q. If you're not pleased with Brady's workouts this week, any chance there could be a change in quarterback?
COACH WILLINGHAM: If I'm not pleased with Brady's workouts this week... Being that I haven't seen those workouts yet, I'll refrain from comment on that.
Q. The game will be, of courses at night. It will be dark before it's over. Do you practice any differently for a night game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think you have to make your young men -- you have to put them in that situation at some point. We've done that earlier in the year. Our guy have seemed to adjust well, so it's not a big deal this week.
Q. What is your take on Bob Davie, excoach, being the color man on the network? Any thoughts on that?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Absolutely none. I think he'll do a great job.
Q. Could you assess the play of the fullbacks so far? Is it what you've been looking for?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I think our fullback position is consistent with our offense. We've not reached a level of performance in any of those areas that we'd like to have. Have they done some good things? Yes. Josh has done some wonderful things. Rashon has done some great things. But we're not consistent in that area. It's very much like all the other areas of our offense: we still need to gain consistency of excellent performance.
Q. When you're recruiting a fullback, west coast offense, is it a different type of fullback than what a more conventional offense would be looking for?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Only with the addition of pass-receiving skills. We usually list our fullbacks in terms of priority, a fullback is a blocker first, receiver second and probably a runner third, in that order. So that's the only difference. There may be some programs that he is just strictly a blocker. The only thing they want from him is a block.
Q. How different is the learning curve for a fullback in a west coast offense from another offense?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don't play necessarily west coast offense. I would say any collegiate offense, the difference is the sophistication of the pass game. That young man has to learn protections, defenses, et cetera. And because of that, it's just a normal progression I think you get with going into college football. But it is more difficult.
Q. Could you comment on your philosophy, at what point during the season, or how long is too long before you decide whether you'll use a kid, his year eligibility?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I always look at the best interest of the team and the young man. So it could go right down to the very last week of the season.
Q. Would you feel right about that, though?
COACH WILLINGHAM: If it's for the best interest of the young man and the best interest of the team, yes.
Q. The question leading up to that is about John Sullivan.
COACH WILLINGHAM: You could have got to that right off the bat.
Q. I mean, was there a chance we could see him this week?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I don't necessarily say this week. But I think if the situation is right for John and our team, yes, you can see John.
Q. Last year against Pitt, it looked like you decided to keep Pitt in front of you, Fitzgerald in front of you defensively. Is that the only way to stop that team, do you think?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think people - and that includes us - are still trying to figure out the right way to stop him, the quarterback. It's a little different scheme than what we normally see. I think Coach Harris has backgrounds of what has been labeled the west coast offense. But I think he went directly to the east bay for his lessons because he is a more vertical push with this passing game, deep routs, great deep routs, and their utilization of the tight end has a vertical stretch to it also. It's a little bit different, and it's very difficult to contain because of the max protection that they use, that they give themselves every opportunity to get that ball to that wide receiver. By trying to apply pressure, you often have to commit a lot of people to it because of their maximum protection, which again now fits into their hands that they now they have the ability to isolate him one-on-one. And one-on-one, he's extremely dangerous. To answer your question, I'm not sure if that is the only way. I think people are still experimenting and trying to find the right way to slow him down. It may be just using a variety of things.
Q. You always say you want to run the football. In this game, with this kind of explosive offense, 38 points a game, do you think it's probably more important to have some success running the football earlier than against a team that doesn't score as many points?
COACH WILLINGHAM: You lost me with the last half of that.
Q. I'm just saying, with this team being so explosive offensively, do you think it's more important to actually establish the run earlier to keep their offense off the field versus going against a team that doesn't score as many points offensively?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say yes to that, especially on the situation that we're in right now. We've not generated a lot of points. So anything that we can do to keep their offense off the field would benefit us.
JOHN HEISLER: Let's take some questions from people on the phone.
Q. Could you talk about your relationship with the BCA and what involvement they had as far as when you were looking around for coaching opportunities?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I'm sorry, can you restate that?
