Thirty years ago, a Washington Huskies football team under a third-year coach still trying to get his program off the ground traveled here...
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Thirty years ago, a Washington Huskies football team under a third-year coach still trying to get his program off the ground traveled here from Seattle.
Actually, as Don James said recently, “It was just a real long flight both ways.” The Huskies lost to Syracuse 22-20 after the home team kicked a field goal with 23 seconds to play.
The loss was part of a 1-3 start for the Huskies that James said had some fans wondering whether he was the right man for the job.
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“I’m sure there were a lot of people out there ready to pass me by and start looking for another coach,” James recalled.
But the Huskies won at Oregon 54-0 in Week Five, a game that was also the Pac-10 opener for UW. The James Gang was finally off and running.
The Huskies won seven of their last eight games, including the Rose Bowl over Michigan, and no one ever questioned James’ job status again.
Flash-forward 30 years, and the Huskies are again in Syracuse with a third-year coach trying to get the program off the ground. UW’s season-ticket base has shrunk in recent years, and the conference has become more competitive than ever.
Those who might think a similar turnaround season is necessary for Tyrone Willingham to stay employed, however, don’t include UW athletic director Todd Turner.
“It’s a totally different universe in college football,” Turner said. “I’m not thinking that the third year now is the same as it was 30 years ago.”
Maybe not, but third years have often served as the season when programs had better start improving.
“I think years three and four are key years,” said Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, who knows a thing or two about turning around programs. “Because you have some of your own players in year three and all of your players in year four.”
Just as vital, some think, is setting a tone that the UW program is again on the right track after three consecutive losing years.
“I think the urgency is as much as I’ve ever seen it with the Huskies,” said former Huskies quarterback Hugh Millen, now a radio and TV commentator. “Because you don’t want to establish a period of time where your potential recruits can never remember anything other than you being a bottom-dweller.”
Willingham knows all about how critical third years can be. He was fired at Notre Dame after the Irish went 6-5 in his third season.
The third year has also proven telltale at Washington, where no coach has ever had three consecutive losing seasons.
James and Jim Owens, the most successful coaches since World War II, each won Rose Bowls in their third years after having .500 or worse combined records the first two seasons.
For the two coaches who lasted more than three seasons at UW since and were later fired, the third year also proved telling. Jim Lambright led Washington to a 7-4-1 record his third season but missed out on the Rose Bowl when the Huskies tied USC and lost by two at home to Oregon. That kind of teeth-gnashing result ultimately led to his firing after six years.
And while people continue to debate where Rick Neuheisel really had the program headed before he was fired after a gambling controversy arose, there was evidence in his third season that matters were beginning to go awry. After some miracle finishes helped UW start 7-1, the Huskies lost three of their final four, giving up 47 or more points in all of the losses, beginning an 8-9 run to the end of the Neuheisel era.
Willingham, though, resists that story line.
“Every year is important,” he said. “When has it ever been an enjoyable thing to lose?”
And there appears few tangible reasons to believe that Willingham needs to win more this season than any other. Even if the Web site CoachesHotSeat.com rates him as having the second-hottest seat in the country.
Willingham is in the third year of a five-year contract that has a favorable buyout clause. He would be owed a lump-sum payment of $3 million if fired before Jan. 3, 2008.
And while Turner says there has been no talk of an extension, he says that’s only because neither side thinks it is necessary. The Washington AD said those discussions should come after this season.
“It would surprise me if he’s not here for quite a few years beyond what his current contract is, regardless of when we evaluate it,” Turner said. “I expect that we’ll sit down after the season is over and look at the future with a pretty studied eye to make sure he’s comfortable with where we’re going, and likewise.”
Turner, though, says he is “encouraged” by what he’s seen so far.
“I like what I see on the field, and I really like what I see off the field in terms of creating the kind of culture here that will sustain itself for a long period of time,” Turner said.
Changing that culture — getting players who will buy into Willingham’s vision of not only being good football players but also solid students and citizens — has proved to be a larger task than anyone imagined, Turner said.
“If you were to really pin coach Willingham down, he would probably tell you that he was surprised there was as much work to be done to bring everybody back together,” Turner said. “Our players lacked focus and commitment and unity — all the things coach Willingham is bringing to the program. It’s taken a while, and we’re still a work in progress. We’re nowhere near where we need to be, though we are closer.”
The culture shift should grow more complete this season because more players on the roster were signed by Willingham than Neuheisel and Keith Gilbertson. Of the 77 scholarship players on the roster tonight, 48 were signed by Willingham.
Willingham, however, says that number is meaningless.
“It’s not about ‘your players,’ ” he said. “It’s about values, about a belief system, and when those things are consistent, then it really becomes your team.”
Willingham also won’t say that the job has been tougher than he thought.
“I thought we could go to a bowl game the first year I was here,” he said.
He has set that goal again this season, though few think it is realistic with a schedule that is generally regarded as among the most difficult in the country.
In fact, the schedule is so loaded that Turner acknowledges the Huskies could be better but finish with a worse record than last year’s 5-7 mark.
“I think we are overscheduled this year in some ways,” Turner said of nonconference games at Syracuse and Hawaii and home games against Ohio State and Boise State.
The attractive schedule, however, has at least helped stop the slide in season-ticket sales. UW has sold about 43,100 to the general public, up about 500 from a year ago.