The 2002 season became known as a "Return to Glory" for the Irish. This phrase appeared on a student shirt that created a "Sea of Green" in the Irish stands. It was picked up by many in the media and was used on the front cover of Sports Illustrated. Despite not scoring an offensive touchdown in their first two games, the Irish won both, and in the process made Willingham the 24th Notre Dame head coach to win his opener in his first season. The team went on to win its next six games, including wins over Willingham's alma mater, Michigan State, and Stanford, his former team.
The team was initially led throughout the season by quarterbackCarlyle Holiday, former quarterback and wide receiverArnaz Battle, and on defense, Shane Walton. Running backRyan Grant, who had to replace Julius Jones who was out for academic reasons, also played an important role. During the Michigan State game, however, Holiday was injured and replaced by backup Pat Dillingham. Dillingham led the Irish to a comeback win on a screen pass to Battle in that game, and he continued the winning streak until Holiday returned for the Florida State game. In that game, Holiday threw a 65-yard touchdown on his first play to Battle that helped the Irish win the game.
The first Irish loss of the season came against the Boston College Eagles, mirroring the 1993 season when Notre Dame narrowly lost a chance to participate in the national championship game due to a loss to Boston College. Willingham, wanting the team to be a part of the "Sea of Green" in the stands, decided that the team should wear green for the game. In 1985, the last time the Irish wore green at home, they came out after halftime against USC and won the game 37–3. The ploy, however, did not work this time, as, after an injured Holiday was replaced by Dillingham, and the Eagles defense returned an interception that sealed the loss for the Irish.
After the season, some Irish were honored with post-season awards. Battle was named by one foundation as their sportsman of the year, while Walton was named as a Consensus All-American. Finally, Willingham was honored with two Coach of the Year awards, was named by Sporting News as "Sportsman of the Year", and was the only coach listed by Sporting News as one of their "Most Powerful People in Sports".