It’s Win, Lose Or Ty For Willingham And Washington

By John Levesque
Updated: September 1, 2005

SEATTLE — The idea of hiring a respected coach who will mold young athletes into paragons of gentlemanhood is a popular one, especially as the NCAA goes about making its member schools hew to a tougher code of behavior.

At Washington, in the wake of the Rick Neuheisel mess and the lackluster tenure of Keith Gilbertson, Tyrone Willingham is almost seen as a molder of men first and a coach of football players second.

That will change, of course, if or when the losses start piling up. Willingham knows it as well as anyone, having been jettisoned by the University of Notre Dame after one great season, one bad season and one so-so season.

In retrospect, that great season in 2002, when Willingham coached the Irish to a 10-2 record and a trip to the Gator Bowl in his first season at South Bend, may have done Willingham a disservice. It established expectations his team was unable to meet in the ensuing years, when the Irish went 5-7 and 6-5.

So, be careful what you wish for, Huskies fans.

And don’t for a moment think that Willingham is somehow immune from the vicissitudes of big-time college football because he’s back at a school where “football” isn’t necessarily the first word that comes to mind when the university’s name is mentioned.

The UW has an outstanding reputation academically, but it’s not Stanford. It’s still up there on the football awareness charts. Witness the remarks of UW president Mark Emmert, late of LSU, upon the hiring of Willingham: “If football is the front porch of the university,” Emmert said eight months ago, “then our front porch just got a whole lot better.”

Emmert said Willingham “is always going to make us proud,” describing him as “someone who will represent the university with great dignity.”

But football is a selling tool, and if your team doesn’t win, all the dignity in the world won’t help you keep your job.

“You are attempting at a public university to make the argument that we’re relevant to the state,” said J. Douglas Toma, an associate professor in the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia. “Where I think football really helps is to provide something that the broader public can pay attention to.”

The public pays attention, and generally feels good about its state university, when it’s football team is winning. Willingham will be hailed as the greatest thing since the single wing if he can change that paradigm.

Toma, the author of “Football U.: Spectator Sports in the Life of the American University,” isn’t the sort of academic who sees big-time sports as the ruination of higher education. He’s a realist who views sports as being at the leading edge of what has become standard operating procedure in higher education, that is, generating revenue to assure survival.

“The best thing I can do for the University of Georgia is bring in money,” said Toma, who has published several books and many articles but says the value of that exposure pales in comparison to the importance of attracting research grants.

“I see us becoming more like athletics every day,” he said.

Former Harvard University president Derek Bok lamented this very trend in his 2003 book, “Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education.” Bok writes that not all ties with the marketplace are suspect, but that some universities enter into “one dubious venture after another in the hope of gaining added revenue.”

Not surprisingly, Bok says the compromising of academic standards is “particularly severe” in athletics.

“In most of these programs,” Bok writes, “education is completely subordinate to the demands of the sport.”

True enough, but Toma points out that this reality isn’t going to go away in the near future, so it’s incumbent on universities to use high-profile sports as a natural way to create community goodwill.

Whether it’s Emmert trying to wheedle big bucks out of high rollers, or the university fund-raising machine putting the touch on reluctant alumni, having a football team that polishes the school’s image only makes good business sense.

Willingham may always represent the university with great dignity, as Emmert has stated, but if his dignified persona does little to enhance the team’s reputation and, thus, the university’s image in the marketplace, Willingham will suffer the same indignity he suffered at a “football school” such as Notre Dame.

UW athletic director Todd Turner doesn’t deny it, and he says there may be no collegiate endeavor more commercialized or more scrutinized.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Turner said, “it’s just the way it is. You can choose to fight it as an institution, or embrace it. What we’ve chosen to do is embrace football as an asset for the institution that can carry its banner pretty high. That’s why Tyrone is such a great fit.”

Turner can’t say from observing a few practices whether the Huskies are in turnaround mode. But he does say this much: “The change in the football culture is incredibly encouraging. There’s a higher degree of accountability, of focus, of commitment.”

Turner also said he’s not sure if the players actually like Willingham, “but they certainly respect him.”

On the image-building scale, that’s an altogether impressive start. It will be fascinating to see if the UW cuts Willingham some slack on the won-lost record if, all of a sudden, the university’s alumni and the general public agree that winning isn’t everything, that a positive experience is what’s most important.

As if to answer the question, Turner said: “It’s hard to have a positive experience without success on the field.”

So, welcome to Seattle, Coach Willingham. Forget the 1-10 record. The makeover clock is ticking.

Or could that be a time bomb?