They stood on the fringes of the news conference, current players like Evan Benjamin and Isaiah Stanback, old quarterbacks like Sonny Sixkiller, Hugh Millen and Tim Cowan, students...

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They stood on the fringes of the news conference, current players like Evan Benjamin and Isaiah Stanback, old quarterbacks like Sonny Sixkiller, Hugh Millen and Tim Cowan, students, professors, even the men’s basketball coach, Lorenzo Romar.


For a moment, at least, they shared a palpable pride in what was happening at their school.


“This is unbelievable,” said Pat Dobel, Washington’s faculty athletic rep, as he walked away from the words of the new football coach, Tyrone Willingham.


“I can’t wait to introduce him to the faculty.”


Introduced yesterday as the new Washington football coach, Willingham took over the Don James Center, a man clearly capable of command with a conscience, a godsend for a beleaguered university.


“His leadership persona jumps out at you,” Romar said. “He’s not a guy you raise an eyebrow over and wonder about his agenda. You are ready to listen to him, follow him. He’s believable and trustworthy.”


Romar appreciated the notion that his school — he played at Washington — was the only major university in the country to have both a black football and basketball coach.


“To see the University of Washington hire a coach regardless of race makes you feel good about where you work,” he said. “I know people here and everywhere who are excited about this.”


Taking a jab at Notre Dame, which two weeks ago fired Willingham, the Rev. Jesse Jackson issued a statement that said, in part, “Tyrone Willingham is about developing young men, not just winning football games. He is able to be competitive without sacrificing the academic standards. His virtues shine brighter than a golden dome.”


Said Romar: “It seemed that there were a lot of needs met with coach Willingham’s hire.”


For integrity, stability, discipline, even absolution.


Standing in the background was Gregg Alex, whom coach Jim Owens dismissed from a 1969 team split by racial unrest.


Asked if he thought he’d ever see an African-American named football coach at Washington, Alex said, “No, emphatically no. Not in my lifetime. Not coming from the era that I played in.”


Willingham was suddenly spanning eras, endearing old Huskies with talk of returning toughness and grit to the program, exciting new ones with an opportunity to participate.


“I think the slate is somewhat clean for me,” said Stanback, the quarterback from Garfield High School who has struggled to get on the field.


“I’ve got two years left — 22 guaranteed games — and that’s not a lot. I want to get on the field, and I’m willing to do everything I can to get there.”


He knows Willingham was once a quarterback shifted to wide receiver.


“He’s been through things I’m going through,” Stanback said. “I can learn from him; there are things he can teach me about life.”


Millen, who quarterbacked the Huskies in the 1985 Orange Bowl, said, “You could spend five minutes talking about the attributes of Don James and five minutes talking about those of Tyrone Willingham and cover mostly the same ground.


“He’s got to win, he’s got to perform, but I like nothing better than that we’ll see teams that hit you hard, get up quickly, celebrate among themselves and go back into the huddle.


“The Huskies will reflect his character.”


James, speaking from his winter home in Palm Springs, Calif., said, “I think Tyrone is a class guy who knows what he’s doing. He’s got to get some recruits and get to work. Nothing changes.”


James began coaching in an era when black athletes were not even allowed to play at most major colleges.


“It is good to see black coaches finally get an opportunity,” he said, “although there were probably many others who were qualified and didn’t get an opportunity.


“To me, you can either coach or you can’t.”


Romar addressed the charge that Willingham’s hiring was in part because he is black.


“In my opinion, this may be the most important hire in Husky football history,” Romar said. “You can’t make a political hire. You have to make the right hire. If this one doesn’t work out people will almost forget the tradition at Washington.”


Todd Turner, the athletic director, said it wasn’t a goal to hire a black coach, but a bonus.


Waiting in line to meet Willingham was Jamal Fountaine, who played on UW’s undefeated 1991 team and now coaches at Portland State.


“I just can’t wait to meet the man and to learn from him,” Fountaine said. “As one of the few black coaches he can serve as a role model to many of us.”


Willingham brings hope to a university that has seen its reputation sullied, hope to players who want discipline and leadership, to the alumni who want it the way it used to be.


“When we hired Nick Saban at LSU he wasn’t on anyone’s list to hire,” said Mark Emmert, the new UW president, “and he worked out OK.


“I’ve never been as excited about a hire as this one. We’ll have remarkable results at Washington. This is a great coach.”


Blaine Newnham: bnewnham@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2364.