Mercifully, the Willingham era is over
Tyrone Willingham walked briskly out of our lives, the most defiant failure west of the Oval Office. After a season of nothingness, the...
Seattle Times staff columnist
BERKELEY, Calif. — Tyrone Willingham walked briskly out of our lives, the most defiant failure west of the Oval Office.
After a season of nothingness, the most thorough humiliation in 119 seasons of Huskies football, the man most responsible continued to act as if he were a bit player in the fiasco. He grumbled when given opportunity to exit with grace. He expressed nothing more than disappointment he could not win more. He kept repeating a terse remark when asked about his future.
"I become a normal citizen today," Willingham said over and over.
Soldier Willingham, home from battle.
Anyone wanna hug him?
Didn't think so. Not after he exited with an 0-12 parting gift. Not with his replacement, Steve Sarkisian, about to be introduced.
Here's how bad Willingham left this house, once a palace: Sarkisian, the USC offensive coordinator, could be a complete disaster as a head coach, and he'd still be an upgrade.
For the last time Saturday, the Huskies played like, well, a Willingham team. Listless. Confused. Disjointed. The nothingness finally ended, spreading its misery as far as the schedule would allow.
By the time California put them to rest by a 48-7 margin, the Willingham norm had become so gravely absurd that players and coaches were talking about defensive positives after allowing 311 rushing yards to Cal running back Jahvid Best.
For Sarkisian, first on the agenda must be to lift these players from the acceptance phase of grief. There is no standard of excellence because Willingham spent most of his four years rationalizing futility.
Asked about losing his last game in Memorial Stadium, Willingham said: "The only disappointment is that in this stadium I was pretty good for a long time."
Yes, as the Stanford coach, he was undefeated here, part of a 7-0 record against Cal. But that was seven years and two jobs ago. Willingham is now a twice-terminated coach who finished his Huskies tenure 11-37.
To the end, however, he clung to the notion that his biggest shortcoming was an inability to resurrect a trampled program. For the past six weeks, he has often referred to the 1-10 team he inherited four years ago, trying to obstruct the fact he had an awful long time to build something better than a zero-win train wreck.
His erroneous defense turned shameful last week when he inferred during an interview with the Chicago Tribune that Washington was a "downtrodden" program.
In the story, Willingham was speaking in big-picture terms. It was a wide-ranging interview, from his feelings about Charlie Weis getting a fifth year at Notre Dame to the fact that there are now only three African-American head coaches in the 119-team Football Bowl Subdivision.
"It has always been the downtrodden [programs] that we've had to take over," Willingham told the Tribune, referring to black coaches. "There are a lot of things not right with those situations. The degree of difficulty is enhanced in those programs. You do the best you can with the resources around you."
That is an appropriate defense for many black coaches. But Willingham has led two tradition-blessed programs now, and therefore he should've excluded himself from the point he was trying to make.
After Saturday's game, he was asked to clarify his remarks. Hugh Millen, a KJR-AM radio personality and former Washington quarterback, asked him about it in a very even-keeled, appropriate manner.
Willingham glared at him and said, "Next question."
The coach blew a chance to show some contrition, to say farewell to Huskies fans with a humble apology for this disaster, because he treated the question like a personal attack.
It was the final example of Willingham's public-relations weaknesses. He never displayed enough savvy. Losing proved his downfall, but his attitude was a burden along the way.
He's supposed to be too good a man to be so cold. He's supposed to be a class act. He's supposed to be a man of integrity, a rigid believer in right and wrong.
Willingham still is probably, but over the past few weeks, he did much to damage his reputation. While his frustration is understandable, the coach had been hailed as being above such pettiness.
In the end, he left in fitting fashion. His players barely remembered his postgame address.
"I didn't really hear what he was saying," cornerback Quinton Richardson said.
Was he nostalgic?
"Um, not really," tight end Kavario Middleton said.
Did it feel like a goodbye at all?
"Coach Willingham said the same thing he always says," linebacker Donald Butler said.
Well, it doesn't matter anymore. It's over, at last.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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