Willingham looks to the future, not the past
SEATTLE -- Tyrone Willingham made his first public appearance Sunday night at Washington, stepping out onto the Hec Edmundson Pavilion floor to address the crowd at halftime of the Huskies men's basketball game against NC State.
His remarks were brief. He was direct in his charge of bringing back this once-proud, former national championship program. He said he couldn't wait for the first game of the 2005 football season against Air Force.
"He is exactly what we needed," new Washington athletic director Todd Turner said Sunday night. "He brings us instant credibility."
Less than a week after being named Washington's coach, Willingham has rebounded as well as any coach in recent memory. It took two weeks for him to land at one of the premier jobs in the country despite losing a job that may have devastated other coaches. It might have hurt Willingham more 20 years ago but he's already moved on. But, then again, that's always been Willingham's style. Quick. No-nonsense. To the point.
Like most of his comments, regardless of the subject, Willingham was concise and direct in recounting the final days at Notre Dame and his quick turnaround in a sit-down interview with ESPN.com and ESPN Sunday afternoon.
Willingham said his goals at Notre Dame were to win a championship: "At Notre Dame there is only one championship a national championship."
He added he didn't accomplish his goals and failed to win enough games after winning 10 in his first season, five in his second and six this past season.
"I wanted to win more," Willingham said, but "that football program went to two bowl games in three years and that's not as good as I wanted to but it's not terrible."
Willingham said he met with Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White on Sunday, Nov. 28.
"That was the first indication that something wasn't right," Willingham said.
What did he say?
"He said 'I think you're in trouble,'" Willingham said.
When did Willingham find out he was terminated?
"Two days later on Tuesday," Willingham said.
What did White say?
"He said you're no longer the head football coach at Notre Dame," Willingham said. "I didn't ask him to be descriptive about (how the decision was made). The fact that it occurred was simply enough."
And that was also enough to leave Willingham "hurt, disappointed, stunned, dazed," he said. "It was like taking a knockout blow. But then the next moment, you get back up, you pull yourself off the canvas and get yourself ready for the next challenge."
Others didn't let it go as quickly. Outgoing Notre Dame president, Fr. Edward Malloy, blasted the firing, showing support for Willingham and disgust over the Irish not allowing Willingham to fulfill his contract. "That showed the character of the man who led the university," Willingham said. "To be able to take that stand, stand up at that time was very impressive."
But less than 24 hours after Notre Dame terminated him, Willingham said Turner called him to talk about replacing Keith Gilbertson.
Of course, Willingham should have known he'd get a call. Two weeks prior to his dismissal, the outgoing Gilbertson called him and asked him about his interest in the job. Willingham said he should have asked him why but said he was committed to Notre Dame and doesn't look at other jobs while he has one of his own.
Willingham took the Washington job last Monday. In between, he said he heard from so many people around the country that the list was longer than Santa Claus'. He said he wouldn't name names out of respect for those individuals, but they were all concerned about his well-being, especially emotionally. But Willingham said they found him to be in the state he thought he would be -- ready to take on the next challenge. Willingham said if this happened to him 20 years ago (he's 50 today) then he would have been devastated for a much longer period.
This pain didn't last more than a few hours.
"I was excited and delighted to be given this opportunity," he said.
Willingham said he doesn't have any advice for current Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis. He said he wants him to win. Willingham's only regret at Notre Dame is that he didn't win enough for the Irish.
He said White's comments -- that the program was in great shape from Sundays to Fridays -- were accurate and so was his statement that the Irish struggled on Saturdays.
"What is the most important thing to do? Win. If you win then you can carry out all the other programs that are important to you at the university," Willingham said.
Naturally, his attention is now on Washington, trying to rebuild a former national champion after the program slumped to just one win last season. But to hear Willingham, the hard work has already been done. A national title? It's possible, because, well, the Huskies have already won one.
"If you've never done something then it makes it increasingly difficult to accomplish," Willingham said. "They understand how to do it here so we just have to get all the forces aligned to do it."
Willingham said he's much better coach today than when he took over at Notre Dame in 2002. He led Stanford to four bowls in seven seasons, including the 1999 Rose Bowl. He was named the Pac-10 coach of the year twice and the Sporting News named him Sportsman of the Year after his first season at Notre Dame.
He wasn't surprised at all he rebounded so quickly.
"I've laid the right foundation," Willingham said. "I've been respectful to myself and to the programs I've been associated with. Others recognize that and look at the quality of the man. It doesn't matter if he's black, white, brown, yellow or red. You're just a man who does things right."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.