Which is why Notre Dame's "return to glory," as it is known on campus, is much more than a rebound in its football fortunes. The Fighting Irish are experiencing their best campaign since 1993--a turnaround engineered by a first-year coach who was Notre Dame's second choice for the job. Lapsed fans across the country are returning to the football fold and to their televisions. "Notre Dame attracts the casual fan to college football the way Michael Jordan does in basketball or the Triple Crown does in horse racing," says NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer. Notre Dame has been golden for NBC, which televises the team's home games; the team's TV ratings are up 35% this year.
That Notre Dame is anywhere near the top after last year's dreadful 5-6 season is testimony to the wizardry of coach Tyrone Willingham. He has seemingly awakened the ghosts of Notre Dame's past. Yet he got the position by default. He finished second in a job hunt last year to Georgia Tech's George O'Leary. And you would have to be a miracle worker in the land of Touchdown Jesus to beat out a guy with that name. But O'Leary resigned five days into the job because he had fudged his resume.
Willingham, 48, is the opposite of the rah-rah type Notre Dame thought it was looking for, one reason he wasn't hired in the first place. He's an intense, Bible Belt Southerner who worked his way through a series of coaching positions to the top job at Stanford, where football is only one of many extracurricular student activities. He's also the first black head coach in Notre Dame history, a mantle he wears somewhat warily. "I'm not one of those who likes to be in the spotlight," he says, "although I do recognize that in this job the light is always on you."
Willingham has restored the players' confidence by teaching them how to walk in the blazing Notre Dame spotlight without being blinded. His advice: "Never get hung up on the game you just played." How does he get his you-can-do-it message across? "I don't know," he says. "You can't know if 18-, 19-or 20-year-olds ever believe what you're saying." It's a low-key approach tied to a high-octane playbook. Willingham brought his free-spirited West Coast offense lots of passing, lots of trickery to augment Notre Dame's already dominant defense.
Willingham has also pumped up Notre Dame's cash flow. College football is a $5 billion-a-year business, and it has long been a moneymaker at Notre Dame. Last year the football program generated $32 million in revenues and profits of $21 million. In the past month, some 80,000 RETURN TO GLORY T-shirts were sold on campus. Should Willingham take the Irish to one of the big bowl games, which seems likely, the team will score another $11 million to $15 million in profits from ticket sales and television rights. The folks in the fund-raising department are cheering too. "We're up about 3% when we expected to be down," says Dan Reagan, executive director of development. "Everything grows when you're having this kind of success."
After beating Florida State, the 8-0 Irish are in the hunt for a place in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3 to determine the national champion. "This season is magical because nobody expected it. He's done a spectacular job," says NBC's Schanzer. And fans can't wait for next year. That's because Willingham's success has made Notre Dame a top choice for the nation's schoolboy stars even if Willingham was never top choice for Notre Dame.