SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Audrey Jones Spencer has lived in this quintessential college town her entire life, yet, until recently, had never stepped inside one of its most famous landmarks -- Notre Dame Stadium. She was not a fan of football or of the university itself.
That changed last New Year's Day, when Notre Dame hired Tyrone Willingham as football coach, the school's first African-American head coach in any sport. Jones Spencer, president of the local Urban League, has now been to two home games and has watched others on television.
"It was the right time for this community," Jones Spencer said earlier this week. "We needed to move forward with race relations. He has been kind of the glue to get black and white, young and old together. Even the older ladies at the church are asking on Sunday, 'Did he win?"'
Willingham had led the Fighting Irish to victory in his first eight games before Saturday's 14-7 upset by Boston College. That loss has done little to lessen the spotlight on college football's most pressure-packed job.
As he prepared his ninth-ranked team for Saturday's game against Navy in Baltimore, Willingham seemed more relaxed than previously advertised. While staying true to a unflappable nature that has served him well during a 25-year coaching career, Willingham recognizes the scrutiny he is under.
"There's no place you can turn where you don't have someone who's opinionated about Notre Dame football, whether it's love or hate or whether it's their daily bounce back between the two," said Willingham. "That kind of awareness, that kind of following, brings pressure."
In Willingham's case, it is a two-headed monster.
At one end are the legions of the school's fans who expect Notre Dame to compete for, if not win, a national championship every year. At the other are dozens of African-American coaches hoping Willingham succeeds so they can get their shot, too. Can Willingham, 48, live up to the kind of expectations that few coaches have carried with them? "I guess I can answer that by saying, I think I can do all of that, and yet at the same time, not focus on the things outside of my job, simply by focusing on my job," said Willingham.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.