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Name dropping
Richard Linde, 15 March 2007

Earlier in the week, my wife and I spoke with school president Mark Emmert and his wife DeLaine, athletics director Todd Turner and his wife Sara, and head football coach Tyrone Willingham. How’s that for name dropping.

Not that I am a big-time sportswriter or a big-shot alumnus or that I am worthy of being in their presence. But once in awhile a blind Dawg finds a bone. Really, the chance meetings have more to say about the UW dignitaries’ affableness and willingness to socialize with the alumni of the University of Washington. 

Our experience with these illustrious people occurred at the Rancho Las Palmas Hotel in Palm Springs, California, which hosted the eighteenth annual “Dawg Days in the Desert.” Later, President Emmert told me that 410 people were in attendance at the banquet (“Chow Down to Washington”) which was held between 5:30-9:00 PM on Tuesday, March 13.

Robb Weller (’72) and Richard Karn (’79, “Home Improvement”) emceed the dinner presentations and roasted President Emmert with jokes about Fife, Washington. Emmert grew up in Fife, attended Fife High School and afterwards married his high school sweetheart DeLaine Smith.  Emmert even joked about being from the small town, so it was all done in good spirits.

President Emmert ('75), head football coach Tyrone Willingham and William Gates Sr. (’49, ’50; Chair, Campaign UW) each made presentations. Head men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar was listed on the program as a speaker but wasn’t in attendance.

Don McKeta and Jim Krieg, each from the Jim Owens era, and former governor Dan Evans and Ron Crockett (Emerald Downs) attended the function. 

For my wife and me, the highlight of the shindig was the insightful talk by Willingham, which lasted about 15 minutes.

As part of Willingham’s introduction, Robb Weller mentioned that Willingham had recruited Charlie Weis’ players for him at Notre Dame. Emmert quipped that HIS coach was in good shape.

However, feeling his age, Willingham (53) joked about being married for 27 years, an event coming in eight days, and still being married. In his thirty years of coaching, he said he has not had a better school president. The dapper, well-spoken coach wore impressively on the audience, not once fidgeting with his handsome goatee.

Under Willingham, the Dawgs are wagging the media, not vice versa, as it has been in the past. Why Willingham closes practices to the them was partially answered by this part of his talk, which I will quote verbatim:

"Before I answer the question of who will be our quarterback, there are a lot of interesting and exciting things that happen that go under the radar that no one ever hears about.

"A couple of weeks ago I had probably the most spectacular interview I’ve ever been part of. I had a call from an elementary school student that called and said he wanted to sit down and talk with the coach.

"And what was so exciting for the coach was that in the end, I could answer a question without having to worry about the spin that would be put on the answer. Now you don’t know how important that is. Because you sit with the media and you’re trying to make sure is he taking it this way or is he taking that way, how it will come out, how it will affect the public, how it will affect my players.

"But this one was so pure, so clean; it was so enjoyable for me. That you could just give a straightforward answer and know the person asking the question was only seeking information. So I will thank his grandfather, okay, Dan, thank you Dan Evans.

“It was a spectacular afternoon. I think we took a little longer than he thought the interview should take. But it was a pleasure."

What are missing from these words are their timing, and the interrupting laughter and applause they invoked.

Donors and contributors to UW have made life easier for Willingham in recruiting top-notch student/athletes. Willingham spoke highly of Washington’s aero-space engineering department, whose dean spent two hours with one of his PSA’s, talking about the department and its curricula.

“We were a Liz franc sprain away from being in a bowl game last season,” Willingham said of graduating quarterback Isaiah Stanback. In a special workout with the pros, Stanback, who finished second in weight lifting, benched 225 pounds with 22 reps and threw the ball well. Willingham thought he would have been an MVP if the injury hadn’t occurred and that most likely a good pro team would pick him up because it would have the patience to let him heal. “He was dearly missed,” the coach said.

He talked about future quarterback Jake Locker and his recent relationship with a young boy, 6, who has an inoperable brain tumor. After receiving a call from the boy’s mother, Locker hosted the family at Husky Stadium earlier this month, playing catch with the boy and running races with him.

Earlier in the talk Willingham joked about who the starting quarterback would be. 

I wonder? Hint: He has a weapon of mass destruction named Jake Locker. And he spoke glowingly of Locker’s numbers as if were a proud papa handing out a cigar. 

