Willingham "a great fit"

A stoic Ty Willingham stood before a packed room this afternoon at the Don James Center, addressing members of the media for the first time in his new role as the University of Washington's head football coach. While most coaches look at such introductory press conferences as a Disneyland-like all-smiles day to celebrate, Willingham conveyed only an enormous hunger to return Husky football to the dominance of year's past. By all accounts, his first impression was a good one.

Many current and former Husky players were present in the room to take in Willingham's first day as the UW head coach, as were current and former members of the Huskies coaching staff.

Willingham met with the team last night for the first time, impressing a number of them with his readily-apparent leadership skills.

"Everyone was quiet. Everyone was into it, paying attention," said linebacker Joe Lobendahn, who'll be a senior next year, of Willingham's meeting with the team. "Watching him on television, I felt at first like this guy had no personality. But getting to know him and hearing him at the meeting, that changed my whole perspective of him. He's very intelligent, he's straight-forward, he's on point and he knows his X's and O's. I'm just excited to play for him.

"We got a great coach in Ty Willingham."

Lobendahn brought up a topic that seemed to be quite popular amongst those players who were present, that being discipline. While the Huskies spoke endlessly about playing together as a team and playing with discipline heading into this year's dreadful 1-10 season, he said there was plenty of room for improvement.

"I think that's what we need this year is discipline," said Lobendahn. "Coach Gilby tried to force that, and I don't think some of the guys believed in it. It's a part of football that you've got to be disciplined in order to win a championship."

Bring in Mr. No-Nonsense, as the Huskies did, and most players believe that problem will be solved.

Quarterback Isaiah Stanback, who'll be entering his fourth year in the program next season, was another player present at the press conference and he, too, came across as a big-time believer in his new coach.

Then again, Willingham was the candidate he was hoping for the whole time.

"I'm excited. I'm happy," said Stanback. "We got a good coach. When coach Gilbertson got fired, that was one of the things that popped in my head with the problems they were having at Notre Dame. When the opportunity came about, I was hoping and praying that the president and athletic director would offer him. Luckily we got him."

Why the excitement? Well, don't say we didn't warn you again, the quarterback mentioned discipline.

"I'd heard he's a good coach and I've seen he's a good coach," he said. "I've heard he's a disciplinarian, that he doesn't take no mess from anyone, and I think that's what we need right now to get everybody on the same page."

More than anything, the players seem to be relieved that this chapter is now closed and the program can move forward. The schedule will be busy in the coming weeks and months as Willingham says his first order of business is to talk to the coaches currently still on staff, and make the necessary decisions in order to formulate a coaching staff for next season. Meanwhile, National Letter of Intent Day is Feb. 2, a bit earlier than normal this season, and Willingham says he plans to talk to as many high school coaches as possible to "sell the university."

"There were a lot of names flying around, and the players just wanted a coach so we could move on," said Lobendahn.

C.J. Wallace, who was recruited by Rick Neuheisel only to play his first two years under Keith Gilbertson and now finds himself trying to adjust to a new coach yet again, downplayed what the media has been talking about regarding Willingham: the topic of race. Wallace, an African American himself, said while it's nice to see the Huskies hire an African American coach all that matters to him and his teammates is winning.

"If he's black, asian, red, white, it doesn't matter," said Wallace.

Stanback concurred. "I think it's hyped up a lot more than it should be," he said. "The focus shouldn't be on what his race is, it should be based on his performance."

Husky head basketball coach Lorenzo Romar, also present at the day's event - and that IS what it was, with more than 150 people present by - has an interesting perspective on the topic of race. Romar, along with Willingham, make Washington the only school in Division I-A with African-American head coaches in both football and men's basketball.

Asked if race may have mattered in Washington's decision to hire Willingham, Romar said in his opinion it couldn't have.

"I think people have to understand that this might be the most important hire in Husky football history," said the Husky basketball coach. "If you make a political hire, that's not necessarily going to bode well the next couples years. This isn't the time to make a splash. You have to make the hire that is best for this program for the long term, because if this one doesn't work out this time a lot of people will almost forget the tradition of the University of Washington.

"I don't think coach Willingham was hired for political reasons, in my opinion. There's too much at stake. I'm excited as an alum of the UW and a current employee, that the university is making progress and not making color as the No. 1 factor of who they are going to hire. This university is working towards something that is very exciting to me."

With a new man in charge, and the UW football program in the beginning stages of forming its new identity, there's a sense of relief for many of the former players who remember when Husky football was great. Jamal Fountaine, who starred at UW in the early 1990's and came back as a Graduate Assistant coach under Rick Neuheisel, said the move to get a person with the character of Willingham was exactly what the Huskies needed.

"What this program needs is somebody who is an enforcer. Somebody is proven with a track record at a high level," said Fountaine. "I expect nothing but the same from Willingham here."

Speaking on behalf of all former players in Husky history, Fountaine said seeing the program spiral downwards was as painful as it gets.

"For anyone who has played here, the University of Washington is a family," he said. "To see anyone in your family have problems like our program had last year, it's hard. We're looking for somebody who is going to come in and stabilize the program and help build the program up to what it was. I think Willingham is a great fit."

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