Last we saw of Tyrone Willingham, he was wearing the well-practiced frown of a college football coach who couldn’t wait to become an ex-college football coach.
A season-ending defeat at California had saddled Willingham’s 2008 Washington Huskies with some dubious distinctions: America’s only 0-12 team also owned the worst record in school history and, at 14 games dating to 2007, its longest losing streak.
Willingham’s ouster had been arranged midway through the schedule, an unusual agreement that gave athletic director Scott Woodward time to identify the head coach’s successor.
“We hope he’s the greatest coach in America and he comes in and has a whole lot of success,” Willingham said of USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
Somewhat more sincerely, Willingham added: “I become a normal citizen today.”
Willingham’s version of “normal” was returning home to the San Francisco Bay Area and enjoy the stress-free existence of a virtual hermit. For the past five years, he’s spent several days a week honing the golf game that long ago supplanted football as the light of his sports life.
Golf always seemed more agreeable to Willingham than football. When the going gets
tough in golf, everything turns quiet. Willingham, seemingly born with a “Do Not Disturb” placard hanging around his neck, achieved a sort of solace on the fairway no football stadium, or practice field, could ever give him.
So it came as a surprise — a shock, actually — to learn of Willingham’s recent appointment to the 13-member committee that will select four teams for the NCAA football playoffs beginning in the 2014 season. Willingham is wary of the spotlight. He avoids confrontation. Heaven help the team whose credentials he’s championing by himself.
Perhaps I’m mistaken. Aside from a few hours we once spent together at a golf tournament — I was assigned to his four-man group — my only insight into his personality is the one he didn’t show in public. Behind closed doors, removed from the cameras he dreads, maybe Tyrone Willingham is as persuasive as Henry Fonda was in “12 Angry Men.”
Willingham is among three former coaches on the committee. The others are Tom Osborne, who won 255 games and three national championships at Nebraska, and Barry Alvarez, who resurrected a moribund Wisconsin program and led the Badgers to three Big Ten titles and eight bowl-game victories.
Willingham? After he took Stanford to the 2000 Rose Bowl, he got the head-coaching job at Notre Dame, where he was fired, and then at Washington, where he was fired. His career record is 76-88-1.
Tom Osborne … Barry Alvarez … Ty Willingham: Which one of these three doesn’t belong with the other two? Hmmn.
As for the rest of the committee, it’s big on former big-time quarterbacks. Two have prominent sons (Archie Manning, Oliver Luck), and another has other eggs to fry (USC athletic director Pat Haden). The committee includes administrators whose names you won’t recognize, as well as a longtime USA Today sportswriter-turned high-school English teacher whose name I instantly recognize (Steve Wieberg, a college classmate).
The chairman is Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, whose career brings to mind that Johnny Cash song of having been everywhere. An Ohio Wesleyan grad, Long worked at Miami University (the one in Ohio, famous as the “Cradle of Coaches”), Rice, Duke, North Carolina State and Pittsburgh before he replaced Frank Broyles as the Razorbacks’ A.D.
Despite Long’s association with the Bobby Petrino fiasco — he hired Petrino, and after the coach acknowledged an “inappropriate relationship” with a female employee, he fired him — Long was not the most controversial committee selection.
The label of “Most Controversial” selection belongs to Condoleezza Rice, whose previous stints as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State suggest she might be capable of offering input toward solving a different crisis than the determination of a potential national champion.
Pat Dye, the Auburn coaching legend who recruited Bo Jackson and oversaw the Tigers’ Iron Bowl defeat of Alabama in 1982 — Bear Bryant’s final regular-season game — got on the radio last week and blasted the idea of Rice having a voice in such an urgent discussion.
“All she knows about football is what somebody told her, or what she read in a book, or what she saw on TV,” Dye said. “To understand football, you’ve got to play with your hands in the dirt.”
Dye was on a roll.
“I love Condi Rice and she’s probably a good statesman and all of that,” he continued, “but how in hell does she know what it’s like out there when you can’t get your breath and it’s 110 degrees and the coach asks you to go some more?”
Rice, the professional diplomat, acknowledged she isn’t among the two or three people still living with memories of a coach who asked breathless players to give some more during a 110-degree afternoon.
“I consider myself a student of college football,” Rice told ESPN’s Colin Cowherd. “I am, after all, a student of Russia, but I’ve never been Russian, either. You can know something from studying and following it.”
I’m not sure how, or even if, this newfangled playoff system will work. But when the announcement of the selection committee turns into a verbal food fight, replete with memories of 110- degree afternoons and references to Russian history, I figure we’re in for a wild ride.
Meanwhile, I’m intrigued less by Condi Rice’s voice on the committee than that of her friend and former Stanford colleague, Ty Willingham.
The day we played golf, every other foursome agreed to a casual, best-ball format. Willingham didn’t do casual. We were to keep score, stroke by tedious stroke, and I ended up with about 175 of them.
At one point, when I wanted to bury my head in the sand instead of retrieving another ball from it, Willingham offered encouragement from his golf-cart seat.
“Nice swing,” he said.
A man who saw the nice in my golf swing is a man capable of seeing the nice in any football team, which must be a scary thought for Pat Dye.