On the day he heard that Keith Gilbertson wouldn't be back as Washington's football coach next season, Isaiah Stanback immediately thought of Tyrone Willingham. "He popped into my...

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On the day he heard that Keith Gilbertson wouldn’t be back as Washington’s football coach next season, Isaiah Stanback immediately thought of Tyrone Willingham.


“He popped into my head with the problems they were having at Notre Dame,” said Stanback, a UW quarterback. “I was hoping and praying that he would be the guy here.”


Unlike almost every other prayer the Huskies have made the past few years, this one came true as Willingham was announced as UW’s new coach yesterday.


The players first met Willingham on Sunday when he introduced himself to the team. Willingham spoke to the players about “the return of the Dawg,” saying he wants to bring the Huskies back to the style of play from their glory years, one that features discipline, hard work and attention to detail. It was a message that resonated well.


“He doesn’t take no mess and I think that’s what we need right now,” Stanback said. “We need to get everybody on the same page.”


While Willingham hadn’t met many — if any — of the UW players before, he had seen them play this season when he led Notre Dame to a 38-3 victory over the Huskies in South Bend, Ind., on Sept. 25. That was his first win against the Huskies after going 0-5 against them while at Stanford.


“What I saw at that time was not the Husky team I had seen before,” he said.


That became obvious as the Huskies skidded to a 1-10 record, the most losses in school history.


But players believe they aren’t that far from turning things around.


“We’ve got the talent,” said linebacker Joe Lobendahn. “We’ve always had the talent. The players just need the belief in themselves that they can do this.”


Those who attended yesterday’s news conference said they think Willingham can foster that belief.


As much as anything, however, the hiring of Willingham finally gives some stability to the Huskies.


“It’s about time we had a clean start,” said safety C.J. Wallace. “I came in with coach (Rick) Neuheisel and I wanted to play for him. Then that happened with him, and then coach (Keith) Gilbertson happened. I think this could be the one.”


Most of the players are well aware of Willingham’s image as a stoic, stern disciplinarian. But for some, their first meeting with Willingham helped them realize there is more to the man.


“I was kind of intimidated by that (image),” Lobendahn said. “But after meeting him, it changed my whole perspective on him. He’s a guy who tells the truth and backs up his words. That’s something we need for the program right now.”


Some may wonder how the players will adjust, but Lobendahn doesn’t think it will be a problem.


“It’s something totally different from what we are used to,” Lobendahn said. “Coach Neuheisel was a player’s coach and so was coach Gilbertson. But I believe everyone respects (Willingham) and believes that he can change the program around.”


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