He's honest and straightforward, according to the buzz out there — and he needs a good supporting cast of assistant coaches.
Elsie Moore-Smith might be surprised to know this, but the reviews of Tyrone Willingham as a recruiter are mixed.
“He was magnificent,” said Moore-Smith, a professor of educational psychology at Arizona State, whose son Allen was a highly recruited offensive lineman last year.
“He’s just a compelling character, very imposing even though he’s not a large person. You have a feeling that he’s a special human being, OK?”
Much of the work Willingham does as Washington’s new football coach will be reflected in his recruiting efforts, already under way. Those will be viewed with interest not only here but nationally, partly because Willingham’s abilities as a recruiter have met with widely varying assessments.
In trying to handicap Willingham’s success in wooing talent to Washington — which has just three known commitments for the signing date in February — you get a great range of opinion. You get SuperPrep Magazine’s 2003 ranking of Willingham’s Notre Dame’s class as No. 5 nationally, and you get the same publication’s 2004 rating of the Irish at No. 27, which editor Allen Wallace calls “highly unusual. I’ve never seen a Notre Dame class ranked anywhere close to that poorly.”
From the recruiting gurus, you get reactions like these:
From Tom Lemming, the Illinois-based analyst for ESPN.com — “I’ve been doing this almost 26 years now, and he may be the most honest and sincere person I’ve met in the coaching world. He’s true-blue to his beliefs. He never wavers, which is strange. Most guys always waver when dealing with a big-time player.”
And from Wallace, also national editor for Scout.com, referring to the 2004 Notre Dame class — “I think that had some reason to do with why he was let go. Since when does Notre Dame, a program with the greatest tradition in college football, end up battling it out for a mid-range class?”
This is, of course, not a discussion with black-and-white answers, only shades of gray. It’s as difficult to pinpoint Willingham’s talent as a recruiter as it is to extract the ingredients from a tequila sunrise.
He has been head coach at two schools with specialized reputations. Stanford may have the most stringent academic requirements of any school playing big-time sports, and Notre Dame combines the most vaunted football tradition in the land with a high set of academic standards.
Beyond that, there are obvious issues of staffers’ strength in recruiting that greatly impact whether (a) Willingham could afford to be only average at it, or (b) overcome weaknesses among assistants.
Says Lemming: “At Notre Dame, I thought he was kind of saddled with an average staff. He himself is an outstanding recruiter. He’s not a guy who comes in and tries to talk like a teenager. The parents all like him. The only kids that don’t are the ones looking for a loosey-goosey guy. You won’t get that with him.”
Wallace adds that the prospective 2005 Irish class, currently with eight commitments, “wasn’t really coming along in splendid fashion.”
SuperPrep ranked Stanford’s recruiting classes under Willingham fairly consistently, from 13th to 30th.
But then, recruiting has two almost polar components. One is knocking heads competitively for well-known prospects coveted by other schools. The other, which may be more important, is identifying and pursuing which prospects project as players who will develop and fit a system.
“I’ve grown, myself, to place less emphasis on rankings,” says Wallace. “Coaching and talent development is far more important.”
In recent years, Notre Dame lost out on some highly regarded recruits who might have saved Willingham from a surprising firing. In 2002, the Irish were front-and-center with this season’s Heisman finalist, Reggie Bush, but he opted for USC. The year before, they went to the wire along with Washington for running back Lorenzo Booker, but Booker chose Florida State. Last February, quarterback Brian Brohm followed his brother Jeff to hometown Louisville over the Irish.
As Wallace points out, winning some recruiting battles didn’t necessarily equal victories for Willingham. Recalling Notre Dame receiver Rhema McKnight as a California prep, Wallace says, “He was so far superior to anybody on the field, the only time anybody paid any attention to the game was when Rhema had the ball. He was seemingly such a better college prospect than anybody out there.
“Their (the Irish’s) other receiver, Maurice Stovall, was the same type of all-world athlete who could have gone to any college. Then they bring in (quarterback) Brady Quinn, and what do they have? No passing game.”
The evidence suggests that even if Willingham isn’t flashy, he can be persuasive in a living-room setting making a pitch for a recruit.
“He did a fabulous job,” says Moore-Smith. “There were many coaches in my home in the course of Allen’s recruitment, and (Willingham) was one of the few whom I would welcome back.
“We were humans coming into contact with each other. I guess the respectfulness of us as people, the respectfulness of our home, the ability to talk about a wide range of things in addition to football … it was not a one-dimensional encounter, it was a very personal encounter. It was very comfortable as a visit.
“I’m a Ty Willingham fan.”
Moore-Smith, however, encouraged her son to take an unofficial visit to Notre Dame and project himself as a student away from football. When he did, he chose Stanford.
In his own seasons at Stanford, Willingham and his staff recruited the talent that took the Cardinal to the 1999 Rose Bowl. In his seven years, Stanford attracted players like Riall and Teyo Johnson, Amon Gordon, Randy Fasani, Chris Lewis, Tank Williams, Kwame Harris, Kerry Carter and Michael Craven.
“Tyrone is very good when he gets into the home,” says former Stanford assistant Denny Schuler. “He’s good with families.”
One of those was the family of John Kadous, an offensive lineman from Tucson whom Notre Dame signed last winter.
“I thought coach Willingham was outstanding,” says Kadous’ mother, Joanne. “He came here at about 4 or 5 in the afternoon and was here until 11 at night. He enjoyed his visit and was in absolutely no rush to leave. I would entrust John to him anywhere.”
Rick Neuheisel, the former UW coach, used to engage many recruits because he could transfer the sense that he was hip. Wallace suggests that some of Willingham’s appeal is in being square, as “being exactly like you’d want your son to grow up — honest, strait-laced and with a lot of integrity. You get positive comments from kids about Ty Willingham, but never that he was known as an engaging recruiter who could captivate like some head coaches do.”
However Willingham grades out as a recruiter, he needs to have help. “What is absolutely imperative is that you bring in a staff that can do the (recruiting) job,” says Wallace.
And those guys, Willingham is trying to recruit right now.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org