Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Post Ty

As fans of UW Football, we were all hoping that Willingham wasn’t as much of an ass as he seemed to be. He came to UW not a as a savior really, but rather a guy that the administration thought would bring accountability, hard work, and honor back to the program. When he was hired, I didn’t know too much about him except that it looked like he was forced out of Notre Dame unfairly. But then, I don’t care for Notre Dame, and I figured that anything that they did was nefarious in a secret society kind of way.

The only opinion that I really had about Willingham was that he was boring. I recall bits and pieces of his opening press conference at Notre Dame when he was clearly kissing up to the administration by talking about ending practice at a time so that his players could attend church service at “Twelve Noon.” I remember thinking three things: (1) “who says twelve noon?” (2) “Wow, I didn’t know that Notre Dame was so religious,” and (3) “Willingham sounds really, really, really boring.”

He had a great first season with the Irish going 10-3 but got throttled 28-6 by NC State in the Gator Bowl. His next two seasons were massive disappointments at 5-7 and 6-5 which featured several blowout losses (if that wasn’t a harbinger for UW, then I don’t know what was).

He had an OK record at Notre Dame and he may have been fired a little too quickly, but looking back, is that really the case? Wouldn’t he have just dug Notre Dame into a deeper hole? We can only wish that he’d stayed there longer because while Notre Dame thinks that it is better than everyone else, they can’t hold the jocks of non-BCS schools like Boise State, Utah, BYU, and even Fresno State, but that’s another rant for another day. The point is Notre Dame fired him and he ended up at UW where he stood on a program that was mired in a tar pit and did nothing to prevent it from sinking into its murky depths, but instead stood with his arms folded, hand on his chin, wearing his sunglasses and headset.

He had many problems, but here are a few that stood out:

He was never upfront with the media.
Because of this, no one knew exactly what was going on. Not the media, not the fans. Everyone was left to try and interpret his cryptic comments in search of real meaning. In response to direct questions (e.g. “What went wrong with the running game today, why did you keep running the ball up the middle with Chris Polk when he was gaining a yard at best?”), he would “answer” with nonspecific pabulum, such as (and I’m paraphrasing here): “You want to win in the game of football, oookaaay, and when you don’t win, it’s frustrating, but we are all dedicated to winning the game of football.”

Thanks, Ty. So what does that even mean? There is probably one reason why coaches do this and it’s because they abhor the media. But there are different motivations for different coaches. Let’s take two extreme examples: Bill Belichick and Tyrone Willingham.

Belichick pulls the “I hate talking to you people and will say as little as possible” stunt all of the time, but it’s different with him because he wins. He does not want to talk to anyone about his team because it could give a competitive advantage to the opposition (I guess). So he’s curt and boring and he does this so he can get the hell away from the media as soon as possible.

Willingham pulls the same stunt, but has a very different motivation, which is: he has no idea what to say because he doesn’t know what he was doing. Both are strategic moves for the coaches. They want to hold things close to the vest. Belichick does it to protect his knowledge and to protect his team. Willingham does it to hide his lack of knowledge and to blame his team. They behave in much the same manner, but have very different motivations.

A good friend of mine has an uncle who played football professionally and subscribes to this theory about Willingham. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Actually, the more everything makes sense about his entire reign at UW. He wanted to portray a certain image and wanted people to think that he was: professional, stoic, measured, reserved, respected, disciplined, and intellectual. He may actually have been one or two of these things, but these character traits really were a mask. As the Fugees once said, “Yeah everybody wears a mask but how long will it last?” Willingham acted the way that he did with the media, with former players, with fans, and with boosters because under his professional veneer was a shocking abundance of ignorance. He never had any answers so the best way to deal with that is to completely make it uncomfortable for anyone to speak with him. Conversations with people were always short because people got tired of talking to him. So his plan worked. He never had to really explain himself. Now the closed practice thing makes sense, because he didn’t want anyone to know that all he did was walk around practice for a few hours looking like a general (we can only surmise) when really all he was doing was waiting for practice to end so he could go home. I’m sure it seemed like he was just giving his position coaches and coordinators the freedom to coach, but really he couldn’t have helped them in any way because, again, he did not know what he was doing. If he opened practices, then people who actually know what to look for in a coach would know that he was a fraud and he might have been called out even sooner.

We probably never heard about this because his assistant coaches would never sell him out while they worked for him because, hey, he game them their job and loyalty goes a long way. If they badmouthed Willingham, then they’d be labeled backstabbers. If that’s the case, then how do they get hired by the next guy? It’s in their best interest to keep their mouths shut.

For the players, what do they really know? If they didn’t transfer into the program, then Willingham would have been their only exposure to a college head coach on a daily basis. So through no fault of their own, they’re unaware of how a successful coach runs his program.

You have to admit, it makes sense.

He sold out his players.
Several times during Willingham’s tenure he would lead his players to the slaughter. A comment like “We didn’t execute” is code for “Hey, this isn’t my fault, my players suck and didn't do what I told them to do.” I’m a firm believer that coaches should never baby their players and should hold them accountable for things that they do wrong. But a good coach wouldn’t air out his players in public, but rather would kick their ass behind closed doors. I never heard him do anything like that, instead, he employed classic passive-aggressive behavior and essentially talked behind their backs, but in broad daylight, if that makes any sense. Perhaps he was just “sending a message” but the way he acted, frankly, was cowardly. Especially when he, as head coach, is to blame.

