For Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington, a football team's success is measured by more than what happens on the field...
For Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington, a football team’s success is measured by more than what happens on the field.
“You do not have to give up your values to be competitive in sports,” he said Tuesday. “It’s not a success if you win a championship and have a large portion of the team arrested for poor behavior. That’s not a success.”
Emmert cited the UW’s last Rose Bowl team as an example of victory at too high a cost. The Seattle Times this week has run a series, “Victory and Ruins,” describing the criminal misconduct of several players on that team, and how the university and community institutions failed to hold them accountable.
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“The cases that have been portrayed in this series of stories are shocking and deeply disturbing,” Emmert said. “They are exactly the kinds of things you don’t want the athletic program or any other type of program to represent.”
Emmert said criminal conduct appears to have been widespread on the 2000 team. “I’m also sure that there were many young men on that team who were terrific, admirable people.”
The lack of accountability back then explains “some of the enormous challenges we inherited,” he said. “When you look at the team today, it is in no way comparable to the statistics and facts of 2000.”
When Emmert became president in 2004, he hired Todd Turner as athletic director. Turner, whose last job was at Vanderbilt, was asked to restore integrity to UW athletics. His predecessor, Barbara Hedges, resigned after scandals involving the football and softball teams.
But Thursday, Turner will be leaving his job, after a falling-out with Emmert in December.
Turner thinks the football team’s struggles contributed to his exit. The Huskies have had four straight losing seasons, the last three under Tyrone Willingham, the coach Turner hired. Turner said he worries that the UW and its fans have become too focused on winning.
“If we hadn’t had 1,000 e-mails, talk radio, columnists and others chipping away … the university would have maintained its direction,” he said.
But Emmert said his decisions about athletics have not been the result of pressure from boosters or anyone else. And he thinks that winning and character can coincide.
“Unfortunately, people have this notion that you can have good guys or you can have champions,” Emmert said. “I think that is an utterly false dichotomy. I reject that absolutely. You can win, and you can win properly.”
Two years after the last Rose Bowl win, the UW football program fell apart. Coach Rick Neuheisel was fired in July 2003, after being caught lying. Hedges, the athletic director who hired Neuheisel, resigned six months later.
In 2004, Turner tapped Willingham in hopes he could rebuild the football program. Like Turner, Willingham was viewed as a man of integrity and discipline.
Players noticed changes immediately. Willingham made them cut their hair to no longer than shoulder length, began scheduling 6:30 a.m. meetings and removed players’ names from jerseys to emphasize the importance of teamwork.
The coach scheduled two-hour weekly meetings to talk with academic staff members about how the players’ studies were going, and showed up unannounced in classes to make sure players were attending.
He kept boosters, lawyers and the media at arm’s length.
On the field, his team has been less penalized than every Pac-10 team except Stanford. Off the field, players are held to account for their grades. Break the rules, and they face consequences, such as extra laps or study sessions.
During the 2000 season, at least a dozen players were arrested or charged with a crime that carried possible jail time. At least a dozen others on that team got in trouble with the law in other seasons.
Jerramy Stevens was arrested on suspicion of rape during the season but was never charged. Four years later, a lawsuit filed by his accuser was settled for $300,000, with the money paid by Stevens and a fraternity where the woman had been served alcohol.
Jeremiah Pharms played the entire 2000 season while under investigation, suspected of robbing and shooting a drug dealer. After getting arrested in 2001 — nearly 14 months after the crime — he agreed to a plea deal and was sentenced to three years and five months for robbery.
Curtis Williams played the first six games of the season with a warrant out for his arrest. He had previously served time for choking his wife and was arrested in each of five straight years while at the UW.
Fewer players — about a half-dozen — got in trouble during 2007, a review of Washington state court records shows. The search turned up only one player accused of physical violence.
“Changing the culture of our football team has been a priority for all of us in the athletic department,” Willingham said in a recent e-mail, “and our players are responding to that positively.”
The UW is also re-examining its academic culture. For years, athletes have been allowed to sign up for classes before other students. Many have opted to take the same classes, ones reputed to be easy. Now, the UW is considering new rules to limit early enrollments.
Not all the changes made in the Willingham era have stuck. The players’ names are back on the jerseys. And Willingham has become more welcoming to boosters.
“When Ty first got here, he was probably more remote to people like myself,” said Ron Crockett, president of the Emerald Downs horse-racing track. Crockett, of Seattle, has donated $2.4 million to the athletic department, making him one of the Huskies’ biggest boosters.
