Thanks to columnist David Jones of The Patriot-News, the legend surrounding NCAA President Mark Emmert continues its inexorable march toward Zeus-like status.
In his July 20th column "The Path Mark Emmert Took to Reach the NCAA Presidency," Jones regurgitates several urban legends in efforts to inform readers of Emmert's background.
Emmert is the focus for many columnists lately, as he's directing the NCAA in its upcoming punishment of Penn State's football program in the wake of a cover-up scandal involving an assistant coach who sexually abused children.
It's not that Mark Emmert is some sort of awful person; he's not. But the man making $1.6 million a year to lead the NCAA is constantly hailed for acts of valor that never occurred.
Oddly enough, the national media often fosters these myths without disclosing facts. It's an odd human dynamic that leads people to project onto others qualities that don't exist.
Let's debunk the most egregious comments from Jones' column.
The locals like to tell a story about former Washington coach Tyrone Willlingham. You remember Willingham as the first black head coach at Notre Dame and one of the few high-profile black coaches in a college sport that has seemed to unduly retard their progress.
Willingham had a mixed performance at UND and was fired in 2004 after going 21-15 in three years. Enraged civil rights groups cited his 2002 ESPN coach of the year award and 10 wins and said it never would have happened to a white college coach.
Willingham was snapped up that December by Washington athletics director Todd Turner, a man hired by UW's new president–Mark Emmert. The mandate, as made clear by Turner and Emmert, was to clean up a program without accountability where player misconduct was rampant.
Emmert hired Willingham to clean up a renegade program? This comment is so outrageous it verges on slander. Two months before Willingham's hire at UW, the NCAA released the findings from its investigation into Washington football from the years Rick Neuheisel was head coach (1999-2003).
The NCAA imposed no penalties on Neuheisel for his involvement in a neighborhood gambling pool, saying that former UW compliance director Dana Richardson had written erroneous memos saying such wagers were allowed.
In regards to the "lack of institutional control" charge initially levied against Washington, the NCAA downgraded it to "failure to monitor." It was tantamount to a slap on the wrist. Official recruiting visits from football recruits were reduced from 56 to 48 for the next two seasons.
The UW was also prohibited from using watercraft in recruiting, stemming from Neuheisel undercharging recruits for rides they received to and from his lakeside home.
ESPN's Ted Miller, then of the Seattle-Pi, wrote: "After nearly 500 days of bluster, recrimination, legal wrangling, endless media opining and a good deal of despair from Huskies fans, the NCAA's case against Rick Neuheisel and the University of Washington concluded yesterday with the mildest of thuds."
Two months later, Emmert hired Tyrone Willingham as head football coach. But of course, the NCAA storm clouds had already passed.
Jones went on to write:
This Willingham did (cleaned up a program without accountability where player misconduct was rampant). He instituted a strict dress and appearance code, checked up on players' study habits and took UW football off the police blotter.
More nonsense. The police blotter, which, during the 2000 season, included the names of 12 UW players, had by 2003 cleared up to almost nothing–all prior to the arrivals of Tyrone Willingham and AD Todd Turner.
In addition, the graduation rate for UW football players in 2003 was at 67 percent, which was second in the Pac-10, behind Stanford. From the standpoint of both grades and being good civilians, the Washington program was already respectable by the time Willingham and Turner arrived.
But (Willingham) didn't win. After consecutive seasons in which the Huskies lost their starting quarterback to injury in midseason, Willingham had endured three straight years of losing records.
Emmert had a dilemma. A broad section of the Washington football fan base wanted Willingham out. But some national minority advocacy groups wanted him to be given a further chance. Emmert made a deft political move that satisfied both to some extent. He kept Willingham for the 2008 season (in which his team would finish 0-12). And he fired Turner, the AD who had hired Willingham. Turner, a somewhat impersonal taskmaster, had cleaned up the toxic waste dump but outlived his usefulness.
More urban legend. It's true that Husky fans throughout Western Washington were divided on whether to keep Willingham or fire him, but the vast majority wanted change. A Seattle Times poll in November 2007 revealed that nearly 70 percent of voters wished to see Willingham replaced.
When the announcement was made that Willingham was being brought back for a fourth year, tens of thousands of Huskies fans felt betrayed by Emmert. They weren't satisfied by his deftness.
A common reaction for many came from a Huskies fan named Larry. "I skipped into work Wednesday morning expecting to hear that Willingham would be gone," Larry said. "When we finally heard the awful news that he would be returning, I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach...No matter what, you maintain that stiff upper lip at work. Emotion is for some other time and place...
"(But) Tyrone was staying. I knew that 2008 was dead. I just sat down and buried my head in my hands, and these hot, angry tears came out of my face, and I had to leave immediately. I was breaking a cardinal rule and losing control at work, but I couldn't help it–Washington didn't give a (bleep) about football anymore."
The 2008 season did prove an epic disaster. Washington became the first Pac-10 team in history to go 0-12.
Willingham was often absent from the disorganized practices, and communication between players and the coaching staff unraveled. With two weeks left in the season, several assistant coaches had already cleared out their offices.
In the book Bow Down to Willingham, the late Johnie Kirton recalled the misery of his final week as a Husky. "The words coming out of Willingham's mouth were just air," said Kirton. "He was no longer there. My teammates were ready to get those sixty minutes over with and go home. For myself, I wanted to fight to the end. I wanted at least one win."
But Washington surrendered over 300 yards rushing to Cal's Jahvid Best and lost 48-7. The 2008 season ended winless.
"It hit me that it was really over now," said Kirton. "All the effort and time putting in the effort was now a closed book. I spoke to my family and (teammates) on the field about all the things we had gone through. It was a dead day. That was that. You can fault Willingham for checking out on us. For having no emotion and not preparing for the game. All he seemed prepared for was going back home and moving his family back to wherever."
This glimpse shows the murky depths that UW sunk to under the leadership of Mark Emmert. When asked by me if he regretted his decision to bring Willingham back for the humiliating '08 season, Emmert remained politely defiant. "Nobody could have seen that coming," he said.
So to David Jones of The Patriot-News, and others, who regurgitate the myths of Mark Emmert's greatness, please stop. Do some research. Ponder before parroting.
To fans expecting Zeus Emmert to raise his scepter and rain thunderbolts down upon Penn State football, just remember: His track record shows that whatever action he takes will likely be politically correct and half-measured.
Derek Johnson is the author of three books including Husky Football in the Don James Era, The Dawgs of War, and Bow Down to Willingham.
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