Some of my buddies at California worry that their football coach, Jeff Tedford, will take the Michigan job. Some of the others — after...
Some of my buddies at California worry that their football coach, Jeff Tedford, will take the Michigan job.
Some of the others — after Cal finished losing six of its last seven games this season — worry that he won’t.
“But who would we get that is better?” countered a voice of sanity.
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It’s ridiculous to think Cal fans want to replace Tedford, who revitalized a football program, if not an entire university. His team didn’t reach expectations this year, but whose fault are the expectations? Tedford’s, of course.
Schools like Oregon and Cal, who for years dreamed of going to a bowl game, any bowl game, suddenly after a few good seasons think they ought to annually contend for a national title. Or, at least, win eight or nine games every year.
If not, fire the coach.
That thinking — and Washington fans certainly had it — is arrogant. It overlooks the fact that other teams play football, that Oregon State can have a good team, that Arizona is trying to get better. That Washington will be back.
I’ll never forget Oregon State’s improbable victory over the Huskies in Seattle in 1985. The Beavers were 38-point underdogs. Approaching one of the celebrating Beavers after the game, I asked if he understood the magnitude of what had just happened.
He looked at me strangely, and said, “You know, we practice every day, too.”
The Huskies should have one of the Pac-10’s top football programs. Football is important at Washington, and the support here can be closer to what the Big Ten and Big 12 schools experience than anything in the West. Washington has better academics, better history and a better location as a major-league city than the other schools in the Northwest and Arizona.
But there is no question the challenge is more difficult now than it was when Don James coached at Washington. For one thing, USC is better. And so are Oregon, Arizona State, Cal and just about everyone else.
Down the line, schools are now willing to spend money to build indoor practice facilities and new weight rooms, and to spend whatever it takes to get a top coach.
Which brings us to the recent decision at Washington to stay with Tyrone Willingham as coach. I don’t think we know how good Willingham can be at UW until he gets a real chance, until he can dig himself from the damage he inherited.
This is not a bad football coach. At Stanford, he didn’t lose once to Cal in his seven years. At Notre Dame, he won 10 games his first season. Slowly under Willingham, Washington’s teams have regained the resolve to play hard in every game, something missing before him.
Sure, there is something exciting about a change. The new coach, whoever he is, always seems to spin a better yarn, or introduce a better form of jumping jacks. But change means shaking a program’s very foundation, changing everything from the uniforms to its offensive and defensive alignments.
It also means altering the allegiance those on the team — and in the community — feel for the program.
From 1957 until 1992, Washington had two head coaches. Kids in Seattle looked to the UW. Oregon’s program turned around when it stuck with Rich Brooks and then found a way to keep Mike Bellotti from going to USC or Ohio State. The result is two coaches since 1975 and a top program.
Let’s not forget Willingham was hired to clean up an administrative — and ethical — mess at Washington. To fire him now is to overlook the mess in the first place.
My first extended time with Willingham came shortly after he was hired at Washington. We sat in his office, where Jim Lambright and Rick Neuheisel and Keith Gilbertson had sat before — and talked about a lot of things. Willingham was good talking about life. He was not good talking about his football team or the players on it. He refuses to promote or even explain himself or his players.
As I prepared to leave, he said, “Let me walk you to your car.” We walked down two flights of stairs to find my old Honda Civic in the parking lot. I told him I had two things to say: One, that I was dreading the thought of trying to cover him and his team; Two, he could recruit my son.
“Excellent,” he said, and walked stiffly back to his office.
I think this is a man of measurable integrity. A man’s man, a leader who will recruit well because he has something to offer both players and their parents. In time, he should get most of the best recruits in the state, as James did. In time, playing hard will transition into playing well. The Huskies will once again be feared because they reflect the tenacity and toughness of their coach.
I would think that if Washington sticks with Willingham, he will stick with them. Which should be good for them both.
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