Were Turner, Willingham right for the times?Two altar boys help UW lie lowRichard Linde, 25 May 2009
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 around the program said he was a poor recruiter, this in a very
Why hire a
controversial coach, one of whom 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. At the end of this article and in the table below, a review of the turbulent era
surrounding their hires supports this notion.
scandal-plagued times and a 4-year probationary period that led to the employment
of Turner and Willingham
Colorado violations haunt Neuheisel
Probation begins for basketball violations
Gambling scandal revealed
Prescription drug scandal
Hedges retires under fire
Probation extended until February 2007
Gilbertson resigns under fire
NCAA probation ends
Turner resigns, mission
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.
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.
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 athletics department was restructured and placed under the direction of the newly-created Office of Student Athletics,
Recreation and Wellness.
He was hired in June 2004 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.
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.
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
last season is indefensible and 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, 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
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.
school president 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.
I've always felt Washington should
have taken a different tack than it did, in this instance, one that supported Coach Neuheisel during the gambling investigation.
Click on the following link.
I wrote this article because I felt it was a
necessary entry to the History section of my site. What may be
obvious to some people about the hiring of Turner and Willingham may
not be so obvious to others, including a few administrators at
Washington. The message boards I have been reading support this
I’m sure Dr. Emmert felt Turner and Willingham were the best men for
their jobs, purely from an administrative and football sense,
regardless of the turbulence in the athletics program.
In 2007, when people were calling for Tyrone’s head, Emmert stated,
"I believe Tyrone Willingham has the talent, character and drive to
reach the level of success we all want for our football program."
I question whether Willingham ever had the “drive” for the job,
considering what had happened to him at Notre Dame, which had to
partially suck the life out of him and raise doubts in his own mind
about his coaching competence.
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,
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
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
December 21, 2003 –
Washington’s softball coach is dismissed amid a prescription
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
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
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
October 28, 2008 –
Tyrone Willingham announces his retirement, to be effective at the
conclusion of the football season. Willingham finishes 11-37 at
December 9, 2008 –
USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is named head football coach