It's kind of assumed: Big-money boosters will, from time to time, try to influence the direction of their favorite college teams, however...
It’s kind of assumed: Big-money boosters will, from time to time, try to influence the direction of their favorite college teams, however discreetly.
But when Ed Hansen — lawyer, multimillionaire, University of Washington alumnus and former three-term Everett mayor — wrote UW President Mark Emmert six weeks ago, he abandoned all sense of delicacy.
Hansen, unhappy with the state of Huskies football, placed a price upon the head of the football coach and the school’s athletic director. His e-mail said:
“By this letter I hereby pledge to contribute a minimum of $100,000 towards a law school scholarship within 90 days, conditioned upon the termination of Ty Willingham as football coach.
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“In addition, I hereby pledge a second $100,000 towards a law school scholarship within 90 days, conditioned upon the termination of Todd Turner as athletic director.
“Also, I do not intend to contribute any further funds to the athletic department as long as these two gentlemen are employed by the University.”
Hansen’s e-mail was among 1,000 or so that The Seattle Times received under a public records request. Those e-mails — written to Emmert, Willingham and Turner during the past four months — show just how much importance some fans attach to football, and the ways in which they try to make their opinions count.
As the team staggered to a 4-9 record — the team’s third-straight losing season under Willingham — fans increasingly turned to their computers to weigh in. Of the e-mails evaluating the program’s direction, nearly three-quarters were critical. Many were full of lamentation (“another year of my life, lost”); rage (“keeping Tyrone Willingham is a slap to my face!”); or name-calling (“Losingham,” “Turdner”).
One alumnus, an elementary-school teacher in Seattle, despaired: “We are Washington. At Washington you win football games or it just isn’t Washington anymore.” He said he’d bought his infant daughter a Huskies cheerleader outfit, but now vowed to stop purchasing UW merchandise and attending games until Willingham was fired. “Because now Husky Saturdays are days of sadness and why would I want my daughter to share that?”
Other e-mailers supported Willingham (“Good guys do finish first”) or offered suggestions to turn the team around (“the colors of the uniform have to be dark and imposing”).
At least 100 e-mails came from fans threatening to pull or withhold financial support if Willingham or Turner, or both, were not fired. Those threats ranged from a refusal to renew season tickets to Hansen’s $200,000 offer.
In one e-mail, Mike McCann pointed out that his company, McCann Motors, sponsors Huskies football to the tune of $50,000 each year. “Please consider this request to make a needed change,” he wrote.
McCann said he’d grown “less enchanted” with the team under Willingham: “… the fundamental mistakes in X’s and O’s coupled with the lack of accountability and excitement in the program has unfortunately diminished my potential future support … .”
Race also became a factor in the entreaties to the UW. When it appeared Willingham might be fired, the president of the King County chapter of the NAACP sent Emmert an e-mail requesting a meeting. “As you are likely aware, Coach Willingham has become a pillar in our community and is well on his way toward returning the football program to respectability,” James Bible wrote.
Members of other African-American groups — the Breakfast Group and the United Black Christian Clergy of Washington State — also wrote to support the team’s coach.
Willingham survived. Turner did not.
On Dec. 5, the UW announced Willingham would remain as coach. Turner’s resignation as athletic director was announced a week later and is effective Jan. 31.
To many fans, the fate of Willingham and Turner became a referendum of sorts on what college athletics is all about. When Turner and Willingham were hired in 2004, they took over a program that was trying to recover from damage done under the watch of former coach Rick Neuheisel.
Under Neuheisel, the UW won. But Neuheisel violated NCAA rules and was caught lying. The UW wanted Turner to emphasize integrity and character. Turner gave Willingham a five-year contract — and stood by him, even as the team’s losses mounted.
When Willingham’s job appeared in jeopardy, Shaun Alexander, the Seattle Seahawks running back, wrote Emmert: “I want to tell you how pleased I am with the direction of the program and the character of the guys Ty has been bringing in.”
The Seahawks, since 2005, had realized the benefits of emphasizing character, Alexander wrote. “Ty has set the table for this to happen, holding character above other things. Let him finish what he started and you’ll be pleased with all your decisions.”
Former Seahawks quarterback Jeff Kemp wrote and extolled Willingham’s “commitment to excellence” and dedication to ideals: “This man has changed lives and the reputation of UW football player culture (of which there were too many sad embarrassments before). He is building a foundation, and winning will result.”
