Tyrone Willingham: Good-Bye Yellow Brick Road

Michael CollinsAnalyst IOctober 29, 2008

As Willingham’s tenure in the Emerald City’s Washington Husky program whimpers to an end and the Yellow Brick Road now leads out of town, comparisons in his termination announcements at University of Washington and at Notre Dame are revealing. 

Intros to the Press Conferences:

(At UDub, Scott Woodward, the new Athletic Director, was at Ty’s side.) 

(UW) Willingham: "Okay, good morning. We'll go ahead and get started a little bit different. I think we usually allow questions, telephone first. But I'll go ahead and make a statement, regarding my future as the head football coach at the University of Washington. Scott Woodward and I have met over a series of days, and we have come to a decision that at the end of the 2008 football season, they are going to move in another direction with the head football coach of this university. It is my desire to complete and finish the football season and do that in the manner that I have done it, unwavering in my approach and commitment to our young men and to the goals that we have set for them. They should be championship players, championship students, championship persons and they should have fun in a manner that is reflective of the values of this program and the university community. I am hoping that this announcement will allow the Husky family to come together and eliminate all of the speculation and all of the negativity that has surrounded the program and unite so that this football team and these young men can do the things necessary to be successful both on and off the field. Thank you."

  • Is Ty’s vision that his resignation will help unite Washington football ending a negativity surrounding the program for which he bears no responsibility?  A sacrifice for the good and well-being of all? 
  • He declared last week to Bob Davie that the atmosphere at Washington was the “most acidic” he had experienced.

At Notre Dame, Willingham was alone at his press conference and more revealing of his feelings and thoughts.  He had spoken with his Irish players prior to the press conference, something he did not do at Washington.  Kevin White, ND 's AD,  held a separate conference later. 

(ND) Willingham:  "First thing is, as you can imagine, this is a very difficult afternoon for me, just a very difficult afternoon for the staff, families of the staff and also our players. To say I am disappointed, I think that very much misses the mark, but at the same time, I understand that I didn't meet the expectations or standards that I set for myself in this program, and when you don't meet your own expectations, you won't meet the expectations of others.  Today I am not the football coach, and it doesn't mean that life is over—life will go forward, as I expect this program to.  My goals have always been to inspire people to be the best they could be, on and off the field. I believe that I have been true to that in my time here at Notre Dame and appreciative of the opportunity and appreciative of what we have done and I am disappointed with what I didn't do more than anything else.

On Why He Was Fired:

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

(UW) Q.  Coach, what went wrong in your mind?                                                 

Willingham:   We didn't win football games. That's it.

(ND) Q. What could you have done differently, if anything, to reach your expectations when you go back over it in your mind?                                                           

Willingham:  There's only one thing. Win. That's it. That's the bottom line. Win.

  • At Washington, Willingham is 11-32 (26%) with only seven of those wins over BCS opponents.  Keith Gilbertson was fired after two years for 7-16 (30%).
  • At Notre Dame, Willingham was 21-15 (58% - the same as Bob Davie). 

About the School(s):

(UW) Q. What's important to you? What would you like them to say about your time here at Washington?                                                                               

Willingham: It's obvious we didn't win football games, but I do believe we have put the program in a position that it will be able to win football games. Recruiting the last couple of years has gotten better with each year. Hopefully, we are to the point now or we are to the point where I think you continue so that you get the kind of talent that you need to have successful football teams. And hopefully we have done all of the other things right surrounding the program so that there's a good strong program for someone to come in and be able to jump and do things well.

  • Will some apologist ascribe credit to him for future Husky successes?  Does TW feel as he was deprived of the success that one more year would have brought? 

(ND) Q. Are there conditions that are unique to Notre Dame, challenges to approach going into football somewhere else?

Willingham:  What conditions are unique at Notre Dame? Gosh, Notre Dame is Notre Dame. There's not another Notre Dame, so uniqueness is to itself, and that is a challenge, to exist and be what Notre Dame is.

Q. Has Notre Dame changed for you?

Willingham:  No, it hasn't. It is still Notre Dame. It is still, I think, a great place to be.

