NOTRE DAME Willingham is looking at the positives



The Irish are 1-3, but the coach still believes in this team.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) -- Tyrone Willingham is learning how fickle life at Notre Dame can be.
A year ago, the Irish got off to an 8-0 start and people compared him to the great coaches of Notre Dame past like Ara Parseghian, who took over a sub-.500 team and came within one win of a national title in his debut season in 1964.
This year, though, the Irish are 1-3 for the fourth time in seven years and the cries of "Return to Glory" that echoed across campus last season are gone. Instead, there is a creeping fear that this season could be a "Return to Davie."
The Irish had a knack under Willingham's predecessor, Bob Davie, of following a good season with a bad one -- a trend that Irish appear to be continuing. Since Davie's first year as coach in 1997, the Irish are 18-22 (.450) in odd-numbered years and 28-9 (.757) in even years.
Not worried about trend
Willingham has said since before the season's start the trend doesn't worry him. It still doesn't after losing three straight.
"Maybe that's a mistake on my part. But I don't think the past has anything to do with the future unless you let it," Willingham said. "If I begin to focus on good-bad year, there's a good chance you fall into that trend."
Willingham prefers to look at the positives, though there aren't a lot of them right now. Players say they don't see any difference between Willingham at 1-3 and Willingham at 8-0.
"I'm fascinated by it. He's still the same guy," safety Glenn Earl said. "He still has the personal power talks. He still tells us we can be the best team in the country. Not a lot of coaches would do that, not a lot of people would say that right now. He believes it, and he wouldn't say it if he doesn't believe it."
Willingham is a believer. He believes in his team, his philosophy and his system. He never points the finger at any one player or position when something goes wrong. He never wavers in his belief in the West Coast offense, although the Irish have yet to execute it well.
Doesn't loose cool
Willingham simply doesn't lose his cool.
He wasn't any more likely to break into a tirade as the Irish started 1-3 this year than he was to break into a celebratory dance as the Irish started 8-0 last year.
"Coach Willingham is very humble about things. He's always the same whether we win or lose," receiver Maurice Stovall said.
Willingham stays positive because he believes players are most likely to play better if they aren't focusing on avoiding mistakes.
"Every meeting, every day he sees us he's enthusiastic," said Carlyle Holiday, who lost his starting quarterback's job last week. "He still feels we're a great football team. I think that's what's important now."
What's most important to the Irish is to get better on their week off. The Irish are at No. 15 Pittsburgh next Saturday, then face No. 10 Southern California, then play at Boston College and against No. 5 Florida State.
No quick fixes for Irish
Willingham admits he has no quick fixes. The Irish will use the week off to work on their execution and try out some younger players along the offensive line, which has struggled to sustain blocks and with missed assignments.
"For us, we're looking at getting individual improvement, getting to play a lot better at each position," Willingham said.
It's been nearly a year now since the Irish won a big game. A 34-24 win over Florida State last Oct. 26 moved the Irish into No. 4 in the poll, their highest ranking in three years. Since then the Irish are 3-6, beating Navy, Rutgers (which had one win each) and Washington State. Fans are becoming restless.
"When you're 1-3, gosh, people look at the team different. The team feels different," Willingham said. "But it's not so much the outside. It's usually the inside. It's how you feel about yourself."

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