Tyrone Willingham's Difficult Relationship with the 12th Man

John BerkowitzSenior Analyst IAugust 21, 2008

The Huskies took yesterday afternoon off, but Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times made some interesting observations in his blog concerning the Washington Husky football practice policy.

"What Oregon is doing is actually what I think most of us who cover UW would like the Huskies to do—be open, or pretty close to open, during spring practice and the beginning of fall camp, when there is really very little game planning going on, but maybe get more restrictive once the season nears."

Most of the programs in the conference and country do that these days because it helps promote the team and build excitement for the coming season.  Ty Willingham feels that opening practice at any time to the media distracts his coaches and players.

A longtime observer of Washington football told me that the coach simply hates the chance of any criticism.  It isn't simply a matter of information leaking out to opposing teams.  Willingham doesn't want anyone commenting on how he runs his practices.  If the players aren't doing a lot of hitting, for instance, he doesn't want someone to criticize his methods.

Willingham feels information is power, and if he controls all the information, he is controlling his power.  In other words, the coach wants to eliminate the chance of anyone second-guessing him.

It is that same type of logic Willingham used when he banned fans and family who travel on the road to see games from staying in the team hotel.  Up to 10,000 fans used to follow the Huskies on the road for each game.  Obviously all of them could not stay at the team hotel, but the hotel lobby was a central meeting place for all Husky fans when they were on the road.

I don't know if you have ever been to a road game pre-Willingham, but it was a carnival atmosphere in those very recent days.  KJR or whatever radio station was following the team would set up in the hotel lobby on Friday and do a live broadcast.  Husky fans from all over the country would meet each other and share their passion for Husky football.

The team, fans, families, and friends were all together the night before the game in a charged atmosphere, which helped the team build the emotional edge it needed to conquer the opposing team on the road.

I remember the days of a Rick Neuheisel, Jim Lambright, or Don James being available in the lobby and mixing with fans and boosters to let them know how important they were to the program—and they sincerely meant it.  If you wanted to talk to Jim Lambright for a few minutes, he had the time and made you feel glad you were there.  It wasn't unusual to have a chalk talk with one of the assistants over a cold frosty beer.

Those former Husky coaches knew that having 10,000 Husky fans in the stands when you were on the road playing a team such as Michigan was a great source of pride and comfort.  It simply was an edge that most programs in the country did not possess.

The number of fans that travel to watch the Huskies on the road is down dramatically.  I was amazed at how few Husky fans were on the road when we played Arizona State last season.  The majority of Husky fans at the game were made up mostly of sun birds who had moved down from the Northwest.

What the coach and the team are missing out on is the tremendous emotions that helped propel the team to improbable victories in the past.

Who can ever forget the Whammy in Miami?  Do you think that win would have ever been possible without the support of the 12th man on the road?

The thing that has made Washington football so special over the last 100 years is that it has been our team.  Husky football is the one thing some bandit in Oklahoma can never take away from us.  Husky football is something that is in our blood.  We all grew up with it, going to the games with our fathers, and our fathers' fathers.

It isn't just sport: It is a deeply rooted Northwest tradition of pride, excellence, history, and community involvement.

The message from Coach Willingham is loud and clear: He doesn't want anyone around his team at home and on the road because he feels it is a distraction.  He wants to control the environment.  The coach wants his players to focus on the task ahead without any distractions.

What the coach and his team may be missing out on is the key ingredient of emotion.  With the nation's toughest schedule staring them in the face in 2008, a little emotion and support from loyal fans may be the secret ingredient this team is lacking.