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Thursday, September 1, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Willingham the man with the plan for the Huskies

Seattle Times staff reporter

Most of them hadn't even met the man and here he was telling them how they were going to live their lives for the next year — offseason workouts, spring practice, summer conditioning, training camp, game weeks. Sure, every coach they'd ever played for had a plan. But they'd never seen anything like this.

"It was like 'a Tuesday practice during the season is going to be 2 hours and 27 minutes,' " Washington center Brad Vanneman said, remembering the afternoon last December when Huskies players held their first meeting with their new coach, Tyrone Willingham. "Everything was to the exact minute."

When the players finally reached the end of the plan they had been given, they noticed the words "bowl game, TBA."

"Yes gentlemen," he told the players, all of whom were just weeks removed from a 1-10 season that was the worst in their school's history. "We ARE going to a bowl game."

"I said, 'Thank you,' " said guard Stanley Daniels, recalling that many players broke into applause. "You need a coach to believe. He's set our goals high and that's how it should be."

And in that meeting, the first time many of them had ever heard him speak in person, they saw all that has come to define Willingham as he has risen from a segregated childhood in North Carolina to become one of the biggest names in college football.

A man who has always had a plan and has never strayed from it, living by a strict code of ethics and morals burned into him by his parents and sustained by his African Methodist Episcopal Zion faith.

"The joy of my life is that it has been pretty consistent," Willingham says. "There has not been a lot of change."

But he is also a man whose competitive zeal allowed him to overcome the doubters who figured that at 5 feet 6, 139 pounds, he'd never make it playing sports at the major-college level.

Those who later told him that, as a black man, he shouldn't bother aspiring to become a leader of one of those same major-college programs.

And those who wondered anew last winter if he might be left scarred by the first sour ending of his professional life — his firing by Notre Dame.

Willingham responded the same way he always has — by happily taking on the task of rebuilding a Washington program left in tatters by mismanagement and scandal, never betraying the slightest hint of Notre Dame-inspired doubt or bitterness along the way.

"That's not Ty," says Charlie Baggett, a former teammate at Michigan State and a friend of Willingham's for more than 30 years. "He fights the battle that's in front of him and, when it's done, he moves on to the next one."

And if the Huskies players in the room that day wanted to know just how the plan was formed, they had to go back to the beginning.

The start

Lionel Tyrone Willingham was born Dec. 30, 1953, in Kinston, N.C., to Nathaniel and Lillian Willingham.

Nathaniel was 48 when Willingham was born, Lillian 38.

"That was the best thing that ever happened to me," Willingham says. "Older parents have a tendency to be more mature. They've done life crisis, so therefore in their instructions for their children they are not battling their own demons."

Willingham was raised in Jacksonville, N.C., a town of about 16,000. Nathaniel Willingham was a self-made property owner and landlord. Lillian Willingham was an elementary-school teacher with a master's degree from Columbia.

Both were active in a community that Tyrone Willingham says gave true meaning to the word.

His father converted the bottom floor of the family's house into a recreation center that soon became the meeting point for town children, while his mother served on just about every committee there was, as well as acting as a mentor to area teachers. Lillian Willingham's deeds are remembered today in Jacksonville with a street and a park named for her.

But their greatest accomplishments, those in Jacksonville say, are their four children, of whom Tyrone is the oldest. All have advanced degrees. Tyrone's brother, Jerome, was once a city councilman in Jacksonville and his two younger sisters work in Washington, D.C.

"His parents valued education and made sure their kids did," said John Thomas, Willingham's driver-education teacher. "But his mother and father, although they commanded respect, at the same time they gave him the freedom to go out and mingle with other kids. You never heard about him doing anything wild or crazy. His parents would not have approved of that and he believed in following the rules."

Willingham recalls his childhood in somewhat idyllic tones.

"We were the old-style kids," he said. "When the sun came up, we were outside riding bikes, playing games. Our neighborhood was pretty open, so you always had gatherings for baseball, basketball, football. It was always there."

Living with segregation

Just as present in 1960s North Carolina, however, was segregation.

