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Originally published October 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 26, 2007 at 2:46 PM

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Steve Kelley

Patience wears thin as Willingham's Huskies stall

This could have been the night, the win Husky Nation has hungered for since Tyrone Willingham arrived at Washington. This could have been...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Tough times

9-21

Willingham's record as UW coach (in his third season)

This could have been the night, the win Husky Nation has hungered for since Tyrone Willingham arrived at Washington.

This could have been the night, a wondrously surprising victory over an elite program. The classic kick-start against a classic rival.

This could have been the signature upset that says, after all these years: Washington football is on the rebound.

This win could have given the program much-needed hope on the long road back.

But, once again, it didn't happen. Washington stayed close, but couldn't close. When it had to make stops, it couldn't. And the Huskies lost to Oregon 55-34.

Since his arrival 2 ½ years ago, Willingham hasn't done at Washington what Dennis Erickson has done at Arizona State. He hasn't turned Washington from doormat to dominant.

In his third season as head coach, he hasn't done what Nick Saban already is doing at Alabama, or, more to the point, what Jeff Tedford did at California.

Slowly, too slowly in some estimations, the Huskies are getting better, but they're not getting wins. They still haven't had that defining victory that is the harbinger of a turnaround.

In this season of dramatic upsets, the Huskies have none. In this era of parity, they remain winless in the Pacific-10 Conference.

The Arizona State loss last weekend marked the virtual halfway point of Willingham's five-year contract, and Washington has only nine wins. The level of talent of his athletes doesn't match those of the elite teams in the Pac-10.

The Huskies aren't good enough yet. It's that simple. And, after three recruiting classes, Willingham has to bear some of the burden for the talent gap.

"We have good athletes," athletic director Todd Turner said late last week. "We need more of them."

In this third year of the Willingham era many Washington fans are wanting more than close losses to good teams. They haven't had a winning team since 2002 and, slowly, the Tyrone-must-go fraternity is growing.

Change takes time, and it's going to take Willingham at least the length of his contract to get the Huskies where the Nation wants. For that matter, the program needs him to stay as long as Jake Locker stays.

He deserves more time, but he also deserves more heat.

"He is the right person at the right time," Turner said. "Has he won as many games as coach Willingham, or the athletic director or the university community would have wanted?

"No, but this is a long, arduous process, and I'm very confident in coach Willingham's ability to turn it around."

Turner is unwavering in his support. He even refuses to give Willingham the dreaded vote of confidence.

"Tyrone doesn't need my vote of confidence," said Turner, who came to Washington from Vanderbilt in 2004. "This is as tough a situation as I've ever seen in my career.

"Coming from the Southeastern Conference, I didn't know just how good the Pac-10 was. Top to bottom it is the most balanced conference in the country. And you combine that with the uncertainty and confusion that existed in our program when Tyrone arrived, it made his job really tough."

But the mistakes are repeating themselves. Missed tackles. Dropped passes. Busted running plays. Blown pass coverages.

The defense surrendered an embarrassing 661 yards, including 251 rushing from Jonathan Stewart. Who wouldn't trade Stewart for Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander right now?

Still, Turner is right. No coach in the country inherited as massive a rebuilding job as Willingham. And, week after week, his teams have been competitive against a steady parade of Top 25 teams.

Saturday night, despite Oregon's will-testing scoring drives of 61, 80, 52, 90 and 94 yards, Washington kept pulling itself off the artificial grass. The Huskies played hard and played through adversity.

Louis Rankin ran as if his reputation depended on it. Maybe it did. Red-shirt freshman Locker had his best day as a pocket passer, throwing four touchdowns, including an 83-yarder to Anthony Russo. He threw for a career-high 257 yards.

Washington entered the fourth quarter tied 31-31 before collapsing — again. But the Huskies lost for the fifth consecutive time, and they keep making the same mistakes. This work-in-progress team has a lot of work remaining.

"Tyrone is just at the beginning of his voyage," Turner said. "This is a hard and competitive league, and you don't just wish to get better. It takes time. It takes patience. It starts with what you believe in.

"This is a culture that wants immediate gratification. Unfortunately some things take diligence, and time and hard work."

Turner continues to preach patience to the impatient Husky Nation.

But as they turn the corner on this season and begin the softer part of their bed-of-nails schedule, it is time to start winning.

It's hard to stay staunchly patient without seeing significant progress.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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