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Originally published Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Ty Willingham says he wrestled with decision to finish season

Tyrone Willingham has always prided himself on commitment — he once said he missed only four days of school growing up. So when he was...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Tyrone Willingham has always prided himself on commitment — he once said he missed only four days of school growing up.

So when he was told last week that he was no longer wanted as Washington's football coach after this season — but not until then — he initially hesitated.

Willingham admitted on his radio show Monday that he "wrestled with" staying on to coach out the season before agreeing to resign. That means he will coach UW's final five games, a season that ends Dec. 6 at Cal.

Willingham made it clear the resignation was forced, saying he would not have agreed to resign on his own.

"It's just not in my makeup [to quit]," he said.

But Scott Woodward, the UW athletic director, said the move was made now to get a head start on finding a replacement and remove the speculation swirling around the program.

"Now we can focus on the five games in front of us," he said.

At a news conference attended by both men on Monday, Willingham made it clear why he had agreed.

"It is my desire to complete and finish the football season and do that in the manner that I have done it, unwavering in my approach and commitment to my young men," Willingham said.

UW officials said a change was needed with the Huskies football program staggering — Willingham is 11-32 since taking over in 2005 and 0-7 this season, having suffered a 33-7 loss Saturday to Notre Dame.

"It became quite obvious with the performance on the football field that it wasn't what we talked about at the beginning of the season ... and it became more obvious as time wore on this season," Woodward said.

UW President Mark Emmert said a decision that a change was necessary was made a week ago Sunday after the Huskies lost at home to Oregon State 34-13. Discussions on a resigination then began and intensified on Sunday following the Notre Dame loss.

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Woodward and Willingham came to an agreement Sunday evening, deciding to announce it at Willingham's weekly news conference Monday. That, however, meant that Willingham was unable to tell his players in person, many of whom found out from friends or family, or via the Internet. Monday is a day off for the players,

"My parents called me in class," said safety Nate Williams. "I was shocked. But I guess we could see it coming a little bit considering we were 0-7."

Ultimately, that's what it came down to — Willingham didn't win enough, and he has the worst record in Huskies history. Washington's nine-game losing streak is the longest in 39 years, and the team is a 43-point underdog heading into a game this Saturday at USC.

"We didn't win enough games," Willingham said, when asked what went wrong. "That's it. But I do believe we put the program in a position where it will be able to win football games."

Willingham was hired in December 2004 after Keith Gilbertson resigned in similar fashion. Gilbertson stayed to coach the final three games of a 1-10 season.

Willingham was available after having been fired at Notre Dame, where he had gone 21-15 in three seasons. He was attractive to the Huskies because of his record (he was 44-36-1 as coach at Stanford from 1995-2001) as well as his reputation for running a clean program and stressing academics. The latter were especially desired at the time, given some well-documented off-field troubles during the Rick Neuheisel era.

It was those off-field attributes that compelled Woodward — who had said on several occasions he did not foresee making any in-season coaching change — to ask Willingham to stay on as coach the rest of the season.

"I made it clear I did not want to change coaches in the middle of the season," Woodward said. "I did not want the team to be orphaned and I wanted the leadership of coach Willingham because our fans need to know we care about the student-athlete, and it's in their best interests that coach Willingham coach the rest of the season out, that they continue to go to class, do the right things off the field and also end the speculation of what is going to happen to coach Willingham."

Players uniformly said they were disappointed that Willingham had been forced to leave, but they also seemed resigned that change was in the offing. Among those stating that view was quarterback Jake Locker, who was the highest-profile recruit to sign with UW during the Willingham years but whose injury in the fourth game of this season helped seal Willingham's fate.

"He was the coach that brought me in and I kind of had a close relationship [with all the coaches] through the whole process, so it will be difficult to see them go," he said.

But Locker said he understood why the decision was made.

"We all understand it's a business as well and they understand that as well as any of us, and when we are not able to win games and produce what we all wanted, there are going to be consequences for that," Locker said. "It's unfortunate that it has to happen this way, but we didn't take care of what we needed to do."

Huskies quarterback Ronnie Fouch said he thinks the team will rally around Willingham to finish the season strong.

"It won't be hard to play the final five games because we will be playing for him," Fouch said. "He's the reason I came here, and it's going to be tough seeing him go after this year, but our focus is on USC right now."

Woodward said Willingham will receive a $1 million buyout as called for in his contract.

UW's assistants also will remain on contract until a new coach is hired and decides whether he wants to keep them. The assistants have contracts that run through June 30, with defensive coordinator Ed Donatell having a contract through the 2009 season.

Willingham was the Sporting News Man of the Year in 2002 when he led Notre Dame to a 10-3 record. He's had only one winning record since — none at UW, where he is the only coach in school history to have three straight losing seasons.

Where his firing at Notre Dame was controversial, with some of his players lashing out at the school and many national observers agreeing, there was little surprise in Monday's announcement.

Asked whether it was fair, Willingham said, "I won't get into that. But as you understand the game of football, you understand it is about wins and losses."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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