New Huskies coach gets 5-year deal

Updated: December 20, 2004, 11:23 AM ET
Associated Press

SEATTLE -- Tyrone Willingham opened a box and found a golden whistle, a gift from Washington president Mark Emmert and athletic director Todd Turner. He slipped it around his neck and blew a shrill chirp.

Tyrone Willingham
Willingham knows the Pac-10, going 44-36-1 with a Rose Bowl berth for Stanford.

Just like that, Willingham was back to work.

"I thought the first order of business should be to test it, just to make sure it was as true as I knew it would be," Willingham explained Monday in his first remarks as Washington's new coach.

Two weeks ago, Willingham was fired after going 21-15 in three seasons at Notre Dame -- the first full-time Fighting Irish coach in 70 years who was not allowed to finish his first contract.

A few hours before Willingham was introduced at Washington, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis officially replaced him at Notre Dame.

Washington plays host to Notre Dame on Sept. 24. Willingham and the Fighting Irish beat Washington 38-3 this season.

"Am I aware Notre Dame is on the schedule?" Willingham asked, breaking into a playful smile."I am, but that will not be the focus. With the years of experience I have in this game, I know the most important game is the next game. We open with Air Force."

Willingham agreed to a five-year deal worth $1.43 million in guaranteed annual salary, with $600,000 in incentives that could boost it to $2 million annually. His base pay is $425,000.

The Huskies believe Willingham can restore the school's sagging football program to national prominence and clean up a mess left by an ugly divorce with former coach Rick Neuheisel, who was fired in July 2003 for gambling on NCAA basketball.

Washington is coming off a 1-10 season under Keith Gilbertson, the worst record in school history. Willingham is the Huskies' third coach in four years.

"It's about time we had a clean start," safety C.J. Wallace said."I came in with coach Neuheisel, and I really wanted to play for him. Then that happened, and coach Gilbertson happened. I think this could be a chance to be the right one."

Emmert and Turner praised Willingham for his integrity and reputation for discipline, saying it was important to find a coach whose teams succeed academically and fit within the university's overall mission.

His ties to the West Coast helped, too. Willingham was 44-36-1 with a Rose Bowl appearance at Stanford from 1995-01.

"It's time for the University of Washington to return to being the 'Dawgs,"' said Willingham, who recalled the Huskies always playing tough and wearing down his Stanford squads."As I understand it, that is a vicious animal."

Willingham's been in the news frequently in recent weeks. His firing at Notre Dame raised questions about whether he was given enough time to succeed and drew criticism from the Black Coaches Association.

He was one of only five black head coaches in Division I-A last season. That number dropped to two after Tony Samuel was fired at New Mexico State, Fitz Hill resigned at San Jose State and Willingham was let go.

"We as individuals should be proud of our ethnic backgrounds, whether you're Italian or African-American," Willingham said."I am proud to be African-American, but we want to get to the point where it's not the focus, where you can be judged on the body of work."

Washington becomes the only Division I-A school with black head coaches in the two major sports. Men's basketball coach Lorenzo Romar is in his third season leading the Huskies.

"Tyrone Willingham is an outstanding individual, in terms of the way he carries himself both in public and behind closed doors," BCA president Stan Wilcox said."You couldn't find a better gentleman of character and respect within the football coaching community."

When Gilbertson announced his plans to step down last month after two seasons, Willingham's name immediately topped the list of potential candidates drawn up by Emmert and Turner.

Just one problem: at the time, Willingham was still Notre Dame's coach. Then came his surprising ouster by Irish athletic director Kevin White on Nov. 30, and the Washington brass made a run at Willingham.

"When Tyrone became available a few weeks ago, we were absolutely stunned and elated," Emmert said.

Turner said Willingham was the only person offered the job.

Emmert and Turner hope to make the Huskies a national football power again, and Emmert has a blueprint to follow. As chancellor at LSU, he hired Nick Saban from Michigan State and shared the national title last season.

"Coach Willingham is always going to make us proud, someone who will represent the university with great dignity," Emmert said. ``If football is the front porch of the university, then our front porch just got a whole lot better."


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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