Tedford, Willingham Get Their Chances
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 05, 2005

EVERYBODY KNOWS that a coach needs good players to succeed, but there are other factors, too. Some coaching situations, especially in college, are much better than others.

Tyrone Willingham is an excellent example. I thought Willingham was foolish to leave Stanford, where he was very popular, for Notre Dame.

At Stanford, if he won seven games, alumni were happy. If he went to a bowl game, they were delighted. When he got the Cardinal to a Rose Bowl, they would have voted for him to be President.

Notre Dame was a much different story. The school has a great tradition of football success, and alumni expect that kind of success to be continued, without realizing how much the football landscape has changed. Notre Dame has raised its admissions standards, so athletes who once got in are now rejected, but it has maintained a very tough schedule. That combination makes it a much less attractive situation.

Nebraska is much like that. Notre Dame and Nebraska once could get just about any player they wanted, but neither school can recruit as effectively now. Yet, alumni expectations are just as high as ever. Coaches realize the realities. When former Raiders coach Bill Callahan was hired, he was about the ‘Huskers seventh choice. Remarkably, he survived the first Nebraska losing season since around the Ice Age but he’d do well to rent, not buy, this year.

Meanwhile, of course, Willingham got fired after three seasons at Notre Dame. . He was the same coach he’d been at Stanford, but the situation changed.

He’s rebounded nicely, though, by landing at the University of Washington, one of the two best coaching situations in the Pacific-10.

USC is number one, because of a great recruiting advantage, being the most attractive school for preps in the talent-rich Los Angeles basin. Whenever USC has had a good coach, the Trojans have won. Now, with Pete Carroll, they’ve won two straight national championships.

Washington is in nearly as good a recruiting situation because the Huskies can get any star player they want out of the Northwest; Willingham has already grabbed off a couple. The Huskies also have a great alumni support group, and they own Seattle. Walk around that city and all you see are the purple jerseys, not those of the professional teams.

The talent pool at Washington is low right now, so the Huskies probably won’t be a factor this fall, but Willingham will get enough players to bring them back quickly.

And, the other thing he has in his favor: He’s following Keith Gilbertson.

ANOTHER COACH who came into a good situation is Jeff Tedford at Cal.

It certainly didn’t seem that way when he took over. The Bears had been dismal in Tom Holmoe’s five years, but Holmoe and his assistants had done a decent job of recruiting, so there was more talent than you’d have thought from their record.

The problem that Tedford faced was that the players were so beaten down by the losing that it took a major attitude reversal for them to start playing up to their potential. Remarkably, he was able to turn that attitude around by the time the season started.

He also had a coaching challenge in Kyle Boller, who had a variety of bad habits and a lack of confidence after dealing with three different offensive systems. Tedford worked so hard and effectively with Boller that he turned Kyle into a first-round NFL draft pick.

Now, Tedford and his staff are doing a terrific job of recruiting because they’ve ignored the defeatist thinking that pervaded Berkeley for so many years: that Cal couldn’t get enough good players into school to win. In fact, in the infrequent times when Cal has had a good head coach, he’s been able to get the players he needed: Check Mike White and Bruce Snyder before Tedford.

Walt Harris is stepping into a similar situation at Stanford this year. The Cardinal talent level has been much better than the team’s record the past three seasons, but they’ve been coached by Stanford’s version of Holmoe, Buddy Teevens.

Stanford people say the same thing repeatedly to me: Now, we’ve got a football coach. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what they thought of Teevens.

As well as being a head coach, Harris has assigned himself the dual task of quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, and I hear that Trent Edwards is already showing a marked improvement, just as Boller did under Tedford.

How Stanford will do this year is an open question, but I have no doubt that Harris will have at least as much success as Willingham over a period of time – and Stanford won’t have to worry about him leaving. He’ll be 59 in November and he’s from this area. I’m sure he hopes to make this his last coaching job.

OF COURSE, opportunity isn’t everything. When Gilbertson succeeded Snyder at Cal, the Bears had just won a New Year’s Day bowl game and the program seemed to be on the way up, but he had only one winning season in four years. Callahan inherited a very good team from Jon Gruden and the Raiders went to the Super Bowl, but the season that followed was a trainwreck.

The opposite extreme is Tedford, who best illustrates that planning plus opportunity equals success.


NOTE: I’m a panelist on “The Last Honest Sports Show” at 6:30 and 10 p.m. Saturday on Channel 44 and one of those interviewed for the special on Steve Young, at 6 p.m. Sunday on Channel 2.

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