I like people who are earnest, who take what they do — but not themselves — seriously.
Football practices at Washington begin Tuesday, but before that the coaches took one final day to relax, even if it had to be spent in the company of media members.
We gathered at Washington National, the robust golf home of the Huskies, in the hills above Auburn's SuperMall.
I checked the pairings. My clubs were put on a cart bearing the name "Tyrone Willingham." The coach was taking some final swings on the driving range.
I was nervous. Willingham shot 74 in this event a year ago. In his first year at Washington he'd demonstrated an indifference, at best, to sportswriters. The combination of playing with a media member who also hacked to a round in the high 90s might mean a dismal day for both of us.
For better or worse, we'd spend four hours sharing a cart, some thoughts and the character examination that is golf.
I'd spent enough time around Willingham to know that the rap that he was "cold and humorless" was baseless baloney. Private and passionate might be better.
First practice: Tuesday.
Picture day: Saturday, Aug. 12, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Husky Stadium. Fans can meet and interact with every Huskies player. Free food, beverages, schedule posters and schedule magnets will be available, while supplies last. Admission is free.
Season opener: Sept. 2 vs. San Jose State at Husky Stadium, 12:30 p.m.
But always a workout for any writer trying to interview him. There was so much I wanted to ask, but first we would have to play some golf.
As we started the back nine, I asked him about the rash of academic problems his players had experienced.
"We didn't have any last year and I doubt we will have any next year," said the guy who graduated 77 percent of his players at Notre Dame and 85 percent at Stanford. "Sometimes things just happen."
A few holes later, I asked him about Jake Locker, the freshman quarterback.
"What are you going to do with him?" I said.
"Play him," answered Willingham. "He's too good an athlete and a leader not to play."
Before I could follow up, Willingham said, "But the worst thing we could do is play him before he is ready. The NFL does a horrible job of that; young quarterbacks are scarred for life."
I wanted to ask did that mean Locker might play another position? I wanted to know what he thought of Isaiah Stanback, who I think is under-appreciated. But you don't grill Willingham, especially on the golf course. At best, you spar with him.
The golf format was a scramble, a game devised to minimize embarrassment. All four members of the group were instructed to hit tee shots, and then we would select the best one and go from there. In many cases, with a strong player like Willingham in your group, you'd never have to hit from a bunker, or in the trees or the rough.
Willingham immediately stepped forward as the coach of our group. Besides the two of us, there was Greg Bailey of KING-TV and Nick Daschel of the Vancouver Columbian. Willingham wanted to know if winning the competition was most important for us, or was playing a legitimate round of golf? Did we, he asked, need to win another T-shirt or a sleeve of golf balls?
Not that any of us wanted to argue with him, but his point was well taken. We'd submit the best score from the group on each hole as our scramble total, playing our own ball wherever it might end up.
We finished even par, and acted all the way around like we had a chance to win. We didn't. You have to be way under par to win a scramble.
What we had was a terrific day on the course. Willingham was obviously consumed by the game, but was just as interested in being a good teammate and friend of the foursome.
He didn't shoot 74. In fact, he had a rough day, but he never let his objective of enjoying his final round for six months get in the way. Or our way.
You can tell he can play, but like the rest of us he isn't immune to a bad day, or a bad season. He kept all our spirits up, was as interested in our shots as he was his own. I really enjoyed playing with him.
He knows the rules, but wasn't unduly sticky about them. If he has a fault, it is a love affair with technology. He had a rangefinder to determine distance and a high-tech bag of clubs. I doubt you'll find him unwilling to try new things on the football field.
For his size — he's not any taller than I am at 5-8 — he hits the ball a long way, and putts very well. He had a short iron into No. 9, made miraculous up-and-down pars on 10 and 11. He birdied 15 from about 5 feet. Clearly, he shows the athleticism that it took to win six letters in football and baseball at Michigan State.
Whether on a golf course or on campus, you're aware that you are around a man who has presence, who you'd enjoy recruiting your son. Who knows himself and what he wants. Who knows he doesn't have enough players yet at Washington, and isn't afraid to say so.
But he hardly acts depressed, or in dread of the upcoming season. He acts like a man who is content to build a sturdy house brick by brick.
He said he and his wife have never lived any place they enjoyed more than Seattle. He said he loves his home on the Plateau Golf Club in Sammamish.
It is clear he'd like to play more rounds at The Plateau, and at Washington National, that he knows what it will take to do that, and that it has nothing to do with golf.
As for me, I shot 83, finding playing with Willingham strangely more therapeutic than terrifying.
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