When the UW announced that Willingham would stay on, a prominent voice from the UW’s glory years offered kudos. Mike Lude, the athletic director when Don James was coach, wrote to Turner:
“Todd, Congratulations on standing tough. In my view you made the right decision. Ill Ligitamus Non Carberendum (Don’t let the bastards wear you down) Warmest best wishes and a Merry Christmas!!!!!!!”
The Willingham announcement prompted Dan Luchtel, chair of the UW Faculty Senate, to write Emmert: “Yes!! While there may be some dissenters (the difficulty of leading the proverbial herd of cats), it is my gut feeling that you have the strong support of the faculty with this decision.”
Not all fans agreed. One wrote: “Today is the single worst day I have ever experienced as a Husky. My hope is gone, and that is truly sad. I am 24 … .”
For Emmert and Turner, a divide over football began to take form even before the 2007 season started, both men acknowledged in interviews this week. Turner said he wanted to extend Willingham’s contract by at least one year, as “a real indication of our support.” But Emmert wouldn’t go along.
“Obviously no one, including Coach Willingham, was satisfied with the wins and losses that were occurring there, and so I didn’t think at that point it merited an extension,” Emmert told The Times.
But when Turner resigned after the season ended, it wasn’t because of any disagreement about Willingham, Emmert said. Instead, it had to do with concerns about Turner’s “total fit.”
An athletic department, Emmert said, needs to succeed in four areas: the “student experience,” the “business of athletics,” the “competitive arena,” and in “relationships outside the university.” Turner did fine with the first two, Emmert said. “It was in the latter two areas I was most concerned,” he said.
When Turner’s resignation was announced, Turner chastised any embrace of a win-at-all-costs mentality. A communications professor who served on the search committee that tapped Turner wrote to him after his resignation: “We wanted someone who would stand on principles, teach those principles to student athletes, and improve the image and reputation of the university.”
Turner didn’t let them down, she wrote. “Of all the extracurricular tasks I’ve taken in my 17 years here, I am most proud of helping to bring you here.”
James Bible, the local NAACP president, said he and Emmert never did meet to discuss Willingham. He requested a sit-down, Bible said, because Willingham is “a serious asset to the entire community, the entire city, and the community of color.
“Many programs win relatively quickly. But they don’t win with character, and that inevitably comes back to harm them.”
Emmert said he tries to read every e-mail he receives. “But do you let that sway your decision? No, you really can’t. You’ve got to make your own judgments, assess the situation the way you see fit, and then make a call.”
Bible’s e-mail was treated no differently than any other, Emmert said. “I think there’s been enormous speculation and rumor about the role of the NAACP in this, and it’s really completely and utterly inaccurate. They voiced their opinion just like everybody else did, and it had little bearing upon the eventual outcome of this.”
Emmert said he disregards any e-mails that include financial threats or inducements tied to personnel decisions. “Those are the kind of commentary I don’t take seriously at all,” he said.
He doesn’t even remember seeing the e-mail from Hansen offering $100,000 apiece for Willingham’s and Turner’s termination, Emmert said. But such offers, Emmert said, are “grossly inappropriate.”
Hansen, 68, received both his bachelor’s and law degrees from the UW. He served as Everett’s mayor for more than eight years and ran the Snohomish County Public Utility District until 2006. He is a founder of Frontier Bank and has stock in it worth nearly $7 million, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Asked about his e-mail to Emmert, Hansen said he never expected it to become public. He said he offered the money because he wanted to help law students and get the football team back to winning.
Hansen said he believed there was nothing inappropriate about his e-mail: “If someone is willing to make a gift of money for a charitable purpose, they are entitled to put conditions on it. The UW is free to do what it will do, and Ed Hansen is free to make contributions to the UW if he likes the direction things are going.”
Asked if he planned to donate $100,000 now that Turner has resigned, Hansen said he’d never considered the possibility that Willingham would stay and Turner be gone. “Your call is making me evaluate that,” Hansen told a reporter. Later, Hansen said, “I think, as you and I are talking, I will go ahead with the $100,000 I mentioned.”
Turner said he knew nothing about Hansen’s e-mail to Emmert.
Asked about the hundreds of e-mails sent to him personally, Turner said he appreciated the passion that drove people to write. “They love the place,” he said. “They wouldn’t write if they didn’t.”
Turner and his staff tried to answer every e-mail, even the abusive ones. Here’s one exchange:
Fan: “Get the hell out and don’t ever come back!!!!!”
Turner: “Thanks again for writing.”
Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.