Another year is right decision
The most divisive nonstory of the year concluded Wednesday with all the drama of brushing teeth. Tyrone Willingham is still the Washington...
Seattle Times staff columnist
The most divisive nonstory of the year concluded Wednesday with all the drama of brushing teeth.
Tyrone Willingham is still the Washington football coach.
Rinse and spit (if you must).
OK, don't smile.
This was neither a victory for Willingham's tame supporters nor a defeat for his ferocious detractors. This was simply a decision — the right decision — to delay judgment until we gain more clarity about the coach's rebuilding project. Another year should be enough time, though next season will be one of the most volatile in Huskies history.
The fight didn't end with this status-quo proclamation. Really, it just began. It's on Willingham to calm the outrage with victories.
His seat may be warmer now than it was even at Notre Dame. His Fighting Irish critics got the quick boot they wanted three years ago. Willingham was fired after only three seasons at a school that once was arrogant about honoring its coaching contracts.
Washington's Ty bashers didn't get their way, however. So Willingham has received more of a fair shake this time. He turns 54 this month. This breathing room could either set up the final portion of his career or condemn it.
"Every year is win or else," Willingham said. "That's the life of a football coach or any other coach."
He understands now is the time for tangible progress. He seems to welcome the scrutiny, as long as he gets the chance to keep doing his job. He often refers to how most of his coaching tenure has been burdened by skepticism. Like most sports figures, he treats the scrutiny with perverse joy.
"I've lived in a daily world of doubt," he said. "I don't think that's a bad place to be at."
Then Willingham referred to waking up "with a little chip, something to prove."
"Sometimes, I'm hesitant to let people in because of that," he admitted, "but it's also a great way to make sure you're always on your game."
Those were some of his most frank and revealing remarks in quite a while. It appears the coach has been doing some self-reflection. It's appropriate during a week like this.
On to the obvious question: Now what?
Next season is simple. We won't be having the same debate in a year. If Willingham succeeds in 2008, he'll receive a contract extension. If he fails, he'll be surfing monster.com.
The minimum expectation for the Huskies is 7-5. That would put them in a bowl. That won't make him clearly the man for this job, however.
A record of 8-4 would be much more progressive. Of course, that would be just a start. The rebuilding — and the cynicism — won't be over until the Huskies are, at least, a perennial BCS bowl contender.
In the next year, however, pay the most attention to whether the defense improves, whether quarterback Jake Locker becomes a more accurate passer, whether recruiting continues to show positive signs, whether the offensive line remains as physical as it was at the end of this year and whether the Huskies start showing enough poise to both finish games and avoid long lulls.
If the Huskies progress in those five areas, they will be a winning team with a future. If they falter, they will require an overhaul.
Most pressing is the defense. Statistically, UW had the worst defense in school history this past season. There's been speculation about firing defensive coordinator Kent Baer for weeks. It's time for Willingham to make a decision.
Athletic director Todd Turner hasn't made any demands for staff changes. Turner has empowered Willingham to continue doing his job with absolute freedom, but the flip side is that all the responsibility for shortcomings is clearly on the head coach.
Reiterating that his priority is to the university, Willingham again said he would consider making changes based on getting results, not nurturing friendships. He understands that doing nothing could be perilous.
Asked what he would say to angry fans, the coach said: "Please hold on. We've had some turbulent times to navigate. Hopefully we are in the process of getting through those difficult waters and punching through to be the kind of football team I think we can be, and to me, that's exciting."
To others, that's frightening.
The battle continues. But at least now there's a timeline and a clear objective.
Win. Or else.
That mantra doesn't just represent another year in Willingham's coaching life anymore. This time, it's the ultimate challenge.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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