I started this blog three seasons ago for two reasons. The first was to keep my English, and writing skills in practice. The second reason was to stay as positive as possible about the new head coach who many didn't like from the first moment he was hired. It hasn't been exactly easy doing that over the past year.
The very private coach who had just been fired by Notre Dame didn't fit the profile a lot of people wanted in a Husky head coach. Most had nothing personal against him, they just felt his lack of public charisma, secrecy bordering on paranoia, reputation as a laid back recruiter, and lack of past success on the gridiron added up to the wrong choice at Washington.
Willingham hasn't really done much to dispell those doubts despite facing one of the larger rebuilding projects in the country. The 11-25 record and lack of perceived public charisma had Husky fans asking for his head after a series of close 4th quarter losses in 2007. Ty actually almost received the axe the week after the Hawaii loss. Washington led that game by twenty one points at one time only to lose once again in the fourth quarter.
Season tickets sales have fallen around 20,000 per game since he was hired, and in this day in age it usually means a coaching change is in order. The message was clear among most Husky fans. They wanted former Husky, and ex Atlanta Falcons head coach Jim Mora Jr. to come in and resurrect the program. Mora was available, and willing to take the job, but at the last minute UW President Mark Emmert decided that Willingham deserved one more season to get it right.
One reason for that decision was that Washington was having an excellent recruiting season, one of the best in over a decade. The second reason was the outside perception. Should they fire a coach after only three years who was in the midst of a major rebuilding job with two years left on his contract? What type of message was this going to send?
Willingham was forced/suggested to fire two longtime assistant coaches, DC Kent Baer, and ST/TE coach Bob Simmons. Both of those coaches had drawn the ire of the Husky community because their units had performed so poorly the past three years. RB coach Trent Miles, another long time assistant, left the program to become head coach at Indiana State.
Willingham went after UCLA's DeWayne Walker with a vengeance, but the Bruin DC was convinced to stay on Rick Neuheisel's new staff after he was passed over for the Bruin head coaching job. Tyrone then turned to former Atlanta Falcons DC Ed Donatell to fill the position. Knowledgeable observers this spring noted that the Husky defense was doing a 180 under the enthusiastic, and hard working Donatell.
The other two vacancies were filled by legendary Skyline HS coach Steve Gervais who took over the RB job, and Syracuse assistant Brian White who took over special teams and tight ends. White is regarded as an excellent coach and was also a long time assistant at Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez.
The coaching changes Ty made in the off season, plus the addition of two very talented recruiting classes in a row bring increased expectations in 2008 despite facing the toughest schedule in the country. Most pundits feel the Huskies will field an improved squad led by QB Jake Locker, but they feel the brutal schedule will once again prevent Washington from going over .500 and reaching a bowl game for the first time in six years.
If you ask Willingham what the goal is going into 2008 he will tell you that it is to win all twelve games and compete for a national championship. He isn't too far off the mark because Washington had a chance to win every single game they were in last season. They took national power USC to the wire for the second consecutive season, and they were leading Ohio State late in the third quarter until a series of silly mistakes made the wheels come off.
That brings us to the second half, and most importantly the fourth quarter of each game. Washington opened last season by impressively defeating Syracuse, and Boise State. They were on their way to a possible upset over Ohio State when they imploded late in the third quarter. They had UCLA on the ropes the following week, and even had the Bruins down to a walk on QB in the fourth quarter, but the Bruins rallied using their special teams and running backs to win the game. The Husky defense couldn't stop what they knew was coming at them. The following week was the down to the wire loss to USC.
The second half of the season started after a much needed bye week. The Huskies outplayed ASU on the road in the first half taking a halftime lead only to be blown out in the second half. The fans were grumbling that his team was being out coached, and they probably were because opponents were out adjusting them in the second half.
Washington stuck with #2 Oregon in an offensive fireworks show in Husky Stadium the following week. Oregon was the better team, but Jake Locker kept the Huskies in the game all the way through the fourth quarter. The defense finally ran completely out of gas, and the Ducks went on to pad the score and win a game that was tighter than it appeared.
During that week Willingham stated that he didn't have enough bullets in his gun. AD Todd Turner who was fired after the season mentioned that the UW kids didn't look like the kids at Ohio State, Oregon, and USC. Turner received the master of the obvious award for that statement. Both Willingham and Turner were heavily criticized for the remarks.
UW still was in the running for a bowl game after that brutal run, but things went from bad to worse as the Huskies lost narrowly to Arizona, Oregon State, WSU, and Hawaii. All were games which UW had a chance of putting away, but the fourth quarter nightmares continued.
A couple bright spots were an expected win over Stanford, and a dominating home win over a heavily favored California team with Jake Locker sitting out with an injury on the sidelines. The Huskies went to a clock eating power running attack which just smothered the Bears.
The questions most fans asked is why Washington wasn't using that type of a game plan every week? Why would you abandon what was working the next week when Locker returned? Why were the defensive backs playing ten yards off the line of scrimmage against possession passing teams all season? Why was Washington playing the second half not to lose at Hawaii instead of playing to win like they did in the first half?
These are the questions that Ty Willingham has to answer in 2008 to keep his job and get a contract extension. Almost everyone agrees the team is improved, the talent base is better, and the culture has changed for the better. Tyrone has more bullets, but when will that translate into enough wins to get to a bowl game?
Willingham has to show he has the ability to be a better game day coach in 2008. He needs to start inspiring his players to play up and beyond their abilities like Rick Neuheisel, Jim Lambright, and Don James did during there tenures at Washington. He needs to start making the second half adjustments that win football games rather than being out coached in crunch time by the opposition.
Coming in to year four Willingham still lacks a single signature win while at Washington. He needs his Lambright inspired "Whammy in Miami", the Don James inspired "All I saw was Purple" destruction of USC, or Rick Neuheisel's dramatic domination of a heavily favored Miami in Husky Stadium.
Willingham will get that shot at a signature victory very early this season. The first three games are against Oregon, Brigham Young, and Oklahoma who most feel will challenge for spots in BCS bowl games at the end of the year. UW will be the underdog in all three of these games, and most feel that if the team comes out of the first stretch 0-3 it is a foregone conclusion that the goal of reaching a bowl game may be out of reach. Washington needs to win at least one of the first three to keep the attitude of the team together. If they win more than that you can say that Willingham has the team on the right track and will likely survive to get a contract extension.
The season starts on August 30th in Autzen Stadium on national TV against the Oregon Ducks. Sounds like as good a time as any for Coach Willingham to garner that first signature win which would be a giant step in reaching the goal of going to a bowl game in 2008, and most importantly cementing his coaching tenure at Washington into the future.