Coaches Spotlight: Tyrone Willingham

Aug. 16, 2001

By Coach Illustrated

After just six seasons as a college head coach, Tyrone Willingham has cracked the A-list. When a panel of 20 college football analysts and writers, including Beano Cook and Terry Bowden, conducted a survey amongst themselves to rank who they felt were the best and most respected head coaches, Willingham graded out high - finishing alongside the royal ambassadors of college football - Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier and a select few others.

College football analysts and writers agree that Willingham and his program are among the most respected in the country. It's not hard to see why, when in just his first year, he led a team that was picked to finish last in the conference to a bowl game.

In fact, in response to the question, 'Which Division I program would you choose for your son to play for?' - Stanford and Willingham blew away the field by capturing eight votes. Note: Paterno and Bowden tied for second with only two votes apiece.

It's clear to see why anyone would want their son playing for Willingham when he states his goals for the Cardinal program. 'I want people to talk about the Stanford football program as one that produces winners - winners on the field, in the classroom and in their social and spiritual development. If we can win in those areas, then I believe that will give us our best chance to be successful.'

Willingham took over the Stanford program after Bill Walsh decided to step down following a 3-7-1 season in 1994. He had previously coached at Stanford as running back coach under Dennis Green from 1989-91, before moving with Green to the Minnesota Vikings, where he also coached running backs from 1992-94.

It should be made clear, that while the Stanford head coaching position is undoubtedly one of the better jobs in college football, the school is far from a football factory - perhaps best evidenced by the fact that the Cardinal hadn't been to the Rose Bowl since 1971 when they were known as the Indians, and Jim Plunkett spoiled Woody Hayes' New Year by leading Stanford to a 27-17 upset over unbeaten Ohio State.

In succeeding years, despite having coaches like Walsh and Green steering the ship, and a once-in-a-lifetime talent in quarterback John Elway, the program still could not find its way to Pasadena on New Year's Day. So two questions lingered. When would Stanford return to the Rose Bowl and why a dancing tree as a mascot?

If any coach could get Stanford to overachieve, Willingham was the man - as overachieving apparently was his calling card. After graduating from high school at a mere 5-foot-6, 140-pounds and receiving scant attention from college recruiters, he walked on at Michigan State and earned three varsity letters at quarterback and three more in baseball.

As it turned out, Willingham appeared to have Stanford on the fast track to Pasadena, when in his first year on 'The Farm' in 1995, he guided a team that was picked to finish last in the conference to a bowl game, earning him Pac-10 Coach of the Year honors. Then after getting off to a 1-3 start in the following season, the Cardinal rallied to a third place Pac-10 finish and went on to trounce Willingham's alma mater Michigan State 38-0 in the Sun Bowl. To longtime Stanford fans the progression seemed obvious, and Willingham was the toast of Palo Alto.

Alas, things weren't looking so rosy, so to speak, for Willingham in 1999. Following consecutive bowl appearances in his first two seasons and with expectations escalating, Stanford's record dipped to 5-6 in 1997 and 3-8 in 1998. Then in the 1999 preseason polls, Stanford was picked to finish at or near the bottom of the Pac-10 standings. Those predictions appeared to be ominous after Texas smoked the Cardinal 69-17 in the season opener. Suddenly, Willingham's once bright future on 'The Farm' was in jeopardy.

But just as supporters began jumping off the bandwagon, the character and work ethic Willingham instilled in his staff and his players began to reap remarkable dividends, as the team shrugged off the embarrassing loss and reeled off three straight wins - lighting up the scoreboard to the tune of 54, 50 and 42 points in victories over Washington State, Arizona and UCLA. Almost inexplicably, however, the red-hot Cardinal stumbled, losing to San Jose State 44-39. Once again, Willingham's resilient troops rebounded by winning five of their last six games, including four conference wins - and locked up their first outright Pac-10 title and Rose Bowl bid in 28 years.

'If you had told me after Texas and San Jose State that we'd finish this way,' Willingham said, 'I honestly can say I wouldn't have believed you.'

When a reporter noted that Willingham would be the first black head coach of a Rose Bowl team, he responded, 'It's a great feeling and a great sense of accomplishment. I'll carry the torch for all of us.'

'I think it does carry some significance,' he said. 'I don't know whether it is as important to me as it might be to some others. I don't think my team cares what color I am as long as I can go out and provide them the leadership and the direction they need. My question is, 'Why not sooner?'

Following the banner season, any doubts about Willingham's future at Stanford were extinguished, as the school was quick to respond with a raise and contract extension.

While Willingham is clearly what people would refer to as a 'coach's' coach for his straightforward style that doesn't cut corners, his players would be quick to counter that he is perhaps even more so a 'player's' coach - not demanding, but rather earning respect with the example he provides with his work ethic and discipline.

Former player Leroy Pruitt said, 'You come to a workout at seven in the morning and meet him just coming back from a workout.'

'You can't short-cut football and be successful,' Willingham said. 'Football is the greatest team sport, but the physical and mental demands are tremendous.'

Getting the most out of his players as athletes, however, accounts for only part of his job as far as Willingham is concerned. He senses that he is also responsible for molding well-rounded individuals who will contribute to society. The father of three even goes so far as to drawing the parallel, that one of his duties in his players' lives while they are under his leadership and direction as they mature from teenagers into young adults, is similar to that of being a parent to them.

'I have children that are growing and changing, and I am very much a parent for 90-some young men,' he said.

Of course, his players don't have to look far for an example of the very type of person he hopes they will aspire to. For his commitment to community service and in recognition of his career achievements and his outstanding service as a role model - Willingham was honored with the 2000 Eddie Robinson Coach of Distinction Award.

Willingham himself, however, wants his players to aim higher and swath their own path in life. 'I hope that no kid looks at me and says he wants to be like Coach Willingham,' he said. 'I hope a kid looks at me and says, I want to be better than Coach Willingham.' That means something to me. Being the same is not what it's all about.'

'I hope my son wants to be even better than his dad because that's the way my dad taught me,' he added. 'I have been fortunate. I had great teachers.'

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