At an airport coffee shop in Chicago early yesterday morning, a nattily dressed Tyrone Willingham was approached by a member of the party traveling home with the Oregon basketball...

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At an airport coffee shop in Chicago early yesterday morning, a nattily dressed Tyrone Willingham was approached by a member of the party traveling home with the Oregon basketball team from a game at Illinois.

The Ducks official told him he respected Willingham’s football teams at Stanford, and then mentioned the vacant Washington job. Willingham, soon to board a flight to Seattle, could only smile, saying little.

He is expected to reprise that smile this morning at an 11 o’clock news conference, when he will be officially introduced as the 15th head coach in Huskies history, replacing Keith Gilbertson. He flew into Seattle and met with UW players last night.

Willingham, who turns 51 on Dec. 30, will have been out of work only two weeks. He was fired in an abrupt and controversial move by Notre Dame on Nov. 30, the day that Irish athletic director Kevin White conceded, “Coach Willingham is an outstanding football coach. My sense is that there will be many suitors in the near-term.”

Willingham thus returns to the West Coast, the scene of his greatest coaching success. Before his time at Notre Dame, he spent seven seasons at Stanford, where in 1999 he took the Cardinal to its first Rose Bowl in 28 years.

Until he knew that euphoria, however, he also knew professional despair as an assistant coach. His three-year run at Notre Dame was an ironic playback of the early stages of his career.

He was an assistant at Michigan State for three years starting in 1980, and the Spartans had three losing seasons, resulting in the firing of the staff. On to North Carolina State — three more losing seasons, another firing. Then to Rice from 1986-88, where — right on schedule — the Owls tacked another three losing seasons and a staff dismissal on his résumé.

If he was an ascendant coach, he kept it well hidden. But Herb Deromedi guesses that Willingham never got too down about it.

“One time I asked him, ‘You’ve been so many places; what areas did you enjoy?’ ” said Deromedi, the Central Michigan athletic director who gave Willingham his first full-time coaching job in 1978. “He said, ‘I enjoyed them all.’

“He made the statement: ‘I’ve had bad moments, but not bad days.’ “

Tyrone Willingham, meticulous? Said one ex-co-worker: “Our joke at Stanford was, if you want to know the weather, go check with Willingham.”
His career began an uptick in 1989, when he hooked on with Dennis Green’s Stanford staff. He followed Green to the Minnesota Vikings from 1992-94, then landed the Stanford head-coaching job in 1995 on the basis of his previous stint there.

Now it is late 2004, and the person who held the key to the Washington search is someone who doesn’t even work here. In fact, she has held her current job only three months.

“It’s awesome,” Sandy Barbour, athletic director at California, said yesterday. “I’m really thrilled for Tyrone and Kim (his wife). I know this: The young men on his football team will absolutely run through a brick wall for him.”

Barbour was an associate athletic director at Notre Dame during most of Willingham’s tenure there. When she went to Cal in the fall, her urgent priority was to protect football coach Jeff Tedford from the clutches of programs that would pilfer him, including the Huskies.

Last week, Cal announced a new contract for Tedford, and the Huskies turned elsewhere.

“They say there’s seven degrees of separation,” Barbour said. “I think in our business, there’s about two. I really got a sense Jeff wanted to be at Cal. There were a couple of pieces he needed to have unfold for him to stay, and I felt confident about being able to provide those pieces.”

From Barbour and others, it is difficult to unearth a discouraging word about Willingham, a hire who portends no frills, no nonsense and no NCAA violations.

“Tyrone is the consummate team guy, one of those coaches you love to have in your department,” Barbour said. “When any coach at Notre Dame asked him to help with a recruit on campus, Tyrone was always willing to help anyone in the department, and in the community.”

A small club

Only two other Division I football programs have black head coaches:

Karl Dorrell

School: UCLA, two seasons.

12-12; has taken Bruins to two bowls.

Past jobs: Assistant coach or coordinator with Broncos, Washington, Colorado, Central Florida, Northern Arizona, Arizona State.

Sylvester Croom

School: Mississippi State, one season.

3-8 in first season with Bulldogs.

Past jobs: Assistant coach or coordinator with Packers, Lions, Buccaneers, Chargers, Colts and Alabama.

Denny Schuler, who coached under Willingham at Stanford but then knew the hurt of not being asked to accompany the staff to Notre Dame, nevertheless speaks well of him.

“I think he runs a good program,” says Schuler. “I call it a tight ship.”

Yet Willingham maintains his distance. Schuler says in his three years at Stanford, “He never came into my office, sat down and said, ‘How’s your day going?’ That’s not how he is.

“He’s 180 degrees from Keith Gilbertson. Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad. There’s a lot of different ways to skin a cat.”

Willingham grew up near the North Carolina coast in Jacksonville, a city of 30,000 known mostly as the home of Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps base. His father Nathaniel was a landlord, and his mother Lilian was a longtime elementary-school teacher and the first African-American on the local board of education.

Lilian Willingham was memorialized not long ago with the naming of LP Willingham Parkway, a new street built as part of a neighborhood revitalization.

