THREE YEARS into a five-year deal with Notre Dame, after 21 wins and 15 losses, Tyrone Willingham got the boot. Washington athletic director Todd Turner was on the phone with him that day. Less than two weeks later Willingham was introduced as the Huskies' new coach. He had been out of work for all of 12 days.
Seated at his new desk overlooking Lake Washington last week, Willingham was invited to lash out at his former employer. Instead he had this to say: "I may not have fumbled [at Notre Dame]; I might have fumbled. But the event occurred, and life is about dealing with it and moving on."
Willingham has moved on. He began his first team meeting at Washington with a PowerPoint presentation. The first slide said, THE RETURN OF THE DAWGS. "And fellas," said Willingham, fixing his gimlet eyes on the Huskies, "I'm not talking about a poodle."
Ever since the scandal-scarred reign of Rick Neuheisel ended in July 2003, the program known locally as Probation Nation had become unintimidating, effete, poodlelike. When Neuheisel's replacement, the hapless Keith Gilbertson, resigned after last year's worst-in-school-history 1--10 record, Turner convened a council of ex-Huskies. What kind of feedback did he get? "It all focused on returning us to a program of disciplined toughness," he says. "What Washington football used to be about was getting people up here on a misty afternoon and beating them into the turf. We've lost that. We need to get it back. Tyrone fit the bill perfectly."
Willingham is a superb fit in Seattle, not just because he will put the bite back in the Dawgs. His uprightness, in both carriage and conduct, will help restore the integrity of an athletic program rocked in recent years by various NCAA rules infractions. Says Turner, "Here's a candidate who's been Pac-10 Coach of the Year twice, who's been national coach of the year, who's taken a team to a BCS bowl, who graduates everybody and has never had a hiccup with the NCAA. It was an easy decision."
What about Willingham's hiccups on the sideline at Notre Dame? After storming to an 8--0 start in his first season, he lost 15 of his next 27 games. But Turner has "no doubts whatsoever" about Willingham's ability to win. "This is a guy with a proven football mind," Turner says.
Urgency, focus, accountability--these are the buzzwords under Willingham. Team meetings are now held at 6:30 a.m. When a Husky skips a class, he runs ... as does everyone else who plays his position. Long hair and facial hair are no longer permitted. "He's very structured, very organized, everything has a purpose--exactly the mentality we were lacking," says starting center Brad Vanneman. "He wants to win right away, and as a senior, that's something I really want to hear."
Turner has vowed to give Willingham all the help he needs. But the AD acknowledges that Willingham must be the driving force if Washington football is to rise again. He recounts a recent conversation in which the coach asked him how long it would take to get that work done on the stadium.
Smiling at his new hire, Turner told him, "You're the guy who'll determine that."
¬† Willingham must turn around a team that was 1-10 in '04.