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Willingham was never a good fit

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

In 2005, Tyrone Willingham took over a Washington program that was headed downhill. He resigned Monday because he did little to reverse the course.

The 2004 Huskies that got Keith Gilbertson fired after just two seasons went 1-11. That is an optimistic projection of where the currently winless team will end up this season.

How did a program that won the 1991 national championship and finished No. 3 in the nation as recently as 2000 win only 12 games over the past five seasons?

The easy answer is the program failed to recruit and then develop players who could compete in the Pac-10.

But Willingham, beyond his failure on the field and on the recruiting trail, was never a good fit.

His hiring split the fan base from the beginning and set up a nasty schism between fans focused on football and others who believed Willingham restored class and integrity to a program that had appeared out of control during the previous administrations.

Willingham was supposed to be a stabilizing presence after the tumultuous Rick Neuheisel tenure and the failed stop-gap that was Gilbertson's brief term.

When Gilbertson and then-athletic director Todd Turner agreed on a separation, Turner immediately fired up Huskies fans by announcing he wanted his new coach to have "pizazz."

Turner later would regret the word choice.

When he hired Willingham over then-Boston College coach Tom O'Brien -- after being spurned by California's Jeff Tedford -- the fan base was decidedly under whelmed.

Many Husky fans didn't believe a discard from Notre Dame was worthy of the UW post. They also didn't think Willingham was a very good coach. And they weren't shy about saying so on the high-traffic message boards.

"Anybody with half a brain can get on the Internet and say whatever they want -- pay no attention to that," Turner said at the time when asked about the vocal critics.

Of course, that comment immediately spawned a movement and a group of anti-Willingham UW fans that gained momentum and unofficial members with each dispiriting defeat.

While it might seem like 20-20 hindsight, Willingham immediately created consternation even among the more reasonable fans. He filled out his coaching staff with an inexplicable deliberateness, which crushed his initial recruiting effort.

His big name failed to generate any recruiting momentum. Elite in-state players like running back Jonathan Stewart and offensive lineman Stephen Schilling bolted for Oregon and Michigan, and Willingham's 13-member class finished ranked 10th in the Pac-10, according to most recruiting services.

He then imposed some of the nation's most restrictive policies on media and fan contact with the team. All practices were closed to reporters, which is unusual in the mostly open Pac-10. Big-time boosters didn't fare much better. The team hotel, long the social headquarters for fans who followed the Huskies the on road, was made off-limits.

Willingham never made much effort to connect with boosters, which isn't good for a program desperately in need of a massive and expensive stadium renovation.

Of course, all would have been forgiven if Willingham had won and recruited well. He did neither, though his 2007 recruiting class pushed into the top half of the conference rankings.

Sure, there are some "what if" moments.

Surging to a 4-1 start in 2006 and sniffing the national rankings, the Huskies nearly won at No. 3 USC before falling 26-20, as an official indefensibly stood over the ball as the final seconds ticked away and wouldn't let them run a final play from the Trojans 15-yard line.
But then dual-threat quarterback Isaiah Stanback broke his foot the following weekend against Oregon State. The season imploded amid a six-game losing streak.

The promise of a 2-0 start and a halftime lead over Ohio State in 2007 evaporated with another six-game losing streak.

And this year's only moment of any hope -- a controversial 28-27 loss to BYU -- quickly yielded, as losses piled up, to desperation and frustration. And then resignation.

Willingham is 11-32 in Seattle and is 2-16 since the 2-0 start in 2007. The Huskies are terrible on both sides of the ball, ranking 117th in scoring offense (16.1 points-per-game) and 115th in scoring defense (39.6 ppg).

Sure, the Huskies have been wracked by injuries. Sure, they are relying on way too many freshmen and sophomores. Sure, the brutal schedule has been unforgiving.

But Willingham has failed to do the job he was hired to do by every measure. He even admitted that when the announcement was made today.

"We didn't win enough games -- that's it," he said.

That is it.

And he leaves the program not well-positioned to win much anytime soon.