Why Not Stanford?
I should have known better. How could I expect something that has left me so conflicted for seven years to crystallize in just seven days? This column would have been more logical last week, when Tyrone Willingham was forced to resign as head coach at Washington, effective at the end of the season. But I didn't know how I felt yet. I wasn't sure what to think when I saw images of a dispirited Willingham being pushed out of the city where I last called him coach. I still don't have the answer, just as I haven't fully reconciled Willingham's willful departure from Stanford after the 2001 Seattle Bowl, or the raw deal he received from Notre Dame just three years later. What I do know is simple, yet unsettling: I love Willingham, but I'm not completely sure what I think of him.
Why not Stanford? It was a rhetorical question Willingham often posed to our Cardinal teams in an effort to eradicate excuses. We had plush facilities, outstanding coaches, a supportive community, and all the necessary resources to achieve and perpetuate success. Given our unique academic demands, outsiders might pardon us from the quixotic expectations associated with many college football programs. But Willingham quashed the notion that intelligence hindered athleticism, stressing that our minds gave us a unique strength our opponents couldn't duplicate in the weight room. It was Willingham's seemingly unshakable conviction in the future of football on The Farm that made his hasty exit so troublesome.
Most of us were celebrating the holidays with our families when we heard that the man who had sat in our living rooms to sell us on Stanford had found a new home in South Bend. It was a twisted triangle. Georgia Tech (our Seattle Bowl opponent) had lost its head coach - George O'Leary - to Notre Dame just a few weeks earlier, only for O'Leary's recreant resume to force Notre Dame to reconsider and pluck Willingham. The timing prompted obvious questions. Had Willingham been eyeing the Fighting Irish during our 9-2 season, in which we were just a few plays from vying for a national championship? Had his discussions with Notre Dame intensified during our preparation for the Seattle Bowl, perhaps contributing to our 24-14 loss? Had Willingham already moved on mentally, even as he addressed us in the Safeco Field locker room, speaking of the greatness within our grasp? My conclusion is no - at least I want it to be. Willingham's unflinching focus was one of his greatest strengths, and I still believe that even in his waning days as our coach, he remained our coach. Even if Willingham had determined his destiny prior to his Seattle Bowl swan song, acknowledging as much would only have disrupted our preparation in Seattle, raising resentment during what was a weeklong celebration balanced with incredibly productive practices. He allowed us to relish our final days together, and he eventually returned to Stanford to try to make things right.
We knew it would be awkward. After we returned to campus from winter break, Willingham entered our team meeting as he had so many times before - only this felt much different. He wasn't there to apologize for his departure, but to clarify some of the issues that he knew we'd been wrestling with. He explained that his decision wasn't simple or easy - that he wasn't merely jilting the Cardinal for the Fighting Irish's deep pot of gold. He had acted in the best interest of his career and family, and as a man who grew up in segregated towns, his entrustment with college football's holy grail carried personal and social significance. We had no obligation to listen to him, yet we respectively did so. He was no longer our coach, but he was still our coach. Willingham closed the meeting by asking if we had any questions. No hands were raised. Perhaps the departing seniors had no appetite for sour grapes, and the underclassmen didn't want to disclose their pain to their newest opponent. However, one question hung in the silence: Why not Stanford?
Despite Willingham's explanation, we had our own theories regarding his willingness to step away from a budding power. One popular notion was that our highly successful season was ultimately Willingham's sticking point. He had led us to nine wins - including two straight victories over top-5 teams - and the reward was a second-rate bowl berth in a baseball stadium. There was little doubt that Notre Dame would have received a more exclusive invitation with an identical resume. We had completed a remarkable season, but it went largely unnoticed outside of the Bay Area. The irony is that a lesser season might have kept Willingham on The Farm. With five or six wins, his job would have remained secure. With seven or eight victories, he would have been revered. But after coming within three touchdowns of an undefeated regular season, only to be cast into bowl oblivion, it became clear that Stanford might never take the stage it deserved.
After our 2002 loss at Notre Dame, several of my teammates lined up to embrace Willingham. I wasn't one of them. Seething with the fresh sting of defeat, I was in no mood to wait for a hug - but it wasn't because I'd stopped loving him. It's rare for players to revere their former coach enough to seek his affection after getting beat by his current team. Then again, it's rare for a coach to care so much for his players, whether or not they remain on his roster. After tight end Brett Pierce suffered a season-ending knee injury in our 2002 opener at Boston College, Willingham phoned Pierce with his support. After quarterback Chris Lewis struggled in his first few starts of 2002, Willingham called Lewis with encouragement. Nearly two years ago, I e-mailed the Washington football office to inquire about a potential graduate assistant position. Willingham called me shortly thereafter, saying he had filled his staff, but that he loved me and would do anything to help me land elsewhere. Our conversation was relatively brief, but it reminded me why I admired him so much as a player. It wasn't that he asked how my family was doing, but that I knew he truly cared. Andy Clavin was a congenial walk-on center whose inability to stay on his feet often precluded him from even working with the scout team. But when Clavin's grandmother passed away, Willingham gathered the team after practice, explaining that Clavin was an integral part of our program, and that we should warmly welcome him back when he returned from the funeral. It wasn't that Willingham said it, but that he obviously meant it.
