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Originally published Wednesday, December 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Ousted athletic director: Is winning the only thing?

A week ago, University of Washington president Mark Emmert and athletic director Todd Turner presented a united front, announcing that they...

Seattle Times staff reporter

A week ago, University of Washington President Mark Emmert and athletic director Todd Turner presented a united front, announcing that they were giving football coach Tyrone Willingham at least one more year.

Behind the scenes, however, their own bond had already begun to fray, a clash of visions about the future of the athletic department that came to a head Tuesday when the UW announced that Turner was resigning, effective Jan. 31.

The controversy over retaining Willingham, Turner said, exposed some rifts in philosophy regarding the direction of the athletic department. Willingham is 11-25 in three years -- the first Huskies football coach to have three straight losing seasons -- but Turner has praised him for changing the culture of the program, recruiting players who will be good citizens and students as well as players.

When asked whether the debate over Willingham led to his resignation, Turner said, "For me it did. It just was enlightening about where our society, culture and support group has gone in their expectations of what constitutes a quality program on a campus of higher education."

Turner, while agreeing that in the end he had decided to resign, made it clear he wouldn't have left on his own.

"It's not so much what changed in my eyes but what changed in [Emmert's] eyes," Turner said. "I'm the same person I was when I came here."

Turner, somewhat defiant in his remarks to reporters in a conference call Tuesday, said he would never say that winning is not important, "but the message that our students hear, that our coaches hear, that our leadership hears from the general run-of-the-mill fan is that 'The only thing we really care about is how many games they win.'

"And I have to look at that after 32 years of doing this and say, 'Wow, is that really what we are all about? Have I been that naive all this period of time? I have been spending all my time on the student-athlete experience and trying to create better lives for people and the proper place in higher education when all I should have been worrying about is how many games we've won.' Why didn't I go to the NFL if that's all it's about?"

Emmert, however, said the Willingham decision had little to do with Turner's departure, instead citing the need for new blood to allow the athletic department to take the next step.

"People are making too much of that," Emmert said. "There was not any connection to coach Willingham's situation. He's going to be our football coach next year and I'm very happy about that."

Turner said Willingham was surprised when told of his resignation. Willingham was on the road recruiting and unavailable for comment.

Scott Woodward, UW's vice president for external affairs, will step in as acting director when Turner leaves. A national search will be conducted for Turner's replacement.

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Turner, 56, was hired in June 2004 to take over a department that had been rocked by scandals -- the gambling-related firing of football coach Rick Neuheisel and the firing of softball coach Teresa Wilson after a team drug scandal.

Emmert praised the job Turner did in "getting the ship upright. We are in much better shape than we were four years ago. ... The program was in many ways in great disarray, and Todd's done a great job of turning that all around. But we also have a lot of other things that need to get done in the athletic program, and for me this is a question if this is the right fit for Todd at this stage of his career."

Emmert and Turner both said that discussions on the athletic director's future began a few weeks ago, and Emmert said that once it was decided that Turner would resign, there was no reason to delay.

Turner wrote a letter to Emmert on Monday night confirming their resignation agreement. Some UW coaches were told Monday night, and the rest were informed in a meeting Tuesday.

"I was surprised," men's basketball coach Lorenzo Romar said, adding that the mood of the meeting was one of disappointment but that "I do understand that tough decisions have to be made at times."

Turner was in the fourth year of a contract that expires June 30, 2009. Emmert outlined financial details of the settlement in a letter to Turner on Tuesday.

Turner will receive a lump-sum payment of 1.5 times his annual salary of $345,480 (for a total of $518,220) as well as a $20,000 relocation fee and the forgiveness of what remained on a $475,000 home loan.

The greatest challenge facing a new athletic director will be the renovation of Husky Stadium, something Turner wrestled with during his tenure.

One source said Tuesday that there was some division on a stadium-advisory committee over Turner's plan for the renovation, and that it also factored into Tuesday's announcement.

Turner said the department is in better financial shape than when he took over. He said the athletic department's reserve fund had gone from $13.7 million when he arrived down to $5.8 million (due largely to expenses related to the Neuheisel situation) and now is at $19 million.

"If that's poor business management from a financial standpoint then I'm hard-pressed to understand your definition," said Turner, who had come under fire from some fans for his aggressive moves in raising ticket prices for the football and men's basketball teams.

Emmert said there was no pressure from boosters to fire Turner and that his resignation was not a nod toward those who were unhappy that Willingham was retained.

He also agreed that the financial situation isn't a problem, saying, "The fact is, funds flowing into athletics this year have been pretty darn good."

There was no word on whether a search committee will be formed, but Emmert said he will make the ultimate decision on a new athletic director.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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