Tyrone Willingham, Plaxico Burress,Proposition 8
by Glenn Dickey
Dec 03, 2008

WHAT IF Tyrone Willingham had stayed at Stanford?

Willingham had a nice run at Stanford, going 44-36 in seven seasons. He won the Big Game all seven years, although that should come with an asterisk because Tom Holmoe was the Cal head coach for five of those games and the defensive coordinator for one.

Willingham’s teams also went to four bowl games, though they won only one, and got to the Rose Bowl in his sixth season., losing to Wisconsin.

He had some advantages that his three successors have lacked. Holmoe is gone at Cal, replaced by Jeff Tedford, the Bears’ best coach since Pappy Waldorf in his prime. Pete Carroll came in just at the end of Willingham’s run, and Carroll has built the Trojans into a perennial powerhouse.

Still, had he stayed, Willingham would have had a cushion because of his earlier success, and the expectations are not remotely as high at Stanford as they are at the two schools he went to after Stanford.

At the first school, Notre Dame, he was the first black coach in the school’s history, which was important to him, though I suspect the personal prestige of coaching at a school with such a rich football history was the more important factor.

Willingham’s first team won its first eight games, but after that, his record defined mediocrity, 13-16 for the next two-plus seasons. Notre Dame supporters do not tolerate mediocrity, and Willingham, who seems totally void of social skills, did nothing to win them over. He was fired after his third season.

Again, he went to a school with a rich football history, Washington. But the Huskies had fallen on bad times. Rick Neuheisel had been fired because of his heavy involvement in a betting pool. His replacement, Keith Gilbertson, was a bad choice, as Cal supporters could have predicted; he went 1-10 in his one season.

Willingham was only marginally superior in his first three seasons, going 2-9, 5-7 and 4-9. Ironically, the Bears probably saved his job, playing absolutely the worst game in Tedford’s Cal career last season, giving up 360 rushing yards in a 37-23 loss to the Huskies.

So, Willingham has lasted another year, and it has been one of unrelieved misery, full of negative firsts: A 55-14 loss to Oklahoma was the biggest margin for a home field loss since 1929; Arizona’s 48-14 win was the most lopsided for the Wildcats over the Huskies; both Oregon and Oregon State won their fifth straight against the Huskies for the first time ever.

Earlier in the season, many observers thought Washington State was the worst team in Pac-10 history – but the Cougars beat Washington in the Apple Cup.

Usually, coaches taking over a bad team are able to resurrect it by the fourth season, when the team consists primarily of players the coach has recruited. But Willingham hasn’t recruited well, so he’s having his worst season.

Now, the Huskies limp into Memorial Stadium on Saturday at 0-11 for the season. I would fear overconfidence on the Cal side but the painful memory of last season should keep the Bears focused. Willingham will likely end his head coaching career – in the Bowl Subdivision, at least - . with an 0-12 season and a four-year record at Washington of 11-37.

Frankly, I thought Willingham was overrated when he was at Stanford. I wrote that he would fail at Notre Dame and, in a subsequent interview on ESPN, the interviewer told me I was the only one she’d heard that from. I got assailed by e-mail after his first eight games at Notre Dame, but I haven’t heard from those readers since.

Willingham is totally inflexible. Sometimes that worked: In 1996, the Cardinal started 2-5 but Willingham didn’t change a thing, and his team won its last five games and then thrashed Michigan State, 38-0, in the Sun Bowl. Sometimes, though, it didn’t work. Two years later, Stanford started out poorly but Willingham didn’t change a thing – and the Cardinal finished 3-8.

His media critics in Washington have noted the same trait. Even as everything crumbled around him, Willingham didn’t ever try to change his approach. That’s not steadiness, it’s madness.

Nor did he ever acknowledge the need to cooperate with the media. In fact, that was one of the reasons I thought he’d fail at Notre Dame. At Stanford, he didn’t have much worry about with the media – except for me, of course. Stanford football is well down the priority list for Bay Area media, so the beat writers who are assigned to the team are not top-drawer. At Willingham’s weekly meetings with the media, he’d take 4-5 softball questions and then just leave the room.

He couldn’t get away with that at Notre Dame, the most heavily covered college team in the country, or at Washington, where the Huskies have a formidable fan base, despite their failures in recent seasons. But, he tried. Of course, all he accomplished was to alienate the media in both of those jobs.

He won’t have to worry about that in his next job, as an assistant coach or head coach at a low level of college ball. The media won’t pester him there.

