In the final days of Mark Emmert’s tenure as president of the University of Washington, I interviewed him for my new book Bow Down to Willingham. It was August 2010, and Emmert was leaving Seattle to assume the presidency of the NCAA.
He projected charm and likability, conveying an air of casual ease and control. As he answered questions about his hiring and overseeing of former UW football coach Tyrone Willingham, I thought back to how the Husky Football program cratered under Emmert’s watch.
I wondered how the hell the NCAA saw him fit to be interviewed, much less hired, as its president. Since a NCAA president oversees the nation’s Division I athletic programs, and football is the supernova of collegiate sports, the Husky Football program under Emmert should have been looked to as a predictor of his performance as NCAA president.
Under Emmert, the Huskies lost 76 percent of their games and the number of season ticket holders dropped by 20,000 between 2004 and 2009.
The NCAA presumably wanted a strong leader. Instead, they hired a man who failed to investigate the reasons behind his football coach's notorious firing from Notre Dame.
Instead, they hired a man whose fear of a backlash caused him to retain the same coach despite the fact his coach was mismanaging the program and was loathed by most of his players.
From the day back in 2004 that Emmert arrived, Seattle media hailed him as a great man. With Husky Football holding such high visibility, fans got excited over what he could do for the program.
As chancellor at LSU, Emmert had hired Nick Saban as football coach and two years later the Bengal Tigers were celebrating a national championship. Emmert talked that point up with pride.
Emmert inherited a Washington football program which had gone 27 consecutive years without a losing season. Football also generated 85 percent of the athletic department’s annual revenue. Emmert referred to football as “the front porch of the university.”
But over the next six years, the Huskies would suffer through six losing seasons and a 17-54 record.
One of Emmert’s first big decisions at Washington was hiring Todd Turner as athletic director. Over the next four years, Turner would fail miserably as a fundraiser and constantly respond to his critics with contempt by accusing them of overvaluing wins and losses.
The 2004 football season was a disaster. Under coach Keith Gilbertson, the Huskies went 1-10, their first losing season in 28 years. Gilbertson was fired without a second thought.
That losing season certainly wasn’t Emmert’s fault. But he and Turner immediately became consumed by the prospect of hiring Tyrone Willingham, just days after his firing from Notre Dame.
Emmert and Turner interviewed only three candidates and moved quickly to hire Willingham and give him an iron-clad, guaranteed contract. Soon after, Emmert beamed.
“When Tyrone became available a few weeks ago, we were absolutely stunned and elated," he said. “So for me, this was a very, very easy choice.
"When we sat down and talked with Tyrone, it couldn't have been clearer in my mind that this was the man that we wanted to lead the University of Washington back to its former glory days. I'm absolutely delighted that Coach Willingham is with us, we couldn't be more lucky."
Had Emmert conducted due diligence and talked to people from Notre Dame, he would have heard stories of an arrogant and incompetent coach who exerted little effort in recruiting and golfed multiple times a week during the football season.
But Emmert didn’t take those steps. And three years later, Emmert faced the moment of truth.
It was December 2007, when Washington football was imploding under Willingham with an 11-25 record. Virtually the entire team yearned for Willingham’s firing; they’d grown weary of his boorish behavior and incompetence.
Select players even urged star quarterback Jake Locker to approach Emmert and request Willingham’s firing. Locker declined to do so.
In Seattle, regional tensions ran high, with one segment of Husky fans wanting Willingham to be replaced by Jim L. Mora. The other side of the argument was spearheaded by the Seattle media and fans demanding that Willingham be given more time to turn things around.
They reasoned that firing him wouldn't be fair. Local media rarely even criticized Willingham for poor coaching, even though clear-thinking people could see the gridiron emperor had no clothes.
But as the moment of truth arose, groups like the NAACP and celebrities like Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander pressured Emmert to bring back Willingham for a fourth year. Emmert confided to people around him of his intentions to fire Willinhgam.
But Emmert faced intense pressure and the specter of his university possibly being called racist for firing a black coach after only three years, as Notre Dame was when they dispatched Willingham in 2004.
With Husky Nation on pins and needles, Emmert rendered his decision. He chose to bring Willingham back for the 2008 season. The rest of the nation needs to understand the profound damage this decision caused.
Husky players began meeting in secret to organize a boycott, and team morale plunged into despair. They couldn’t believe Willingham was still there.
“All of us were asking: why is he trying to hold on?” said former player Johnie Kirton. “Why would he come back to a place where he was not wanted? To come back for the last year, he caused a lot of pain.”
The 2008 season resulted in prolonged, torturous agony. The Washington Huskies became the first team in Pac-10 history to go 0-12.
In the final weeks of the season, athletic department employees, including athletic director Scott Woodward, were apologizing repeatedly to the players for having to endure Willingham’s arrogant and surly behavior.
All of that could have been avoided had Emmert stood up to the Seattle media and interest groups to make the right decision in December 2007. But he took the other path and allowed the football program to crumble to catastrophic depths in 2008.
Emerging from the wreckage of 2008, Emmert and AD Scott Woodward hired Steve Sarkisian to replace the departed Willingham. Since that time, Sarkisian has gone 12-13 and earned an exciting win over Nebraska in the 2010 Holiday Bowl.
Since becoming NCAA president, a growing cacophony of disapproval over Emmert has germinated around the country.
In particular, Kentucky fans earlier this year accused him of having a vendetta against them in the Enes Kanter situation.
Kanter, a freshman basketball player, was ruled by the NCAA to be “permanently ineligible” due to his parents receiving excessive benefits from a Turkish club team before Kanter came to prep school in the United States.
This infuriated Kentucky fans, who unloaded on Emmert. They reasoned that since Washington had heavily recruited Kanter and lost him to Kentucky, this was Emmert’s way of sticking up for UW and dropping the hammer on the Wildcats as retribution.
When I read that, I shook my head. Declaring Kanter ineligible to avenge Washington’s recruiting loss would be the last thing Emmert would do. UW’s sports programs aren’t life and death to him.
After all, he willingly sacrificed the welfare of Husky Football for the 2008 season to shield himself from potential criticism and fallout.
Most perplexing has been Emmert’s reaction to the 0-12 season, claiming repeatedly that “nobody saw that coming.” Not only did Emmert allow the house to burn to the ground, he refused to take responsibility for it.
This man is now in charge of the NCAA.
Derek Johnson is the author of three books, including the recently-released Bow Down to Willingham, which is available at www.derekjohnsonbooks.com
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