UW football coach Ty Willingham unshakeable in his belief system
Since he last held a practice, Tyrone Willingham has: • Dodged enough public vitriol to be considered an honorary cast member of The Matrix....
Seattle Times staff columnist
Since he last held a practice, Tyrone Willingham has:
• Dodged enough public vitriol to be considered an honorary cast member of The Matrix.
• Retained his job with a win-or-walk demand.
• Watched his most vocal supporter, athletic director Todd Turner, resign in bizarre fashion.
• Fired his longtime defensive coordinator, Kent Baer.
• Spent 2 ½ months searching to replace Baer.
• Recruited a stellar 2008 class.
• Hired a new running-backs coach.
• Said the word "maturity" about 3,485 times.
Here's guessing the Washington football coach is a little behind on his soap operas. His daily drama has been far more engrossing.
You wonder when Willingham has had the time to breathe the past few months.
"As a head coach, you understand that catching your breath is part of what you do in the process of doing what you do," he said. "So while other people are moaning about all the public nature of what I do, I'm breathing pretty easy. It's what you've been, hopefully, groomed to do, trained to do."
Entering the most important spring of his Huskies tenure, Ty is still Ty. Over the next eight months, he will endure a series of most importants — most important summer, most important fall camp, most important opener, most important season, period — and he will handle them all similar to how he handled being a graduate assistant at Michigan State 30 years ago.
Follow the plan. Be resolute. Trust yourself. It's the only way Willingham knows.
After witnessing the coach walk in a straight line for three years, the approach is no surprise. It's maddening to many, commendable to others. If Shaun Alexander leaves the Seahawks, Willingham moves into sole possession of Seattle's most polarizing sports figure.
Before this year ends, Willingham will either acquire oodles of fresh supporters or adversaries. The middle ground will be mostly barren, the gray area non-existent. It will be an intense battle for public approval.
So Willingham ignores it. His players do, too.
"For the most part, it hasn't even been a real issue for our football team," he said of innuendo about his job status. "No guy has come up to me and even broached the question one way or the other. We've been consistently doing what we do."
One of my favorite sporting hobbies is to observe coaches who are close to the edge. They are accustomed to having absolute control, and when forced to fight for their livelihood, many of them go a little nutty. Their paranoia tips toward insanity. They turn shortsighted and make foolish decisions. They lose their composure during interviews.
Even if Willingham fails, he won't lose himself in the struggle. There will be no Hal McRae blowups, no Mike Davis breakdowns. If he fails, it will be just about football.
If he succeeds, it will be about the rewards of rigidness.
"We have not changed our step, our stride length, our focus," Willingham said. "All those things have been consistent. This is where we're going. This is what we want to do. This is how we do it. Let's go."
Willingham admires new Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, thinks he's among the best currently wearing headsets. The reason is so Willingham: Johnson has a system, the triple-option spread offense, and he has perfected it through steadfast dedication. That offense has helped Johnson climb from Georgia Southern to Navy and now to Tech, an Atlantic Coast Conference school. Johnson will never stray from his beliefs.
"This man has run his system for so long he knows every heartbeat," said Willingham, who faced Johnson's Navy teams three times while coaching Notre Dame. "He knows where every shoelace goes through every eyelet. He knows all of that. So, therefore, when you move here, guess what he does? He's already moved there."
Never change. Always evolve. That's what Willingham wants to do.
Instead of cowering under this pressure or campaigning for support, the coach is focused only on his program.
He keeps saying his players have shown great maturity this offseason, and perhaps that will become more evident when spring practice begins today.
The offensive staff, led by coordinator Tim Lappano, has spent much time the past few months studying the growth of quarterbacks from Year 1 to Year 2 and examining how to tweak their version of the spread offense, hoping to use these lessons to assist quarterback Jake Locker. And new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell is readjusting to college coaching and attempting to rebuild a broken defensive unit.
There's so much work to do, and this year there are extreme consequences for failure. Willingham won't bend, and in this fight, dogged effort figures to be a valuable weapon.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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