“What we try to utilize him for now is that if there’s a potential donor … we meet the head football coach. It’s very much to the positive.”
Notice of arrest
Last year, under Turner, the athletic department created a rule requiring athletes to notify their coach or an administrator within 24 hours if they’re arrested or charged with a crime. Beyond that, Willingham decides how to treat each player on a case-by-case basis.
In 2006, Willingham suspended and later removed Michael Houston from the team after Houston was accused of stealing a taxi.
Willingham has given second chances to at least two players. Both are cornerbacks, a position the coach has found tough to fill.
One of the players, Chris Handy, was recruited from a junior college in California — even though the UW coaches knew he’d pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor for helping a friend beat another man.
“We did our homework and our research and we think the young man is a fine and upstanding young man,” Willingham told reporters at the time. “I do believe young people make mistakes. In fact, I believe somewhere in my life I had a parking ticket.”
Handy never played for Washington after coaches discovered he hadn’t earned his associate degree.
The second player, Jordan Murchison, faced two separate assault charges last year. In one incident he punched a man repeatedly in the head, smashing his teeth. The man needed extensive dental surgery, according to court records. Murchison pleaded guilty to fourth-degree assault, a gross misdemeanor, and was ordered to complete 224 hours of community service.
In the other incident, Murchison was accused of threatening his girlfriend and yanking her hair. In that case, prosecutors have agreed to dismiss the charges if Murchison stays out of trouble for two years.
Willingham, in effect, suspended Murchison from the team. “The key is you want the best for the individual and the best for the team,” Willingham said at the time.
Murchison sat out five games. After that, he was back on the roster.
When the UW struggled last year through its third-straight losing season under Willingham, the pressure on Willingham, Turner and Emmert intensified. However, the hundreds of e-mails they received revealed a clear divide as to what should be done.
One side was exemplified by boosters who were sick of losing and who made their displeasure known using the language of money. Their message: Fire Willingham, or else.
William Fleenor, a financial consultant and the former mayor of Walla Walla, had donated $112,000 to the UW, his alma mater. He’d also served on the board of the boosters’ Tyee Club. But in December, Fleenor wrote to Emmert and declared: “This benefactor is out.”
“I have clearly wasted thousands of dollars and many hours of my time thinking I was working and donating for a school that cares for athletics,” Fleenor wrote.
He would “likely return,” Fleenor wrote, if the UW managed to rid itself of Willingham.
Fleenor said in an interview that he was frustrated about “wins and losses,” and something more. “It wasn’t just Tyrone, but Todd as well, that they didn’t really care about the booster like the old guys did.”
The other side of the divide was represented by those fans, faculty members and former administrators who were embarrassed by what the UW had become before Willingham. Their message: Let Willingham stay on, and try to win with character.
Ralph Bayard played for the UW under Jim Owens and went on to serve as the school’s senior associate athletic director from 1993 to 2000. He was there when Neuheisel took over. Bayard, too, wrote Emmert in December. His message was:
“The record over the last three years is certainly not what any of us can be happy about. However, it does demonstrate how far this proud program had fallen prior to Coach Willingham’s tenure and the work that needed to take place to rebuild it.
“I have seen tremendous progress in the way the young men have played during this rebuilding period. I’m also impressed by what the coach has been able to instill in these young men relative to their conduct off the field.”
Bayard said in an interview he’s not surprised at how frustrated some fans have become. “Husky football is a major, major player in this community. It always has been. The expectation is that this program does well, and better than well. When it doesn’t happen, there’s a hue and cry.”
Colleges across the country, he said, are trying to find the right balance between integrity and winning.
“Big-time athletics is such a powerful entity in and of itself these days. It’s very difficult for a university not to support it,” he said. “What’s critical at any institution is who you are bringing in, what their backgrounds are, and making sure there are support systems in place.”
New director sought
The UW announced Turner’s resignation Dec. 11. Soon after, UCLA announced that it was hiring Neuheisel as its head coach.
Neuheisel’s five-year contract will pay him $1.25 million a year and up to $500,000 more in incentives. He vowed not to do anything to tarnish UCLA’s reputation: “There are some things I did in my past that I don’t need to do again, there’s no question,” he said in a recent radio interview.
The UW, meanwhile, is preparing to hire a new athletic director. That person will need to lead a planned $300 million renovation of Husky Stadium — a project that has found little support in the Legislature so far.
Emmert wants an athletic director who will find a way to win — without sacrificing the university’s reputation.