To see Notre Dame football players smile and to hear them laugh, ask them why they call their coach, Tyrone Willingham, the Prophet.
"He uses a lot of quotes and things like that," running back Julius Jones said. "He'll quote philosophers." Cornerback Vontez Duff once said that the nickname came from Willingham's intense gaze and that there were "so many words in that stare."
Jason Beckstrom, another cornerback, said Willingham might be a prophet because "he predicts wins." And linebacker Courtney Watson said: "It's more of a joke about how seriously he takes things. I'm sure he wouldn't take it as a negative, but I wouldn't call him the Prophet to his face."
The experts are predicting a Notre Dame defeat on Saturday when Willingham's Fighting Irish (1-0) play Lloyd Carr's Michigan Wolverines (2-0) in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in an early-season test of two traditionally powerful teams with annual aspirations for a national championship. This season, Notre Dame is ranked 15th in the Associated Press poll and Michigan is fifth.
College football is a sport that sometimes makes its successful coaches larger than life, even slightly built coaches like the camera friendly Willingham, who is about 5-foot-7 and slender. When asked whether he thought Willingham had the star quality that certain coaches seem to exude, place-kicker Nicholas Setta replied, "When you're around him, you feel like you're around someone that's great."
Even though he measures his words carefully and guards his public displays of emotion, Willingham seems comfortable in one of the most intensely observed jobs in sports. Another reason for scrutiny is that he is one of only four African-American head coaches among the 117 Division I-A football teams. But Willingham won his first eight games last season and led the Irish to a 10-3 record after they finished 5-6 under Bob Davie in 2001.
Although Willingham and those around him try to play down the racial aspects surrounding his accomplishments, it is impossible to overlook the significance. "With coach, the success he's having, it's going to open a lot of doors," Notre Dame quarterback Carlyle Holiday said.
Willingham's serious face, with its neatly trimmed mustache and slightly graying and close-cropped hair, has already been seen in many places this season. It is on the cover of a new book, Return to Glory (Little, Brown & Co), written by Alan Grant, who played for Stanford in the late 1980s, when Willingham was an assistant.
Willingham's face can be seen and his deep voice can be heard on the ESPN program "The Season," a 10-part series that made its debut Tuesday. Willingham has allowed camera crews to videotape the team's daily routines that are usually off-limits to fans and news media.
Willingham has been seen in the company of people even more influential than himself. Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, was a spectator and postgame visitor at several Notre Dame games last season. She and Willingham got to know each other when they were at Stanford, where Willingham was the head football coach and Rice was the provost.
"I'm very fortunate to call Condoleezza a friend," Willingham said. They talk occasionally on the telephone, but Willingham said the subject is more his job than hers. "We don't talk politics," he said. Rice did not respond to a request for comment for this story. In an interview with National Public Radio last year, she said: "Ty Willingham is one of my dear friends. He's a great man."