Two incidents have become essential parts of any Willingham biography — the mysterious burning of a local high school in 1966 when it was scheduled to be integrated the following fall; and Willingham, at age 12 and the only black player on his baseball team, arriving at a tournament in a town a few miles away to be greeted by a sign reading "Welcome to the home of the United Klan."

"You were aware of [segregation] from the very time you were old enough to go with your mom into a store," Willingham said. "Every neighborhood had its rule — when the lights come on, you go home. We knew that when the lights came on, you didn't cross the railroad tracks because there happened to be kind of a division between the communities. So these are all things that you knew growing up."

Ugly as segregation was, though, it helped forge Willingham's will.

"The area we lived in was very competitive," Willingham said. "Segregation had a lot to do with that. When you seem deprived, you have to be competitive to get out of that."

Education, he learned early, was the best avenue for escape.

Willingham says he missed just four days of school in 12 years, once going eight consecutive years with perfect attendance.

One Friday when he was 11 years old he had a good excuse for staying home — he had been hit by a car the day before while crossing a street.

"I was playing games, not being very smart," he says. He marvels that if the car had hit him at a different angle "it would have been over."

Was he injured badly?

"Enough to miss school," he says. Bruised but not broken, he was back in class on Monday.

A year or so later, Willingham began accompanying Marion Wigfall, five years older and the quarterback of the Jacksonville High football team, on his early-morning workouts. Wigfall would rise at 6 a.m. and do an hour of lifting and running, then practice plays with Tyrone acting as one of his running backs.

"I didn't have to go get him or anything — he was already just there," said Wigfall, who later became an assistant principal at Jacksonville High. "I was the quarterback so I knew I had to get my running in, but for someone that age to buy into something like that, you had to know that this person had a lot of dedication and a will to succeed."

Driven to succeed, lead

A few years later, Willingham was himself the quarterback for Jacksonville High, as well as the point guard on the basketball team and shortstop on the baseball team — all the leadership positions, those in town point out. This despite being about the smallest kid in school.

"He'd say that even though he couldn't see over the line, he could look at their socks and tell where his receivers were," said Thomas, his former teacher. "He was just an athlete with a lot of imagination, and if you told him he couldn't do something, he wanted to prove you wrong."

Thomas admits few in town really thought Willingham could fulfill his dream of playing major-college sports, and there were few scouts coming by to give him legitimate hope.

But Willingham was undeterred. In another of the stories that has come to define Willingham, he wrote letters to roughly 100 Division-I schools asking for a chance to walk on. Just two responded — Michigan State and Toledo. Willingham chose Michigan State in part because the school was noted for being light years ahead of most on matters of race. Jimmy Raye, a black quarterback from nearby Fayetteville, N.C., started for Michigan State in 1966 for its famous 10-10 tie against Notre Dame, a game Willingham watched on television.

Raye, by then an assistant at Michigan State, says it was "a major selling job" to get coach Duffy Daugherty to even look at "a 5-7, 140-pound quarterback from out of state." Eventually, Willingham was offered a partial scholarship with the promise of a full ride if he made good.

"It was the same thing he's fought all his life, being told he's not talented enough, big enough, good enough," Raye said. "It was right up his alley. Given his sheer will and intestinal fortitude, I had no doubt in my mind he would get a full ride once he got here."

He did more than that, becoming the starting quarterback late in his freshman season in 1973 when Baggett was injured. Michigan State went 3-1 in those games, the only loss coming against a Woody Hayes-Archie Griffin Ohio State team.

"He was not outstanding or flashy or anything like that," said Denny Stolz, who became Michigan State's coach in 1973. "But he just made very, very few mental mistakes, if any."

Once Baggett was healthy, Willingham returned to the sideline — he threw only eight passes his last three seasons and became a receiver and punt and kick returner as a senior in 1976. By then, Stolz said he saw a coach in the making.

"Sometimes, if a coach would make a mistake sending in a play, he would correct it," Stolz said. "He wouldn't make a big deal of it. Just, 'No coach, you mean right, not left.' That sort of thing."

