Thursday, August 21, 2008

Willingham's difficult relationship with the 12th man

The Huskies took yesterday afternoon off but Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times made some interesting observations in his blog concerning the Washington Husky football practice policy.

What Oregon is doing is actually what I think most of us who cover UW would like the Huskies to do --- be open, or pretty close to open, during spring practice and the beginning of fall camp, when there is really very little game planning going on, but maybe get more restrictive once the season nears.

Most of the programs in the conference and country do that these days because it helps promote the team and build excitement for the coming season. Willingham feels that opening practice at any time to the media distracts his coaches and players.

A longtime observer of Washington football told me that the coach simply hates the chance of any criticism. It isn't simply a matter of information leaking out to opposing teams. He doesn't want anyone commenting on how he runs his practices. If the players aren't doing a lot of hitting for instance he doesn't want someone to criticize his methods. He feels information is power and if he controls all the information he is controlling his power. In other words the coach wants to eliminate the chance of anyone second guessing him.

It is that same type of logic Willingham used when he banned fans and family who travel on the road to see games from staying in the team hotel. Up to 10,000 fans used to follow the Huskies on the road for each game. Obviously all of them could not stay at the team hotel but the hotel lobby was a central meeting place for all Husky fans when they were on the road.

I don't know if you have ever been to a road game pre Willingham but it was a carnival atmosphere in those very recent days. KJR or whatever radio station was following the team would set up in the hotel lobby on Friday and do a live broadcast. Husky fans from all over the country would meet each other and share their passion for Husky football. The team, fans, families, and friends were all together the night before the game in a charged atmosphere which helped the team build the emotional edge it needed to conquer the opposing team on the road.

I remember the days of a Rick Neuheisel, Jim Lambright, Don James being available in the lobby and mixing with fans and boosters to let them know how important they were to the program and they sincerely meant it. If you wanted to talk to Jim Lambright for a few minutes he had the time and made you feel glad you were there. It wasn't unusual to have a chalk talk with one of the assistants over a cold frosty beer.

Those former Husky coaches knew that having 10,000 Husky fans in the stands when you were on the road playing a team such as Michigan was a great source of pride and comfort. It simply was an edge that most programs in the country did not possess.

The number of fans that travel to watch the Huskies on the road is dramatically down. I was amazed at how few Husky fans were on the road when we played Arizona State last season. The majority of Husky fans at the game were made up mostly of sun birds who had moved down from the Northwest.

What the coach and the team are missing out on is the tremendous emotions that help propel the team to improbable victories in the past.

Who can ever forget the Whammy in Miami? Do you think that win would have ever been possible without the support of the 12th man on the road?

The thing that has made Washington football so special over the last 100 years is it has been our team. Husky football is the one thing some bandit in Oklahoma can never take away from us. Husky football is something that is in our blood. We all grew up with it going to the games with our fathers, and fathers, fathers. It isn't just sport it is a deeply rooted Northwest tradition of pride, excellence, history, and community involvement.

The message from Coach Willingham is loud and clear. He doesn't want anyone around his team at home and on the road because he feels it is a distraction. He wants to control the environment. The coach wants his players to focus on the task ahead without any distractions.

What the coach and his team may be missing out on is the key ingredient of emotion. With the nations toughest schedule staring them in the face in 2008 a little emotion and support from loyal fans may be the secret ingredient this team is lacking.

10 comments:

Meek Speaks said...

that is sooooo awesome!

i imagine that the players find saturdays extremely difficult when 75,000 "distractions" are on hand vis-รก-vis the vacuum they practice in.

now, that said, if the mitigation of "distractions" (errr, fans) resulted in a championship team, i'd hardly question the method, but we are still the worst big program in the entire nation.

you know that advice about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result... it's called playing the lottery. willingham's methods will win him a lotto extension once every 5 seasons when he meets expectations.

sigh for the dawgs. RIP

Anonymous said...

John, Excellent Post and you captured the point 100%.  I remember driving down to Corvallis or Eugene and seeing other Huskies fans with their flags and license plates going down I-5 and a friendly wave.  I recall talking to Dave Hoffman (LB) once the Friday night before the OU game in Eugene at their hotel and how stoked he and the other players were to see the support.I REALLY hope UW athletic admin is reading this blog.  Fan support is so important and does inspire the game.  Look how complacent the fans have become over the past few years in our own stadium.Keep up the good work.

John Berkowitz said...

I think the key ingredient that has been missing since Willingham arrived is emotion.

How many of you are tired of Washington walking rather than running out of the tunnel?

Anonymous said...

Interesting you mentioned "emotion" since Ty speaks alot about having the "passion" to play.  Under Ty, the team coming out of the tunnel on game day is pale compared to the real passion seen at Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Florida, etc.  UW has a great tradition inline with the above teams yet I feel Ty has not tapped this much at all.  I would like Ty to succeed however if not I would like to see an ex player or someone qualified to coach who is close to the program like Mora Jr for example.  Hugh Millen.....where are you!

John Berkowitz said...

I would also like Ty to succeed, but to succeed he is going to need to make some changes. I just don't see that happening. He got the message loud and clear in December and the security around the bunker increases.

Eric said...

