Tyrone Willingham never engaged in the scuffle to determine his fate. He threw out an ill-prepared product and proceeded to lose his way to extinction. By the end, even his most passionate supporters were forced to sigh and accept his dismissal.
The bell rang to end Tyrone Willingham’s punchless fight Monday, and he just stood there, frozen, paralyzed by his own rigidness.
The coach was unemotional about losing his job, Mount Rushmore stoic. As he spoke in that familiar soft monotone, you would’ve thought he was reading a grocery list rather than verbalizing his agony. Maybe it was because, at this point, there was no great pain to be felt.
There was no vexing decision to be made, no defense to mount against it, no reason for Willingham to do anything other than take the money and jump off the plane. In the end, he went out with the drama of a cheetah racing against a cow.
When Washington president Mark Emmert made the controversial choice to retain Willingham last December, he envisioned his patience turning into a breakthrough for the football program. He saw a budding offense that could improve. He saw an opportunity to fix the defense with a new coordinator. He saw the potential to secure the Huskies’ future with that great 2008 recruiting class.
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Ten months later, Emmert looks at a totaled program — no edge, no zest, no victories — and says with resignation, “The vision was almost the inverse of what we have watched.”
Remember when this was an actual debate? Remember when there were dueling factions, the Keep Tys and the Toss Tys, and you had to cover your child’s ears when they argued? Remember when there was doubt, intrigue and buzz over how this season would play out?
It all dissolved in the second half of the season opener. Willingham never engaged in the scuffle to determine his fate. He threw out an ill-prepared product and proceeded to lose his way to extinction. By the end, even his most passionate supporters were forced to sigh and accept his dismissal.
“I’ve never wanted a coach to win more than I wanted coach Willingham to win because I respect the man,” Emmert said. “I love who he is, love his integrity. But our performance on the field did not measure up to our standards.”
Here’s how far the Huskies have plunged: The university just made the popular decision, and there’s still an unfavorable reaction. Many wanted Willingham to combust immediately, but he will coach the final five games. He was forced to resign, with a million bucks providing a sweet incentive, but not before he goes for a complete winless season.
Willingham spoke of being “unwavering in my approach and commitment to my young men,” and there’s some honor in that. If anyone can handle six weeks as a lame duck, it’s Willingham. Although most of us would’ve told Willingham to call it a tenure now, we should respect athletic director Scott Woodward’s reasons for having the coach finish his bad job. If nothing else, Willingham will keep the team focused and disciplined.
“I know people think one of the assistants could’ve taken over in the interim and made some miraculous impact,” Emmert said. “We looked at all aspects of this decision, and there’s no reason to believe that’s true.”
In other words, the Huskies are terminally inept.
At least until Woodward finds a savior.
Indeed, a savior is what he’s charged to pursue. Washington has gone from the palace to the sewer. The program needs to make a bold, indisputable hire. It needs a winner and a charmer. It needs someone who can inspire and rejuvenate the fan base.
Just don’t expect it to be Jim Mora. Despite all the pro-Mora chatter, he’s tied to a deal to succeed Mike Holmgren as the Seahawks’ coach. No matter how much of a Dawg he is, it’s asking too much to request that Mora take half the money to coach on the college level, where he’s spent only one of his 25 years as a clipboard-wielder. And that was as a graduate assistant.
Let Mora be happy as a pro coach. He’s an excellent fit for the Seahawks. If the Huskies truly wanted him, they would’ve dumped Willingham a year ago to make room.
When I asked about Mora on Monday, Emmert said: “First of all, we’re going to leave all the fun and interesting speculation about the next coach to your readers and to you pundits. Obviously, people think a lot of Jim Mora. I’ve never had the chance to meet the man. But he’s a favorite son of Washington. But we’re not going to comment at all about who we might pursue.”
Analyze that whichever way you prefer. Emmert’s words either left the Mora window cracked open, or he was simply trying to wiggle out of the question without disrespecting a fellow Husky.
No doubt, Woodward must call Mora, but here’s guessing that conversation will be more a fact-finding mission. Woodward figures to seek what-to-do opinions from many people with longtime ties to the program.
He seems to be angling toward a speedy, eye-catching hire. With all this time to prepare and inquire, the Huskies should set a goal to announce their new coach by early December. Certainly, the Willingham debacle has taught the university to be aggressive when it comes to making coaching decisions.
Beyond that, we’re left with this conclusion: For all the commotion Willingham’s job status once created, he sure exited quietly. Given a generous last chance to win, he pleaded no contest.
What a sad, irritating postscript to this misery.