Q. We have an opening out here at Arizona, first opening in the country. I know the Black Coaches Association has already talked to the school about making a statement about hiring a minority candidate. Were they involved with you, as well, when you were looking around?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I'm not sure on what involvement they had with the administration of Notre Dame. Yes, I am a member of the BCA.
Q. What is your take on this opening out there? From your experience in the PAC-10, do you feel this would be a good fit?
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, it's not -- I'm trying to make sure you can gain the picture I'm trying to present. It's not about race; it's about the right person. The right person can be of any makeup. What I would imagine that the BCA - and I haven't spoken to them on this issue - what I would imagine they're doing is providing this particular University with a list of candidates that may be the right fit, okay?
Q. Larry Fitzgerald this morning was talking about sort of the rhythm and chemistry that he and Rod Rutherford have built up. Can you talk about what that chemistry means, when a quarterback and receiver tandem get going, kind of the best combination of that chemistry you've seen?
COACH WILLINGHAM: What you detect from watching the two of them work together is, at least I believe, and I could be off on this, but I think there are a lot of things that they do spontaneously, their reads on particular routs that the two of them almost make together, that may not be entirely included in that rout, that they make adjustments based on the coverage, where people are lined, how they're being played at that very moment. That kind of chemistry is very difficult to defense. It's that moving target that's always moving, not quite sitting still for you. You think you've got it placed and cornered, and at the same time it's adjusting as you're adjusting. It becomes very difficult because of the way they work together to defend. I don't know if I have a college group. I don't know if I have a college twosome that I'll compare to this group.
Q. You said a couple times that you need to improve all areas. Since you like to make things as simple as possible, is it fair to say if you would run the ball better, almost everything else would fall into place?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would say that would be a fair assessment (laughter). I've always stated that I believe running the football is an important ingredient to being a successful football team, period. I think it shows up in practice. I think it shows up on your defense. I think it just shows up in your overall attitude of your team when you can do that. One, it adds an element of toughness. Then as you get into the ballgame, it adds field position usually, and the potential to control the clock. Those things, usually if you can keep the ball away from your opponent, it makes it very difficult for them to score.
Q. Do you perhaps ever worry about comments about west coast offense when actually looking through your head coaching career at Stanford, I think it looks like Stanford ran for more than 2,000 yards on a couple of occasions, looks like had you quite a few pretty high rushing totaling during your Stanford tenure.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Again, I'm not as much into labels are others are. As long as our offense and team win, they can call us anything.
Q. I'm curious, the team has not scored a first quarter touchdown this year. I'm wondering what problems not scoring early presents in a game?
COACH WILLINGHAM: It creates a scenario that in most cases we've been chasing our opponent. We would much prefer to have them chase us. To come from behind, that's always a difficult position. So we'd love to get off to a fast start and put a little bit more pressure on our opponents to have to chase us.
Q. Is that something you talk about and stress with the team?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Every day.
Q. On Brady Quinn, sort of getting his feet wet, getting started, what sort of progression do you hope to see this year and beyond out of him?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, I would hope the mark of all great quarterbacks is that they win. The thing that I'd like to see Brady do, whether it was Brady or Carlyle, Pat Dillingham or any of the quarterbacks that we've had in this short period of time, we want to see them produce wins. That is not just a quarterback thing as it is as much the quarterback and the team and the coaches.
Q. I'm curious about special teams. In your time in coaching, has special teams evolved in any particular way? Has it become more important, stayed about the same? The evolution of special teams.
COACH WILLINGHAM: I think it's become more important. I think over the time I've been coaching, you've gone from having no special teams coach to now having a special teams coach that are so talented that they actually coach the position of kickers themselves and know all of the fundamentals, coaches that travel, even though they're not noted as kicking specialists, but they make all the camps, all the clinics, they thoroughly understand the techniques of kicking and punting, the coverage responsibilities, how to protect. It's changed, like all of football has changed. It's become more sophisticated.
Q. You may be aware that the Boston Red Sox came back last night to take the series.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Are you free-lancing out of Boston?
