Willingham ignores media frenzy about Irish visit

SEATTLE -- Tyrone Willingham wants to shut up and play and he doesn't care if that isn't terribly interesting. Maybe he's got it right.

In the Age of Oprah, when a former celebrity recluse repeatedly jumps onto a sofa to dramatize passion for his latest squeeze, perhaps we need more Willinghams, who won't reveal strong feelings that are obviously there.

Amid a culture of complaint, shouldn't it be refreshing when someone refuses to gripe or point a finger or to humor reporters trying to stir things up?

Want to know whether the waters run deep inside, or if there is an unspoken vulnerability lurking behind his steely stare? Join the crowd.

"I'll let the public question that all the time," Willingham says, holding eye contact with an expression suggestive of … something. Irritation? Amusement? Boredom?

Here's the buried lead: Notre Dame visits Washington Saturday.

Obviously, this isn't about the 16th-ranked Fighting Irish taking on the Huskies, who haven't beaten a ranked opponent since Nov. 22, 2003.

The program that controversially fired Willingham last winter just three years into his contract and was universally condemned for it -- that universe sans Willingham, of course -- is playing Willingham's new team, a former West Coast power fallen on hard times.

Ah, the intrigue! Cue the dramatic soap opera sound track crescendos.

Alas, both Willingham and his replacement in South Bend, former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, have assured the public that this is about two football teams and not the men who lead them. Nor should the hoi polloi obsess about the back-room machinations that maneuvered them into those positions.

Of course, that's a bunch of crap.

Just ask any Notre Dame fan, many of whom probably brought up their feelings on Willingham's abrupt removal at confession. Ask Huskies fans, who want evidence that their new coach knows what he's doing on Saturdays, as Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White pointedly said Willingham did not when explaining the pink slip.

Weis won't talk about the muddle, and White has turned down interviews this week. Willingham patiently fields every question, only he rarely allows his inquisitors to force him into a corner where he might reveal something.

So developing a full impression is like watching CSI. Hmmm, he didn't greet every Notre Dame writer with a grin and hello. Maybe his voice tone changes slightly when a reporter refuses to abandon a line of questioning. Here's a slip: He alludes to a specific television pundit's take on his termination, which demonstrates that he did care how his firing was portrayed.

And, yes, he confesses, there will be some added emotion for him, playing against players he recruited and knows well. After all, together last year they beat Michigan (just like this year) and Michigan State (just like … never mind).

As for the general hype, it is what it is, he opines earnestly. His players need to focus on preparing for the game, which is exactly what he plans to do.

"There's nothing I can do to change any of the surroundings or any of the trappings," he said. "They're there; they're great; they're fantastic. With all of that, you can't lose your focus."

Was that just a hint of sarcasm? See, just when it's reasonable to wonder whether Willingham engages the world as an emotionless, purely logical Mr. Spock of the sidelines, words come out indicating that, yes, there are things he's not saying.

He's asked why he refused to talk about his feelings on his firing at Notre Dame.

"I did speak out about the situation. My problem is I didn't say what somebody else wanted to hear," he said. "I didn't bite my tongue. I said exactly what Tyrone Willingham wanted to say."

And the kicker: "The world is not ready for what I wanted to say."

So does this mean he had more to say but the world wasn't ready for it, or does this mean the world wasn't ready for a guy who refused to join a chorus railing about his being fired? Hard to say, because Willingham didn't.

"I've moved on," he said when asked if there was any residual bitterness.

Munching on barbeque across the room, a number of Huskies players watched Willingham negotiate the lingering pack of reporters from across the country -- even NPR was represented on the teleconference.
"It's going to be a difficult week for him, but for the players it will be just like any other week," linebacker Evan Benjamin said.

The Huskies were just happy to be happy. After an 0-2 start, which included a blowout loss at home to California, they are coming off a victory for the first time in nearly a year, albeit one against lowly Idaho.

During the preseason, the players spoke of a renewed focus and unity that Willingham inspired, but the early returns on the field have been mixed.

They also know that few folks are giving them a chance this week. Among their 10 defeats in 2004 was a 38-3 pasting at Notre Dame.

Willingham has instructed them to not get caught up in the media swarm surrounding him. But it's hard to ignore what the game could mean, even for players trying to spout the party line.

"If he can come out and coach our team to victory over a team that blew us out last year -- over his old team that blew us out last year -- it says a lot about him as a coach," center Brad Vanneman said. "But he's not going to spend a lot of time thinking about getting back at them. The best way to get back at them is to coach us the best way he can.

"I can't think of any better redemption than to have his Husky team beat a nationally ranked Notre Dame team."

Benjamin and Vanneman didn't seem too caught up in the hype, per their coach's instructions. But both also knew where the game ball will go if the Huskies manage an upset.

As for Willingham, gloating, just like bitterness, isn't a part of what he shows the world. He insists that he's moved on after the Notre Dame affair, compartmentalizing it as another valuable, if difficult, life experience, one that he doesn't have to emote about in public.

"The old theory of turning the sow's ear into silk," he said. "That's the way I try to do all the things that surround my life. There should be no bad in my life. It's all about how am I going to make it better."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.