|AP Interview: Embattled again, Willingham gets chance to make last stand at UW|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 07 February 2008 13:43|
The coach who has already been dumped abruptly by Notre Dame after just three years knows adversity. But even this has been unique.
``This year has had a lot of special hurdles to it,'' Willingham said with a wry smile this week, a rare good one for the Washington Huskies recently.
This lightning rod from South Bend, Ind., to Seattle was seated inside the University of Washington's Founder's Club, a conference room the school's donors use for pregame hobnobbing.
Many of them wanted him fired months ago.
``If it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger. And I think this has made our program stronger,'' Willingham said of a Huskies program that currently has more negativity surrounding it than Britney Spears.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the stoic Willingham brushed off the turmoil surrounding his floundering program; ``I've been faced with controversy all my life, in some form or fashion,'' he said.
with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, the provost at Stanford when he was the coach there, and with President George W. Bush, when he visited Notre Dame.
Willingham, whose demeanor is as even as his 76-76-1 record in 13 seasons as a college coach, said he might have been an elementary-school teacher instead, because those kids need male role models. He said he and his family love Seattle enough to make Washington the last stop on a football journey that began as a walk-on athlete at Michigan State in the early 1970s.
He has graduated his players. Most have stayed out of trouble at UW. He just hasn't won enough games.
Wednesday brought rare victories: 26 of them, recruits that included five of the consensus top seven prospects in Washington and some from Southern California. Many experts rank Washington's incoming class among the nation's top 25.
That's a measure of Willingham's resolve and ramrod persona. It also fuels his belief he will get Washington back to the perennial Rose Bowl days of Don James.
``I tell my football team - I use this quote from David Brinkley: 'A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.','' Willingham said.
``And that's what I want our young men to understand. The people who stop us from being successful, that will be ourselves. Not any outside forces.''
Those forces have been working overtime recently.
cember, Willingham became the first Huskies coach to finish three consecutive losing seasons as UW went 4-9. Washington lost to Washington State for the third time in four years - the last time that had happened was 1982-85. It then blew a lead at undefeated Hawaii in the finale, missing a huge upset that would have provide some positive momentum heading into the offseason.
Willingham is 11-25 at Washington. He was 21-15 in the same span at Notre Dame, and the Irish fired him.
Many Huskies fans want the same for the hard-to-crack man they derisively call ``Paint Dry Ty.''
In December, school president Dr. Mark Emmert, formerly of football power LSU, wavered for a few days over Willingham's future. Emmert then announced the coach would return for the 2008 season.
No mention of 2009. That's the final year of the five-year deal that pays Willingham $1.4 million a year.
``Isn't that normal for most football coaches?'' he said.
Just the nature of the business?
``Always has been.''
So is what happened next: Emmert forced out Willingham's top advocate, athletic Todd Turner, instead.
That did stun Willingham. He said he was never even given a heads-up.
``Nope,'' the coach said. He was away on a recruiting trip and got a call that the man who hired him was leaving. He still doesn't know who his new boss will be.
h Willingham to step up. When you lose your athletic director, I'm expecting myself to step up and still produce a winner.''
It would seem unsettling that his top supporter is gone.
``Well, the truth of the matter is, I think I have a lot of top supporters, OK,'' Willingham said. ``And I think it's impossible for a football coach to be at any place if he didn't have a lot of top supporters.
``But do I think the guy who hired me, is it important to have him around? Yes, I think it is. But I also hope the next man will see the value of what we are doing. And then we will be in a situation in which winning makes everyone's decisions a lot easier.''
Easier than last month's, when he fired defensive coordinator Kent Baer, a friend who had been his assistant for all 13 years of his head-coaching career. Soon after, The Seattle Times published an embarrassing, front-page, four-part series on past violent crimes of players from Washington's last winning teams, Huskies before Willingham arrived, and the community's penchant for largely turning the other cheek to those crimes as UW won.
That was also around the time the school proposed using $150 million in public money to renovate 88-year-old Husky Stadium. The plan is getting criticized and drawing little interest in a state Legislature consumed with tight financial times. Willingham testified inside the state Capitol in Olympia, Wash., on Tuesday to try to jump-start interest.
Amid all this, he found time to celebrate his 54th birthday. He was also elected as the president of the American Football Coaches Association. The cruel joke around Seattle is that's the only job Willingham will have beyond the coming season.
``We believe in ourselves ... (that) we will have a great program, that we will win championships,'' he said, his voice low and steady as always.
``Maybe at some point we collect all this information and gather it together and throw it on a table in front of the players and say, 'Our backs are against the wall. Let's go. It's us against the world.'''