Q. Yes. Thank you, Coach. They talked after the game about their ability to come back based on their belief in each other, their confidence. You talked earlier about how important positive attitude is. Would you talk about your belief in this team to win out over the rest of the season game by game and how you feel about their belief in each other and the team as a whole and the coaches, a lot of confidence being derived I think from that kind of belief.
COACH WILLINGHAM: First of all, I would say this: I think I've gone on record at some point of saying that I like our football team. I don't think it's an exaggeration for me to say that on the games we played, there's probably one game that we look back at and say the manner in which we played, we could not have won that football game, and that of course would be the Michigan game. I think if we did a few more rights, some caller this morning spoke of our rushing game, it might be a little different story. We could be very easily sitting here right now being 3-1 and not 1-3. I like our football team. I like a lot of the things that I'm seeing from our football team. I believe that if we begin to execute in all the areas, special teams, running game, offense, better and more efficient in our passing game, do some things a little bit better in our defense, I think in many occasions the defense has done an excellent job, and I think that needs to be noted, to handle a Purdue team and hold them to 223, 232 yards, something like that, I don't think there are many people that are going to do that this year. So there's some good things there. But what we have to continue to do is continue to improve, believe in self, the individual and team, and I think we can get some things done. But it is impossible to write that story that you're writing unless we do it game by game. I'm glad that you noted that. Our focus cannot be all that we have in front of us, but simply Pittsburgh this week.
Q. One step at a time, Coach?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I'll take that.
Q. You're saying then despite the adversity, the belief that this team had in coming together at the beginning of the year you feel is very much still there?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Very much so. But obviously we've got to do some things better. That is the key to what we're doing. Believing and not doing things better doesn't get us anywhere. We have to put it all together.
Q. The follow-up on that last point a bit. During the bye week, have you had a chance to talk with the team, maybe reassess some goals, set some goals in the next week or two, things you'd like to see improved in the next game or two?
COACH WILLINGHAM: We talk about those things each week. We set goals for the season, which obviously have to be readjusted as you go through the season. We set goals for individual areas that we look at each and every week to see if we can hit those targets. We're constantly doing that, constantly trying to provide goals, areas for our team to really point, direct themselves to, direct themselves to help us be a better football team.
Q. It's not easy when you lose anyplace, but it's particularly tough at Notre Dame for the players and everyone involved. Because of that, do you have to make special efforts to keep things positive and moving forward?
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, for me, I would like to believe it's a natural process of who I am and what I do because I think I've figured out there's not much you can accomplish by being negative. Even though there are many around you that choose that, maybe even wish you to go that route, I don't think you can accomplish anything. Hopefully our football team is paying attention to its leadership. If it does, it will stay on the positive track.
Q. Pitt lost early in the season. The one thing they've been able to rally around is they're going to the Big East conference next week starting off 0-0. What are some of the things, being an independent, you're able to point your team towards?
COACH WILLINGHAM: The first thing you always point to is the individual pride of each individual, then the collective pride of our football team. That's always important to us. There have been many great teams, great players that have worn the Notre Dame uniform. We've always said that we want to live up to that tradition of how we play the game at Notre Dame. Second of all, there are many opportunities out there for us. If we play the game the way we can, we'll get one of those.
Q. Pitt's defense has gotten more than a thousand years. Could you comment how your offense might match up with their defense, some of the challenges their defense presents.
COACH WILLINGHAM: Well, we know from playing them last year, this is a very sound structure in terms of their defense. They may have had some losses that may not allow them to be exactly the same defense that they were a year ago and play at that level. But we know it's still a very sound defense, we know we have to first of all get our house in order before we can ever contemplate amassing yardage to the nature they've given up in the past couple weeks.
Q. Lou Holtz took control over Irish defense when it was struggling. Have you taken a more active role with helping the players along the offensive line?
COACH WILLINGHAM: I would think if I'm rapidly adjusting at this time, it would be a mistake on my part. Hopefully I've been the kind of coach that's been involved on all of our decisions all along, talking, being in touch with our personnel all along.
JOHN HEISLER: Thank you very much.
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