From Good To Great: Why the Legend Of Tyrone Willingham Must Become Reality

By Conaway Haskins
Updated: December 21, 2004

Tyrone Willingham
Tyrone Willingham

RICHMOND, Va. — Less than two weeks after Notre Dame fired him, the University of Washington snapped up Tyrone Willingham for its head coaching spot. A top-notch West Coast public university, Washington has anointed the coach as the savior of its downtrodden football program.

Washington won only one game this past season and has dealt with a coaching controversy in recent years. However, it remains a premier spot, one which has made history by having Black men simultaneously run its major conference football and basketball programs.

However, given his history on the field, Husky fans would be wise to not look upon the 50 year-old coach as its football messiah. If this happens, Willingham, college football’s highest profile Black coach, could be in for a long ride.

Off the field, few major college coaches have academic records as impressive as Willingham. A scholar-athlete at Michigan State, he held head coaching positions at two highly-regarded universities.

Stanford has long been ranked among the top 5 or 10 universities by US News & World Report, and Notre Dame is typically in the top 25. At both schools, Willingham’s football teams either continued a pattern of high GPAs and graduation rates, or saw improvements in both.

He was particularly effective – and widely lauded – for his role in raising the classroom and graduation achievements of Black football players to the same levels as their White teammates. In taking the helm of the football program at a Top 50 university, Willingham’s history indicates that the Huskies will be a juggernaut off the field.

Still, the reality is that college football is a business with a bottom line of winning on Saturdays. More wins translates into BCS bowl bids, higher ticket sales, and increased TV revenues. His shortcomings on the field drove his dismissal at Notre Dame, and in this all-important department, the reality of Tyrone Willingham’s coaching record does not quite measure up to the legend that surrounds him.

In ten seasons as a head coach, Willingham compiled a record of 65-51-1 (55.6%), with 6 bowl invitations. He coached in five bowls and won only one, the 1996 Sun Bowl. His 2004 Notre Dame squad earned a sixth invitation, but he won’t be coaching in that game.

He’s had one season each with 8, 9, and 10 wins, and he could never put together three consecutive winning seasons. Willingham produced only three top 25 teams, two at Stanford and one at Notre Dame, and his highest poll ranking is 16th. A Tyrone Willingham team, though competitive, can be expected to go 7-5, receive a bowl invitation and lose.

In the high-stakes game of college football, performing like this is not bad. However, it’s merely above average in a world where that is just not good enough. Two coaches with similar records – Frank Solich and Ron Zook – learned this lesson the hard way.

Like him, they were fired while still under contract after leaving far too many alumni, athletic directors, and boosters, under whelmed on Saturday afternoons. Granted, the current Notre Dame program is not the Fighting Irish of Lou Holtz. Still, the programs that Solich and Zook inherited, at Nebraska and Florida respectively, were not on par with the respective dynasties that preceded them.

Fair or not, that’s the nature of the college game – coaches pay the price for underachieving teams. Coach Willingham is well aware of this, and he must do what he can to ensure that his teams are far above average; they must be great.

Washington has a solid football tradition, having won a national championship in 1991 and tied for the Pac-10 title in 2000. Coach Willingham has a good record and high expectations for himself.

While the Husky football program is not quite on the level with Michigan, Miami, Ohio State, and yes, Notre Dame, Washington has a strong academic and athletic heritage, along with the resources to compete with those schools. As such, at Washington, Coach Willingham must actually live up to his own legend – on the field.

This time around, producing 7-5 teams with no bowl wins is just not a viable option for him in the Pacific Northwest. He had his shots at Stanford and Notre Dame, and the results were mixed at best. While he won’t be expected to win a national title every year, Coach Willingham must guide his teams to Pac-10 conference titles, BCS bowls, national title games, and high classroom performance.

The man, the myth and the legend must become one. Otherwise, he’ll simply be just another good football coach, not the great coach in whom many high hopes rest.