Huskies' Turnaround Try Takes Huge Test
Oct. 5, 2006
SEATTLE (AP) - Tyrone Willingham has two secrets to coachingagainst Southern California inside the Los Angeles MemorialColiseum: hammers and walls.
Willingham, now at Washington, has coached against USC six timesthere. He is the last coach to beat the mighty Trojans in L.A., andhe and Kansas State's now-retired Bill Snyder are only coaches tobeat USC coach Pete Carroll in the Coliseum.
On Sept. 29, 2001 -- in Willingham's final season at Stanfordbefore Notre Dame wooed him away -- his Cardinal won 21-16 there.The Trojans have won a Pac-10 record 28 consecutive home gamessince.
So what's the key to countering USC's talent and the Trojans'awesome, intimidating tradition? Blitzing? Running the ball?
Nope. Remodeling the Coliseum to your liking.
'The first thing is, you got to get used to the locker room.It's different,' Willingham said this week, before resurgentWashington (4-1) visits No. 3 USC (4-0) on Saturday.
He said the Coliseum's visiting quarters are maddeninglycompartmentalized.
'They say it was designed ... for you not to be able tocommunicate,' he said. 'So you have to take your team and get itcomfortable with that.'
How? With hammers?
'Yeah, you take them in on Friday, see if you can knock down afew walls,' Willingham said, almost smiling.
But there is some serious knocking down of walls going on atWashington this season -- enough that the laughs are with theformerly awful Huskies, not at them. One month into Willingham'ssecond season in Seattle, Washington has exceeded its win totalfrom the previous two seasons combined.
And the nation is starting to notice. The Huskies have been justoutside The Associated Press Top 25 in each of the last two weeks.They haven't cracked the list in more than three years.
'It's extremely important, because national recognition ...probably says that you are being successful,' said Willingham, whofell off the nation's radar after Notre Dame fired him followingthe 2004 season.
And success will help the Huskies recruit the best players -- notonly from the Northwest, but the U.S.
But Willingham said that despite Washington being 2-0 in thePac-10 for the first time since 1999, such opportunities haven'tarrived. Yet.
'We're kind of like the new kid on the block. We are 4-1, andpeople might not have expected you to be in this position,' hesaid. 'So you are getting some attention, just because of that.But we haven't done enough yet.'
For example, Washington's pass defense remains last in thePac-10. On Saturday, it meets recently outstanding USC quarterbackJohn David Booty.
'We've really got to go to work now,' Willingham said. 'We'veset ourselves up to do something.'
That's mostly because of the dangerous running, improved passingand better understanding of the offense from UW quarterback IsaiahStanback. Now comes this monumental, measuring-stick test againstUSC.
Willingham knows why the Trojans are 20.5-point favorites, eventhough he doesn't care about odds.
'Compared to them, I don't know if we have a strength,' hesaid of the Trojans, who needed a last-play interception to escapeWashington State with a 28-22 win last weekend.
'They're not playing perfect football,' Willingham said. 'Thekey will be capitalizing on their mistakes when they make them.
'This absolutely has to be our best ball game.'
Carroll said Washington's improvement is dramatic.
'Everything's better,' he said. 'Everything's more precise.And they're playing with great enthusiasm. They are doing all thethings good football teams do.'
Bowl teams, even. Before spring practice began, Willinghampronounced Washington's first bowl game in four years as the 2006goal -- despite the Huskies' going 3-19 in the previous two seasons.Much of Seattle, the only place that was listening, laughed.
But Willingham had already converted his players' attitudes fromexpecting to lose to striving beyond incremental progress.
'Coach Willingham, he's like myself. He expects to win now,'said Stanback, a graduate senior who has been at the UW throughthree head coaches. 'He doesn't believe in timelines.'
Now Washington is just two wins away from qualifying for itsfirst bowl game since the 2002 Sun Bowl. That was Rick Neuheisel'sfinale as Huskies coach.
Then came two wretched years under Keith Gilbertson, now anoffensive consultant with the Seattle Seahawks. Gilbertson wasfired after a 1-10 season in 2004.
Willingham arrived and spent '05 changing attitudes as much asplaybooks. It took Washington the entire 2-9 season to digest allthe changes.
Now, Willingham not only has his players thinking like him. Theyare talking like him.
'Like coach says, excellence is not necessarily a destination,it's a way of life,' cornerback Dashon Goldson said. 'We'reprogressing very smoothly. And very fast.'
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