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Did Emmert keep the athletics program from imploding?
Rich Linde, 29 April 2010

After serving nearly six years at the University of  Washington, Dr. Mark Emmert resigned his position as school president on Tuesday to take the top job at the NCAA. He assumed the role of school president in April 2004, at a time when Washington's athletics program was tumbling in orbit.

In retrospect, two of his controversial hires, Todd Turner and Tyrone Willingham, may have saved the athletic department from crashing and burning.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that Tyrone Willingham was a questionable fit for Washington when he was hired in December 2004. Notre Dame had allegedly fired him for not winning enough games, and those close to the Irish program said he was a poor recruiter, this in a very competitive environment.

Why hire a controversial coach who had been fired from his last job and give him a five-year contract worth $1.4 million per year?

On the surface it sounds crazy, but life wasn’t that simple at Washington. Simply put, on the face of it, Willingham seemingly was a public relations hire, as was athletic director Todd Turner – their personas apparently trumping their abilities. Reference the following table for a review of the turbulent era surrounding their hires. Also, reference the appendix below. 

Table. The scandal-plagued times and a 4-year probationary period that led to the employment of Turner and Willingham. Note that school president Dr. Mark Emmert was hired in April 2004.

October 2002

Colorado violations haunt Neuheisel at UW

February 2003

Probation begins for basketball violations

June 2003

Gambling scandal revealed

July 2003

Gilbertson hired

October 2003

Prescription drug scandal erupts

January 2004

Hedges retires under fire

April 2004

Emmert hired as school president

June 2004

Turner hired

October 2004

Probation extended until February 2007

November 2004

Gilbertson resigns under fire

December 2004

Willingham hired

March 2005

Neuheisel's lawsuit against UW and NCAA settled

February 2007

NCAA probation ends

January 2008

Turner resigns, mission accomplished

We all knew that Keith Gilbertson, who followed Rick Neuheisel as head coach at Washington, would be an interim coach. A prominent bay area sportswriter even told us Gilbertson wasn’t head coaching material. However, the Huskies athletic program had to lie low. It was on probation because of the NCAA violations occurring in the basketball probe, and the outcome of the gambling investigation awaited resolution. It wasn’t the time to bring in a big-name coach or a younger coach with less wisdom.

Furthermore, the prescription drug dispensing scandal haunted the athletics program beginning in October 2003 and wasn’t resolved until a UW report was published in April 2004.

Because of their built-in aversion to big-time college football and their dwindling revenues, the local media played up the 2003 scandals beyond what was warranted by the facts. 

In the midst of the reverberation from these episodes, the university hired Dr. Mark Emmert in April of 2004 as its school president. Two months later, he hired Todd Turner to assume the role of Washington's athletic director.

Turner came to Washington with a Bachelor of Arts degree in religion and had directed Vanderbilt's athletics program for the previous seven years. His position was dissolved in September of 2003 when the Vanderbilt athletics department was restructured and placed under the direction of the newly-created Office of Student Athletics, Recreation and Wellness.

In my opinion, he was hired to clean up the messes that led to the resignation of Barbara Hedges five months earlier. He was well respected by the NCAA and had served the NCAA as chair of the NCAA Management Council's Working Group on Incentives and Disincentives tied to academic performance. 

In October 2004, the NCAA extended Washington’s probationary period until February 2007 as a result of its investigation of the gambling incidents and, in my opinion, another period of flying under the radar began. Also click on this link.

One month later, in the midst of a terrible season, Gilbertson announced his resignation. But still it wasn’t time to bring in a young, enthusiastic coach in the mold of a Steve Sarkisian, say, because of the possibility of incurring more NCAA violations. After all, Neuheisel, 33 years old at the time of his hiring at Colorado, arguably had been too young for the job.