Nice post John. I share your frustration and comments 100%. It would be nice, for once, to see Ty show some level of emotion beyond the occassional shy fist pump and obligatory interview with KJR on Monday afternoons. Considering I think Ty is incapable of this level of public emotion, I think he should delegate the passion duties to Ed Donatell. That guys has some fire and he knows, from first-hand experience, what the "old days" were like for Husky fans.

SunDawdger said...

JB -
Really - you need to let this one go. I don't really disagree with your primary point. However, it really is not hard to see this from Ty's perspective if you take a bit more of an unbiased viewpoint. Keep in mind the following things:

1. Ty was hired to clean up a big mess that included poor booster / player behaviors

2. Ty's team is very young and probably can't handle tough criticism through the media

3. Ty knows he's on a hotseat. Media will scrutinize and criticize everything - whether fair or not. Why give them ammo?

4. The program needs support for a stadium. Is that more or less likely to happen when the media is throwing pot shots at every little thing they pick up in an open practice.

It's easy to be "open" when you are USC or Oregon. Not so easy when you are Ty. I'm not defending it, and, in fact, I wish it were different. But, Ty's actions are very easy to understand to a reasonable person.

John Berkowitz said...

SD- I appreciate your comments.

What can I say it was a series I decided to run with this week that is relevant.

That doesn't mean I am going to beat it to death for the rest of the season.

1. Ty was hired to clean up a big mess that included poor booster / player behaviors

For the life of me I don't know what you mean by poor booster behavior? What exactly did the boosters do? I don't remember any boosters being implicated in anything that Lambo, Neu, and Gilby were involved in.

2. Ty's team is very young and probably can't handle tough criticism through the media

I disagree with that. I really can't remember any criticism of the team during practice under James, Lambo, Neu, and Gilby. Where exactly does that myth come from?

If you lose a game people are going to analyze it, but it has always been hands off at practice.

3. Ty knows he's on a hotseat. Media will scrutinize and criticize everything - whether fair or not. Why give them ammo?

I think he is giving them plenty of ammo by simply not opening things up a bit. Ty's bunker mentality is killing his career. that is unfortuante because I want him to succeed.

4. The program needs support for a stadium. Is that more or less likely to happen when the media is throwing pot shots at every little thing they pick up in an open practice.

You aren't going to get support for the stadium unless the team starts getting promoted correctly. I don't understand the pot shot comments, where exactly are the past pot shots coming from?

The Times investigative series on the last Rose Bowl team had nothing to do with the guys who cover the team on a daily basis.

"It's easy to be "open" when you are USC or Oregon."

USC is one of the exceptions by keeping it open all year. Washington is the exception on the other side of the extreme.

Oregon does what almost every other program in the country does.

Once again I appreciate your well though out comments. I can see the points you are trying to make.

Joe said...

Great post and I like your comment about the team walking out of the tunnel too. That is the one thing that has been killing me going to the games is the lack of excitement generated by the team and shown by the fans recently. I think it's more of a mixed bag of fans being discontent over the record (we're pretty fairweather with all teams in Washington, like it or not) and Tyrone not giving anyone anything to be excited about.

We have to have the WORST entrance in college football right now. Sometimes we don't even come out second, what home team comes out first? Honestly. They start playing that stupid "Tenacity, blah blah" video that no one likes to watch and then the team just kind of sneaks out, sometimes even surprising the person doing the siren. ESPN considered doing College Gameday here last year for the USC game but I'm sure what they saw at the Ohio State game probably put an end to that, if you look at the atmosphere around Husky football its disgraceful.

For comparison sake look at this video of the Huskies coming out against Cal in '07 vs. a video of what has to be the best entrance in college football, Virginia Tech.

Huskies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abeTRAf8r6o
VT: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5h1EW5z1wdc

At Tech they cut down all the stupid crap like the video that distracts people and make sure everyone is solely focused on the team entering the stadium. The team doesn't leave the tunnel and stand in front of it jumping for 30 seconds either. I haven't been going to games for a very long time like most Husky fans but I think they need to do something to spice up this part of the Saturday experience.

Another thing is we never do anything at our stadium to get mass crowd participation, and a lot of times that starts with the head coach. Remember when JoePa got all the students together at Penn State the night before a game and had them go through cheering practice in the gymnasium? They all showed up the next day wearing pure white T-shirts it was one of the coolest things I've ever seen. We have a much smaller student section than a lot of schools but that's no reason people shouldn't participate in things. It would be really helpful if Tyrone would stop talking about how wonderful he THINKS the fans are and how much it WOULD help if they cheered louder, and instead started bolstering some excitement and prove that he cares. Whether you hate Slick Rick or are just indifferent, the guy could at least create excitement over a game.

I haven't missed a home game in 5 years and I don't plan on ever missing one again for two reasons. First, and most important, there is nowhere I'd rather be on a Saturday. Second, I feel I have to show up and scream twice as loud to make up for all the people sitting on their hands at games these days. You could sleep through most of our games it's sad. I've been wishing Willingham would do something to get the fans excited since the day he was hired and he's done next to nothing. It seems like the only thing that will get crowds going now is wins because the coach isn't going to do it.

Less than nine days until kickoff.

John Berkowitz said...

Joe - That was a fantastic post!