Willingham, Irish meet again

Washington coach appreciates buzz surrounding game against ex-employer, Notre Dame

September 24, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun reporter

The game was circled on calendars in Seattle and South Bend, Ind., from the moment last December when Tyrone Willingham was hired to coach at the University of Washington shortly after being fired at Notre Dame.

The hype hasn't eased in the ensuing months, and today's visit to Husky Stadium by the No. 16-ranked, but no longer unbeaten Fighting Irish has certainly attracted its share of media and fan interest.

Both Willingham and his successor, Charlie Weis, are trying not to get caught up in the buzz. But Willingham, typically a master of understatement, can appreciate the story line between his new team and his former team.

"I don't think I've ever downplayed my emotions regarding any football game," Willingham said during a teleconference call Monday. "This football game is important, just as the last one was important. The fact that you have players that I recruited, that I spent time in their homes, that does make it just a little bit different."

Weis wants no part in building the game up to be, say, a Super Bowl. That much is guaranteed since the Huskies have started off a disappointing 1-2, picking up their first win Saturday over I-AA Idaho, while Notre Dame's momentum was stopped at home by Michigan State after road wins at Pittsburgh and Michigan.

"This week will not be a week of distractions," Weis said Sunday. "They [the players] won't be talking about it, and neither will I."

Washington quarterback Isaiah Stanback said that there was a feeling of "big relief" when the Huskies broke an eight-game losing streak that stretched back to last season.

"We needed that for ourselves, and we needed to really jumpstart a new era," said Stanback, who has big shoes to fill himself in succeeding three-year starter Cody Pickett. "We now remember how it feels [to win]."

Willingham said that he's just trying to do what most in his profession are regardless of the circumstances.

"I apologize if I'm too simplistic in my approach," he said. "What we're trying to accomplish is getting wins on Saturday and have our young men be good people, good students and play great football."

It's only been five years since Washington previously played in the Rose Bowl, but it seems like a lifetime ago. The program was in disarray when Willingham arrived after the Huskies finished 1-10 last season under Keith Gilbertson.

"It's always just the cultural change that is the biggest challenge," Willingham said. "The things that I do are slightly different than from the way someone else has done them. That doesn't necessarily make them right or wrong, but you're trying to put the things in place that will allow the program to be successful."

Admittedly, Willingham is still adjusting to the bureaucracy he faces at a state university that didn't exist at Notre Dame or before that when he coached Stanford, also a private school. "You're working for the state as much as you are working for the university," Willingham said.

The Huskies are still adjusting to him, too. A disciplinarian whose detached demeanor did not play well with many alums and administrators in South Bend, Willingham frightened some of his players when he first got to Washington. That feeling has changed.

"Everybody loves him," Stanback said.

Willingham knows it's going to be different going up against Notre Dame than it was against Air Force, California or Idaho. It's even going to be different than it was in his first season in South Bend when the Irish faced Stanford, winning on the road.

"I have great respect for the program, great respect for the young men left in the program, great respect for many of the administrators," said Willingham, the first coach in modern Notre Dame history to be fired before his five-year contract ran out. "When it comes time to playing the game, I think I'd much prefer Washington to win the game than Notre Dame to win."

Asked whether having coached many of the players his new team will face might be an advantage for the Huskies, Willingham said: "I would hope it would be some type of advantage, but I don't think it makes that big of a difference. I think they've got a great team obviously, a top 10, top 15, top 20 type of team. I know they're disappointed with the outcome of last week, but I think they'll be ready to play."

And whether he says it or not, Willingham will be ready to show Notre Dame that it made a mistake firing him after last season.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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