“He’s a tad under six-foot-three, weighs about 222 pounds, and for you weight lifters in the room, cleans 320 pounds, benches 330 pounds and is the second or third fastest on our team, probably running a 4.5 40 or under. I’m probably being a little conservative, but I don’t want the true numbers to get out”.

Willingham said that five or six of the incoming freshmen would contend for playing time next season, two as running backs, one at tight end (Chris Izbicki), and others in the defensive backfield.  “I usually wait four years to comment on a class. If you’re in a bowl game and in championships down the road, it was a hell of a recruiting class.”

He said that the quarterback was the most important player on the team, and that the offensive line was the most important position on the team. He said that young players like Cody Habben and Ryan Tolar needed to step up to the plate. “I’ve told my defensive coaches that if our defense sits on the sidelines for all of the game, we will win.”

Willingham spoke glowingly of his new position coach Charlie Baggett, whom he had quarterbacked behind at Michigan State for a period of three years. He said, coming out of the pros, Baggett was more than capable of handling college players because he’d gotten along well with Randy Moss (joke).

So, are we going to call him "Baggie" now, as they did with Enoch Bagshaw long ago? Just kidding. Good hire.

One of the appealing things about Willingham is his steadfast loyalty to his friends and assistant coaches, all of whom are capable people.

As for the stadium, Willingham said, “When it’s cranked up, there is no place like Husky Stadium. “

The next morning we were seated between the Turners and Emmerts for breakfast on the patio of the Las Palmas Hotel’s restaurant.  Mark and DeLaine sat in the warm Palm Spring’s sun, recharging their batteries before their next stint of rainy, cold Pacific Northwest weather.  After the Emmerts finished breakfast, I complimented Emmert on his presentation from the evening before, saying it was darn good talk, considering that he was from Fife.  He responded, good-naturedly, saying, “That he had had to overcome a handicap.”

Do I know him well enough to take a playful gibe at him?

We met the Emmerts before at the 2004 Stanford game in Palo Alto; the Emmerts sat next to us in the shade at the pre-game warm up, spoke passionately about the LSU football program and now, more than two years later at the social hour preceding dinner, said they remembered talking to us. (Photo, President Emmert at 2K4 Stanford pre-game warm-up).

Midway through breakfast, Willingham walked into the patio area and spoke with the Emmerts. Since we were seated right next to them, we couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. The president told him that he’d given a good talk. Willingham told them that the juniors and seniors on the team were already looking to Locker for leadership, the young quarterback being a natural leader.

After he left the Emmert’s table, we chatted with Willingham, who told us that Locker’s presence had helped with recruiting this year, saying that he’d signed two wide receivers from Colorado and one from Los Angeles.

I told Willingham that “we sat with Dean ‘Joe’ Knight at dinner and that Knight said that you copied his goatee.”  Willingham replied that he was a good man to follow. 

At the social function, I asked Turner, as part a worst-case scenario, if they would consider a move to QWEST Field if either parking at or transportation to the games should become an insurmountable problem in the midst of the facilities upgrades, the sound transit system construction and the 520 project. He said he had spoken with QWEST officials, who said they would be willing to work with us if we get into a jam. “But only if we could not effectively manage the crowd. It would be for a very short period of time, if at all. That's not our goal. That's not my intention. We want to stay at Husky Stadium. But if circumstances make it impractical or unsafe for our fans, we would have to look at other alternatives. Maybe one year, maybe two years at the most,” he said, “anything beyond that, in my opinion, would be disastrous. Really, one year is unacceptable. We want to stay at Husky Stadium, if at all possible.”

Turner is committed to preserving the iconic nature of Husky Stadium and considers the venerable stadium to be one of the crown jewels of the Northwest. “We have to figure out how to preserve the legacy of Husky Stadium,” he said.  “We have a very exciting challenge ahead of us.”

"You have a daunting task ahead of you," I added.

"It's the most complicated thing I've ever dealt with."

"If you can make this all work out, you will go down in Husky history as one of the greats."

"All I want to do is win a few football games," he said sincerely, with just a smidge left of his North Carolina birthplace.

(See Turner's blog for more on facilities planning).

My wife and I live between Hemet and Winchester (California), both of which are like Fife, so we have good rapport with the president and his wife, being high school sweethearts ourselves.  We’ll be back next year for more name dropping. 

Malamute can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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