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Monday, December 13, 2004
Willingham gets 5-year deal to coach Huskies

Associated Press

SEATTLE -- Just two weeks after his firing at Notre Dame, Tyrone Willingham has landed another job.

Tyrone Willingham
Tyrone Willingham, who spent seven seasons at Stanford before Notre Dame, returns to the Pac-10.

Washington officials believe the bookish coach can restore the school's sagging football program to national prominence while wiping away a messy smear from the Rick Neuheisel years.

"I am excited about being here," Willingham told reporters Sunday evening before meeting with players on campus.

He was officially introduced at a Monday morning news conference. Willingham's five-year deal is worth up to $1.6 million annually.

The decision makes Washington the only Division I-A school with black head coaches in the two major sports. Men's basketball coach Lorenzo Romar is in his third season leading the Huskies.

Willingham was 21-15 in three seasons at Notre Dame -- but after an 8-0 start in 2002, the Irish went 13-15. Willingham knows the Pac-10, going 44-36-1 with a Rose Bowl berth for Stanford from 1995-01.

The Huskies are coming off a school-worst 1-10 season, and Keith Gilbertson stepped down after two years as coach. He replaced Neuheisel, who was fired in July 2003 for gambling on NCAA basketball.

Willingham, fired Nov. 30 at Notre Dame, had the shortest non-interim tenure of any Fighting Irish coach in 70 years, raising questions about whether he was given enough time to succeed.

The firing also drew criticism from the Black Coaches Association.

Willingham was one of only five black head coaches in Division I-A last season. That number dropped to two after Tony Samuel was fired at New Mexico State, Fitz Hill resigned at San Jose State and Willingham was let go.

Last week, outgoing Notre Dame president Rev. Edward Malloy criticized Willingham's firing and expressed concern over a growing trend of schools that seek "messiah coaches."

Last week, Washington president Mark Emmert and athletic director Todd Turner met with Boston College coach Tom O'Brien. He and Willingham were the only known candidates interviewed, but O'Brien withdrew late Friday.

Atlanta Falcons coach Jim Mora Jr., a former Huskies player and alum, was approached by Washington officials but declined to be interviewed, saying he's happy with his current job.

Willingham's connections on the West Coast should be an asset to a Washington program rebuilding from the bottom of the Pac-10. He's known as a law-and-order coach whose teams achieve academically.

He was 0-5 against Washington as Stanford's coach, but led Notre Dame to a 38-3 win over Gilbertson and the Huskies on Sept. 25.

Emmert and Turner, both hired last summer, hope to restore Washington's program, which shared a national championship in 1991 but has fallen to the Pac-10 cellar since Neuheisel's dismissal.

Neuheisel went 33-16 in four seasons at Washington, including an 11-1 record in 2000, when the Huskies beat Purdue in their first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1992 season.

Neuheisel has sued Washington and the NCAA over his firing. The NCAA didn't impose sanctions against him, saying a former Washington compliance officer had written erroneous memos that indicated such gambling was allowed.

Gilbertson was Neuheisel's offensive coordinator and stepped in just weeks before the 2003 opener.

The Huskies went 6-6 in Gilbertson's first season, then fell to 1-10 and 0-8 in the Pac-10 this year. Turner announced Nov. 1 that Gilbertson would step down after the season.

Willingham might have some salesmanship responsibilities in his new job, linked to Turner's plan for an ambitious stadium renovation that could cost up to $150 million by some preliminary estimates.

Last week, Turner announced that additional fees will be added to season-ticket packages, saying the money is needed for short- and long-term improvements to the football program.

Emmert knows the importance of a successful team -- his last job was as chancellor at last season's national co-champion, LSU. He has called college football "the front porch of the university."