Finally, after about the 6th week of baseball, I pulled Dustin aside and we talked about why he hated baseball. "Coach, I can't hit. I can't catch the ball. Every time I get in there, I am so nervous that I am going to make an error or strike out that I know I just can't do it. I don't want my teammates to hate me for making an error. I don't want my Mom to be embarrassed and I don't want you to hate me for losing the game. Just don't play me anymore."
Dustin was kind of a portly kid. He had a few extra pounds, always had chocolate on his uniform, loved his Coke and loved to joke around. He would hit the ball well in practice; he would catch most balls in the outfield. Put Dustin in the game and he just froze. Dustin and I sat down and tried to dissect his fear during practice. "I can hit in practice because nobody is watching me. I don't worry about losing the game because we aren't playing a game. Practice is fun because nobody yells at you. When you make an error, nobody laughs at you."
Dustin needed someone to believe in him because he didn't believe in himself. He needed to hear that it was O.K. to make an error. He needed to know that after every failure, the chances of success are greater if you learn from your mistakes. Most of all, Dustin needed to have fun out there and not worry about making mistakes.
I am going to guess that when Tyrone Willingham arrived at Notre Dame, he had a whole team of Dustin's to deal with. The losses this team faced were many. The mistakes had cost this team games and they heard plenty about them afterwards. This team played very afraid to make mistakes. Coach Willingham had a very difficult task ahead of him and that is what makes this improbable turn around so remarkable.
If you think about it, it's quite remarkable at how this team has won games. I would guess that it's much easier to win a football game if you jump up on a team and never look back. In most of the games this season, Notre Dame has never had a comfortable lead and a few times had to come from behind in the 4th quarter. When the game is in doubt and the chips are stacking against this team, they somehow manage to step up and make the play. To win like that takes heart and an incredible belief in yourself. A belief that hasn't come from wins or press clippings fueling confidence. It has come from inside when everyone else was telling them they weren't that good. They just refuse to lose and that will is setting a standard that all future Willingham teams will be judged by.
All you have to do is to look back to last weekend. Ryan Roberts has never been known as a major factor on the defensive line yet he leads the teams in sacks. This defense played 82 plays and there was Ryan chasing down the QB and forcing him to make the game-clinching bad decision. Roberts had to split two defenders that were trying their best to stop him. You have to remember that they wanted to win the game as well. Yet Ryan splits both defenders because he refuses to lose. Then you have the big blokes in Cedric Hilliard and Darrell Campbell. Both guys played almost the entire game and to see their effort harassing the QB at the end of the game was impressive. No other interior defensive linemen have likely played as much as they have while be considered to be part of a good defense. A good defense has people who can substitute and eat up minutes to keep the starters fresh. This attitude and effort is what Notre Dame fans need to get excited about.
In discussions before the season, most Notre Dame fans stated they didn't care what the record was, they just wanted to see a competitive team and an improving team. If you asked all Notre Dame fans before the season if they would take a 6-0 record right now and assure them this team would give this much effort, they would surely take that in a heartbeat. So why are some Notre Dame fans complaining? 6-0 and the heart this team has shown and still some complain? Welcome to Notre Dame coach Willingham.
I have a question for everyone. Where did this leadership come from? All of Notre Dame's leaders were on this team last year and previous teams. How did they suddenly become leaders? Teams take on the personality of their coach. Willingham is a leader on the football field and in life. This is why parents of recruiting prospects are going to want to send their sons to play for Willingham. If you look at what he has done with these players in just 9 months, can you imagine the confidence each player will have in himself after 4 years? That confidence will not only be on the football field but will carry into the work place as well. Notre Dame is not that talented on offense right now. Can you imagine what this staff can accomplish when they have that talent considering what they have done thus far?
You are going to remember this team, I promise you that. This team is building a foundation and setting a standard each week with their play. Their passion and never say die attitude is setting a standard of play for all Willingham-coached teams. Coach Willingham will surely judge all his teams against the effort this team has put forth. They are creating their own legacy or tradition and every player after them will have to live up to this standard or Coach Willingham will tell them about it. The Notre Dame fans will surely remind them as well.
This standard is the single most important thing Coach Willingham has accomplished since he arrived at Notre Dame. Plenty of teams have talent, I have yet to see a team play with as much passion and desire as Notre Dame has this year. You can recruit talent and you can teach fundamentals. You cannot manufacture heart; it comes from leadership and desire to want to be the best. If you don't have that, all the talent in the world doesn't matter.
A stamp is being placed upon Notre Dame football right now. A similar stamp was placed on Oregon and now Iowa State. It's very easy to give the credit to the coaches of these teams because that is the one thing that has changed. I think that would be a tragedy to say Willingham is the reason this team is 6-0. The players, their character, their heart and desire is why ND is 6-0. Willingham only said he believed, just as I did with Dustin. Coaches don't play the game. They just mentally prepare a team to succeed and give them the strategy to succeed. The team that makes the most errors and the team that wants it more usually decide the final score of the game. Ty Willingham has told this team that they are winners, he believed and they have made the plays. If Notre Dame loses every game remaining on their schedule, it has been a successful year because pride was restored to the Notre Dame program. That is all Notre Dame fans wanted all along. Just like Dustin, we needed something to believe in.
I have praised Coach Willingham and his staff at great length the past 6 months and rightfully so. At the same time, I also want people to recognize that these players are winning these games. Jeff Faine is playing with a high ankle sprain. Shane Walton has made himself into the corner he is today. Courtney Watson didn't let a serious virus ruin his season and has become the best linebacker at Notre Dame in many years. Brandon Hoyte didn't expect to play but what an amazing impact he has had. Cedric Hilliard pushed himself to the limit this year. Darrell Campbell said he was going to be a complete player this year and he made it happen. Justin Tuck said freshman could make an impact at Notre Dame. Ryan Roberts said that nobody is going to take his job without a fight. There are too many heroes to this season to list.
I inserted Dustin in the 4th game of the season like I always had in the 4th inning. Dustin looked at me with a look in his eye I had never seen out of Dustin. He gave me a nod, pulled down his helmet and thrust his bat twice through the helpless air like only a portly kid could. I had to chuckle because he sure looked confident even though I am sure he wasn't quite sure what would happen next. Dustin hit a two-out blooper over the first baseman's head and scored two runs to add to our two-run lead. Dustin lumbered down to first base, pulled up his pants and started to shake his butt at the pitcher. I let the kid have his day in the sun. Nobody yelled louder that day that Mrs. Coakley, Dustin's mom. Dustin made an error in the 6th but came off the field smiling. His Mom rushed to the front after the game and gave Dustin a big hug. Dustin hit four homers that year and countless big hits. He had a few errors in the outfield but he sure enjoyed baseball after that.
In the future, when you see Shane Walton shaking his butt a little, cut his some slack. He deserves to enjoy this. When you see Mike Goolsby celebrating after his sack last week, get excited about it. A little booty shake isn't a bad thing. These players deserve to celebrate. If anyone deserves to be excited, it would be this team. Jump off your couch and do a little booty shake yourself, Notre Dame fans have earned it as well. I will admit that I did the saddest white boy dance of all time after Shane Walton knocked away the John Navarre two-point conversion attempt. Ty Willingham, making white boys dance when they clearly should not be dancing. What a great year to be a Notre Dame fan.