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Wednesday, November 28, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Replace Ty for new look

Seattle Times staff columnist

The Apple Cup, and all of the intangible swag that comes with winning it, was on the line.

Washington State was marching again, but coming out of a timeout Washington thought it had the proper defense, the game-winning defense, called.

All it really had was confusion.

On the climactic play in Saturday's WSU victory, part of Washington's defense was playing Cover 2 and part was blitzing. Washington State's outside receivers were left uncovered and Brandon Gibson, who caught Alex Brink's game-winning pass with 31 seconds left, was open by some 15 yards.

Washington coach Tyrone Willingham called the play a communication breakdown. But a communication lapse that enormous? After a timeout? Twelve weeks into the season? It never should have happened.

It was more than a breakdown in communication. It was a colossal gaffe. The kind of mistake, when heaped upon all of the others, that gets a coach fired.

Week by week, mistake by mistake, it is becoming apparent that Willingham isn't working at Washington.

His three seasons have been the worst three in the school's history. With this Apple Cup loss, he is 1-8 against the Northwest schools. He is the first Washington coach to have three straight losing seasons.

The body of work is in. Willingham isn't working. The numbers don't lie.

When he came to Washington, it, not USC, was the winningest program in the Pac-10. But if his team loses at Hawaii on Saturday, Willingham's winning percentage will be a woeful .303.

Willingham would have to go 19-5 just to equal Bill Doba's five-year record at Washington State. Doba was fired Monday.

I've always believed Willingham needed time to turn around Washington's devastated football program. I thought he deserved every day of his five-year contract.

After Rick Neuheisel's termination and Keith Gilberton's impossible mission, I believed Washington needed stability in its program. But Washington football isn't getting better. And time isn't on Willingham's side.

Willingham has two years left on his contract and has the full support of athletic director Todd Turner, but here's the problem: The long-term answer to Washington's long-running quagmire is waiting just across Lake Washington.

Seahawks assistant head coach Jim Mora is the answer that Willingham hasn't been. Mora would bring the stability Willingham hasn't brought.

But if Washington waits two years to make a decision on Willingham, Mora will be gone. He's too hot to linger that long as an assistant.

In two years, the man with the highest winning percentage in Atlanta Falcons history could be coaching the Seahawks. He could be somewhere else in the Pac-10, or somewhere else in the NFL. He will have opportunities, but he is available now.

In the past, Mora has called Washington his "dream job." He would pump up the volume at Washington. He would inject a level of excitement that Willingham can't. He will bring more energy to recruiting.

Mora could spend the next 20 years at his alma mater, chasing all of Don James' records and making the Huskies a Pac-10 player again.

Mora understands the culture of the Northwest in the same way USC coach Pete Carroll understands the culture of Southern California. And he can coach defenses.

With Mora in charge of the defensive backs, the Seahawks have gone from 26th last season to fourth this season in opponents' quarterback rating and the Hawks have allowed the fewest touchdown passes in the NFL.

The argument to keep Willingham always begins the same way. He had the most difficult inheritance of any head coach in history. But that argument no longer is enough to let him keep his job.

Willingham isn't working. After three years he has failed to light a flame under the program. He is stiff with his players and awkward in front of a television camera.

At a time when Washington football needs a shot of charisma to sell its stadium renovation project, Willingham is rigid as a rail line. When it needs a super salesman, it has someone who is button-downed and buttoned-up.

There are problems with the schemes he uses, problems with the way he runs his practices, problems with his people skills.

The clock is ticking. And the answer is available.

Does Washington want to waste the Jake Locker years? Locker might be the most dynamic, most versatile, most athletic quarterback in Washington history. By himself, he would make any coach better. But he needs more help around him.

Replacing Willingham with Mora is a difficult call. It is a decision that shouldn't, and wouldn't, be taken lightly. Obviously, Turner would be against it. The call would be university president Mark Emmert's to make. He did it at Louisiana State when he replaced Gerry DiNardo with Nick Saban and won a national championship.

Would Emmert do it again?

In 1999, a 46-year-old coach with UW ties passionately pursued the Washington job. That coach, Gary Pinkel, lost out to Neuheisel. Now he is one win away from taking Missouri to the BCS championship game.

Mora is 46. He also has a purple passion for Washington. It's déjà vu at the U.

Eight years ago, the Huskies missed their chance at Pinkel. Now they could have a second chance with Mora.

This program can't afford to make another mistake.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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