  • In announcing his firing, he was complimentary of the University, appreciated its “uniqueness” and the challenges it presented – “a great place to be”.   ND's Kevin White was similarly complimentary of Tyrone (see below). 

Retrospective thoughts:

(UW) Q.  What do you feel you like you could achieve for the rest of the season as opposed to stepping down now?                                                                           

Willingham: I think my leadership for our football team has been consistent and true from day one. I don't think it’s ever wavered. I think it's brought the right things to our football team. It is unfortunate that we hadn't crossed that threshold that I thought we would, but I think that my leadership has been consistent in all the areas that are needed for this football team.

  • In his last 18 games at UW, Willingham is 2-16 (11%).

(ND) Q. Is there anything that you wish you knew coming in that would have helped you over those three years, something that could have helped you be more successful?

Willingham:  No, I don't think so. We had some success. We didn't have enough success. That is, I think, the bottom line. We didn't reach the level that I wanted to reach.

  • At both institutions, he acknowledges he did not succeed, though at UW he sounds self-promoting and almost defensive.  At ND, he sounds realistic.    

The Athletic Directors’ assessments:

(UW) Q.  Scott, if it wasn't his decision, Why was it yours?                              

Woodward: It became quite obvious with the performance on the football field that it wasn't up to what we had talked about at the beginning of the season and previous to the season. It became more obvious as time went on in the season.    

  • Willingham had clarified that “we have come to a decision” did not mean he had chosen to leave Washington.  No character compliments from Woodward.

Kevin White, ND, TeleConference Transcript:  All of us had great expectations when we sat here three years ago, and in a number of ways Tyrone has been an excellent fit and a great representative of our program. He personally has displayed impeccable integrity and tremendous character - and his players have represented themselves off the field in a first-class manner. In addition, our football program under his watch has never been stronger in terms of its academic performance.  At the end of the day, we simply have not made the progress on the field that we need to make. Nor have we been able to create the positive momentum necessary in our efforts to return the Notre Dame program to the elite level of the college football world.

(ND) Q. What was it about the situationthree years, if it's only been three years, did you feel like three years was enough time to get him to see where this program was headed?

White: I think the best way I can respond to that is - there's very high expectations, competitive expectations relative to Notre Dame football. I think everyone in the room realizes that and we just were not meeting those programmatic or competitive expectations on Saturday.  But I think I need to say, as I was thinking about it this morning, from Sunday through Friday, our football program has exceeded all expectations in every way. As I just indicated in the statement, the academic performance is at a fever pitch; it's never been better. Tyrone has done some wonderful things.  But again, on Saturday, we struggled. We've been up and down and sideways a little bit, a little bit inconsistent. I think the program is closer than when he arrived, and I think we were making progress, by my view and view of the University, just doesn't make enough progress.

  • Kevin White’s compliments of Willingham praise all but his performance on Saturdays.  “A bit inconsistent” - In his last 25 games, Ty was 11-14 and lost eight games by 22 points or more.  

On Future Plans:

(UW) Q. Do you want to be an NCAA head coach next season?               

Willingham:  I will not rule out anything. I don't speculate on my own future. I'll wait and see what happens. 

  • Willingham is rumored to be considering a book about his experiences.  Is John Saunders available?

(ND) Q. I know it's a little unfair asking you this question at this point, but what do you anticipate your future, your immediate future will be? What are your plans?

Willingham:  I will take a step back. I will relax for a moment. I do not know how long that moment will be, but a moment could be a moment or it could be a week. Then I will reflect on what I need to do, and I'll make that decision… (Further comments by Ty on his contact from Washington and whether he is considering the Huskies coaching position)


(To Kevin White, ND) Q. :  Can you confirm or deny the reports that Tyrone Willingham may have talked to a school, maybe a Washington school, can you confirm or deny?  

White:  I really can't. Coach Willingham is an outstanding football coach. He's got, as I said, an impeccable reputation.  My sense is there will be many suitors looking for Coach Willingham here in the near term.  I don't know what his intentions are at this point. You'll need to ask him those questions. But he'll have plenty of opportunity. He's a heck of a football coach and I think he's an even better person, and I think everybody in this room would agree with that.


