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Originally published Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

The announcement of Ty Willingham's exit came 10 months too late

Washington football, a program that has been sinking for years, hit bottom, hit 0-7, and Tyrone Willingham had to go.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Ten months later than it should have happened, Washington finally did what it had to do.

Ten months after it became painfully clear that Tyrone Willingham wasn't the right man to lead Huskies football back to national prominence, the university finally forced him to resign.

New athletic director Scott Woodward had no choice.

Every week was looking worse than the week before. Players were quitting on the field, and the simplest mistakes were getting repeated possession after possession.

Washington football, a program that has been sinking for years, hit bottom, hit 0-7, and Willingham had to go.

Woodward did the right thing, waiting until the Huskies were mathematically eliminated from bowl consideration before making it official. But the call was as obvious as fourth-and-long.

Too bad it wasn't made last December when Woodward's predecessor, Todd Turner, chose to keep Willingham after Washington looked alarmingly disorganized while losing leads to Washington State and Hawaii at the end of last season.

Because Turner wouldn't fire Willingham, Washington now is stuck with a lame season and a lame-duck coach.

Woodward waited as long as he could. He had to make the decision now to signal recruits that Washington is serious about its football future. He had to quiet the daily rage of Washington's boosters.

And he has to offer hope for the future at the same time he is asking for cash to improve his out-of-date football stadium.

Willingham wasn't working at Washington. His 11-32 record wouldn't be acceptable at Dartmouth, let alone Washington.

The evidence against him was overwhelming.


• He was a disciplinarian, but he wasn't a motivator.

If a team reflects the personality of its coach, these Huskies are the perfect images of the glacially icy Willingham. They have been emotionally flatlined since the controversial loss to Brigham Young in the season's second week.

They've played as if they believed in some football version of manifest destiny. Like the games were out of their hands. After the BYU loss, one player was heard yelling in the locker room, "It isn't in our destiny to win football games."

• Willingham didn't recruit with the single-minded energy of most of his Pac-10 rivals. Too often, it seemed, he'd rather be on the golf course than in a recruit's living room.

• His players didn't get better. In fact, in many cases, they regressed.

• His sideline was disorganized. Too often it seemed as if there was more yelling and screaming than there was coaching and teaching.

After a bye week, after they had two weeks to prepare for Oregon State, the Huskies were flagged for a delay-of-game penalty before the first snap. A lot of coaches script their first 15 offensive plays, but Willingham and his staff couldn't even script the first play.

• He couldn't get his players prepared to play.

After starting the season 0-3 against a Murderers' Row schedule — Oregon, BYU and Oklahoma — Willingham had a bye week to regroup, reorganize and rededicate the players. A bowl game still was a possibility.

But, in its first game back, Washington played a ho-hummer at home to mediocre Stanford. Quarterback Jake Locker was hurt, and the season was doomed.

Although, I believe, the die was cast once Woodward became the athletic director, Willingham's decision to burn the redshirt year of freshman receiver Cody Bruns, who played three plays late in a lopsided loss at Arizona, was close to being his last straw.

It was a stubborn decision that didn't take into consideration the player's future.

But all of this in-season angst could have been avoided if Turner had shown the foresight and the courage to make a change last December.

Ten months ago the perfect replacement was coaching just across the lake. Seahawks assistant head coach Jim Mora, a former Huskies player and former Atlanta Falcons head coach, wanted the job.

If he had been hired, the turnaround already would have begun. He would have breathed energy into the program. He would have lit a fire under boosters. He would have been in the same living rooms as USC's Pete Carroll and Oregon's Mike Belotti and scoring points with blue-chip recruits.

But Turner wouldn't, or couldn't, do the right thing. It cost him his job, and ultimately it didn't save Willingham's.

Now Woodward faces his first real challenge, a challenge he almost certainly knew was coming when he took this job last month.

Willingham didn't work. Washington remains a mess. And this new athletic director can't repeat the mistakes of the past.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation. | 206-464-2176

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