Oct. 5, 2006
SEATTLE (AP) - Tyrone Willingham has two secrets to coaching against Southern California inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum: hammers and walls.
Willingham, now at Washington, has coached against USC six times there. He is the last coach to beat the mighty Trojans in L.A., and he and Kansas State's now-retired Bill Snyder are only coaches to beat USC coach Pete Carroll in the Coliseum.
On Sept. 29, 2001 -- in Willingham's final season at Stanford before Notre Dame wooed him away -- his Cardinal won 21-16 there. The Trojans have won a Pac-10 record 28 consecutive home games since.
So what's the key to countering USC's talent and the Trojans' awesome, intimidating tradition? Blitzing? Running the ball?
Nope. Remodeling the Coliseum to your liking.
"The first thing is, you got to get used to the locker room. It's different," Willingham said this week, before resurgent Washington (4-1) visits No. 3 USC (4-0) on Saturday.
He said the Coliseum's visiting quarters are maddeningly compartmentalized.
"They say it was designed ... for you not to be able to communicate," he said. "So you have to take your team and get it comfortable with that."
How? With hammers?
"Yeah, you take them in on Friday, see if you can knock down a few walls," Willingham said, almost smiling.
But there is some serious knocking down of walls going on at Washington this season -- enough that the laughs are with the formerly awful Huskies, not at them. One month into Willingham's second season in Seattle, Washington has exceeded its win total from the previous two seasons combined.
And the nation is starting to notice. The Huskies have been just outside The Associated Press Top 25 in each of the last two weeks. They haven't cracked the list in more than three years.
"It's extremely important, because national recognition ... probably says that you are being successful," said Willingham, who fell off the nation's radar after Notre Dame fired him following the 2004 season.
And success will help the Huskies recruit the best players -- not only from the Northwest, but the U.S.
But Willingham said that despite Washington being 2-0 in the Pac-10 for the first time since 1999, such opportunities haven't arrived. Yet.
"We're kind of like the new kid on the block. We are 4-1, and people might not have expected you to be in this position," he said. "So you are getting some attention, just because of that. But we haven't done enough yet."
For example, Washington's pass defense remains last in the Pac-10. On Saturday, it meets recently outstanding USC quarterback John David Booty.
"We've really got to go to work now," Willingham said. "We've set ourselves up to do something."
That's mostly because of the dangerous running, improved passing and better understanding of the offense from UW quarterback Isaiah Stanback. Now comes this monumental, measuring-stick test against USC.
Willingham knows why the Trojans are 20.5-point favorites, even though he doesn't care about odds.
"Compared to them, I don't know if we have a strength," he said of the Trojans, who needed a last-play interception to escape Washington State with a 28-22 win last weekend.
"They're not playing perfect football," Willingham said. "The key will be capitalizing on their mistakes when they make them.
"This absolutely has to be our best ball game."
Carroll said Washington's improvement is dramatic.
"Everything's better," he said. "Everything's more precise. And they're playing with great enthusiasm. They are doing all the things good football teams do."
Bowl teams, even. Before spring practice began, Willingham pronounced Washington's first bowl game in four years as the 2006 goal -- despite the Huskies' going 3-19 in the previous two seasons. Much of Seattle, the only place that was listening, laughed.
But Willingham had already converted his players' attitudes from expecting to lose to striving beyond incremental progress.
"Coach Willingham, he's like myself. He expects to win now," said Stanback, a graduate senior who has been at the UW through three head coaches. "He doesn't believe in timelines."
Now Washington is just two wins away from qualifying for its first bowl game since the 2002 Sun Bowl. That was Rick Neuheisel's finale as Huskies coach.
Then came two wretched years under Keith Gilbertson, now an offensive consultant with the Seattle Seahawks. Gilbertson was fired after a 1-10 season in 2004.
Willingham arrived and spent '05 changing attitudes as much as playbooks. It took Washington the entire 2-9 season to digest all the changes.
Now, Willingham not only has his players thinking like him. They are talking like him.
"Like coach says, excellence is not necessarily a destination, it's a way of life," cornerback Dashon Goldson said. "We're progressing very smoothly. And very fast."