December 19, 2001. The Seattle Bowl against Georgia Tech was just days away, and Stanford's preparations were in full swing. After watching practice finish up on a dark, chilly evening, I walked with Coach Tyrone Willingham from the practice field to the Arrillaga Center. We ducked into a small conference room off of the auditorium, and we taped the Seattle Bowl edition of Willingham's radio show.
Coach and I had a lot to talk about. Stanford had just wrapped up a 9-2 regular season, one of the best in school history. Just days before, rumors had been swirling that Notre Dame had tried to lure Willingham to South Bend before naming George O'Leary head coach instead. And now, ironically, Stanford would be facing O'Leary's old Georgia Tech squad.
We covered all of those topics, and at the end of the show, I thanked Tyrone for taking time out to do the show every week. But, for some reason, I didn't add seven words that I usually said whenever we talked for the final time of the season: "…and we'll do it again next year."
I stopped the recorder, but as usual, Tyrone and I kept chatting. We talked about the team, about the upcoming game, and about a few other things non-football related. Tyrone hinted that he was going to start the game with a trick play. As it turned out, he did, with receiver Teyo Johnson trying an option pass on the opening play against the Yellow Jackets.
Tyrone also told me how worried he was about his players' mental state, and how they seemed to be taking Georgia Tech lightly. "These guys think it's going to be easy," Tyrone fretted. "If they don't think this Georgia Tech team can beat us…"
He shook his head and his voice trailed off as he simultaneously worried about his players and searched for a way to motivate them. I could see him visualizing Georgia Tech, a team with no coach and nothing to lose, somehow putting it all together and pulling Stanford's pants down on national TV.
After spending about 30 minutes together, Tyrone and I walked out of the conference room and into the lobby. Two kids who had been over in the Hall of Fame room saw him, ran over to him, and thrust pens and papers at him to autograph. As Tyrone signed, one of the kids said, "We're glad you didn't go to Notre Dame, Coach!" Tyrone smiled, laughed, said nothing, and kept signing.
The kids thanked Tyrone for the autographs, then went back into the Hall of Fame room. Tyrone and I shook hands and said our goodbyes. I went across the way to go watch Teyo and the men's hoops team play a game over at Maples. Tyrone went upstairs to the football offices to figure out how to warn his players of a potential Yellow Jacket ambush.
That was the last time I interacted with Tyrone Willingham, Stanford head football coach.
We all know what happened in the days that followed. Someone at Notre Dame took a second look at George O'Leary's résumé and had some questions to ask. Tyrone's worst nightmares about Georgia Tech came true, as the Yellow Jackets stunned Stanford in the Seattle Bowl. And, as it turned out, Tyrone ended up in South Bend anyway. It may have been one of the most shocking weeks in Cardinal Football history, a week from which Stanford still has yet to fully recover.
At the time, I couldn't understand why Tyrone would want to leave Stanford. Well, besides the money. But I couldn't figure out why Tyrone would want to leave a great situation and environment at Stanford for the high-risk, high-stakes world of Notre Dame football.
But the more I thought about it, the reasons became clearer. It wasn't about the high risk; it was about the high reward. Not just for himself (after all, money talks), but also for the program.
The Card had gone 9-2 during the 2001 regular season, knocking off Top-Five teams in back-to-back weeks, and ruining Oregon's national title hopes in the process. Stanford's reward for that great season? A trip to a second-rate bowl that doesn't even exist anymore. If Notre Dame had a similar season, they'd be playing in a top-tier BCS bowl.
I think Tyrone felt that he had taken Stanford as far as it could go, that the Cardinal had hit a glass ceiling of sorts - one that doesn't exist for Notre Dame. Or Washington.
Based on those factors, I now think Tyrone's departure from Stanford was inevitable. Had Notre Dame stuck with George O'Leary, I think that, one way or another, 2002 would have been Tyrone's last season at Stanford. And despite the pipe dreams of some Cardinalmaniacs™, there was no way he was coming back to The Farm after the 2004 season.
Granted, many people (myself included) will never forget or forgive the Senior Day introduction fiasco, the fake punt, and 57-7. And in the process, Tyrone became "That Guy." But it's still going to be awfully strange to see him coaching in a Pac-10 conference game against Stanford on Saturday.
