A day or so after his last game as coach of the Washington Huskies, Keith Gilbertson called one of his good friends in the business, the one man he thought would be perfect to...

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A day or so after his last game as coach of the Washington Huskies, Keith Gilbertson called one of his good friends in the business, the one man he thought would be perfect to take his place — Tyrone Willingham.

“He was curious about my interest and very gracious about this program and this university,” Willingham said.

Thus was planted the seed that grew to fruition yesterday when Willingham was announced as the 22nd football coach in Washington history.

The two coaches became friends in 1995 when Gilbertson was at California and Willingham at Stanford. During the season each lost a parent. And in the week of the annual Big Game, they found themselves bonding in their shared experience during the course of various required speaking engagements.

Nine years later, Gilbertson found himself again talking with Willingham, albeit in the somewhat odd position of recommending that his friend look at the job he had just lost. Gilbertson said Willingham was the only coach he called.

“I just thought he’d be a good fit for Washington and I was curious where his thing was at because you never know in coaching these days,” said Gilbertson, who made the call to Willingham about a week before Willingham was fired as coach at Notre Dame.

“He was very classy — said he had a job he wanted to finish. I said, ‘I knew you’d say that, but I was just thinking this would be a good place for you and you’d like it here and, listen, they are really going to make a commitment to football here.’ And I wanted the players to have somebody who was tough and demanding and stern on them — the things I tried to be.”

A week later, when Willingham was fired — and UW athletic director Todd Turner inquired to see if Willingham would be interested in talking about the Huskies job — he remembered the good things Gilbertson had said about UW.

“This is a special opportunity and a special honor,” Willingham said in front of a packed house at the Don James Center yesterday. “I couldn’t be prouder at this moment than to be the coach at Washington.”

Beginning of the Willingham era

The University of Washington presented its new football coach yesterday. Some of the highlights: 

Five-year contract should bring stability to school’s beleaguered program.

President Mark Emmert says, “I’ve never been as excited about a hire.”

Ex-UW offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick may get chance to return.

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One big recruit, E.J. Savannah, says Huskies now are more appealing.

The 50-year-old becomes the first African-American football coach in UW history.

He also brings stability to a program that has had four coaches since 1998, agreeing to a five-year contract that could pay him as much as $2.03 million a year, with $1.43 million guaranteed. Turner said he expected Willingham to sign the contract by last night.

The guaranteed money includes a $100,000 housing allowance and a country-club membership, as well as automobiles and a travel allowance for his family.

There are 13 different incentives, the largest of which is $175,000 for winning the BCS title.

Most of the rest of the incentives range from $10,000 to $25,000, for things such as qualifying for bowl games, meeting certain graduation rates and the team achieving a cumulative grade-point average of 2.7.

The contract also includes a bonus for meeting a high rating on a new “compliance index” that UW has created to make sure its programs don’t run afoul of NCAA rules. Willingham will receive $25,000 if he has a high compliance score.

Turner said if Willingham reached every incentive — meaning getting the full $2.03 million — “it would be the biggest bargain we could ever imagine.”

Willingham, apparently, wasn’t much of a bargainer himself. Turner said he never talked dollars with Willingham.

“He wasn’t concerned about it at all,” Turner said. “He said, ‘I know you will treat me fairly and work that out with my attorney. All I ask is that you make it market competitive.’ “

Turner said Willingham was the only coach to whom the job was offered. Turner and UW president Mark Emmert personally interviewed three coaches, including Willingham and Boston College’s Tom O’Brien. Apparently, they also met another whom Turner won’t name.

Turner also said he interviewed Utah’s Urban Meyer, who has since moved on to Florida. Turner said he never talked to UW grad Jim Mora, coach of the Atlanta Falcons, though he acknowledged there was third-party contact and much interest from alums in making a run at Mora.

But Turner and Emmert each said yesterday their No. 1 choice was Willingham, not only for his coaching ability — he is 65-51-1 in 10 years at Stanford and Notre Dame — but for his commitment to academics and compliance with NCAA rules.

“For me, this was a very, very easy choice,” Emmert said. “When we sat down and talked to Tyrone, it couldn’t have been clearer in my mind that this was the man we wanted to lead the University of Washington back to its former glory days.”

When Willingham was fired, Emmert said, “we were absolutely stunned and elated because we knew we had a chance to bring someone to the University of Washington who had all the characteristics we were looking for.”

Turner said he was willing to give Willingham the weekend to complete the contract. But Willingham agreed to the job Saturday and wanted to get started as soon as possible. His first order of business is to meet with the five UW assistants who have been handling recruiting and see if they will be members of his new staff.


Tyrone Willingham was 0-5 against UW while he was coach at Stanford, but his Notre Dame team this season beat the Huskies 38-3.

Then, Willingham will begin recruiting. He said one of his goals is for Washington to again be seen as the ultimate place for high-school kids in the state to play football.

“We’ve got to get the state of Washington back to being the University of Washington,” he said.

Willingham becomes the centerpiece of UW’s effort to reinvigorate its football program. The Huskies finished 1-10 this season, the most losses in school history and the first losing season since 1976, and Turner and Emmert have ambitious plans to renovate Husky Stadium as well as improving coaches’ offices and the weight room.

Willingham, though, said he knows his place.

“The No. 1 role I can play is to win football games,” he said.

And while he’s new to Washington, he’s not new to the Pac-10, one reason UW officials so avidly pursued him once he became available. Willingham won Pac-10 coach-of-the-year honors in 1995 and 1999 at Stanford, leading the Cardinal to the Rose Bowl in the latter season, the school’s only appearance in that game since 1971.

In none of his seasons at Stanford, however, did Willingham beat Washington, years when the Huskies were often known as much for their grit as their talent.

“My focus will be to get us back to that toughness,” Willingham said, in words that surely warmed the hearts of UW fans. “I remember coming into this stadium on numerous occasions and walking out sad because not only had we been defeated, but we had been beaten — and there is a difference there. I’m looking forward to getting back to that kind of football.”

Gilbertson said he has no doubt Willingham will do just that.

One reason he called Willingham, he said, was because “I wanted somebody in here that guys like Rick Redman and Hugh Millen and Greg Lewis and Sonny Sixkiller would look forward to having. I think he’s tough and I think he’s disciplined. I just wanted someone good in there, someone who will be excited about being here for a long time. I think he’s all those things.”

Dickey hired by Utah

Charlie Dickey, who spent 13 years as an assistant coach at Pac-10 schools including Washington, was named yesterday as the new offensive-line coach at Utah.

“Charlie is a proven line coach,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “He is experienced, knowledgeable and an excellent recruiter. He brings a toughness to that position.”

Dickey spent this season at Washington after a 12-year tenure at Arizona.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.