I know the author of the following story from my days working on the West Coast. I didn’t expect to be quoted, however. You might find her take on Tyrone Willingham’s days at Notre Dame worth reading.
Analysis: Ty’s struggles are like South Bend all over again
Futility at UW seems to affirm Notre Dame firing
People in South Bend, Ind., still talk about Tyrone Willingham, who has been gone from Notre Dame longer than he coached there.
UW VS. NOTRE DAMEWHEN/WHERE:Saturday, 5 p.m.,
When you coach at Notre Dame, the talk doesn’t stop at the borders of St. Joseph County.
Bill Diedrick served as Willingham’s offensive coordinator for seven years at Stanford and Notre Dame.
“When you coach at Notre Dame, because of the national appeal, half the country loves you and the other half hates you,” Diedrick said.
When things fall apart on your watch at Notre Dame, then, it must feel like the whole world is against you.
Willingham is the kind of man who doesn’t let things fall apart, but after three strange years as head coach of the Fighting Irish, he was fired.
With Willingham keeping specifics to himself, exactly what went wrong at Notre Dame is left to speculation, but recruiting woes, subpar performances and an inability to connect with the fan base are usually cited as factors.
Whatever went wrong for Willingham in South Bend seems to have manifested itself at Washington. The UW likely will give the coach a pink slip at season’s end.
After three-plus seasons, Huskies fans have joined in the chatter, voicing their displeasure as much with the product the coach has put on the field as with his stoic demeanor and puzzling explanations.
With an 11-31 record and just two home wins against BCS opponents, Willingham may feel the world stacking against him yet again.
Irish recruiting woes
In January 2002, Willingham left his comfort zone at Stanford. Suddenly, as Notre Dame’s first black head coach, he was in the national spotlight playing on the country’s biggest stage.
“They started out winning their first eight games, rocketed into the top five and everybody loved Tyrone,” longtime South Bend Tribune Notre Dame beat writer Eric Hansen said.
After a 10-3 season in which “we just played great defense,” Willingham said, things took a turn.
“That third year, recruiting was just horrible. It went downhill so quickly,” Hansen said.
Willingham’s class of 2004 included no five-star recruits and just three four-star prospects. Rivals.com ranked the class No. 32 in the nation.
His final class was going nowhere when he was cut loose. It ended up finishing 40th in Rivals.com’s rankings.
“To be an aggressive recruiter, you have to send text messages and make promises with a wink, and that’s just not Tyrone’s style,” former Stanford athletic director and longtime Willingham supporter Ted Leland said in an article in Wednesday’s Chicago Sun-Times. “He doesn’t wink. He doesn’t promise anything.”
Willingham considers that a compliment.
“That would be my take on it — that he is saying I am someone who goes into the home and will not say or do something, or commit to a kid something that is out of the realm of us providing,” Willlingham said.
Willingham recruited Seahawks rookie tight end John Carlson to Notre Dame, and Carlson was one who appreciated the straightforward approach.
“He’s someone that I viewed as a role model, and that was important to me in selecting a school,” Carlson said. “He was someone I felt I could learn from on the field and off the field. He’s one of the reasons I chose Notre Dame.”
But the polite approach didn’t work in most cases.
“His last two recruiting classes were the worst in Notre Dame history, and that is what really led to his demise here,” said Neil Hayes, who covers Notre Dame for the Chicago Sun-Times and used to cover Stanford football for the Contra Costa Times.
Willingham’s recruiting at Washington has been scrutinized after below-average classes in his first three stabs. His signing class of 2008, though, was a home run. Scout.com ranked it No. 14 in the country.
Problem is, Willingham is quickly burning through that class. A dozen of the 24 members of the class have played.
Losing is not common at Notre Dame — or at Washington, for that matter.
Before Willingham arrived in South Bend in 2002, the Irish had four .500 or worse seasons in the previous 20 years.
Willingham’s three-year record was 21-16. After his 10-3 debut season, his teams put together records of 5-7 and 6-6 and never won a bowl game.
What was astounding, though, was how Notre Dame lost.
In 2004, the Irish lost to USC by 31 points, to Purdue by 25 points. The year before, they lost to Florida State, USC and Michigan by margins of 37, 31 and 38 points, respectively.
These losses really got people talking.
“All the stuff that people liked about him changed,” Hansen said. “His being quiet and stuff? The first year it was, ‘He’s introspective.’ Then it turned into, ‘He’s guarded.’
“Then they had these thunderous losses, and Tyrone didn’t have an explanation.”
A previously strong defense evaporated, and the offense, despite being led by young quarterback Brady Quinn, struggled to put up points in Diedrick’s West Coast system.
