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Originally published Saturday, December 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Losses may be the legacy of Washington coach Tyrone Willingham

At 11-36 heading into today's game at California — a contest in which the Huskies are 35-point underdogs — Willingham will leave with the worst record of any coach in the modern era of UW football.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Willingham's legacy

Good Tyrone

Minimized off-field issues: Some debate how much cleaning up he may have done, but those close to the program don't dispute it's in better shape in terms of its overall foundation than it was when he arrived.

Recruited Jake Locker: He wasn't able to capitalize on it much, but Willingham did sign the one must-get player in the state of the last few years, and the new coach may benefit greatly.

Kept WSU out of bowl game: Willingham's most significant on-field success may have been winning the 2006 Apple Cup.

Beat UCLA: Willingham's greatest home success might have been a 29-19 win over UCLA in 2006 when the Huskies fell behind 16-0 in the first half. It's one of only two times UW has beaten UCLA since 1996.

Bad Tyrone

Second-worst record in school history: Willingham's overall record of 11-36 is eclipsed only by the 1-5 mark of Leonard Allison in his only season in 1920.

Only one win vs. Northwest schools: He was 1-11 against NW teams, the only win in 2006 against WSU.

Shaky public relations: Willingham came to UW with a reputation for reserved relations with the media, reinforced during his four years here. But those around the program were more taken aback by his often aloof approach to other public responsibilities, such as attending summer booster golf outings.

Worst season ever: A loss Saturday would make UW 0-12, cementing this as the school's worst season.

On Monday, in his last week as Washington's football coach, Tyrone Willingham was asked if he planned to have any heart-to-heart talks with his team.

"There will be no real sentimental conversations," Willingham countered.

That's par for the course for Willingham during his UW tenure. He rarely has delved into introspection, particularly in public.

One could also argue, however, that there isn't all that much to be sentimental about.

At 11-36 heading into today's game at California — a contest in which the Huskies are 35-point underdogs — Willingham will leave with the worst record of any coach in the modern era of UW football.

It's that record that will speak most loudly about his 48 months as the leader of UW football.

Willingham was hired Dec. 13, 2004, and on that day, the hope was that his trademark "character and integrity" would help clean up a program muddied by the messy ending to the Rick Neuheisel era. Washington and its fans also hoped that the on-field product would mirror his Stanford years (a Pac-10 title in 1999) more than his shaky Notre Dame tenure.

Washington president Mark Emmert said this week that he gives Willingham high marks for fulfilling the first goal.

"You reflect back to where we were four, five and six years ago, the concerns that people had when they talked about the integrity of the football program, how it was perceived, and today we don't have any of those issues," Emmert said. "We don't have any NCAA issues. We don't have anybody questioning the integrity of what we are about as a football program. So all of those things are a very positive part of the legacy of Tyrone Willingham."

Some fans, however, question whether that part of Willingham's UW accomplishments is overstated.

Kim Grinolds, who helps run Dawgman.com, a popular Web site devoted to UW athletics, said he thinks the issues of the Neuheisel era were already in the rearview mirror by the time Willingham took over. He says graduation rates are no higher now than they were then. UW's most recent gradation rate for football was 65 percent. The rate in Neuheisel's final year at UW was 64 percent.

"What did they clean up?" Grinolds asked, before noting some of the players who got in trouble on Willingham's watch — notably, one player was arrested for stealing a taxi, another for domestic assault. "Tyrone had his share of problems, too."

But mostly, Willingham had a lot of losses.

Washington is 6-28 in Pac-10 play under Willingham, which would be the worst stretch for any conference team since Oregon State in the mid-1990s. A loss at Cal would make UW 0-12, the first Pac-10 team to go winless since Oregon State in 1980.

And there have been precious few highlights. A few weeks ago, Willingham was asked on his radio show to pick a couple, and he cited the 2006 Apple Cup — the only one he won in four tries — and last year's home win over Boise State.

The Huskies were 1-11 in games against Northwest rivals under Willingham, and 1-18 against teams ranked in the top 25 — the only win being the victory against Boise State, which was ranked No. 22.

"Obviously, we are all disappointed in the won-loss record," Emmert said.

The hope was that Willingham's West Coast background and name recognition would spur recruiting. The Class of 2008 was dotted with highly rated in-state recruits, many of whom likely would have come to UW regardless of the coach. Under Willingham, recruiting was no better, and at times worse, than usual school standards.

Willingham also struggled to win over fans and didn't help matters with actions such as closing practices to the media — his policies were more restrictive than others in the Pac-10 — and taking the names off the backs of the uniforms his first two seasons. Some wondered at times if he was too concerned with such ancillary issues.

"Everybody wanted to embrace him," Grinolds said. "But as time went along, it just got to a point where things just kept piling up."

Willingham often explained some of his policies by saying he was trying to shield the players from distractions.

In their comments to the media, players say they will remember Willingham fondly.

"I know people out there aren't happy with the record," said tight end Michael Gottlieb, a fifth-year senior. "But he made an impact on my life, and I know all of the seniors can say the same."

Unlike the case with his previous ouster, at Notre Dame, there are no doubts that he got a fair shake. In fact, the disaster of this season has instead caused some to wonder whether the Huskies erred in not firing him last December. Others wonder whether the school made a mistake in asking Willingham to stay on to coach the rest of the season. Willingham was told after the Notre Dame game that he wouldn't be back next season, and the team has seemed to play even more listlessly since, bottoming out with a loss in the Apple Cup.

Willingham has seemed to grow more prickly with the media since his ouster. Several times he has mentioned how poor the program was when he took over. But he had four seasons to improve the condition of the program, and a winless season isn't anyone's idea of improvement.

Emmert defended the decisions to stay with him after last season and to allow him to coach the rest of 2008. He said the school wanted Willingham to stay on to keep continuity in the program and minimize disruptions in the players' lives.

"When I look back on the decision to have him finish his fourth year, based on all the information that was available at the time, I continue to believe that was the right decision," Emmert said. "Nobody at that point had any reason to expect that the season would turn out the way that it has."

That it has, however, might ultimately be a hard memory for most fans to shake.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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