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Willingham no cheerleader, so team will have to win over fans

SUNDAY, SEPT. 4, 2005

SEATTLE – He betrayed no butterflies, denied goosebumps, rejected the notion of any particular emotional investment at all – and that was probably the reasonable, even the justifiable response.

If University of Washington football fans approached Saturday’s season opener against Air Force with nothing more expansive than a shrug – and these would be the few who actually bought tickets to the minuet at Qwest Field – why would Tyrone Willingham get all gaga about it?

Hey, he’s here to bring the pride back.

Apparently, somebody else will have to bring the pulse.

“It’s coaching,” he said. “It’s what you do. I don’t know what special thoughts to attach to it. This was a football game.”

Yes, of course. But it was Willingham’s first game as Washington’s head coach, his first since he was summoned to restore order to Husky football – to puncture the punchlines and put the Dawgs back in the headlines, which is to say headlines that aren’t about egregious rules violations, ignominious defeats, tabloid trials or that damned Dr. Feelgood.

Ty’s first game.

“The ‘Washington debut’ was for everybody else,” Willingham said, shutting that particular window – which seems to be a pet reflex.

It is difficult to completely trust a man who doesn’t allow himself so much as a tingle in that situation, but never mind that for now. There is another problem with this approach. Willingham’s job is to coach football and not the fans, surely, but if his oratory, body language and muffled outward enthusiasm isn’t going to give the congregation much to get excited about, then that leaves generating excitement by winning football games and winning alone.


And on Saturday, the Huskies didn’t.


It was not the same old slapstick that struck down the Huskies, though there was something vaguely familiar about Air Force scoring two unlikely touchdowns in the last 10 minutes to beat UW 20-17. Maybe it was the venue – the teams squaring off at Qwest, home of the Seahawks, who have lately made an art of the come-from-ahead failure in confounding fashion.

Perhaps it was such a sense of dread that kept more than 40,000 seats unsold come kickoff, though any number of other reasons were floated about. This was Air Force’s home game, the Falcons – like a good government entity – letting itself be bought off by a private promoter (Bob Walsh Enterprises) for the rather pointless purpose of playing the game in Seattle.

Normally, this would have been great for the Huskies. Except that interest in Husky football is at such an ebb that a majority of the current 47,000 season-ticket buyers – who are mostly holding their place for a later time when they can do some proper front-running – weren’t of a mind to pony up another $80 a seat if they didn’t have to. That left 26,482 to keep the faith – the smallest Seattle audience for a UW football game since 1959. Prices, last year’s 1-10 record, TV, Walsh’s recent track record of promotional disasters – all were veggies in the alibi stew.

Willingham himself tried to explain the slow sales earlier in the week by suggesting that “Husky fans love Husky football at Husky Stadium.”

Please. What Husky fans love is Husky football, and they would love for the Huskies to play it again.

They might not have to wait all that long, at least for a reasonable facsimile.

In building a 17-6 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Huskies didn’t do anything that suggested a resounding return to the Top 25, but neither did they take target practice on their toes that was such a specialty last year in Keith Gilbertson’s unfortunate head coaching coda. Sophomore Louis Rankin, who has inherited the tailback spot from injured Kenny James, ran ferociously between the tackles and changed directions like a senator. Quarterback Isaiah Stanback, Mr. Meltdown in his few opportunities a year ago, completed 70 percent of his passes for 242 yards. In UW’s final touchdown drive, he mixed it up to five different receivers before finding Cody Ellis with what appeared to be the clincher.

In one of college football’s greatest ironies, the Falcons are more infantry than airborne and require time to get the job done. So when they had just 10:43 remaining and 99 yards of beachhead to conquer just to get within a touchdown of the lead, it looked as if the Willingham era would be ushered in to the sound of champagne corks, even if the head man wasn’t having any.

So how did the Huskies botch it? Same old way.

“There were several opportunities to make some plays,” Willingham said, “and we didn’t make them. And when you don’t, you give the momentum to your opponent.”

Or he takes it – as Falcons receiver Greg Kirkwood of Othello, in a happy return to his home state, did when he got two steps behind the Husky secondary to haul in a long pass from backup quarterback Adam Fitch. But it went for 84 yards and a touchdown because Husky safety Dashon Goldson went for the strip and forgot the tackle.

The Falcons still needed a stop – and got it when Husky receiver Corey Williams dropped a pass on third down. Then it was UW that needed a stop, but by that time the flexbone had found a rhythm and the Dawgs were too tired. There were other plays left unmade – the Falcons converted twice on third down and once on fourth. And freshman Darrion Jones fumbled a pooch kickoff for the second time in the game, costing the Huskies some precious seconds and field position.

“We have to learn how to finish,” said linebacker Evan Benjamin.

But isn’t learning how to start, well, a start?

Apparently not.

“It hurts,” said cornerback Matt Fountaine. “This hurts the guys on the team a lot more than anything that happened last year hurt.”

That’s a telling comment, suggesting the swirl of scandal and general incompetence around Husky football a year ago simply caved in the players’ will. It also suggests that Willingham has made progress already in fortifying it.

“We will tell our team the truth,” Willingham said. “The truth is, we were close but you don’t get anything from being close. We just have to keep coming. I’m told if you keep pumping water from the well, water eventually shows up.”

Water, sure. But will anybody else?


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