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A college coach is different from a professional one. A college coach, if he tries, can make a difference in a young person's life. I guess that goes a long way with me -- trying to do the right thing, I mean. Nobody ever completely succeeds, but some men make a genuine attempt.
Tyrone Willingham is one of those guys.
Washington, Willingham's current team, has gathered some momentum in the rebirth of a program that was, by all accounts, left for dead in 2002 after the departure of Rick Neuheisel. Neuheisel is college football's "Pig Pen" -- wherever he goes, he seems to leave behind a cloud of dirt and a mess for someone else to clean. While at Colorado, there was the recruiting scandal in which Neuheisel and his staff had "accidental encounters" with some recruits on high school campuses. After seven of the 26 kids the coach "bumped into" eventually signed with Colorado, the NCAA deemed this unfair. After he left for Washington, Colorado was hit with 51 violations. There were more, albeit minor, recruiting violations in Seattle. But it was the March Madness gambling incident that eventually cost him his job. Sure, it was nitpicking on the NCAA's part, and Neuheisel may have been within his rights to take part in the office pool. But ol' Tricky Rick has a way of making any atmosphere a bit more sleazy than it needs to be.
So when the good folks at the University of Washington decided to clean up and rebuild their program and reputation, they selected Tyrone Willingham as their guy. The man can coach. He's already proven that. Now at 4-1, Washington hasn't arrived -- not yet. But they've taken the first step. That's when you beat the teams you're supposed to beat, like Fresno State and San Jose. The next step is when you beat the teams you aren't supposed to beat, like Oklahoma. The Huskies aren't there yet. Their one loss, in Norman, was a sign of the requisite growing pains. Tomorrow's game against USC could be another one of those games. But actually, I think Washington can beat the Trojans. They're hardly the juggernaut of the past three years, and they're vastly overrated.
Like I said, Tyrone Willingham can coach. But I can also tell you he does a whole lot more. And I suggest all you Huskies fans, and all you pure college football fans (I know there are a few of you left!) try to appreciate one of the few men with integrity in college football.
Here are five things I learned from hanging out with Ty Willy and playing for him at Stanford.
1. Never complain.
He once told me, "There are too many 'woe is me' stories." I think that's why he never complained about anything, subtle or overt. Take the late-night phone call from the guy in Florida. You heard about that one, right? Some guy, drunk, and goaded by his friends, called the Notre Dame athletic department and used all kinds of racial epithets in criticizing Willingham. Like you, I had to read about it after the fact. Willingham would never tell me about that. He would think it was asking for sympathy. That's not something he does. He doesn't do or say anything that can ever be misconstrued as whining. That isn't something any credible football coach ever does. At least not any coach I ever had.
2. Be aware, but not focused.
He told me that while it's good to be aware of the people around you, you shouldn't be focused on their actions. "Everyone has an agenda," he said. "But don't let it interfere with your life."
After Willingham got the Notre Dame job, I walked into his office with the intent of writing a treatise about his first season. I told him I was going to write the story regardless of what happened. He laughed at this, and then asked what I needed from him. I told him I was writing a narrative of the season and that I needed to meet with him once a week. He agreed. Several years later, I'm most grateful that in agreeing to speak to me, he never steered me away from the kind of story I wanted to write.
So many others -- editors, friends, colleagues -- all encouraged me to write anything other than what I wanted. They suggested a self-help book, or some moronic play-by-play, stats-heavy recap of the season. Perhaps they were all well-intentioned. But no one -- save Willingham himself -- seemed to be OK with what I wanted to do. And true to his word, we met once a week, and he never stopped being himself. Of course, that was both good and bad. He's fiercely private. I imagine the Pentagon is more accessible than the contents of Willingham's office and his person. But he essentially helped me do what I wanted to do without regard to himself. For the record, that's my narrow definition of helping people.
3. It's a shame when many are judged by one.
The dangers of being the first "black" anything are many. In fact, that whole pioneer industry is fraught with peril, and the thinking person is wise to avoid it. But I thought Willingham handled, with aplomb, being the first black coach at Notre Dame.
I remember standing outside the stadium before a game against Purdue that season, when I heard a 40-something black man say about Willingham, "If he messes up, we all look bad."
I remember thinking: (1) That's a lot of pressure; and (2) that's an incredibly ignorant statement. Willingham knows he doesn't represent all black folks. And he left me with the impression that he wished other people felt that way. I know I do. I feel no obligation to represent all black folks. Black folks are too socially and politically fragmented for any one person to represent.
4. Don't believe the hype.
This one's my favorite. I once wrote something about Willingham in which I attributed the words of the great Chuck D of Public Enemy, who coined the phrase "don't believe the hype" in PE's '80s rap anthem. But Willingham didn't want anyone to think he listened to hip-hop -- and in his own subtle way, he told me as much. He sat me down in his office and played selections from some really old-school cuts. "Now this is good music," he said. OK, so his philosophy wasn't borrowed from Chuck D. But it's still applicable.
Regardless of what's written or said about him by fans, media or university administrators, the man remains unmoved. Sports Illustrated referred to him as the "Savior of South Bend." He didn't buy it. He kept that stone face and he kept his focus. I think this also freaked people out. (Truth be told, I'm beginning to think freaking people out may be the most intriguing byproduct of being yourself.) In fact, when someone later wrote that it was a shame what "Notre Dame had 'done' to Willingham," my response was that no one had done anything to the man. As far as I knew, Tyrone Willingham was still very much Tyrone Willingham.
5. Own your humility.
Tyrone Willingham is a humble guy. But that's not to be confused with the popular, more convenient, skewed interpretation of the word: self-loathing. I don't think he hates himself. I doubt he sits around saying things like, "Man, I really suck. I can't do anything right." That's not humility. Like I said, that's self-loathing. And no one worth a crap, especially a coach who's trusted to lead young people, can afford to harbor feelings of self-hatred.
When people tell me to stay humble, I laugh. It's not like I have a choice in the matter. I control nothing in this world, except my own self-esteem. I played on four different NFL teams, and was cut by all of them. For three years I struggled to run my own business. Nothing is easy. And contrary to popular belief, there is no magic formula -- for winning football games, writing best-sellers, or achieving professional advancement. You work hard, stay focused, stay true to yourself and hope for the best.
It's not flashy, just solid and effective. Like the guy on the Washington sideline.
Alan Grant is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is a former NFL defensive back who played college football at Stanford.