DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Washington coach Tyrone Willingham will coach the West squad in tomorrow's Hula Bowl at Aloha Stadium.
West’s Willingham wants win
Washington struggled in his first season, but there are high hopes for the Huskies’ future
Tomorrow's 60th edition of the Hula Bowl will primarily be a showcase for some of college football's best players, but don't tell Tyrone Willingham getting the win isn't important.
"Oh yes it is, yes indeed," the West coach said after yesterday's practice. "There are bragging rights about this thing. I've got to go back and face my son and he ain't really excited about (me) coming back and not winning. He wants to be a winner."
Fresh off his first season as head coach at Washington, Willingham will look to lead the West squad to victory as it faces off against the East, coached by Auburn's Tommy Tuberville, at 2 p.m. at Aloha Stadium.
It has been a roller-coaster 14 months for Willingham, who was fired in 2004 after three seasons at Notre Dame despite compiling a 21-15 record with two bowl appearances.
It was just six weeks after that when he took over as coach at Washington. The Huskies had just finished their first losing season in 28 years with a 1-10 record and were still reeling from the sudden termination of former coach Rick Neuheisel two years earlier after Neuheisel was found betting money in an NCAA basketball pool. The school was looking to resurrect its image, and Willingham's sudden availability made him the logical choice.
"What stood out to me was all the positives," Willingham said of his arrival in Seattle. "There is great leadership in place, a tremendous passion for football in that community, and such a strong sense of tradition."
Willingham struggled to carry those positives onto the field this season. Washington finished with a disappointing 2-9 record, but linebacker Evan Benjamin, one of three Huskies in Hawaii for the game, is excited at the progress Willingham has made despite the poor win-loss record.
"He has a goal that he has and knows how to get there and will do anything to get there," Benjamin said. "He has brought a whole different attitude and that's what we needed at U-Dub. He's going to be there for a long time."
But for now, the challenge Willingham faces is getting the West squad on the same page and ready for tomorrow's game. He's had less than a week to bring more than 50 players from more than 25 different colleges together, a task he says sounds more daunting than it really is.
"It's difficult, but it's not as tough as you can imagine because these guys are great guys," Willingham said. "It ain't just the sunshine they came for. They're excited about another opportunity to play football and that's what's so gratifying."
But don't let the calm, distinguished demeanor of a coach who has been very physically active in this week's practices fool you. Willingham knows the importance of tomorrow's game for the players.
"This is a great opportunity for these guys to prepare themselves for the next level," Willingham said. "You want to do everything possible to make sure that they're getting that type of experience, yet at the same time, be relaxed and have fun. It falls on us as coaches to make sure the organization and everything is set for them to have fun."