Sat, Sep 24, 2005 - Page 19 News List

Willingham about to face team that sent him packing

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

Tyrone Willingham's makeup -- he calls it his wiring -- prevents him from dwelling on the past. He will not second-guess or revisit what he cannot change.

Yet Willingham, the first-year coach at Washington, will be confronted as well as conflicted by his past Saturday at Husky Stadium. Players from Notre Dame, the university that many believe fired him unjustly over the winter, will be 53 yards away on the other sideline.

During their three seasons in South Bend, Willingham and his staff had a hand in recruiting 16 of the 22 current Irish starters. They include quarterback Brady Quinn, running back Darius Walker and wide receiver Maurice Stovall, who have contributed to the team's 2-1 record under coach Charlie Weis. The loss came last Saturday to Michigan State, by 44-41 in overtime.

Those are Willingham's guys. They once were his future.

Instead, he inherited a Washington program that was 1-10 last season, the worst in the team's history. The Huskies are a 1-2 this season, having broken an eight-game losing streak last Saturday with a 34-6 victory over Idaho. That came a week after California crushed them by 56-17 at home.

Willingham, 51, has declined to engage in the hypothetical and the speculative over his firing. For him, football is like life, which is like golf.

"I received a compliment some time ago," Willingham, a passionate golfer, said. "Someone was amazed that I very rarely follow up a bad shot with a bad shot. It's just how you think about things. First of all, I don't think I'm going to have a bad shot.

"I think I'm wonderfully wired in this way, but most people don't want to accept that. I don't mean to say this in the negative, but everyone is looking for that one thing for me to say that I hated. That's not the way I live, and people find that very difficult to deal with."

This week, the news media have tried to pierce his impassive persona, to no avail.

Notre Dame fired him with three years remaining on his contract after a 6-5 season brought his overall record to 21-15, including two bowl-game appearances. He was 10-3 in 2002, his first season at Notre Dame, and won several coach-of-the-year awards. His team dropped to 5-7 in 2003, the third losing season in five years for the Irish. That was the worst stretch in the team's history. Bob Davie had been the coach for two of those losing seasons. Davie, whose teams were 21-16 in his first three seasons, went 35-25 in finishing his five-year contract at Notre Dame. In the early 1980s Gerry Faust was 30-26-1, and he completed five seasons.

Some believe that because Willingham is African-American, Notre Dame held him to unreasonable standards and had limited patience. He has been more accepting than accusing.

Willingham said he continued to have great respect for the Notre Dame program, the players "and many of the administrators." He insisted that he had spoken out about the apparent injustice but that "I didn't say what someone else wanted to hear."

He added: "Lou Holtz" -- another former Notre Dame coach -- "said something years ago that's important in football, but also in life, about the ability for us stay in the moment. Most of us don't have the ability to do that. We're either thinking about the past or daydreaming about the future. But really successful people have the skill to stay in the moment. Notre Dame is gone. Move forward. That's been my approach."

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