The day after Tyrone officially accepted the job at Notre Dame, I was being interviewed by a South Bend radio station. One of the hosts asked me what I thought Tyrone's Stanford legacy would be. I actually had to think about it for a moment, but I came up with two things. One, he took us to a Rose Bowl. And two, above all, he gave us a program we could all be proud to root for, both on and off the field.
He built a program in which the players never lost faith, even if they were terribly overmatched on the field. No matter what, his teams competed. And they provided us with many of our last happy memories of Stanford Football.
Tyrone Willingham is many different things to different Cardinalmaniacs™. A role model. A villain. A fine leader. An ambitious schemer. The guy who took us to the Rose Bowl. That Guy who spurned us and helped send us to the toilet bowl. Whether you like Tyrone or not, I'm sure we can all agree that it just hasn't been the same on The Farm without him.
RANDOM PAC-10 THOUGHTS
After U$C's blocked field goal that resulted in a touchdown, the prevailing feeling among everyone in the press box was that it served Stanford right for settling for a meaningless field goal instead of trying for a touchdown. Even the U$C announcers laughed at Stanford's decision while the play was still unfolding (after snickering through the touchdown, play-by-play man Pete Arbogast taunted, "That'll teach ‘em to go for three!")…
Had a great time at the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame induction dinner last week. It was great to see old friends, and it was even better to make a few new ones as well. Special thanks to new Hall of Famer Mike Dotterer, who saw fit to invite me to the festivities…
Strangely enough, the most memorable speech of the night didn't belong to Dotterer. That speech came from new inductee (and former Stanford offensive lineman) Brian Holloway. I'll probably delve deeper into his speech in a later column (and I'm sure some of you might discuss it in the BootBoards), but all I'll say right now is that his message needs to be heard by everyone in the Stanford community…
Finally got my first look at the new stadium, and it's absolutely fantastic (the granite countertops in the press box are a nice touch!). The only facility that rivals ours is Autzen Stadium. No one else even comes close. Congratulations on a job well done. Now, if we could only find a team…
The thing that upset me most about last Saturday's events wasn't the score, or the opponent, or the fact that my friend Cathy wasn't in town to make her Rice Krispie footballs. What upset me the most was that, for the first time ever, I sensed a complete and total disinterest by everyone at the game. Everybody (myself included) seemed resigned to the final outcome. Nobody seemed interested in the game itself. Everybody seemed to be at the stadium not because they wanted to be there, but because they were somehow obligated to be there. That went for the fans, the media, the bands, and even the players as well (U$C players all but admitted that they barely exerted any effort during the game, and that they seemed bored by it all). The tailgating was top-notch as always, but when it came to the game itself, everyone seemed to be going through the motions. That was saddening to witness first-hand…
If you like watching special teams, take a look at cal's punt return unit. They are hitting people! Ask UCLA linebacker Korey Bosworth (yes, that's his son) for his thoughts on how physical the Bears' punt return team can be…
Some cal fans are up in arms because the proposed renovations to Memorial Stadium might block the view of the game for the folks on Tightwad Hill. Two things here. First, tradition will always take a backseat to money. Always. Second, the last time I checked, the folks who camp out on Tightwad Hill get to watch the game for free… If I'm the cal athletic department, why should I go out of my way to cater to non-paying customers? That's like stealing cable TV, then getting mad when the cable company calls you up to let you know they're taking it away…
Well, what do you know… They Couged it again! How did Arizona beat those guys?
Not a Pac-10 thought, but… that's a nice little airport you've got there, Minneapolis-St. Paul. Any airport with an A&W scores major points with me. Root beer float, anyone?
Very quietly, I'm having my best season ATS! Of course, this means that I've just jinxed myself for the rest of the season…
cal @ Arizona. For once, happy feelings in Tucson. Too bad those happy feelings won't last more than a week! Arizona's offense has its groove back, but cal is just too good right now. I like cal by 19.
Oregon State @ UCLA. You could argue that cal is the only team playing better than the Beavers right now. That trend should continue this week. I like Oregon State by 12.
Washington State @ Arizona State. As I type this, the Cougs may go into this one without receivers Jason Hill and Michael Bumpus, who both suffered high ankle sprains last week. That might be enough for Arizona State to take advantage. This won't be easy, but I like Arizona State by 9.
Last week: 3-1 (straight-up), 2-2 (ATS).
This year: 17-8 (straight-up), 15-10 (ATS).
Got a thought on this column, on Stanford sports, or anything else in general? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and the best e-mails will be answered in next week's Clardy's Corner Inbox!
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