Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com™
February 6, 2002
Irish at the Altar
By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service
(IE) – "I wanted to sign 17 (players)," Notre Dame coach Tyrone
Willingham said at 3:10 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday afternoon. "I hope to
sign 18 or 19."
No. 18 was landed at approximately 6 p.m. when receiver prospect Rhema McKnight
of LaPalma (CA) Kennedy faxed in his commitment to Willingham. McKnight is the No. 1
receiver in the West according to Greg Biggins of PacWestFootball.com and
TheInsiders.com. The Irish beat out Oregon, Florida and Washington.
"It came down to academics," McKnight said.
Then Willingham settled in and awaited what he fully expected would be the best news of all. The National High School Player of the Year -- Lorenzo Booker -- was set to choose between ND, Florida State, Washington and USC live on
"Worldwide Leader in Sports."
You could clearly tell that Willingham has a distaste for the whole process.
"With all the hype and celebrity status in recruiting process, we have to be more
media conscious," said Willingham. "What you hope is that all of this
doesn’t spoil the young man. You want him to be the same successful person as in his
high school days."
Let's hope that Booker is a grounded individual because the fawning six-minute special
ESPN did on him Wednesday bothered on obscene. In the same feature, recruiting guru Tom
Lemming compared another prep prospect to Jim Brown. It's
indeed an irony that SportsCenter also had a news item on Danny Almonte
in the 6 p.m. segment. It's this ridiculous level of hype -- too much, too soon --
that results in warped perspective. But that's a column for another time.
ESPN had a special 90-minute SportsCenter for National Signing Day. And, since
Notre Dame was involved and there was a large national audience, the network milked it for
every advertising minute. Finally, at 7:03 p.m. Booker announced his choice.
"The Notre Dame coaches thought he was coming," said Lemming. "He let
them know he was coming."
"I got to go with my heart," Booker said. "I have to go to Florida
"It was a kick in the gut," said Willingham.
As if the October 26 Irish visit to Tallahassee wasn't emotional enough already.
Booker told a press conference in Oxnard, California that he literally labored with the
decision until the very last moment.
Ultimately, Willingham’s first class includes one Parade All-American (defensive
lineman Derek Landri), two USA Today Prep All-Americans (Landri and wide receiver Maurice
Stovall) and seven players ranked among the top 100 players nationally by Lemming.
Defensive end candidate Travis Leitko is the 22nd ranked player by
Lemming. Stovall is No. 32. Landri is 51st. Big running back Nate
Schiccatano is 58th, defensive end prospect Chris Frome is 91st,
offensive lineman Bob Morton 98th and tight end Marcus Freeman
For a complete look at the Irish recruits, click on "commit list" on the
left-hand navigation bar on the IrishEyes home page. Each recruit’s national star
rating is listed along with height, weight, and speed in the 40. If you are a subscriber
to IrishEyes or TheInsiders.com, you’ll also have access to a complete diary of the
recruiting process of each.
This was Willingham’s first official press conference at Notre Dame since his
January 1 hiring. The 30-minute session was far from chatty – most of
Willingham’s answers three sentences or less – but he did share some insights
into his philosophy.
"I always believe you play your best players," Willingham said. "If the
freshmen come in and are our best players, they will play right away. If not, we will
groom them to become our best players."
That answer was in a direct reference to a question on Stovall, who has been described
as a "difference making" wide receiver. Willingham clearly is enamored with the
"When you see Maurice, there is a trend toward big, explosive receiver and he fits
that bill," said Willingham. "He has the maturity to come in and help us as fast
It has only been 37 days since Willingham was hired, so to say the recruiting process
has been whirlwind would be an understatement. But the new coach feels satisfied with the
"I don’t think it was a fire drill," Willingham said. "We were able
to answer the needs in most areas, and some not quite. I will leave it to the experts to
evaluate how good the class is. My evaluation will be 3-4 years down the road, when you
look at how many championships you have won."
RECRUITING NOTEBOOK: Willingham did one thing that IrishEyes can’t recall Bob
Davie doing in his five years at the helm. He referred to himself in the third person.
Speaking of Landri, Willingham said , "It was a huge priority to keep him. De La
Salle (California) has one of the finest programs in the country. You want young men in
your program to have that same core of winning belief. Derek was very comfortable with
Coach Willingham and his staff."……..It doesn’t sound like the sole
quarterback who signed, Chris Olsen of Wayne, NJ, will be in the mix right away.
"I wouldn’t say we have an overly difficult system, but it does require a
certain amount of reference knowledge. You need a catalog of defenses to be able to
execute in this system. That’s difficult coming right off a high school
background."…….On recruiting players he had been in the mix with at
Stanford, Willingham was very clear: "It is borderline on an ethics issue," he
said. "Any young man who had possibly been recruited by Notre Dame, that provides the
opportunity. If he had only been recruited by Stanford, it becomes
ethical."……..Willingham said he was "excited" about the potential
of Chicago’s Dan Santucci being a "great defensive
player."…….The lone holdover from the Davie staff, Greg Mattison,
was praised by the boss for "holding things together" in the recruiting process.
"He did a great job."……Willingham said he has already begun plotting
his recruiting strategy for 2003 and that his geographic net will be nationwide. "Our
staff has a lot of experience on the West Coast, but we all have different backgrounds,
different experiences," he said. When asked about hiring a recruiting coordinator,
Willingham gave a cryptic response. "He needs to be a full-time coach I do
(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at