It's all about respect

SEATTLE - You could just feel the love coming from the speakerphone in Hec Ed Monday afternoon. You would have thought Jim Tressel and Tyrone Willingham had been high school buddies, reconnecting for a class reunion. In listening to the two coaches from Ohio State and Washington talk about the opposition, it became crystal clear that there's nothing but straight respect going on with these guys.

"They are one of the finest programs in the country," Willingham said of Tressel's Ohio State team. "And often when you play a team of this nature, it feels like not only are you going to play the current team, but also their tradition and everything that brings. We're going to try and focus on this year's team. They have been successful early on, have a great coaching staff with Coach Tressel, and have great players. They are a very talented team, especially on defense, and we are going to have our hands full. The offense is still feeling their way around, but they are still very good with their two quarterbacks, receiver and running back."

Your serve, Jim.

"The amount of respect we have for Ty, I think he's one of the great ones in our profession," Tressel volleyed back. "And what he's done since he's been there, and the manner in which he's done it, more importantly...we tip our cap to him. We love competing against guys like that and we know how difficult it will be. But we also know how valuable that experience will be for us."

In the tennis match of life, these two are stuck at love. They just can't be that friendly. Right? This is BCS football! You're supposed to be at each other's throats! You're supposed to be breathing fire! You're supposed to be swallowing knives! You're supposed to be showing your best game faces already! I could invoke the spirit of Dan Hawkins here and say something about intramurals, but that would probably be over the line.

Alas, I got nothing truly fascinating from Willingham and Tressel - just a lot of basic general interest stuff about both teams (not that you'd actually be interested in what they had to say about football), with a lot of that milquetoasty, feelgood vibe added in for good measure. Yuck.

Willingham even invoked the most hallowed name in recent UW football history - Don James. "We wanted to go back and draw off that past, do things in a similar manner in the way the great coach Don James did," he said, when asked about rebuilding Washington's tarnished tradition. "We want to resemble that program in a present form."

Yeah, yeah - that's all nice, but does Willingham think he's going to score points with UW fans by sucking up to James' win-loss record? That wasn't his motivation at all. Jim and Dick Tressel are cousins with Carol James! That's why he mentioned the Dawgfather.

Remember, this is all about respect.

Even when talking about Ohio State's offense - which has been about as active lately as me during a sale of Ben and Jerry's at the local grocery store - Willingham is effusive, almost saccharine. "They have skill and talent everywhere," he said. "They are huge. And they are fast. And Coach Tressel is a smart, intelligent coach, and he's going to coach a smart, intelligent team. There's really not a whole lot of weaknesses when you look around. Probably what they are concerned about is maybe they just haven't been as productive as they would have liked to be."

That may very well be, but Willingham was just getting started. I guess he wanted all of us living in the northwest to understand that 7-foot midwest boogeyman warriors would be invading Husky Stadium on Saturday, and they weren't coming to play football. They were coming to start a Thermonuclear War.

"This will be a huge, physical football team that we'll play on both sides of the ball. They will be aggressive. I think they have great speed."

Yikes! Advantage Willingham.

"I don't think you look at these first two games as an indicator of their offensive team, their offensive skill," he added. "I'm sure they haven't scored as many points as they would have liked to, but we know that the ability to be very productive is there. Obviously the quarterback is talented, they've had talented quarterbacks before. Their most talented quarterback may have been last year, winning the Heisman (Troy Smith). You've got a running back (Chris Wells) who is darn, darn good, and you have a receiver in (Brian) Robiskie that is playing at a very high level. So they have all the weapons in place to be very productive."

And in the teeter-totter world of rhetoric, positive words for the opponent means cautious deference for your own team. There has to be that balance, after all. "We've been very fortunate that, at this stage of the season, we've been able to get some pressure," Willingham said, probably understating the case. So far his defense has come up with nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss - extremely respectible numbers. "But obviously our defensive line has not faced the type of offensive line that we will face this weekend. Their size - they go 6-8, 6-8, 6-6, 6-5, 6-4, and that is an intimidating group. We'll be hard-pressed to duplicate anything that we've been able to do so far this season."

I saved the best example for last. When asked about having the most speed on his team since taking over the job at Washington, Willingham asked the reporter if he had seen that published in the last week or so. When the reporter said yes, the UW Head Coach jumped on that rhetorical teeter-totter like an insane six-year old.

"I changed my mind," he said, not batting either eye the whole time. "We're really the slowest team we've had here in a couple years."

He really did say that. OK, he was joking. His face muscles never moved a milimeter the whole time, but he was definitely joking.

Was he?

Now I'm not 100 percent sure it wasn't all part of Willingham's grand scheme - with Tressel acting as a willing participant - to get us to believe that these two actually like each other. Harumph!

I heard this phrase uttered by one of them. "You better be able to gang-tackle, because that is a powerful man that we know runs extremely fast." Was that Willingham talking about Chris Wells, or Tressel talking about Jake Locker? Or was it Oscar Goldman talking about Steve Austin?

As you can tell, all this tub-thumping in reverse had me a little confused. Willingham even mentioned something about bringing two lunchpails to deal with Chris Wells. Two lunchpails? For lunch and dinner? Help!

One thing that's easy to understand is just how big this game has become. Two weeks ago, Seattle sports fans just saw this game as getting in the way of a possible penant run by the hometown Mariners. Now that John McLaren is the new King of Poop Island, exiled M's fans are welcome to Husky Stadium anytime. And Seahawks fans? Don't get me started...

The reality is that both teams are 2-0, both teams have holes they are trying to work with and around, and both teams are hungry to keep their respective winning streaks going. You can make a compelling case that if Washington was going to defeat a top-10 team right now, Ohio State just might be the best bet. They have a quarterback that is making his first start away from home (somebody get Ken Dorsey on the phone!), and wunderkind Jake Locker has shown a knack for getting the Huskies into the endzone when they are within sniffing distance. There's a lot of ifs you have to weave your way through in order to get to a Washington'w', but it's attainable. It's not a pipe dream.

"Hopefully there will be a great party at Husky Stadium on Saturday," Willingham said.

Here we go again. A party? after all this talk, I'm sure Willingham and Tressel will be more than happy to provide the chips and pop for everyone. They might even set up a post-game picnic on the W. Or they might need to play a quick game of tennis to get rid of all that nervous post-game energy.

Either way, and regardless of which team ends up with that coveted 'W' - it's clear that Tressel and Willingham will leave Husky Stadium Saturday night with the same thing they brought with them...the unquestioned respect and admiration of the other coach.

And in the upside-down world of college football circa 2007, that ain't half-bad.

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