Also, when players were hurt or injured, he’d always play it down. Perhaps he was doing this because he didn’t want his players to use injuries as an excuse for bad play, but it still made those players look like fools if they were playing poorly. Instead of them being hobbled and unable to make a play because of a physical malady of some sort, Willingham would trot out his: “We just didn’t execute in the football game” line.

Another thing, I’m not 100% sure he knew the names of all of his players or anyone else in college football. He’d constantly refer to “our running back” or “the young man” or “number X” when referring to a specific player. I could never figure out what sort of mind game he was playing with all of us. Is it like not mentioning a competitor in a commercial and instead calling it “another leading brand?” I suppose that would make sense if he was talking about opposing players, by not wanting to give them credit or something, but he’d often do it with his own players. Was he trying to maintain some sort of weird distance with players in his program? I’m now convinced that there is a more simple explanation. He just didn’t know their names.

Anyway, now he’s gone and I couldn’t be happier, but on his way out he managed to tank swimming right along with the football team. The funds from his buyout would have more than made up for the cost to run the swim team, at least for the next year, who knows what would have happened after that. Willingham could mend a lot of fences if he donated some cash back to the school to save swimming, but he’s probably too professional, stoic, measured, reserved, respected, disciplined, and intellectual to do something like that.

I am overjoyed with the future prospects of this program under Sarkisian though. He’s everything Willingham is not. Personality is one thing and Sarkisian’s got truckloads of it, which is great, but his willingness to engage the media and fans and speak about his team shows me that he is confident and competent in addition to being fun to listen to. If he fails it won’t be because of lack of effort or knowledge, it will be because this program has fallen to such depths that it cannot be revived in five years or less. I’m attempting to temper my enthusiasm, but it’s difficult to do so when reading things about him and the recruiting efforts that he and his staff are taking. He also seems a lot more invested in the program, inventive in his approach to the game, and, to be honest, more trustworthy, than Willingham.

It would be glorious if he could lead them to a bowl game this year, but even the most ardent supporters don’t believe that will happen and are giving him time to implement his scheme, get his players in here, and change the losing attitude.

While I’ve known the schedule for quite some time, I haven’t done the game-by-game thing, so let’s do it now, just for fun. And in case you didn’t know, last year I picked this team to go 7-5. Unbelievable.

2009 Football schedule
  • Sat., Sept. 5 LSU loss (LSU’s purple and gold program is so far ahead of UW’s it’s laughable. The offense is no great shakes, but LSU’s defense will cause all kinds of problems. The speed on the field will be shockingly one-sided.)
  • Sat., Sept. 12 Idaho win (I’m happy to see them back on the schedule, welcome, Vandals.)
  • Sat., Sept. 19 USC loss (but I feel kind of good about this game, the team lost a lot on defense and has a new QB even though their skill players are still great)
  • Sat., Sept. 26 at Stanford win (I’m not confident in this pick, but Stanford has lost a lot and are engulfed in a QB controversy. They also may lose their highly productive RB, Toby Gerhart, to baseball).
  • Sat., Oct. 3 at Notre Dame loss (they are not that impressive, but they weren’t impressive last year and for all intents and purposes held UW under 100 yards of offense last year. Of course that was with Ronnie Fouch running the show…)
  • Sat., Oct. 10 Arizona win (No more Willie “Light Up UW” Tuitama. That’s a good thing.)
  • Sat., Oct. 17 at Arizona State win (They’ve lost a ton of players, including their QB, and were highly overrated last year anyway. I don’t like this team at all).
  • Sat., Oct. 24 Oregon loss (Despite losing quite a few quality starters, they are still far superior than UW at this point).
  • Sat., Nov. 7 at UCLA win (They’ve got huge QB problems, don’t have a stocked cupboard, and Neuheisel doesn’t have them going yet).
  • Sat., Nov. 14 at Oregon State loss (this is a very good team that has a good, experienced QB and explosive playmakers. This game could get out of hand.)
  • Sat., Nov. 28 Washington State win (they were dreadful last year and nothing tells me that they’ll be anything but atrocious next year. They have not solved their QB questions and are lacking across the board and lost Brandon Gibson).
  • Sat., Dec. 5 California loss (another very good team that may just throttle UW).

    Final Tally: 6- 6

Look what I just did. I just made fun of myself for predicting that UW would go 7-5 in 2008 and now I’ve made them bowl eligible in Sarkisian’s first year? What’s wrong with me? I’m way too cynical to be such an optimist. But going through this game-by-game exercise you have to admit that it’s possible, right? Ok, maybe I’m being a little too bullish on their chances against the Arizonas and Stanford…nevertheless I’ve now convinced myself that 4-8 would be a disappointment, 5-7 is the most realistic, and 6-6 is attainable.

That’s not too much to ask, right? Right!?

Please let me be right.

I love college football and I need UW to be relevant again because I can’t, in good conscience, leap into the arms of another program next year without feeling dirty. Being just a little too interested in how Georgia is going to do with the loss of Knowshon Moreno and Matthew Stafford just won’t sit well with me.

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