Washington coach Tyrone Willingham is still able to smile, chat about presents and wish strangers a "Merry Christmas" -- even though his team will be stuck in Seattle.
For the fifth straight season, Washington missed a bowl game. The program hasn't been a consistent Pac-10 contender since the Don James era (1975-1992). The Huskies haven't finished better than ninth in the conference standings since Willingham took over in 2005 and this year -- despite leading in nine of their 13 games -- Washington finished last. Willingham became the first coach in school history to have three straight losing seasons.
And yet Willingham, who was fired after three seasons at Notre Dame and will enter the fourth season of a five-year contract, remains composed.
Recruiting is surging -- Willingham has 25 commitments, including one ESPN 150 prospect in TE/DE Kavario Middleton -- and they've got a talented young quarterback in Jake Locker to build around. Attendance has jumped by more than 10,000 per home game. Willingham made the necessary but difficult staff changes that needed to be made, particularly on defense. And the administration is giving him time to rebuild the program.
"That is critical," Willingham said. "If they can be able to give you the resources you need, but most importantly the time you need, you can get it done."
Especially if you've got a quarterback like Locker, who broke school and conference records for rushing yards by a quarterback in his first year as a starter and was named the Pac-10's freshman of the year.
Against one of the most unfavorable schedules in the country, Locker, a redshirt freshman, averaged 82.2 rushing yards per game, scored 13 rushing touchdowns and finished 14 yards shy of 1,000 for the season. He also set a school record for passing yards (2,062), but threw 14 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. As he grows, so will his 47.3 completion percentage.
An even more glaring problem, though, was Washington's defense, which ranked 102nd in the nation in total defense. Willingham fired defensive coordinator Kent Baer and assistant coach Bob Simmons (tight ends/special teams). He also needs to hire a replacement for running backs coach Trent Miles, who took the head job at his alma mater, Indiana State.
Just how important will Willingham's fourth season be in determining not only the direction of his future, but that of the program?
"I have always felt like every year in the coaching life of coach Tyrone Willingham and most of the coaches in this country, every year is a critical year," Willingham said. "It allows you to build on your future. We can see a light at the end of the tunnel.
"Now we've got to push through the tunnel. You can't just be content with that light at the end of the tunnel. We've got to push this thing through and get the train through to the end of the tunnel."
At the very least, he's got it headed in the right direction.
Heather Dinich is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org.