Willingham Leaves Notre Dame Behind
 
 

Aug. 18, 2005

SEATTLE (AP) - Tyrone Willingham is dapper in a pressed white golf shirt. There's an embroidered purple "W" on his chest and natty purple trim on the collar.

He's Washington's coach now. So right out front, let's dispense with the Notre Dame questions. And don't even think about asking him about Sept. 24, when the Fighting Irish visit the Huskies. It's way too early for that.

"The Notre Dame episode, I won't touch that," Willingham said. "I don't talk about it. It's a wonderful place and we did some good things there. I didn't do all I wanted to do."

It's all about Washington for the Huskies' new coach, who spent the last three seasons in South Bend but was fired halfway into a six-year contract.

Folks in Seattle believe Notre Dame's loss is Washington's gain. Huskies fans feel Willingham - 65-51-1 in 10 seasons - can help a once-mighty program recover from its tumultuous recent past.

Former coach Rick Neuheisel is long gone, taking a $4.5 million settlement from the university and the NCAA in his wrongful termination lawsuit - a two-year public relations nightmare that finally ended in March.

Keith Gilbertson, the offensive coordinator who was promoted to head coach after Neuheisel was fired, resigned after two seasons and a school record worst 1-10 record last fall.

"A good time for a fresh start," running back Kenny James said.

The new university president and new athletic director have been on the job for a full year going into this season. So with a new coach in place, it's truly a new era - at last - at Washington.

"It was important to move past that stage," center Brad Vanneman said. "It was a dark page for the university. Coach Willingham brings new light, new blood into the program. It was refreshing."

After what they've endured, Washington fans are eager to join Willingham in looking ahead.

"Starting over is already behind us," said Sonny Sixkiller, who starred as a Huskies quarterback in the early 1970s. "That's all gone. It all started the day Tyrone was hired."


 

 

As Stanford's coach from 1995-2001, Willingham took the Cardinal to four bowl games - including the school's first Rose Bowl in 28 seasons in 1999, when he was the Pac-10's coach of the year.

All that time, however, Willingham said he always admired and respected Washington's loyal fan base and proud history.

"You have great tradition here," he said. "There is no one in this country that can dispute the tradition of Husky football. You have great passion from the fans."

Willingham speaks often of restoring the lost luster at Washington, co-national champions in 1991 with Miami. The cover of this season's media guide proclaims: "Return of the Dawgs."

The Dawgs, of course, are ferocious Huskies of years past - playmakers who dazed opponents with hard hits and made wet and gloomy Husky Stadium an intimidating place for visitors every November.

"We want to be the tough team that everybody's talking about," James said. "There are certain things you've got to do to become that team. I feel like we did that over the summer."

Willingham closed spring practices to reporters and moved fall camp to Seattle after several years at Evergreen State College in Olympia. He also keeps his plans for a starting quarterback to himself.

Clearly, he has tightened the program, on and off the field. Vanneman described how a few teammates skipped class last spring, then did it again after Willingham warned them against it.

"They wanted to test him," Vanneman recalled.

The coach's punishment was 6 a.m. workouts at Husky Stadium for the entire squad on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings over a spring weekend. The players were stunned when Willingham joined them, and in some cases outperformed them.

"He's in better shape than probably 90 percent of us," Vanneman marveled. "It showed his commitment and that he's not a person to be taken lightly. He keeps his word. He does exactly what he says he's going to do. He lives by everything he says."

On the first day of fall workouts this month, a scuffle broke out between two players. Willingham calmly blew his whistle and ordered all the Huskies onto the track to run 2 1/2 laps.

"You don't ever want to put yourself in a situation where you can incur a penalty," he explained, matter-of-factly. "We practice like it's a game. That's our mind-set."

Sixkiller has been impressed. He offered high praise for Willingham by pointing out similarities between the new coach's mannerisms and those of the so-called "Dawgfather" himself.

Former coach Don James won 72 percent of his games and left an indelible imprint on Washington's program from 1975-92, marking a legacy that hasn't been matched in the years since.

"I liken him a little bit to DJ. They go after things the same way," Sixkiller said. "Tyrone is very methodical. There's a real attention to every detail.

"Hopefully, Tyrone can bring in the same kinds of players Don James had with his staff. If that happens, it won't take long to correct the ship."


 
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Tyrone Willingham's Huskies face Notre Dame on Sept. 24.