He was named the team's most inspirational player in 1976, evidence of his popularity among his teammates, even if he wasn't the stereotypical "one of the guys."

Willingham didn't drink — "we always teased him about being our designated driver," Baggett says — and he lived in the dorms throughout, figuring that was the best way to meet his responsibilities. If he ever got in trouble, no one remembers it.

One day, the coaches were mad at the quarterbacks and ordered them to do some extra running. They got together and decided that if they all ran slowly together, the coaches wouldn't notice and they could survive it more easily. All agreed except Willingham.

"Ty took off running and coach is saying, 'I know Ty's not the fastest guy,' " Baggett said. "So we all had to run again. We were all mad at him."

But Willingham managed to negotiate the line between seemingly always doing what was right and fitting in.

"He didn't have to go along with the crowd to be accepted," Raye said. "He stood fast with his beliefs, and the players looked up to him because of his willingness to do what he thought was right and be his own man."

Climbing the coaching ladder

Most who know him say they always figured he'd be a coach, though Willingham insists he never really gave it a thought until sometime during his junior year at Michigan State, where he also played baseball.

He became a graduate assistant there in 1977, understanding that the road to the top for a black coach was long.

"I don't think you can enter the profession with such limited opportunities, saying that one day you are going to be a head coach," he said. "What I said, though, was that I will be the best coach I can be."

Around that time he met his future wife, Kim, who was three years behind him at Michigan State. Kim Willingham later was a television-news anchor until the couple had their first child, Cassidy, now 21 and a gymnast at the University of Denver. The Willinghams would have two other children — Kelsey, 17, and Nathaniel, 15.

Willingham embarked on a dizzying tour of colleges in search of advancement — Central Michigan, back to Michigan State, North Carolina State, Rice, Stanford. He credits his big break as coming in 1987, when as an assistant at Rice he was selected to work with the San Francisco 49ers as an intern in the NFL team's minority-coaches program. It was there that he met Dennis Green, who would become his mentor, and impressed Bill Walsh.

"He was so intelligent and so well-organized and so focused that whatever role or job we had for him, you knew he could get it done," Walsh said, adding that Willingham was remarkably assertive with the players, despite his status as an intern.

He joined Green at Stanford in 1989, then moved with Green to the Minnesota Vikings from 1992 to '94. When Walsh retired as coach of Stanford in 1994, Willingham was a somewhat-controversial and surprising choice to succeed him, beating out Terry Shea, who had been a head coach at San Jose State and was Walsh's offensive coordinator at Stanford.

Fans didn't know who Willingham was and questioned promoting a guy who had never even been a coordinator.

"A lot of outside people and fans didn't understand the decision because they didn't know Tyrone," says Ted Leland, the Stanford athletic director. "But we knew him so well, we didn't think it was taking a chance."

His first two teams advanced to bowls, and after he pulled Stanford out of a minor two-year dip to advance to the Rose Bowl in 1999, he became acclaimed as one of the top coaches in the game. Notre Dame came calling following the 2001 season, needing someone with impeccable integrity after the George O'Leary fiasco, and Willingham accepted, some close to him saying he felt an obligation to other black coaches to take it.

An 8-0 start in 2002 made him the toast of South Bend, but the Fighting Irish went just 13-15 from that point to the end of the 2004 season, when Willingham was fired with two seasons left on his five-year contract. That his only crime was that he hadn't won enough — and that he'd been given just three years to try — led to much criticism of the decision.

Willingham, though, has never fired back at Notre Dame, and it would shock his friends if he ever did.

One day last summer, Willingham offered an incredulous "Why would I do that?" when asked if he felt a need to defend himself on his Notre Dame years.

Then he paused, and in what for him serves as chest thumping, he continued.

"But if I'm correct, I think we went to two bowl games there," he said. "I think our young men were very active in the community. I think they added a very strong positive to that university community. I think the words that were said about me (by some Notre Dame administrators) spoke volumes."

So he left South Bend the minute it left him, standing there a few weeks later in front of new players at Washington with the same old plan. New players getting to know the same old Tyrone Willingham.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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