  • "Outstanding football coach”, “impeccable reputation”, “many suitors”, “heck of a football coach and I think he’s an even better person” – Great references from Notre Dame. 

Coaching and Firings:

(UW) Q. Is this fair to the coaches?   

Willingham: I won't get in to that. As you understand the game of football, you understand that it is about wins and losses.

(ND) Q. How secure did you feel with your position, not just with Notre Dame, but earlier in your career?

Willingham:  Forgive me, but as a football coach—I think I said this at some point—there is no security. It doesn't exist. It's not there.

Ten months after saying “Notre Dame is Notre Dame. There's not another Notre Dame, so uniqueness is to itself…” and “It is still Notre Dame. It is still, I think, a great place to be.”  and after such compliments by Kevin White, Willingham would imply he was fired due to racism in an interview with John Saunders, ABC/ESPN.

JS: “You weren't given the five years that other coaches got to demonstrate those skills. Do you think it is in part because you're an African-American?”

TW: “I've always said that in this country there is no absence of racism, okay, we're all aware of that, it's been here for quite some time, okay. And to think it would NOT factor in may be naive on my part. But the people that really know that answer are the ones that we need to talk to.”

JS: “In my mind, I thought it was handled terribly and I thought what they did was wrong and unfair.”

TW: “Well then the question then becomes, if that is true, what is the responsibility of the individual? If they're wrong, they have to live with that. But I must handle Tyrone Willingham in the right manner.”

  • No longer was he fired for his win-loss record or his coaching performance in comparison to other Notre Dame coaches.  Davie was fired with the same record with four years to go in his contract extension.  Tyrone will rise above that racism and those wrongs and “handle” himself “in the right manner”. 
  • Some media will one day will look beyond skin color to coaching performances, when a coach is fired. 

Willingham – At What Costs

Notre Dame—and soon Washington—have long ago moved away from Willingham’s tenure, ascribing it to an expensive and damaging mistake.  Some Irish players were upset.  A couple of recruits chose another school amid the ESPN firestorm that gave forty minutes in their Sports Center that night to the topic.  Willingham was paid the remaining years on his Irish contract, though he was coaching at Washington too. 

Those who do not make up their minds from ESPN are less acidic to the Irish. 

As Willingham walks away down the Yellow Brick Road, he will have been paid handsomely for his time in Seattle.   For four years at $1.47 million per year with a $1 million buyout, Ty will pocket $6.88 million.  Husky football fans, the University and the State of Washington taxpayers will have paid him $625,000 per win or $983,000 per win against a BCS opponent.  The Huskies currently rank 117th in Scoring Offense and 115th in Scoring Defense.  Rivals currently ranks the Husky recruiting class as 89th with five commitments for 2009. 

Tyrone wanted a word on his legacy at Washington (above):  “I do believe we have put the program in a position that it will be able to win football games.”  

Estimates put Willingham's salary at Notre Dame at $1.5 million for three years.  He was paid his base salary of $650,000 for his two remaining years.  For three years of work at ND, Willingham made $5.8 million.  With his UW salary and buyout ($6.88 million), Willingham has collected $12.68 million for seven years of coaching at two institutions.  The average of $1.84 million/year puts him in the top 25 of all coaches' salaries.

Notre Dame is pleased to have a coach in Weis who believes in “No Excuses”, also the title of his book.

I wonder what Willingham’s book title will be. 

Sources:  http://und.cstv.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/120104aac.html (Willingham's press conference at ND)

http://gohuskies.cstv.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/102708aam.html (Willingham's press conference at UW)

http://und.cstv.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/113004aac.html (White's teleconference)

Further Info:  http://www.ndnation.com/articles/2008/10/view-from-seattle.html (Seattle viewpoints)

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/74232-willinghams-legacy-at-washington/show_full (by John Berkowitz)

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/huskies/385240_ureax28.html (UW players reaction)

slash iconYour sports. Delivered.

Enjoy our content? Join our newsletter to get the latest in sports news delivered straight to your inbox!