SEATTLE (AP) -The honeymoon started perfectly. The integrity of Tyrone Willingham 's new regime meshing with the tradition expected at Notre Dame.
Willingham's first season with the Fighting Irish in 2002 could not have played out much better. A 10-3 record. A bowl trip. A restoration of Notre Dame in the national conversation. The man who managed to win at Stanford, was able to do the same with the Fighting Irish factory.
His coaching reputation in the six seasons since at Notre Dame and Washington - a collection of failures dictated in part by inexperience, disagreeable attitudes from players and substandard recruiting - has left Willingham on the cusp of a second firing in four years.
Willingham's history revisits Saturday as the winless Huskies host Notre Dame, with the countdown clock accelerating toward the likely conclusion of Willingham's Washington tenure. In a season destined to be make-or-break since last December's announcement that he'd get a fourth season, Willingham is 0-6 and needs a miraculous turnaround in the final six weeks.
illingham left behind at Notre Dame is contrite talking about his opponent this week.
``It's important when you get involved in coaching to never wish bad on other coaches,'' said Charlie Weis, Willingham's replacement at Notre Dame.
Willingham's fall is dramatic in its speed. He was honored by multiple organizations as national coach of the year in 2002 for becoming the only first-year coach in Notre Dame history to win 10 games.
Six years later, he's become vilified by Washington fans and still resented by some in South Bend. Seattle fans are unwilling to accept his 11-31 record, despite bringing stability back to a program that was full of volatility after the messy divorce with former coach Rick Neuheisel.
In many ways, Willingham's 10-3 first season at Notre Dame was misleading. Willingham inherited a talented defense that thrived for much of his first season. The Irish offense failed to score a touchdown in their first two games (wins over Maryland and Purdue) and in their last two games (losses to USC and North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl).
``We just played great defense. Our offense was not the most productive that year but we had an unbelievable defensive team that literally scored points,'' Willingham recalled this week. ``When you get your defense playing in that manor, it really helps everything.''
Then began Willingham's slide.
th Notre Dame and was fired after the 2004 regular season. John Carlson was in his redshirt year at Notre Dame when Willingham was suddenly dismissed following a 6-5 campaign, a stunning change for the tight end who came to Notre Dame largely because of Willingham.
``One of the reasons I wanted to play for him was because he was focused on developing his players as people, developing them academically and developing them as football players,'' said Carlson, now a rookie with the Seattle Seahawks. ``Those are things I looked for in a college. I don't think every high school football player looks for those things.''
Willingham was given salvation at Washington, charged with restoring the integrity of a program in shambles after a 1-10 season in 2004. While very few will argue with Willingham bringing stability and class back to Washington, there's been no translation to the playing field. Too many recruiting misses, too many key injuries, and too much reliance this season on young and inexperienced players have handcuffed his chances.
The Huskies have lost six straight in each of Willingham's four seasons in Seattle.
``The most difficult thing is you have to find a way to keep fighting through when you have disappointment,'' Willingham said. ``That's the most difficult thing because it tests your resiliency, it tests your emotions, it tests your energy, it tests everything about you.''
ve played for Willingham in the past are surprised at his inability to make Washington into a winner. Perhaps leaving Stanford for Notre Dame was one of Willingham's biggest misjudgments. With the Cardinal, he was 44-36-1, more than successful enough to keep their alumni and fans happy.
Since leaving Palo Alto, he's 32-46.
``He is what he is. Coach Willingham, he's a one-of-a-kind guy. That's not a bad thing. He's very unique. Players respect him. Just different. Kind of more of a father figure. He wants you to be a better man. That's really his approach to everything,'' said Seahawks running back Julius Jones, another former Willingham player at Notre Dame.
``I know their record is not really too good right now. But sometimes you struggle, man. ... I hope everybody's taking it easy on him.''

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