Fanfare was decidedly absent to greet a new coach who had never before been a coordinator, let alone a head coach. Stanford supporters were shocked to learn the position did not go to former Walsh offensive coordinator Terry Shea, who had turned down the San Diego State job the previous season, in anticipation of becoming Walsh’s heir on The Farm.
Willingham arrived from the Minnesota Vikings, where he had served as Dennis Green’s running backs coach. Willingham served on Green’s staff during the successful three-year (1989-'91) run that resurrected Stanford from the 1980’s doldrums. Now, in 1994, it was his job to supervise another reclamation project.
“It had little to do with his resume,” was how Ted Leland explained the hire 20 years ago. “It had more to do with the eight months I worked with Tyrone. I became convinced at that time that if I could work with Tyrone again, I would do it. All you have to do is look at him for 10 minutes working with a student-athlete and you'll know why he's our selection."
No Cardinal fan would label Ted Leland a true friend of Stanford football. The Athletic Director hired Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris, and then coined the excuse “We’re not Nebraska” to defend his department’s flawed approach to football.
But there’s no denying this hire was the right one at the time. Willingham provided the structure and discipline Stanford so desperately needed. He molded a team that had won six games combined the previous two seasons and took it to consecutive bowl games. He was the Pac-10’s Coach of the Year in 1995 and 1999.
Throughout his seven-season tenure, he was no nonsense. He spoke in plain terms, wasting few words. The end of the 1994 season saw the Cardinal torn apart by close losses, resulting in what many viewed as a rift between older players and underclassmen. Willingham introduced himself to the public with what became his trademark, a simple explanation to sum it all up.
“My approach is simple," he said. "As I understand it, there's one head coach. Second of all, the players are listed as Stanford student-athletes. That means there's one team.”
His teams were a reflection of this style. Willingham surely frustrated many fans with mixed results. Just when it appeared Stanford was about to leap on the national stage in the middle of the 1997 season, following Liberty and Sun Bowl appearances, he lost 14 games in an 18-game stretch until 1999.
But there’s no discounting his results. Willingham won 44 games, third-best in the history of Stanford football behind Pop Warner (71) and John Ralston (55). His 2001 team went 9-2, the program's best regular-season record in 50 years. You may despise him for leaving for Notre Dame, but there’s no denying Willingham’s results here at Stanford.
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