These have been uneasy days for Willingham's public persona. The coach is showing signs of strain as the pivotal season approaches.

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I’ve covered good football coaches and bad ones. I’ve covered pleasant ones and prickly ones. But I’ve never seen one quite like Tyrone Willingham.

He enters his fourth season as Washington coach Saturday night in Eugene. It was already laced with implication before it was spiked with two frightful propositions.

First, Washington has to open as a double-digit underdog on the road against Oregon, a rival that has passed the Huskies in relevance and rankings. Second, the UW administration, seemingly oblivious to the depths to which the program had sunk, has handed Willingham an impossible schedule.

All Willingham’s Huskies have to do is ford a schedule that includes Oklahoma, Brigham Young and Notre Dame, plus five Pac-10 road games — including at Oregon and USC — and win at least six to get to a bowl game. And then he can stand on top of a trunk in his locker room and scream lustily, “Why, yes, this is somewhat pleasing for coach Willingham.”

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Or he may just spend that time glowering at a reporter.

These have been uneasy days for Willingham’s public persona. The coach is showing signs of strain as the pivotal season approaches.

On Aug. 9, James Cornell, a 31-year-old office-supplies salesman, attended a UW practice with his dad, Steve, a member of the Tyee boosters for about 15 years. James is the nephew of Bo Cornell, a fullback on Jim Owens’ teams some four decades ago.

James Cornell also spent time that day with a cousin, Nathan Fellner, a high-school safety from Clovis, Calif., who committed to the UW a few days later.

The Cornells signed the obligatory waiver, pledging not to divulge any practice information. But James couldn’t help himself. On, a Huskies fan Web site, he leaked, in part, this sizzling reconnaissance for all the world to see (especially Oregon):

“Some players showed some serious fire … I watched each line going through drills and there was absolutely no screwing around … I personally really like this coaching staff … [Ed] Donatell is first-class … [Steve] Gervais is a total stud … I really hope it stays intact from the head coach on down.”

Because of the post, James and his father were banned from Washington practice until further notice, per Willingham’s policy regarding boosters keeping mum on UW workouts.

When I reached James Cornell, he was contrite, saying he clearly violated the policy. He thought a warning might have been in order.

“I support Ty’s approach,” he said. “I wanted to see Ty extended [contractually]. I think things are on the right track.

“It’s hard to defend him from all the stories and detractors. There are a lot of similar stories about how alumni and fans have been treated.

“My dad is 61. They’re banning 61-year-old men from practice, based upon a message-board post? It seems way over the top. I don’t think Oregon is looking to a message board to find a way to beat Washington.”

Right about then, Willingham decided he wasn’t going to answer any more questions this season from Bob Condotta, the Times beat reporter on Washington. Seems that wide receiver Curtis Shaw had just left the team for an indefinite period for personal reasons, and the coach took issue with part of Condotta’s story.

The radioactive sentence that lit Willingham up like a bottle rocket? How about:

“A school spokesman, however, said it was not expected that Shaw would return anytime soon and could miss the season.”

The spokesman said his reported comment about Shaw’s status was accurate. No matter: Willingham went silent to Condotta’s questions. Since a meeting with interim athletic director Scott Woodward, however, Willingham has been issuing one- and two-word answers to Condotta.

Then last week, a reporter from asked a question about the status of E.J. Savannah, the academically ineligible linebacker.

“Who?” Willingham bristled. “I don’t know why you ask me the question.”

All this happens at a time when Washington maintains by far the most restrictive media-access policy for practice in the Pac-10 (finally, a conference title).

Let’s not debate here the issue of whether that represents public denial or press whining. Let’s just say the overall face of the program at the moment is not a smiley one, at a time when the UW is trying to hit up the state for $150 million to renovate Husky Stadium.

This is the year. And clearly, Tyrone Willingham knows it.

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