There were four Willingham siblings. Tyrone played quarterback in football, as well as basketball and baseball, and his strait-laced approach surfaced early. Jack Baile, his basketball coach, said he entrusted Willingham and another player to run practice on occasion when he had to attend teachers meetings.

When he’d arrive at practice, Baile says, “Everything was going just right on schedule. I might as well have been there. It wouldn’t have changed anything.”

At only about 5 feet 6, Willingham didn’t command recruiters’ interests. He wrote a couple of letters and Michigan State invited him to walk on in football, so he went north, playing under three different head coaches and also taking part in baseball. He completed 10 passes as a backup quarterback before coach Darryl Rogers switched him to wide receiver and return man in 1976, his senior year.

He spent a year under Rogers as a graduate assistant before Deromedi hired him at Central Michigan.

“You could see he was somebody special very early,” Deromedi said. “The way he carries himself … he was a tireless worker, he had a great relationship with players. He was quite an athlete himself, and he could demonstrate what he wanted done.”

Time has surely frayed some of those athletic skills, not that Willingham doesn’t work at them. Bill Diedrick, his offensive coordinator at Stanford and Notre Dame, remembers Willingham roller-blading across the vast Stanford campus.

“He’s got his own personal routine, and he adheres to it, whether it’s training camp or whatever,” Diedrick says. “Whether it be riding a bicycle, or pushups or jumping rope … In our winter-conditioning program, he could be challenged by any of our players and he would probably stand a good chance to beat them.”

In his second tour at Stanford, Willingham’s head-coaching persona emerged — button-down, organized and rarely one to bring down the house with a quip at a banquet or a media gathering.

“He’s very meticulous,” says Gary Migdol, Stanford senior assistant athletic director. “If a meeting starts at 7 p.m., at 7 p.m. the doors are shut, and if you’re not there, you meet coach Willingham later to discuss the situation. He’s going to run a program of integrity and honesty. And the players will love him.”

Kerry Carter, the Seahawks reserve running back who played for Willingham at Stanford, did.

“It’s great for them,” Carter said yesterday of the Huskies. “I don’t know what their graduation rate was before, but it just went up. He’s a great man, a great recruiter and a great coach.”

At Stanford, there was a running gag about the depth of Willingham’s fastidiousness. Particularly on trips to poor-weather fall climates like Seattle, he was known to make repeated checks on a personal computer for changes in conditions — even at halftime of a game.

Tyrone Willingham worked at Notre Dame with Sandy Barbour, Cal’s new athletic director. Said Barbour said of UW’s new hire. “I know this: The young men on his football team will absolutely run through a brick wall for him.”
“Our joke at Stanford was, if you want to know the weather,” says Migdol, “go check with Willingham.”

Says Mike Gleeson, Stanford video coordinator for athletics, “Until I met Tyrone in person, I thought it (hiring him) was a mistake. Tyrone’s the best; he just is. More than anybody I’ve ever met, the unspoken word with Tyrone is the most powerful thing I’ve ever experienced.”

It became known as “the look” at Stanford — “as if your dad is screaming at you,” says Gleeson, “and he doesn’t say a word.”

The great unknown is how Willingham will operate at a school that isn’t as specialized as Stanford or Notre Dame. Stanford has some of the highest entrance requirements in the country, and at Notre Dame, admission standards precluded the recruitment of junior-college players.

“Stanford clearly recruits by itself, no question that is the case,” says Schuler. “But I also believe Tyrone is very good when he goes into the (recruit’s) home. I just know he’s good with families.

“This will be a unique job for him, different from what he had at Notre Dame and Stanford.”

Of immediate interest to Washington fans will be the makeup of Willingham’s staff, particularly on offense. Diedrick was oft-criticized as coordinator here in 1994-95, held in much higher regard around Stanford, and again widely assailed by Notre Dame fans for the team’s ongoing offensive struggles.

“The biggest problem at Notre Dame was, it could not recruit a JC quarterback,” Schuler says. “That was Billy Diedrick’s problem. Billy didn’t grow dumb overnight. He was a smart guy at Stanford when he had (quarterback) Todd Husak.”

Notre Dame advertises smart guys nurtured under Willingham. In his first semester there in 2002, the team grade-point average was a record 2.911. It hovered around 2.8 in other semesters during his tenure.

In ’02, The Sporting News named him the first college football coach to win its Sportsman of the Year award. A year later, Sports Illustrated listed him No. 6 in the country among most influential minority figures in sports.

Sometimes the target of inner-city Seattle criticism for its hiring in the past, Washington is now one of only three Division I-A football programs with a black coach, and the only one among those 117 with African-Americans heading both football and men’s basketball.

“This may be as important a hire as there has been in Husky history,” UW basketball coach Lorenzo Romar said yesterday. “For them to say (race) doesn’t matter, (that) ‘We think he is the best to get us over the hump and restore this tradition,’ you have to be very complimentary of that position.”

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or Staff reporters Bob Condotta and Steve Kelley contributed to this article.