Dec. 6, 2007
SEATTLE (AP) -- There is no official ultimatum from Washington president Mark Emmert, but there might as well be -- Tyrone Willingham must win in 2008.
Despite just 11 wins in three years, and becoming the first Washington coach to have three consecutive losing seasons, Willingham will return to Washington. The university confirmed on Wednesday that the coach who was fired after just three seasons at Notre Dame would get a fourth season with the Huskies.
The announcement came in conjuncture with Willingham's end-of-year news conference, which had a setting more akin to a hiring than the wrap-up of a disappointing 4-9 season. Many athletic department staff were in attendance and broke out in applause when Willingham finished with his remarks.
The briefing was delayed amid speculation Emmert was considering whether to fire Willingham. The delay perhaps only added to the heavy burden Willingham now faces for the 2008 season. Entering year four of a five-year contract, Willingham will likely need a bowl appearance to avoid the firing many fans and boosters wanted to see happen now.
"My message to them would be please hold on," Willingham said about the faction hoping a change would be made. "We've had what I would call rough and turbulent waters to navigate when I arrived. Hopefully we are in the process of getting through those difficult waters and are now ready to punch our way through and be the football team I think we can be."
Willingham does have a point. When he arrived for the 2005 season, Washington was coming off the worst season in school history, a 1-10 record that bottomed out the once proud program.
But the instant gratification fans sought has not transpired. Washington improved from 2-9 in Willingham's first year to 5-7 a year later. But Washington started 4-1 in 2006 before losing six straight to fall out of bowl contention.
Washington faced a brutal schedule this season featuring six ranked opponents and nine teams that will play in bowls. While the record was tough for fans to accept, it was accentuated by the Huskies leading or being tied at halftime in nine of their 13 games, and fourth-quarter meltdowns against Arizona, Washington State and Hawaii.
"Everyone connected to Husky football, from the coaches and players to the students, alumni and fans, is disappointed with this season's record," Emmert said in a statement. "No one is more disappointed than coach Willingham himself."
Emmert, Willingham and athletic director Todd Turner held meetings the last two days to discuss the program and direction. Willingham declined to talk with reporters after a Tuesday night team meeting, but never wavered from the belief he would return for his fourth season.
"I believed I would be the coach," he said.
Willingham has two years remaining on the five-year contract he signed in 2004. His contract pays him $1.4 million a year, including deferred compensation. The school would have owed him $3 million had it bought out his contract before Jan. 3.
"The body of work I've observed and the university's leadership has observed over the past three years gives clear evidence to me that that record will change in the very near future," Turner said. "We're committed to that and feel strongly that coach Willingham has provided the kind of leadership that provides us the base to make this happen."
Clarifying Willingham's status was important because this weekend is key for recruiting. All of Washington's major prospects are due on campus for official visits. Willingham made note that getting a resolution was vital in solidifying what is developing into a strong recruiting class.
"We have to secure those guys that we've already gotten commitments from and continue the process of adding to them so we can have the team that will be better in the future," said Willingham, one of five black coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
With Willingham's status confirmed, the question now turns to his staff, namely on the defensive side. In his statement, Emmert indicated that changes could be forthcoming, but Willingham would not elaborate, saying that the evaluation process is continuing.
Washington had the worst defense statistically in school history, giving up 446.4 yards per game, and allowed record-setting performances to Oregon (rushing) and Arizona (passing) in consecutive weeks. That could mean the end of Kent Baer's tenure as defensive coordinator. He has been on Willingham's staffs for the past 13 years.
"We will look at all those things. I have said this many times, I am committed to Husky football, to do the things that are right and appropriate in our program," Willingham said. "We will do the things we normally do and then make any decisions that we feel are prudent."