The reputation of coach Tyrone Willingham is a myth built by those in the media that selectively ignore his 76-84 overall record. They choose to overlook the fact that if he loses one more game this year, he will accomplish in 14 years what it took Paul "Bear" Bryant to do in 39—reach 85 career losses.
They disregard the fact that the Coach who replaced him at Notre Dame has two more wins against the Pac-10 then he does in the last four years. Rather, they cling to the two “feathers in his cap”: taking Stanford to the Rose Bowl and winning 10 games in his first season at Notre Dame; neither of which is as impressive as the media would have you believe.
The facts behind each myth on which the foundation of this "great reputation" is built are below. The author apologizes in advance that they get in the way of the fairy tale.
The Myth of the Rose Bowl Success
Coach Willingham did lead Stanford to the Rose Bowl; however, the Pac-10 of 1998 was equivalent to the Big East of 2004, when Pitt went 8-4 and made it to the Fiesta Bowl. All ESPN could talk about for a month was if the Big East should still have even have an automatic bid because the conference was so bad.
It was not like they navigated the Pac-10 of today or even the Pac-10 of 2001, which was drastically different. Stanford got to the Rose Bowl when the Pac-10 was beyond mediocre. The league was pre-Pete Carroll and only had three teams with winning records, Stanford, Oregon and Washington. Stanford avoided Oregon on their schedule and lost to Washington.
Stanford opened up the season with a 69-17 loss at Texas and then proceeded to lose at home to San Jose State later in the year. The season was not exactly barn-burning.
The Myth of the 10-win season at Notre Dame
Coach Willingham won 10 games at Notre Dame in his first year—10 wins largely because of a Bob Davie-built defense.
The double standard is glaring: Coach Weis did it with Coach Willingham's players, the media constantly reminds its audience, but somehow that logic does not carry over to Coach Willingham. He won with his brilliant coaching, not with Bob Davie’s players.
Coach Willingham brought his West Coast offense to Notre Dame yet did not score an offensive touchdown until Game Four and still won the first four games, all on the backs of special teams and defense.
The Myth of the Five-Year Standard Notre Dame Contract
It is often reported that Coach Willingham did not get the standard five-year Notre Dame contract, implying that Notre Dame did not honor its own standards. The five-year initial contract was offered; however, it was rejected by Coach Willingham.
He insisted on a six-year deal in two separate three-year parts. The contract was executed fully with the buyout clause at end of year three.
Many point to Coach Faust getting five years and having a lot of trouble on the field. However, he had recruiting success—see the talent Coach Holtz inherited—and embraced the alumni and the tradition, which is important at any big school, this helped his case in getting the full five years.
Coach Davie could recruit, especially on defense (again, see Coach Willingham’s first year at Notre Dame) and had a successful year after a bad year, which kept him around for year five. He was on the hot seat going into year three and led the Irish to a BCS bowl.
Coach Weis would probably have been fired last year if he did not have such success in recruiting, but they were all true freshmen and true sophomores.
Coach Willingham’s on-field record was failing, as were his recruiting rankings. He treated alumni much like he is treating them at UW (see below), and a clause in the contract he negotiated was executed, which is why according to Notre Dame’s July 2006-June 2007 tax forms, he was still the highest-paid football coach on the Notre Dame payroll while coaching for Washington.
The Myth that the University of Washington was a Mess in 2004
The school was never sanctioned by the NCAA, as was the fear when Coach Willingham arrived in Montlake. The talent pool, according to Rivals.com, was there, as the three classes preceding Coach Willingham at Washington were ranked 19, 23, and 19 for an average ranking of 20. The Willingham-recruited classes at Notre Dame were 24, 12, and 32, averaging 23.
The argument can be made based on those numbers that Coach Willingham walked into a better situation at UW than he created for himself at ND. In the years that Coach Willingham has been at UW, he has done little to improve the situation, recruiting the 35th, 36th, and 24th-ranked recruiting classes, for an average of 32.
The 2008 Washington Schedule Refocused
Early on the excuse makers were out in force, saying, “It is a crucial year for UW, but look at their schedule.” People chalked up losses to Oregon, BYU, and Oklahoma, but not a home loss to a .500 Stanford team and a blowout loss at Arizona.
To make matters worse, Stanford and Arizona both had players quoted by local media stating that the Husky players looked like they had quit in the second half of their respective games.
There was a borderline excessive celebration call at the end of the BYU game, but it made the extra point to force overtime equivalent to a 32-yard FG, and it was blocked. It was not missed one foot to the right or left; it would not have been good from 31 yards or even 17...it was BLOCKED.
The ball never passed the line of scrimmage as an unblocked BYU player practically took the ball from the holder's hands. That is a lack of execution on special teams, and that falls on the coaching staff's ability to re-focus the young men after a controversial call.
The Myth That the Washington Debacle Is Not Coach Willingham's fault
Coach Willingham has recruited poorly, coached poorly, banned boosters from practice, and shunned alumni. Washington has a great football tradition—one would think that a coach would want to embrace that tradition.
Steve Emtman is arguably the best player in school history, and he has only been allowed one sideline pass this season. His requests for more have been rebuffed.
Another former five-year player requested a sideline pass for the UW-ASU game, but he was rebuked by the UW coaching staff. However, he was welcomed by the ASU staff and the opposing coach granted a sideline pass.
In the NFL offseason, two former Huskies wanted to come work out at UW. They were told “NO,” and no reason was given.
Most recently, Coach Willingham did not allow UW’s legendary 1978 Rose Bowl team to address the current team because he did not have “enough notice” that they were going to be present. After the game he stated in an interview that he would need three to four months notice to allow the 1978 team to address his team.
Those kinds of things just are not smart. Then again, neither is being the face of African-American college football coaches in the country and not having an African-American coordinator. This summer he said in an interview “the numbers are the numbers, they don’t lie,” when asked about the number of African-American head coaches in Div. I NCAA football.
Football is just like any other business—you have to work your way up. Most head coaches are hired from a coordinator position. Coach Willingham has a white offensive coordinator, and after firing his white defensive coordinator last year, he hired Ed Donatell, another white defensive coordinator. In fact, in 14 years as a head coach, Coach Willingham has never hired an African- American offensive or defensive coordinator. That does not seem to be a trend that is going to change any time soon as of now the nine assistants Coach Willingham currently employs at UW, only two are African-American.
The numbers are the numbers—they don’t lie.
Talk about leadership by example.
Ultimately, his leadership is a myth.