By Mark Beech, SI.com
When he was ousted as the head coach at Notre Dame four years ago, Tyrone Willingham had a legitimate gripe. He'd gone 21-16 in just three seasons in South Bend before being given the hook -- a stark contrast to several other Fighting Irish head coaches whose tenures had also been only moderately unsuccessful, most notably Gerry Faust (30-26-1) and Bob Davie (35-25), both of whom got five seasons on the sidelines. Even to those who revel in their hatred of Notre Dame football, Willingham's treatment seemed unfair.
But with the announcement yesterday that this would be his last year at Washington, Willingham has no such arguments. He failed, plain and simple. In three-and-a-half years, he's gone 11-32, and this season the Huskies are 0-7. The team's current nine-game losing streak is its longest in 39 years. Fans in the Evergreen State were split over whether Willingham should have been fired after going 4-9 in 2007, but nobody has any doubts today.
So what happened? Willingham was brought in at the end of the 2004 season and charged with restoring order and respectability to a program that was still short on both two years after the end of the scandal-plagued Rick Neuheisel administration. Willingham, widely known for his regal and dignified sideline bearing, seemed a perfect fit for the job. But after three-plus years, it's clear that neither order nor respectability have returned to the shores of Puget Sound. Let us count the ways:
1. This year's Washington team is one of the youngest in the country. The Huskies have played around a dozen true freshmen so far this fall, and by the end of the season, may use up a year of eligibility on a dozen more. Most jarring to fans was the haphazard way it seemed to be happening, especially in a season well on its way to throwaway status. The last straw for many came during a 34-point loss to Arizona on Oct. 4, when Willingham burned the redshirts of running back Terrance Daily and wideout Cody Bruns.
2. The depth and experience problems of this year's team were all the more galling considering the cavalier way Willingham has dealt with veterans in the past. Lots of fans in Washington this week were talking ruefully of the "Suddenly Senior" scandal of 2006, when Willingham pushed out the door several seniors who still retained a year of eligibility.
3. Willingham often seemed bent on alienating both fans and boosters. He banned boosters from practice and refused to cultivate a relationship with the Huskies' rich football tradition. Most recently, this trait played itself out in his refusal to have former coach Don James and the 1978 Rose Bowl team meet with his players. Was this to avoid an association with the scandal-plagued end of James's tenure in 1993? Who knows? After the fact, Willingham made vague protestations about needing more time to coordinate such a meeting. Whatever. At a school with a football heritage as rich as UW's, such a decision came off as a trifle arrogant.
4. Willingham's struggles were starting to affect recruiting. Standout defensive lineman Deandre Coleman, a product of local Garfield High, decommitted earlier this month in part because of the uncertainty of the situation. At the time, UW had only five commitments, and the lowest-rated class in the conference, as ranked by Scout.com.
5. The quality of play only got worse. When Willingham went 2-9 in 2005, his team lost three games -- all of which they led late -- by four or fewer points. At the time, many felt this meant that improvement was imminent. But in fact, it merely portended a penchant for blowing leads late. Of course, that's not a problem this fall. The UW defense is one of the worst in the country. There are no more leads left to blow.
To be sure, Willingham and the Huskies were devastated by the broken thumb that dual-threat quarterback Jake Locker suffered on Sept. 27. The original timetable for his return was set at 6-8 weeks, but now it looks as though Locker is done for the year. For a team that wanted to run behind a veteran offensive line this fall, the results have been devastating. Washington ranks 112th in rushing offense.
Luckily, it will only cost UW $1 million to buy out the remaining year of Willingham's deal, which will likely leave the school with more than $2 million for next coach. That compares very favorably to a school like Clemson, which owes the ousted Tommy Bowden a hefty $3.5 million, and according to my sources, will have a tough time finding the resources to attract a top-of-the-line coaching prospect. Advantage: Huskies.
Whoever UW settles on, be it Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel or former Raiders coach Lane Kiffin, there's certainly nowhere to go but up.