The conservative Turner hired Tyrone in December 2004 for his honesty, integrity and the respect he carried at a national level. Parlaying that respect, Willingham was later elected president of the American Football Coaches Association in 2008.  And there were those at Notre Dame who said he was unfairly fired, that he was given only three years to accomplish his mission while past coaches at the school had been given five years.

Willingham was 65-51-1 when he came to Washington, with two fawning books written about him. In 2002, he was named the Home Depot National coach of the year after his 10-2 regular season record at Notre Dame. Still there were those nagging doubts about Willingham’s coaching competence, the national hoopla notwithstanding. Some fans thought they were being sold a bill of goods; yet, their mouths were mostly muzzled at that time because of Willingham’s national reputation and the fact the NCAA death penalty was a possibility under the light of further shenanigans on the part of Washington.

As the miasma clouding the athletic program slowly lifted, thanks partly to the squeaky-clean Willingham, his track record on the field began to surface, sparking wonderment and dismay. Why had he been hired fans wanted to know, forgetting that in some quarters, Washington was known as rogue football program that had “cheated” and apparently had either excused or overlooked criminal conduct on the part of a few of its players in the past. See Victory and Ruins.

As the criticism and losses mounted, the proud, taciturn Willingham partially vanished from view, shrouding the football field with a veil of secrecy. Who could have known how he would react to losing and its intense criticism.

His 0-12 record from 2008 is indefensible and, perhaps, speaks of neglectful recruiting. Some say the team packed it in after the fourth game of the season when Jake Locker was lost to the season with an injury. Tyrone was given four years to get the job done. He didn’t. On a personal level there isn’t a nicer man; there is no reason for fans to hate him.

Back in 2004, the “puritanical” Turner hired a man in his image, and apparently not a fully competent head football coach – although I’m sure Turner thought otherwise. In addition to the clean ship Turner and Willingham skippered, supportive fans hoped to keep the football program from further crumbling under a litany of firings and new coaches. At the conclusion of the 2007 season, which went 4-9, they were willing to give Tyrone one more year.

Sometimes you get lucky, but as far as winning goes, the odds were stacked against Willingham, his personal shortcomings being one of them. Ironically, he was a Lisfranc fracture away from going to a bowl game in 2006, thanks to a cadre of Neuheisel recruits led by Isaiah Stanback.

There are those who will say that he was the right man for the job, that he was a just an interim coach right along, just as Turner was an interim athletic director, and that both of them righted a sinking ship, which is why they were hired.

At the time of Willingham's hiring in late 2004, Washington’s administration and lower campus were still reeling from the scandals of 2003 and the NCAA probation and its extension that would last until February 2007. They had an intense fear of the NCAA, for that reason having jettisoned Neuheisel, and were embarrassed by the gambling, drug-dispensing, basketball and fruit-basket scandals, the latter occurring in 1992/1993.

Criticizing Mark Emmert and his search committees for the hiring paths they chose in 2004 ignores past history and a wayward athletics program that was on NCAA probation.

Appendix. The turbulent era at Washington surrounding the hiring of Turner and Willingham.

October 2002. Colorado is placed on NCAA probation for two years. Even though he is at Washington, Neuheisel is not to make off-campus recruiting visits until May 31, 2003.

June 5, 2003 – The Seattle Times discloses Rick Neuheisel’s gambling activities.

June 17, 2003 -- University of Washington Athletic Director Barbara Hedges assigns Keith Gilbertson to "supervise" the Husky football office while former head coach Rick Neuheisel remains suspended.

July 17, 2003 – the NCAA releases its NCAA/Washington Public Infractions Report concerning the recruiting violations precipitated by the basketball staff. The committee concludes that the university's athletics programs should be placed on NCAA probation for a period of two years commencing on February 10, 2003.

July 29, 2003 -- Nueheisel meets with Washington officials and is officially informed that he has been terminated.

July 30, 2003 -- The UW announces the hiring of its 24th head football coach, Keith Gilbertson, 55, who agrees to a four-year contract that will pay him $870,000 annually.

