With football in past, ex-Huskies coach Tyrone Willingham is at peace
Willingham, 58, was a volunteer coach for the Stanford women's golf team. He plans to remain retired.
The New York Times
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Fridays were Tyrone Willingham's carefree days during his years in college football. His game plan was installed, his week of practices was over and all that remained for him to manage was the anticipation of his team's Saturday matchup.
Four years removed from the final game of his 32-year coaching career, Willingham continues to find tranquil interludes on Fridays, a time for him to commune with the outdoors and indulge his competitive nature on the golf course.
He often can be found at the Golf Club at Boulder Ridge, a private course carved out of a rock quarry, with sweeping views of Silicon Valley. Last Friday morning, as the South Bay stretched before him like a satellite map, Willingham played 18 holes, carrying his bag and walking the first nine holes of the hilly terrain without seeming to break a sweat.
Willingham, 58, was playing out his retirement quietly, invisible in plain sight, until an article last month revealed that he was a volunteer coach for the Stanford women's golf team. The transition from trap plays to sand traps caught people's attention and thrust Willingham, the most private of men, back into the spotlight.
For a little more than a season, Willingham did offer assistance to the Cardinal women's team in any capacity that was needed.
"If Coach said move a bag, I moved a bag," said Willingham, whose involvement with the team grew out of his regard for Caroline O'Connor, the Stanford women's coach, with whom he developed a friendship after she arrived at the university in 1996, a year after he took over the football program.
O'Connor resigned at the end of last season, and when she cut ties with the program so, quietly, did Willingham. Her successor, Anne Walker, "will do a good job," said Willingham, who continues to follow the Cardinal women's progress.
He mentioned offhandedly that the par-3s at the Stanford Golf Course played the toughest, statistically, during the recent Stanford Intercollegiate, in which the host women's team finished third.
Asked if he has had any contact with the players, Willingham vigorously shook his head no. "That's a no-no," he said. "I would never do that. I'd make sure we'd go through the coach." Willingham was known for his principles during his head-coaching tenures at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington, whose football team was on NCAA probation and coming off a 1-10 season when he was hired in 2004.
The Irish's resurgence has dominated headlines this season, with Notre Dame off to an 8-0 start, its best since Willingham's first Irish team finished the 2002 regular season 10-2.
Willingham has not lost his love for college football. He is a Stanford season-ticket holder and continues to root for Notre Dame, despite being fired after three seasons with a 21-15 overall record.
After the ninth hole, Willingham stopped by the clubhouse to pick up a tuna salad sandwich he had ordered by intercom at the eighth tee. A television tuned to ESPN showed two anchors reporting from the Oklahoma campus, in advance of the Sooners' game against Notre Dame.
His affection for the college game notwithstanding, he is content to keep it at a certain distance. There are many ways to influence young people beyond teaching life lessons on the college gridiron, as Willingham discovered through his work with the Stanford women's golf team and his continued involvement with the First Tee of Silicon Valley, a youth program that uses golf to build character.
"There are other ways to serve," he said. "The whole key is to do something for someone else."
On Fridays he gives himself over to golf, a mercurial master he has faithfully served since the late 1970s, when he was a low-level assistant at Michigan State. Willingham, who played football and baseball at the university, said he took up the game on the advice of other Spartans coaches, Sherman Lewis and Jimmy Raye, who emphasized golf's usefulness in forging business and social connections.
"They were absolutely correct," Willingham said, adding, "I would tell all of my football players that golf was a great postcareer activity, that for business purposes it was a great way to find out the character of the person you're dealing with in four hours."
Willingham, who plays to roughly a 4-handicap, estimated that he logged more than 100 rounds a year.
The next day Willingham was competing in a match-play event at Boulder Ridge, which is best played like a pinball machine. Regulars know to aim their drives at sloped flanks and watch them roll onto the canted fairways.
"A guy in the pro shop once said,'If you find an even lie, let me know and we'll try to get rid of it,"' Willingham said.
Roughly once a month, he will travel from his Almaden Valley home to the Stanford Golf Course to play a round with Condoleezza Rice, who in August was named one of the first female members at Augusta National Golf Club.
Last year Willingham won the senior club championship at Boulder Ridge, prevailing despite calling a penalty on himself when his ball moved on a green after he had addressed it. That small detail looms large in Willingham's preference these days for golf over football.
When he accepted the Washington job, Willingham said it was the last stop of his coaching career. The recent developments in college football, especially the moves toward superconferences and a playoff system, have only served to harden his resolve to remain retired, or "on vacation," as he prefers to describe his life now with his wife, Kim, and their three adult children.
"If we are really honest, OK, what has ended badly in my life?" Willingham said. "Nothing. I am blessed."