Tyrone willing as next Husky coach

Tyrone Willingham wasted no time in putting the proverbial whistle around his neck when he was ushered in Monday as the 22nd head football coach at the University of Washington Monday. A no-nonsense man, Willingham let the whistle - given to him by UW Athletic Director Todd Turner and University President Mark Emmert - do the talking for him with a loud blast to signal the beginning of his tenure at Montlake.

"I just wanted to test it to make sure it's as true as I'm sure it will be," Willingham said to a packed Don James Center audience dotted with former players and current Husky staff. Willingham, fired by Notre Dame two weeks ago, signed a 5-year, 7.15-million dollar contract, worth another $600,000 per year in incentives. He was the only one of four candidates in Washington's coaching search to be offered the position, and takes over the UW coaching position from Keith Gilbertson.

"When we started this search a few weeks ago, we put together a profile," Emmert said. "And we kept coming back to the same words - integrity, discipline, excellence, someone who would always make us proud, someone who could win at the highest levels, someone who know the University of Washington, someone who knew the west coast, someone who would be here a good long time, someone who could rebuild the tradition of Husky football that we all know and love.

"When Tyrone became available, we were stunned and elated, because we knew we had a chance to bring to the University of Washington somebody who exemplified all the characteristics we were looking for. It was a very easy choice, and when we sat down with Tyrone, it couldn't have been clearer in my mind. We couldn't be more lucky."

In looking at Willingham's resume, it's tough to argue against Emmert's choice based on his blueprint. Willingham, who turns 51 on December 30th, had winning records at both Notre Dame (21-15) and Stanford (44-36-1). He has also consistently shown that he runs a clean program, free from any hint of impropriety from the NCAA. In a situation where Washington's football program has been tarnished by probation and a poor product on the field, Willingham's hire brings stability and resolve.

In making this hire, Washington hasalso made history. The University is the only school in the country that has African-American coaches in their two biggest revenue-producing sports - football and mens basketball (Lorenzo Romar). "The fact that he's African-American is - what they call in Louisiana - a lagniappe, a little bit extra," said Emmert. "The reasons why we hired Tyrone Willingham is that he's a wonderful person who is also a perfect fit for us in every attribute I can think of."

Stan Wilcox, the President of the Black Coaches' Association, gave Willingham a ringing endorsement. "Washington has hired an outstanding football coach," Wilcox said. "He's going to do great things for Washington. The entire Black Coaches' Association is in total support." Last year there were five African-American head coaches - Willingham, Karl Dorrell (UCLA), Sylvester Croom (Mississippi State), Dr. Fitz Hill (San Jose State) and Tony Samuel (New Mexico State). Now only Willingham, Croom and Dorrell are coaching.

"It's a mixed blessing," Willingham said. "I think we should all be proud of our ethnic backgrounds and it should be something we rejoice in, but we need to get to a point in our culture where that is not our focus. It should be about our body of work, and at no point will I be satisfied with my body of work. Life, to me, is about perfection. And it's unattainable in most cases, but it is is a joy and a pleasure to seek it every day."

Despite being fired at Notre Dame, Willingham's termination was not met with unanimous approval, including a denunciation of his firing by outgoing Notre Dame President, Rev. Edward Malloy. Notre Dame administrator Chandra Johnson shaved her head in protest of Willingham's firing. Former Irish player Chris Zorich - now an analyst for ESPN, had some kind words for Willingham. "He's a man with great integrity," said Zorich. "I would give anything for the opportunity to play for him."

Notre Dame plays Washington in 2005.

"When we started this search, if you would have told me I would be here today announcing a coach that has been to six bowl games in ten years - including the Rose Bowl, was a two-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year and a national Coach of the Year, the only college football coach to ever be named the Sporting News Sportsman of the Year, a man that graduates virtually all his players, someone who has never had a slip-up with the NCAA, who is a dynamic leader who cares about his players more for their character and their development as a person more than just a football player, then I would have been absolutely ecstatic," said Turner. "And here we are today."

