As a second-generation University of Washington alumnus, I could not have been more proud when the school hired Tyrone Willingham as its head football coach in 2004. It made the UW the only Division I-A school in the nation to have an African-American basketball coach and head football coach on staff at the same time. Considering the dramatic underrepresentation of African-American coaches in Division I sports (that continues to this day), this was a groundbreaking move by the university. Alas, like all things associated with Seattle-area sports nowadays, the story that began so well ended badly.
After the ugly and premature dismissal Coach Willingham received at Notre Dame, I was eager for him to have an opportunity for redemption. More importantly, though, I was proud that the university which my parents and I had attended had done the right thing in hiring two African Americans to coach sports teams dominated by African American players. It was another sign of Seattle's bold progressivism. The Lorenzo Romar hiring had paid off in providing the first exciting years of UW basketball since German natives Detlef Schrempf and Chris Welp starred in the 1980s. The team has receded back into mediocrity after losing several underclassmen to the NBA, but still has a bright future. Unfortunately, the UW football team has continued on the wrong path Rick Neuheisel set them on in the early part of the decade.
The 2007 Husky football team, though a disappointing 4-9, showed grit and potential. They hung in with some of the top teams in college football until late in the 4th quarter and showed great promise heading into this season. Then came perhaps the most grueling schedule in the nation. Even a team on its way back to national prominence would have struggled with this schedule. Arguably, some of the best Huskies teams in history might have been 4-3 at this point in the season. One absurd call by an official and an injury to the team's last best hope later, and the season is over. And along with it, Tyrone Willingham's brief career at the UW.
Who knows how long it takes to turn around a football program? Is it five years? Seven years? Longer, if the athletic director signs your team up for the toughest schedule in the nation in your 3rd and 4th years on the job? How long does it take when a program has been decimated by a venal football coach known for leaving a path of wreckage in his wake? Some coaches have turned things around fast, but even the "genius" Charlie Weis dragged the Notre Dame faithful through one miserable season last year. Or was that Tyrone Willingham's fault, too?
Maybe a better question is whether winning is more important than running a program with integrity. During the Rick Neuheisel years, rumors of assaults, robberies, and even worse acts committed by UW football players were commonplace. Yes, victories were relatively plentiful, but do we want to go back to those days? If so, there are plenty of coaches out there who will make us feel good momentarily, but will we be proud to host a parade for them after they win the Rose Bowl?
Whatever one thinks of Tyrone Willingham's coaching skills, he restored some honor to the UW football program. Maybe not much swagger, but is honor so undervalued in modern America? We could use a dose of it in our politics, our sports, our culture, indeed, our national identity.
I'll admit I was pulling for Tyrone Willingham to succeed at the UW partly because he is African American. But I was also pulling for him because he is a good man. He is someone whom I could root for without wondering to myself, "Is this guy a total creep?"
Maybe in this age of Barack Obama, my viewpoint is too quaint. Maybe it's time to move past rooting for someone because of his or her race.
I just hope it never becomes outdated to root for decent people. Decent people like Tyrone Willingham.