In the wake of Wednesday’s press conference announcing Tyrone Willingham’s return as UW coach, to say that emotions are running high is to call the 1980 Mt Saint Helens eruption a hiccup. Instead of bringing resolution to the masses, the Husky fan base remains fractured and furious.
Former Husky and current ABC broadcaster Ed Cunningham is hopeful when emotions finally cool that logic will prevail– and Husky fans can once again unite behind the team.
“I just want everyone to take a deep breath,” said Cunningham. “Do I think that in the next couple of years Willingham needs to be held accountable to winning 8,9,10 or 11 games a year and competing for the Pac-10 Championship? Absolutely. It’s just that I have first-hand knowledge of how bad it was under Rick Neuheisel (prior to Willingham’s arrival in 2005). And so based on that, it’s too early to pull the plug.
“I came up for the last Spring game before Rick was let go (in 2003), and they couldn’t have a game. It confused me. It was really controlled, and not even like a glorified practice, but just a regular practice. So I asked around, and the reason was they only had three offensive linemen on scholarship. If you don’t have that core, you’re in trouble. Look at any championship team at any level, from the NFL on down, and tell me that they don’t have an outstanding offensive line.
“Of course, this is a topic near and dear to my heart,” said Cunningham, a former NFL center. “But for the Huskies to allow the foundation of the program to deteriorate was unacceptable. One of the more important aspects of having a physical offensive line is that it makes your defense better. When you’re going against the defense in practice, you’re making them better, you’re making them tougher. And we didn’t have that.”
Cunningham pointed to Notre Dame as an example, given that the Irish sputtered to a 3-9 record in 2007.
“Notre Dame was horrendous this year because their offensive line was horrendous,” he said. “They were the worst team in the country because their offensive line was the worst in the country. It takes years to rebuild that.
“I would argue that the most improved unit on the entire Husky team this year was the offensive line,” he said. “To me, that shows hope. That shows that the core and foundation of the program is going the right direction. I feel like there were massive amounts of improvement on the offensive line, and it is something that can be built around.
“And listen, I understand the frustration that some fans feel,” he said. “But let’s keep in perspective just how tough the schedule was. Should they have played better and do I wish they had some more identity, especially on defense? Absolutely, and I think those changes need to be made. And I think the coaches should be held accountable for those changes.
“For example, right now I don’t think they are maximizing Jake Locker’s talents,” he said. “If they can’t maximize his talents, and if they can’t find an identity on defense, then they need to be held accountable. But right now, the signs point toward the foundation being rebuilt properly.”
I took a couple of minutes to express my concerns to Cunningham, based on the predication that Washington should win nine games a year and compete for the Pac-10 Championship. Of my heartache in seeing the defense rank 110th in the nation. Of my concern that Tyrone Willingham, in 13 years as a head coach, has only won one bowl game and is 11-25 at Washington. I pointed to the allure of Jim L. Mora, and how we will likely never know if he could have been UW’s version of Pete Carroll.
“Well, the second string quarterback and the coach that you don’t have are the two most popular people when you’re not winning games,” said Cunningham with a laugh. “It’s not a football fan condition; it’s a human condition. We want what we cannot have. How many cliches are available for that kind of thing? The grass is greener on the other side of the fence, etc. As football fans, we have a tendency to rush to judgment. There are many examples out there of programs that wanted to run off their coach that ended up being successful in the long run because they kept their coach there. Virginia Tech, Kentucky, the list goes on and on. There’s a lot of them.
“If the Huskies had gone out this year and lost by 40 to Ohio State, by 60 to USC and by 30-40 points to Hawaii, then it’s GET OUT! LEAVE! YOU’VE GOT TO GO!
“But if you look at the Husky roster, and you see the lack of depth, especially in the secondary, you understand that you’re dealing with a three and half quarter team. I would hope they would be (all the way) by next year.
“And look, I have concerns,” he said. “When I look at it from an analytical standpoint, study films, talk to the coaches, watch the games, I have some concerns. There were times when the defense didn’t look like it knew what it was doing. Especially in today’s game, the secondary has got to improve or they’re not going to win many games next year.
“But I feel that enough of a foundation has been built that warrants giving Willingham another year. The players like and respect Tyrone, they’re beginning to keep the in-state players at home. There are some promising signs.
“And listen, 4-9 stinks,” he said. “There’s no two ways about it. There are a lot of football programs around the country that have a knee-jerk reaction to these kinds of situations. I would hope that the Husky Nation has a little more patience and tolerance. I really do. To see that we may not like where it’s at right now, but let’s see where it’s headed. If we give it enough time and see it’s not headed in the right direction, OK, make the change. But not yet.
“I just want everyone to take a deep breath and remember what happened to the program,” he said. “It’s funny, because everyone always says to me that I’ve got a personal vendetta against Rick Neuheisel. I ask people all the time to graph out what happened at the University of Colorado and the University of Washington during the years that Rick Neuheisel was the coach. If you lay those graphs side-by-side, they’re identical. There’s a little flash with other people’s players and other people’s discipline, and then it starts to trickle off down into NCAA violations.
“I just want everyone to take a 35,000 feet view of what happened to our football program,” he said. “It was pretty tragic Derek. Let’s aspire as an institution to not have knee-jerk reactions and not let emotion drive the decisions. Let’s try to look at it from an analytical point of view.”