October 17, 2003 – A Kirkland physician who serves as the UW softball program's team doctor until Sept. 12, 2003, has his license suspended by the Department of Health's Medical Quality Assurance Commission for improperly dispensing narcotics, tranquilizers, stimulants, steroids and other prescription drugs to UW athletes and trainers.

December 21, 2003 – Washington’s softball coach is dismissed amid a prescription drug-dispensing scandal.

January 16, 2004. UW AD Barbara Hedges, 66, retires under fire. She had been expected to retire on June 30, 2004.

June 19, 2004. William Tarlton "Todd" Turner, 53, former AD at Vanderbilt University, becomes the fifteenth athletics director at the UW. He assumes his duties August 1st. Turner comes to Washington with the reputation of being highly respected by his peers and a leading advocate in the movement to bring academic reform to NCAA member institutions.

On October 20, 2004, the NCAA releases its findings, entitled, “University of Washington Public Infractions report.” In its findings, the NCAA imposes no penalties on Neuheisel for his two high-stakes gambling activities nor does it sanction him for initially lying to NCAA investigators on June 4, 2003. This frees him to seek job opportunities in college coaching. The NCAA extends Washington’s probationary period, which was due to end in February 2005, for two more years, until February 2007, for violations of gambling and recruiting in the football program and the institution’s failure to monitor itself.

November 1, 2004. Head coach Keith Gilbertson, 56, announces that he will step down as football coach after the last game of the season is played against WSU on November 20. Gilbertson is 7-16 at Washington, coaching two seasons.

December 12, 2004. Tyrone Willingham, 50, is hired as Washington's next football coach, inheriting a 1-10 team. Willingham, recently fired by Notre Dame, signs a five-year contract reportedly worth a guaranteed $1.4 million per annum and could be worth as much as $2.0 million per annum if he meets all incentives.

March 7, 2005. Neuheisel’s wrongful termination lawsuit against Washington and the NCAA is settled and he is awarded approximately $4.7 million, including forgiven interest on a loan.

April 2005 – December 2007 – The Washington football program loses on the field but stays free from major NCAA violations. Washington alums can boast of its high football graduation rates and the fact its football players -- with the exception of a few miscreants-- have stayed off the police blotters. This is true today.

December 2007 – Support for Willingham grows shaky because of his 11-25 record over three seasons. The Husky fan base is split down the middle. School Mark Emmert says "I believe Tyrone Willingham has the talent, character and drive to reach the level of success we all want for our football program." Turner opines that he is disappointed that fans "would be so concerned with one measure of excellence or success."

January 2008. The Seattle Times publishes “Victory and Ruins.” “An unprecedented look behind the scenes (back in the year 2000) reveals an unsettling level of criminal conduct that was often excused or overlooked. Mistakes made then still haunt a program trying to rebuild,” so says the Times.

January 10, 2008 – Emmert receives an offer from a Huskies’ alum to donate $100,000 to a Washington law school scholarship if Willingham is fired, and another $100,000 if Todd Turner is fired as athletic director.

January 31, 2008. Todd Turner resigns as athletic director. The bounty on Turner’s head and his resignation are deemed mutually exclusive events. President Emmert lauds his role in helping the department get past the gambling-related firing of football coach Rick Neuheisel and a drug scandal that costs softball coach Teresa Wilson her job. Some say Turner was in over his head in his attempt to raise funds for the remodeling of Husky Stadium. Scott Woodward is named acting athletic director.

September 17, 2008 – Scott Woodward is named athletic director at Washington after an eight month search.

October 28, 2008 – Tyrone Willingham announces his retirement, to be effective at the conclusion of the football season. Willingham finishes 11-37 at Washington.

December 9, 2008 – USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is named head football coach at Washington.

April 27, 2010 -- Mark Emmert resigns as school president to assume the role of president elect of the NCAA.

Richard Linde can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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