Willingham: It's a matter of patience
Seattle Times staff columnist
The first time I ever talked to Tyrone Willingham without taking notes, he ended our breakfast meeting with a Samuel Johnson quote he wanted me to remember.
Of course, I forgot it.
Willingham's likable traits are mostly subtle, never flashy. You either pick them up or you don't, and the Washington football coach is too narrowly focused and too steadfast in his beliefs to stop and play the please-love-me game. He has a plan, and regardless of the circumstances, he never takes more than one step to the right or left of it. He just carries on, unfettered.
Washington hired Willingham because he's a steady, righteous disciplinarian, the kind of man who could rescue the program from its controversial recent history.
Of course, three years later, fans forgot that.
Unless Chicken Little now reigns on Montlake, Willingham will return for a fourth season. Why? Because it's the right decision.
Because a coach who inherits a one-win team should get more than three seasons to fix the mess.
Because the Huskies are gaining momentum in recruiting.
Because Willingham brought in quarterback Jake Locker and should get another year with him.
Because no program should want the instability of having a fourth coach in six years.
Because Willingham has restored control and created a culture of hard work, which was his primary task.
Firing Willingham at this point would only mean that the university and its fan base care more about style than substance. There are coaches out there with more pizazz than Willingham, and when rebuilding gets laborious, the easiest thing is to quit, boot the coach and bring in a new guy to pacify the disgruntled masses.
The strategy can work, but it can also create a revolving door of coaching failures and cosmetic solutions.
The Huskies need patience. They need to let Willingham stand before reporters this week for his state-of-the-program address, look at us all with his customary skepticism and talk one more time about improvement and progress.
And then let it be understood that next season is a win-or-else year.
The perception that the Huskies must rush Willingham out the door before Seahawks assistant head coach Jim Mora finds another job is ludicrous. It's an insult to the UW tradition to suggest that the school is that desperate for one coach.
All indications are Mora would be a fantastic college coach, but no one knows this for sure. He has only been a head coach in the NFL, and he was fired from that job. No matter how talented Mora is, the Huskies would be pursuing him just as much out of panic as logic.
It would require UW president Mark Emmert overruling athletic director Todd Turner because of pressure from fans and boosters. Turner has been outspoken in his support of Willingham; Emmert has been more noncommittal.
There's always pressure on losing programs. Fans shouldn't be happy, but they also get carried away with their disgust. Like the stat about Willingham being the only UW coach to suffer three straight losing seasons. Well, how many of those coaches have taken over 1-10 teams burdened by scandal? Context matters.
After the huge victory over Boise State this season, supposedly a program-changer, I asked Willingham about that quote again.
Of course, I forgot it again.
It's easy to get lost in your mind.
You are forgetting that the bad times started even before Willingham arrived. How long does it take to fix a mess? That's a good question.
Perhaps if the Huskies had played a soft schedule this season, you'd have seen more victories. Instead, they endured arguably the nation's toughest schedule — with a first-year quarterback leading them.
Before the season, I figured the Huskies could be a better team with a worse record than 2006. And they went from 5-7 to 4-9 this season, dropping Willingham's UW record to 11-25.
Washington has had some amazing seasons under coaches in their third years. Don James, Jim Owens and Enoch Bagshaw all went to the Rose Bowl in year three. Rick Neuheisel went during his second year.
So Willingham didn't achieve the quick fix, mostly because his defense was awful. The Huskies set a school record for yards allowed (446.4 per game). The sensible next step is to shake up the defensive coaching staff.
If Willingham fires defensive coordinator Kent Baer, his longtime friend, he will have proven his commitment to winning. If he hires an innovative defensive mind and Locker improves, the Huskies will have a winning season in 2008 despite having another rough schedule that includes BYU, Oklahoma and Notre Dame on top of Pac-10 play.
Once he wins, Willingham will make more sense. One more year. Let's see what he can do with one more year.
In mid-September, I asked Willingham a final time about that quote. This time, I wrote it down. Maybe you should, too.
"The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken."
If these words are true, the Huskies will benefit from patience.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company