The irony of Willingham's hiring is that he may not be the most excited member of his family when it comes to being a part of the Washington family. "My son (Nathaniel), if I had let him, would probably have walked here," cracked Willingham. "He changed the wallpaper on his computer and everything a week ago, before I even knew what I was doing."

All kidding aside, Willingham has the daunting task of turning around a 1-10 program that is still reeling from the after-effects of hiring three coaches in four years, but he appeared to be unflappable - just as advertised. "Great programs bring attention to themselves," he said. "I wanted to be a part of a great program. It's a special opportunity and a special honor."

Willingham had a chance to study - albeit briefly - what was going on at Washington during his 2004 season at Notre Dame. The Huskies traveled to South Bend and were soundly thrashed to the tune of 38-3. "What I saw was not the Husky teams I had seen before," Willingham said, matter-of-factly.

"I want to get back to the toughness. I remember coming into this stadium on numerous occasions and walking out sad. We had been defeated, but we had also been beaten. There's a difference there, and this program has done that continually over the years. I'm looking to getting back to that kind of football."

Willingham's hire is the first of many steps Emmert and Turner have promised will happen to bring Washington's football program once again back into prominence. With ten percent of season-ticket holders having left the program since 2000, Willingham knows that he needs to provide the impetus to get Washington fans back in their seats.

"The number-one role I can play is to win football games," he said. "That is the thing that gets most fans excited about walking in that stadium - knowing that their chance of winning is great. At the same time, the other aspects of the program add a great deal of stature to a program. It all revolves around the character. The stronger and the better the character of our young men, the better our success will be on the field."

Willingham met with the team in closed meeting Sunday afternoon, his first interaction with them. "Regardless of what's here or what's not here, my expectation will be for these young men to be absolutely the best they can be in everything they touch and to be the best they can be on the football field at this time. My philosophy has always been that whatever is available, take it and make it the best out of it. That's always been my approach, and that's what I'll do."

His first order of business will be figuring out who will comprise his coaching staff. He made it clear that he did not want to make any decisions before talking to the coaches currently on staff at UW, something he has not done yet but is expected to do later Monday.

A couple of his coaches at Notre Dame have ties to either the UW program or the state of Washington. Offensive Coordinator Bill Diedrick - a native of Spokane - played the same role at Washington under Jim Lambright and also coached at Washington State. Current ND coaches John McDonnell (offensive line) and Buzz Preston (running backs) have also had coaching stints in Pullman. Defensive line coach Randy Hart, linebackers coach Chris Tormey, secondary coach Jimmy Lake, running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Cornell Jackson, and tight ends and special teams coach Scott Pelluer are still at Washington, tending to recruiting. Tormey is the one coach expected to receive the most consideration to stay on Willingham's staff due to his former head coaching experience and abilities as a recruiter.

Once a staff is in place, Willingham will have to face the difficult chore of recruiting players within a small window to time. February 2nd is the first day of the official signing period for high school seniors, and the early signing date for mid-year junior college transfers is on Wednesday and lasts for one month.

"This state has a great many players that we should have on this campus," said Willingham. "We've got to get the state of Washington back for the University of Washington, and if we can do that I'll be pleased." He added that his first recruiting responsibility is meeting as many high school coaches as possible.

There have been public statements by some local and regional D1 football prospects - like Bellevue's JR Hasty and E.J. Savannah, as well as O'Dea's Tony Felder and Olympia (Wash.) Timberline running back Jonathan Stewart that have said the hiring of a coach of Willingham's stature would make them re-evaluate how they see the University of Washington and their level of interest in the school.

Willingham will now have the extra benefit of being able to recruit players that only have to pass the NCAA minimums for entrance requirements. That was not the case with Notre Dame and also at his first head-coaching stint at Stanford. "Of course there's no question about it, but we still have to fulfill the mission of the University, which is to educate our students," he said.

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