SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) -- Irish eyes have reasons to smile again.
Eight months after hiring coach Ty Willingham to "wake up the echoes," Notre Dame has begun to restore the golden luster to college football's most storied program and bury parts of an ugly offseason.
The undefeated Fighting Irish are off to their best start since 1996, playing the type of football that has produced a record eight national titles and seven Heisman Trophy winners.
"I knew things would be different the first time I saw Coach on TV," said Sean McTear, a junior from Birmingham, Ala. "Somebody asked him how many games he expected to win and he answered, 'All of them. If I expected to win less, I'd be selling Notre Dame short.'
"That," McTear added, "is the way you're supposed to think around here."
After last weekend's upset of Michigan, Notre Dame is 3-0 and ranked No. 12, back among the game's elite.
Just as important, a team beset by bad football and off-the-field problems for much of the last six years is playing inspired and behaving even better.
And the person least surprised by the dizzying turn of events? That's Willingham, who would be coaching his eighth season at Stanford if George O'Leary, Notre Dame's first choice for the job, hadn't lied on his resume.
Willingham was asked whether he can feel the eyes of a nation settling on Notre Dame again as it prepares to play Saturday at Michigan State, his alma mater and a team that has beaten the Irish for five straight years. He cracked the slightest hint of a smile.
"I'm told they are," he replied in his typically soft-spoken fashion.
Proof, though, is available at every turn. There is a buzz on campus, and phone calls to the alumni association office are full of praise. Notre Dame Stadium is packed and growing greener by the game.
The emerald, "Return to Glory" T-shirts plucked off shelves by students and alumni are being ordered via e-mail by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan who listen to the games on the Armed Forces Radio Network.
"Every once in a while, one will come in with nothing except the word 'Unbelievable!"' said Jim O'Connor, the school's director of retail operations.
"It's not like they want to buy anything. They just want to feel a part of what goes on here."
Willingham knows the feeling. He is black, neither Irish nor Catholic, but he always knew how special this place was. Raised a Methodist in North Carolina, he sneaked out of church on fall Sunday mornings to catch the Fighting Irish highlights.
Now he's in charge of creating them. So far, that's been the easy part.
Willingham began by humming the "Notre Dame Victory March" as he patrolled the hallways of the football offices, coming to work past statues of coaches named Rockne and Leahy. Then he challenged his team to fulfill the lyrics' lofty goals for Notre Dame, including "wake up the echoes cheering her name."
"This coaching staff has always believed that this team is going to win a national championship," Irish receiver Arnaz Battle said.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.