Willingham's concern for our wellbeing didn't always manifest itself in affection. He scheduled seminars during the offseason that had nothing to do with football. He felt it was important that a young man learn how to properly dress for a job interview, and how to handle potentially perilous situations involving alcohol. Player missteps were handled promptly, firmly and discreetly. In 2000, Willingham caught one of our starters violating a team rule. The player hadn't run afoul of the law, and the relatively minor incident would have been brushed aside or covered up in many programs. But Willingham suspended the player for our season opener at Washington State, proving that he genuinely valued character, whether or not it enhanced his odds of winning. No coach has identical relationships with each of his athletes, and seldom does every player on a team hold equal fondness or respect for their coach. But in the four years I played for Willingham, and even the season I spent at Stanford without him, I never heard a teammate say he wasn't fair.
Willingham's seemingly indifferent public image has done little to captivate fans at any of his coaching stops, but it's precisely what endears him to his players. Willingham reserves his joy and passion for his guys, rather than emoting to a media prone to manipulating sound bites for the sake of a story. His deadpan humor was a staple of team meetings, including the one preceding our bowl practice on Dec. 25, 2001. After talking us through a tedious daily itinerary and practice schedule, Willingham revealed one last slide, bearing five words that could only be appreciated by a weary group about to don shoulder pads and knee braces on Christmas morning: MERRY CHRISTMAS. HO HO HO.
While the fond memories are endless, the lingering questions are nagging. On the night before our 2000 contest at Notre Dame, Willingham capped our team meeting with a mind-numbing slideshow of Notre Dame's historic images, played on a loop accompanied by the university's famous fight song. The message was that our 1998 team was too distracted by Notre Dame's aura to properly focus on Notre Dame's players. The lesson made complete sense - until Willingham traded Hoover Tower for Touchdown Jesus. Watching Notre Dame's 8-0 start in 2002 was tough, as was hearing of the hate mail and threats Willingham received when the Fighting Irish returned to mediocrity. It was like running into an ex-girlfriend: It's hard to see her happy with someone else, but even harder to see her hurting. By no means do I pity Willingham, just as I know he doesn't pity himself. He's spent the last seven years collecting a king's ransom while trying to restore two storied programs among college football royalty. I don't feel sorry for Washington's players, either - even as they remain the nation's lone winless team. The Huskies may not leave Washington with the glory they had hoped for, but they undoubtedly have become better men.
The marks Willingham left on Stanford were so indelible that succeeding coach Buddy Teevens enacted arbitrary changes in an attempt to hide them. Beloved strength coach Mark Wateska and his staff were banished, seemingly for being our pleasant links to the past. The historic photos of Stanford's academic All-Americans were removed from the football suite's walls, and replaced with pictures of Cardinal alums in the NFL. Our classic uniforms received a subtle color change and black trim - a move that made us look like an imitation of Steve Spurrier's South Carolina squad, which likely wasn't a coincidence. Teevens was energetic and well liked. He was a player's coach, but he wasn't our coach.
Willingham's seven-year stint at Stanford was longer than the tenures typically served by coaches who excel at programs that aren't traditional powers. While his exit could have been more graceful, his desire to move on shouldn't be met with surprise or resentment. I wrote some outstanding columns at the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Mont., but no one would have begrudged me for defecting to The Seattle Times for a larger readership and income. It's hard to not selfishly resent Willingham, because I can't imagine our talented 2002 squad going 2-9 under his direction. Still, if his next stop were Minnesota-Duluth, and I was granted an extra year of eligibility, I'd happily invest in new long johns.
With the success Jim Harbaugh has had in his first two years as Stanford's head coach, he will likely be faced with a big decision in the near future. If the Cardinal (5-4 overall, 4-2 Pac-10) beat Oregon (6-3, 4-2) on Saturday, they will secure bowl eligibility for the first time since 2001. Even if Stanford fails its final three stiff tests, the Cardinal's landmark victories and attitude adjustment under Harbaugh should make the coach a hot commodity in the offseason. Athletic directors are likely already lauding Harbaugh's ability to breathe life into a recently floundering program that is constricted by the nation's most stringent admissions standards for athletes. And while Harbaugh has shown no symptoms of itchy feet, any coach would be unwise to blindly dismiss potential opportunities. When Harbaugh is inevitably confronted with a choice that could drastically shape the rest of his career, Cardinal fans can only hope he asks himself one question: Why not Stanford?
About the Author: Greg Schindler, LSJU '03, was a four-year starter and four-year letter-winner for the Cardinal from 1999-2002, starting 42 of 46 games. After redshirting as a true freshman in 1998, he was the team's starting right tackle in 1999-2000 and the team's starting right guard in 2001-02. Prior to Stanford, Schindler starred at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, CA and was named a First-team All-American by Prepstar in 1997. Following his Stanford career, Schindler was signed by the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent after graduating in 2003 with an English Major [in the unlikely case you haven't been able to tell! - Ed. ] and a Political Science minor. His sister, Veronica Schindler, is a Development writer at the Stanford Athletic Department.
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