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Originally published October 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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UW coach Tyrone Willingham forced to resign

Washington football coach Tyrone Willingham was forced to resign, but will coach the Huskies through the end of the season.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Tyrone Willingham era at Washington will continue for five more games.

But the school announced today that Willingham has resigned as coach beyond this season, agreeing to coach the final five games before moving on.

"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," he said.

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.

Willingham is 11-32 as UW's coach and 0-7 this season, suffering a 33-7 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday.

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

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

Woodward said Willingham will receive his contractual obligations, which apparently means he will get a $1 million buyout that is called for in his contract.

Woodward said the reason for the move was simple — the team's record on the field.

"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 previous to the season and it became more obvious as time wore on this season," he said.

Injured UW quarterback Jake Locker said "it's tough," seeing Willingham being forced to resign.

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"He was the coach that brought me in and I kind of had a close relationships 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."

Woodward said he wanted Willingham to remain in the job the rest of the year to keep continuity in the program. Woodward had said on several occasions he did not foresee making any in-season coaching change. He said this move did not break that vow, as it leaves Willingham in place for 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. Now we can focus on the five games that we have in front of us."

UW president Mark Emmert said the search for a new coach has already begun and now can pick up steam.

"One of the advantages of making this official today is that it gives us the liberty to begin those conversations with potential candidates and their representatives," Emmert said. "Scott [Woodward] and I are really committed to not doing things behind people's backs. If we were going to explore coaches, we sure didn't want to do that without Tyrone knowing his situation."

Emmert said the school has "already begun some discrete inquiries [about candidates] through other individuals and we'll be very aggressive in the coming weeks trying to find the best coaches possible to be candidates."

Asked what he would like to see in a new coach, Emmert said, "It's not a who so much as a what. I want to make sure that we have a coach who continues what coach Willingham did very well and that is to restore the integrity to our program and bring the kind of positive character and quality that we have seen. ... But [there has been] a lack of competitiveness on the field, so we need someone who is going to do both of those things for us."

Emmert said the school will pay competitively.

"I'm fairly optimistic about the attractiveness of this job," Emmert said, pointing to the city, the large fan base and the history of success here.

Emmert said he thinks the team could regain respectability quickly.

"But will he [the next coach] have some rebuilding to do? You bet he will," Emmert said. "Obviously the program is at its lowest ebb in its history right now this season and that doesn't turn around instantly."

Emmert said he didn't regret bringing Willingham back after last season, saying that "given the information we had available and what I saw in front of me last year, we made the right choice."

Emmert said he is surprised this season has gone the way it has, and wouldn't speculate what has gone wrong.

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."

Willingham said he agreed to the decision to lift the uncertainty he admitted was hovering over the program.

"It just kind of clears some of the minds and doubts," Willingham said. "It eliminates some of that and we should hopefully be able to move forward a little bit better."

The Huskies play Saturday at USC, where they have been listed as 43-point underdogs.

Washington's season ends Dec. 6 at California.

The Huskies are in the midst of a nine-game losing streak dating to last season that is the longest in 39 years.

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

Woodward said discussions about a resignation began Oct. 19, the day after a 33-14 loss to Oregon State.

Woodward said discussions concluded Sunday night, after Willingham held his usual meeting with the team.

The school made the announcement at Willingham's regular Monday news conference and Willingham said he had not had the chance to speak with players. A few were in the offices Monday and found out shortly before the announcement, including Fouch, who said he was disappointed at the news. "I came here to play for coach Willingham," he said.

Attention will now shift to who will be the next coach.

Woodward said the search will begin immediately and he would not rule out a hiring at any point.

Speculation will initially center on former Huskies player Jim Mora, who is in line to be the next coach of the Seahawks but who has also previously expressed interest in the UW job; Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, an assistant at UW from 1979-90; Fresno State coach Pat Hill; and former Raiders coach Lane Kiffin.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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