He should have stayed at Stanford.

NO TIME TO REST: One reason coaches like to get to bowl games is that it usually gives them an extra week of practice, almost like having a second spring practice. But that won’t be true for Cal this year because their regular schedule has stretched to Dec. 6. The Bears will play either in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 20 or the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 27.

“If we play in the Las Vegas Bowl, it will really be like still playing in the regular season with a bye,” noted Tedford in yesterday’s press luncheon. “The Emerald Bowl would give us a little more time but it’s not like we’ll have time to practice a lot of different things.”

So, why are they playing the Washington game so late? Because of the way the schedule broke. Originally, the game was scheduled for Oct. 11, but if it had been played that day, the Bears would have had to play their final nine games without a break. “I think it worked out the same way for Washington,” Tedford said. “Neither of us wanted to play nine straight games.

INFLATED EGOS: The danger of paying athletes so much money and treating them as something extra special is that they start to believe the ordinary rules and laws don’t apply to them. Just ask Plaxico Burress.

Burress was in a New York City night club when the gun he had tucked into the waist band of his trousers slipped and went off, shooting himself in the thigh. That’s the good news because it would have been much more serious if a bullet from the gun had hit a bystander.

New York City has very strict gun standards, and good for them. Burress reportedly told a friend that he wouldn’t be arrested because he was too important. Guess again.

The Giants quickly fined him and suspended him, and they also put him on the non-football injury reserve, so he can’t be active for the playoffs, either. But that could be a figurative slap on the wrist compared to what the New York legal system could do, because his violation of the gun laws carries a possible jail sentence of 3 ½ to 15 years.

It would be nice to be able to report that Burress’s actions are an aberration but of course, they’re not. You can hardly pick up the paper these days without reading about another athlete in trouble. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has made a valiant effort to clamp down on troublesome athletes, but the message doesn’t seem to be getting through.

PROPOSITION 8: My comment about the Catholic Church’s involvement in the Proposition 8 campaign brought both pro and con comments, so I thought I’d explain why I feel strongly that this proposition is a very bad idea.

I’m a believe in “traditional marriage.” My parents were married for 65 years, until my mother’s death in 2000. Nancy and I will have been married 42 years in February, if I don’t do something to screw it up in the interim. Our son, Scott, and his wife, Sarah, have been married since April, 2004, and live less than a quarter-mile from us in Oakland. We get together frequently and spent most of three days together last week, Thursday through Saturday, as Scott cooked a marvelous beef en croute which lasted for two dinners and I supplied the wine from my cellar, bottles of 2001 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that were absolutely delicious.

None of us feel that gay marriage is a threat to us, and nobody else should, either. The threat to heterosexual marriage is divorce. We should be working harder to keep heterosexual marriages together, not trying to keep gay couples apart.

I was raised in a very religious family. Every Sunday, we went to church or Sunday School, or both. We didn’t go to movies or even ball games on Sunday, because that was our day of worship. My Dad eventually become northern California lay leader for the Methodist Church. The churches we went to taught love for others, even those who had different beliefs. Sadly, that is not exactly the universal message in churches now.

In 1963, when I came to The Chronicle, I started attending Glide Memorial Church and came to know several gays in a church youth group. When I got to know them beyond the introductory stage, I found that they had many of the same concerns I had, because we were all trying to find our place in life. Now, Nancy and I live next to two gay men who are the best neighbors we’ve ever had. We’ve been to their house for parties. We are not as social as Mike and Jim so we don’t have parties, but we have had them over for drinks. As a real estate agent, Nancy has had several lesbian clients, one of whom gave us a gift for our house when we moved back in 1993 after rebuilding the house which burned in the big 1991 fire.

In the ‘60s, I marched for the blacks civil rights movement, in San Francisco, not the south; I did not have a death wish. I regard this as a civil rights issue, too. Supporters of Proposition 8 talk about the “people’s will”, but in 1835, in “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Toqueville warned of the danger of the “tyranny of the majority,” in suppressing the rights of minorities. That is why we have an independent judiciary. Sixty years ago, there were laws against inter-racial marriage, which were certainly the “will of the people.” The courts ruled against those laws, and our society is the richer for it.

I hope that the California Supreme Court will rule that this is another example of the tyranny of the majority and that Proposition 8 violates the equal protection clause of the state Constitution. And I also hope that we will never again see the Archbishop of San Francisco joining with his counterpart in the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City for a campaign which preaches intolerance.

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