Willingham ideal to rejuvenate Washington

Already, Tyrone Willingham is way, way ahead of Rick Neuheisel at Washington. So, Husky alumnus Jim Caple says, "Thank you, Notre Dame."

Updated: December 14, 2004, 2:47 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

He hasn't sent out his resume since agreeing to his new contract. He hasn't been cited for any NCAA violations yet. And he hasn't filed a lawsuit against the university.

So already, Tyrone Willingham is way, way ahead of Rick Neuheisel at Washington.

Two weeks after Notre Dame embarrassed itself by firing him despite a winning record, Willingham signed a five-year contract with the Huskies. As a Washington alumnus, I have only this to say: Thank you, Notre Dame.

Tyrone Willingham
AP"I think Tyrone Willingham is a great fit for the University of Washington," Willingham said at his introduction Monday.

The Huskies needed Willingham desperately. They are coming off the worst season (1-10) in school history, losing all their conference games and beating only San Jose State. Worse, they had lost their way as a program. Neuheisel skirted rules, flouted the system and spent more time updating his resume at Kinko's than he did studying game film. Keith Gilbertson replaced him, lost more games in one season than any coach in Husky history and then had the gall to gripe about troublesome compliance officers on his way out the door. And as the program fell apart, the administration's only response was to hit up the alumni and fans for more money.

Standards had fallen to the point where it was difficult to root for my alma mater anymore.

The Huskies needed someone who could get them back on track, a coach who can win and a coach with integrity. They got all that in Willingham.

"The integrity and character of the coach were the single most important attributes for [athletics director] Todd Turner and myself," UW president Mark Emmert said.

"I think Tyrone Willingham is a great fit for the University of Washington," Willingham said, apparently reading from the cover letter of his resume."I think it's been my notation that they talk about my integrity. That they say he is straightforward. That they say he is intelligent, that he has the best interest of the players and the program and the university at heart. That he has been successful at the programs that he's taken. That he's done good things there, he's developed young people. When you mention those things I believe they are a great fit for this university and to be very honest, I hope and believe they would be a great fit for any university."

Obviously, getting fired by the most famous team in college football didn't dent Willingham's self-esteem a bit. But that's good. Notre Dame was wrong to fire Willingham and the Irish may begin regretting it as early as next fall.

"If you're asking am I aware that Notre Dame is on the schedule? I am, but that will not be my focus," Willingham said.

That qualifies as a standup routine for Willingham. The man is as serious as an IRS audit. Even when he cracks jokes, he rarely smiles. He makes John Ashcroft look like Carrot Top. He will bring discipline back to the program.

The Huskies needed someone who could get them back on track, a coach who can win and a coach with integrity. They got all that in Willingham.

More importantly than what he brings to Washington, he represents something more to national sports at large. Willingham is the first black coach ever to be hired as a head coach at a major college after being fired by a major college. In a sport where only three Division I coaches are black, the fact that one of them is getting not just a chance but another chance is important.

"That is honestly significant," Willingham said. "Because I think when you're in a landscape where there have been limited opportunities, to be able to be back in the system is a very positive step."

So, too, is the fact that Washington has a black football coach and a black basketball coach, another important first for Division I athletics.

"There is no question that from an African-American perspective, the numbers speak for themselves. I do not think they offer a great commentary for where we are today," Willingham said. "But at the same time, I would say to those that aspire to be head coaches that are of ethnic backgrounds, never give up the battle. Keep pressing forward because that is the only way that change will be accomplished."

Willingham is proud of his heritage but he wants to get to the point where the focus is not on the skin color of a coach but on his achievements. He needn't worry. Washington has a long and successful football tradition and fans are hungry for a return to the good times. Like all other coaches, he will be judged on his winning percentage and bowl record.

That shouldn't be a problem. Prior to his days at Notre Dame, Willingham took Stanford to the Rose Bowl for the first time in a generation. If he can do that, he'll get the Huskies back to Pasadena. And he'll do it the right way.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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