Will Willingham, when all is said and done, get more than the three years he got at Notre Dame to do what he did at Stanford, which was take the school to a Rose Bowl?

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In some ways, the most ringing endorsement for Tyrone Willingham came on the day he was fired at Notre Dame.

“From Sunday through Friday,” said Kevin White, the school’s athletic director, “our football team has exceeded all expectations in every way.”

Players were in class and out of jail. They looked and acted smart. They graduated. They followed their leader.

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“Tyrone Willingham personally displayed impeccable integrity and tremendous character,” said White, who added that despite the integrity and the character, a record of 21-15 wasn’t good enough at Notre Dame.

Will it be good enough at Washington, which is about to hire Willingham for those same attributes?

Will Willingham, when all is said and done, get more than the three years he got at Notre Dame to do what he did at Stanford, which was take the school to a Rose Bowl?

Why Willingham?

You’ve got to remember that one of Mark Emmert’s first duties as the new Washington president was to defend his school against NCAA charges of lack of institutional control.

And ahead of him next month is the start of Rick Neuheisel’s suit over wrongful termination by the university, during which the topics discussed will range from gambling to lying.

It isn’t surprising that Emmert and Todd Turner, the athletic director, went for a taut disciplinarian and a man of his word.

Turner tried to hire Willingham to coach at Vanderbilt, the Stanford of the South.

But both know honor and honesty only gets a coach so far. At Notre Dame, that was three years.

Emmert and Turner must be banking on Willingham being able to win at Washington, to use his West Coast ties to improve recruiting, to put together a staff that will make up for his less-than-sterling reputation as a tactician.

Turner announced Friday that football was going to cost more for fans, as the school attempts to upgrade football facilities that he says have been ignored.

Tyrone Willingham bio

Hometown: Kinston, N.C.

Age: 50 (will turn 51 on Dec. 30)

Noteworthy: 1977 graduate of Michigan State … Before becoming Stanford’s head coach, he was an assistant at Central Michigan (1978-79), Michigan State (1980-82), North Carolina State (1983-1985), Rice (1986-1988), Stanford (1989-91) and with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings (1992-94). … Took Stanford to four bowl games in seven seasons, including Rose Bowl after 1999 season. … Twice named Pac-10 coach of the year (1995, 1999) … Was the first coach in Notre Dame history to win 10 games in inaugural season. … In 2002, took Fighting Irish to Gator Bowl and was named The Sporting News Sportsman of the Year.

Head coaching records:

Yr. Team Rec.
1995 Stanford 7-4-1
1996 Stanford 7-5
1997 Stanford 5-6
1998 Stanford 3-8
1999 Stanford 8-4
2000 Stanford 5-6
2001 Stanford 9-3
2002 Notre Dame 10-2
2003 Notre Dame 5-7
2004 Notre Dame 6-5
Total 65-51-1

The university apparently wants Willingham to erase the pall of last season, when season-ticket sales dropped below 58,000 and the athletic department lost $2 million in anticipated revenues.

Washington wants to eventually renovate Husky Stadium but knows that’s only possible if the football team wins and sparks the kind of interest that surrounded Don James’ teams in the ’80s and early ’90s.

Willingham isn’t going to sell tickets. But his teams might.

The Huskies could have gone after some obscure college or NFL coordinator, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, hiring Jeff Tedford from Oregon the way Cal did, or Jim Mora Jr. from the San Francisco 49ers the way Atlanta did.

That would have been sexy, but also dicey.

Instead, they went for a coach who three years ago was hired by Notre Dame, who has proved he can win in the Pac-10, who won’t embarrass anybody.

They had hoped to hire Tedford, which made sense. They interviewed Utah’s Urban Meyer, who opted for Florida.

But from the very beginning — they may have had some oblique contact with him even before he was fired — they were interested in Willingham.

It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t the first choice. Just as it hasn’t mattered that Lorenzo Romar wasn’t the school’s first choice for its men’s basketball coach.

The Huskies went a century without an African-American head coach in a major sport, and they may soon have two. They would have one of only three black Division I-A football head coaches in the country.

Willingham’s appeal has to be not only to black athletes, but to student athletes.

Hiring a head coach isn’t easy, and never was.

If Willingham is hired, the Huskies will need him to revive a program that is down in wins and revenue.

Don James wasn’t the first choice to replace Jim Owens in 1975. The school went after Dan Devine, who took the Notre Dame job instead. Then it tried to hire Mike White away from California.

But, like Tedford, White decided to stay in Berkeley.

In 1999, the Huskies were left trying to decide between Gary Pinkel of Toledo and Chris Tormey of Idaho when then-athletic director Barbara Hedges coaxed Rick Neuheisel away from Colorado with unprecedented money.

Successful coaches don’t move much anymore. Look at the trouble Nebraska had a year ago trying to get a new coach. Look at the trouble Notre Dame has had.

The UW search has been a strange one, but then we’re dealing with a new athletic director and university president.

They apparently never bothered to interview Dan Hawkins, the wildly successful coach at Boise State.

They didn’t commit to O’Brien when they had a chance. They wanted Willingham. And he wanted them, turning down the opportunity to interview at Mississippi.

Willingham knows the Pac-10.

He knows the kinds of athletes Washington can recruit, he knows the support the school receives, he understands what Washington was, and can be.

And he needs the time Notre Dame wouldn’t give him.

Blaine Newnham: 206-464-2364 or bnewnham@seattletimes.com