Tailback Julius Jones, now with the Seahawks, played for Willingham in 2003.
“My last year, we didn’t start out too well,” Jones said. “I guess at Notre Dame they don’t really wait for you to get things going. You have to come in strong and continue to make the program strong. I guess they felt we weren’t making the moves we needed to be making. I don’t really know.”
Without answers or improvement, the talk grew into a full-fledged chorus of frustration.
“After an 8-0 start, his performance was marked by blowout losses, lack of in-game adjustments and rapidly deteriorating recruiting,” said Scott Engler of NDNation.com, an Irish fan site. “Coupled with his withdrawal from the community and refusal to change out his coaching staff, his support started deteriorating midway through year two and spiraled downward to a minority by late 2004.”
Of the losses piled up on Willingham’s Washington rsum, there have been 12 of 20 or more points. Four of those blowouts have come this season.
Coaching at Notre Dame puts coaches into a different realm — one several former coaches call a fishbowl.
“The one thing as the head coach at Notre Dame, you have to understand that you’re a national figure,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “Whether you like it or not, OK, you are. And that there’s good and bad that comes with that.
“You’re the head coach of one of the finest universities in the country, and whatever you do is going to be scrutinized, positively or negatively, and it comes with the territory.
“Probably one of the more disheartening things about it is the fact that you no longer have any personal life because with that job comes … every time you’re in public, you’re like a marked man.”
Willingham seemed to withdraw in the fishbowl while fans looked on.
“They thought he spent too much time on the golf course,” Hansen said. “Whether that was the case or not, I don’t really know.”
But the perception became the disgruntled fans’ reality, and the talk continued.
“He had a terrible media policy,” Hayes said. “He considered the media the enemy, and how can you care about someone you don’t know? He won’t let you know him. Then the minute things go bad, he becomes an easy target.”
With the perfect storm of recruiting woes, mounting losses and the disconnect, Willingham was unceremoniously fired before the end of the 2004 season — just three seasons into his five-year deal.
Carlson still can’t explain it.
“You can have so many pieces of your puzzle and for some reason things just don’t come out right,” he said. “I felt that we had the weapons. I felt that we had the coaches. I felt that our scheme was a good scheme. For some reason, we lost.”
That was when Notre Dame fans escalated from being upset with Willingham to downright hostile toward the man.
“Still, to this point, he wasn’t viewed any differently by Notre Dame fans than Bob Davie or Gerry Faust,” Engler said. “Failure is not a sin.
“The real tipping point for many Notre Dame fans and alumni was allowing (broadcaster) John Saunders to play the race card on national television.”
During the Sept. 24, 2005, ABC telecast of the Notre Dame-Washington game, Saunders suggested Willingham’s dismissal was racially motivated. Willingham didn’t challenge Saunders on that opinion.
“He didn’t throw stones,” Hansen said in Willingham’s defense. “He didn’t fuel that fire … but when it started playing out in the national media, a portion of Notre Dame fans wanted to defend their school and the only thing that could justify his firing was if he was a complete flop at Washington.”
Irish fans, then, are taking delight in the coach’s struggles, but others don’t get that.
Huskies offensive line coach Mike Denbrock coached with Willingham at Notre Dame and doesn’t understand the animosity.
“I think it’s unfortunate if they do feel that way because Tyrone Willingham, in my opinion, did a lot for the University of Notre Dame,” he said.
Jones, who admitted he hasn’t talked with Willingham in about a year, said, “He talked about winning off the field, that’s one thing I do remember him saying a lot: ‘We’re going to win on the field and, more importantly, off the field.’ He’s a good teacher in that aspect. Things just aren’t working out too well for him this year. It’s sad.”
Kim Grinolds, managing partner of Huskies fan siteDawgman.com, said, “There’s a lot of unhappy people out there. Huskies football has always been about the fans, and there’s just a lot of stuff out there. There’s a disconnect — there really is.”
Willingham’s media policy is the tightest in the Pac-10 Conference. Boosters and invited guests must sign in to watch practices and sign a waiver that nothing from the session will be elsewhere divulged. James Cornell and his father, Steve, were actually banned from practices during fall camp after James posted on Grinolds’ site that one coach was “hands-on” and another a “stud.”
Former Huskies kicker John Anderson penned an intense letter castigating Willingham and posted it on Dawgman.com.
“When you’re not winning and keeping people away, it’s kind of like if you don’t know, you always think the worst,” Grinolds said.
So the talk continues in King County, as well as St. Joseph County, as Willingham’s past and present collide, putting the coach in the most uncomfortable of positions — twisting in the wind.