"I don't think I've ever tried to downplay my emotions regarding any football game," a usually stoic Willingham said. "This football game's important just as the last one was important. I think the emotions for those games are extremely high and will be extremely high for this one. The fact that you have players that I recruited, that I spent time in their homes, that does make it just a little bit different the relationship, but no. When you get to the game, it's a football game."
Willingham's departure from Notre Dame left a lot of bad feelings on both sides. His record at Notre Dame was 21-15 through three years that included two bowl appearances . He was let go three years into a six-year contract after a 41-10 blowout loss to USC and it was perceived by many as wrong. When he took the job opening at Washington, it provided him a chance to prove his former employers wrong. Because of a pre-determined schedule, the football gods gives fans this September treat.
"This is a big game and it will be highlighted and hyped to a great extent by a lot people around the country," Willingham said. "So that means a lot of attention will be on it, a lot of eyes on it and you get excited when you have those kind of venues to perform to for."
The man who replaced Willingham at Notre Dame was Charlie Weis. Weis was the offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots before accepting the job. The two men could not be more contrasting. Willingham guards every word out of his mouth like a national security secret and is sometimes cryptic in his statements. Weis is more blunt and carries a swagger around. Weis actually visited Notre Dame when Willingham was still the head coach for the Irish.
"I've watched Charlie when he came and visited with our team," Willingham said. "We brought him in and had him talk with our staff on some of the things he was doing and he was very willing to do that. He was obviously a Notre Dame grad and from a successful program so we enjoyed those weeks. There's no question he is a very well regarded play-caller, coach and he's done a great job."
Weis, who repeatedly deflected questions about the Willingham match-up during his Tuesday press conference, remembers the visit but said he wasn't there to tell the old coaches how to run an offense.
"I wasn't there to judge what they were doing," Weis said. "I had gone to Notre Dame. A few of the people knew me. They asked me to come in. I visited with the offensive staff for a day. We got to just brainstorm back and forth and ask and answer some questions. It was kind of like a little clinic. I was there for a couple days and went home."
Maybe it would have been beneficial for Willingham's Irish team if Weis gave them a few tips. The one constant of his three-year reign at Notre Dame was a stagnant offense that lacked creativity and imagination. With basically the same personnel as this year, 2004 was not a banner year for the offense. Under the guidance of much-maligned Bill Diedrich, the group averaged 24 points per game and 345 yards per contest (127 rush, 218 pass).
Insert Weis and his supposed offensive "genius" mind. Through three games, the team is averaging nine more points per game and 100 more total yards (162 rush, 284 pass). The numbers are striking. Willingham is even taken aback by the success they've achieved.
"I think their football team has a great offense," Willingham said. "They have guys that can easily get one hundred plus yards rushing in a game. They have a big aggressive offensive line that can really open up some holes and provide a solid protection core. Their receivers are great, but (Rhema) McKnight overall is a really good receiver. When you put that group on the field they are not only good in size but they are quick only.
"I think that they are executing. When you execute on offense, you are able to put points on the board. Right now they are putting a lot of points on the board."
For all the sidestepping by the two coaches, this game has big implications for both teams. For Notre Dame, it is a chance to get back on track after a heart-breaking home-opening loss to Michigan State. For Washington, it is a chance to give their head coach, despite what he says, an extremely satisfying win over the university that let him go. In classic Willingham fashion, he refuses to tip his hand.
"There is obviously a lot of attention on this year's game, but it is always going to be all written up with a lot of hype," Willingham said. "When everything is all said and done, the scoreboard is still going to say that it is the Huskies playing against the Irish. Nothing more."