Author's note: This is an excerpt from the book Bow Down to Willingham, and features the chapter "Apocalypse", which details UW's tortured 2008 season and which was also the senior year for the late Johnie Kirton. For a variety of reasons I've been thinking of Kirton lately and of his tragic death in May 2012. I was looking back over my notes from my interview with him for the book, and decided to post this excerpt here on the Hardcore Husky site -- for those who haven't read it already. In terms of editing, it is the "author's cut", and is 99% similar to the published version.
In what proved to be his last words to me, Johnie said, "It's great that the story's going to get out there. This is going to be fun."
To donate to the college fund for Johnie's daughter Jayde, please click this link and go to the bottom of the page.
“It just seems to me to be time to quit the whining and accept it. Willingham's got at least another year. Deal with it. The program is in better shape than it was when he started here. Deal with that, too.” -- John Sleeper, Everett Herald, December 2007
December 5th was a day Johnie Kirton will never forget. The 6’3” 280 pound senior-to-be was hanging out with teammates watching TV, when breaking news came across the bottom of the screen. WILLINGHAM TO RETURN TO UW FOR 2008 SEASON. Everyone’s jaw dropped and the room went silent in horror. Then the guys started yelling and cursing as cell phones rang like crazy. Recalled Kirton: “We were all sitting there going, `ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? WE HAVE TO PUT UP WITH THIS GUY FOR ANOTHER YEAR? Guys immediately started wondering if they should transfer or quit football. Guys did not want Willingham around. But guys like me and Juan Garcia and Walt Winter had decided that we were going to stick it out no matter who the coach was.
“Every day for the next several weeks we would see each other and we always repeated the same thing day after day. CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING? HOW COULD EMMERT AND TURNER BRING HIM BACK? The younger guys didn’t know what to expect, because they hadn’t endured what we had endured for the past three years. We knew what to expect.
“A few of us caught wind that at some point he played the race card, that he brought up the NAACP as leverage,” Kirton said. “I don’t think it was too far from something that Willingham would do, to try to hold onto the last string to stay as coach at Washington. All of us were always asking: Why is he trying to hold on? He seemed like he was going to accept fate, but then changed his mind and refused to back down from anything. Which is a good trait, but why would he come back to a place where he was not wanted? To come back for that last year, he caused a lot of pain.”
As December turned to January, the media’s collective stance was a positive one. As off-season conditioning drills got underway, Dawgman.com columnist Dick Baird painted an optimistic portrait. “Coach Willingham is one of the most respected men in the profession of coaching,” wrote Baird. “If it works out like I want it to, then he will be the Husky football coach for 15 more years and retire as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the school and the conference. Remember everyone was after Don (James)’s job during the first three years at Washington. The guy is a good person and is well respected by the kids on the team and as far as I'm concerned they have the first vote.”
Ironically, players were voting that January, but the proceedings were informal and shrouded in fear and secrecy. Between 30-35 players were having clandestine meetings in the locker room, outside the locker room and in players’ apartments. They organized a petition to take to President Emmert which carried the threat of a boycott unless Willingham was fired immediately. However, what terrified the players was the possibility that Emmert would decline, and then Willingham would know who planned the coup. The consensus formed that the movement needed Jake Locker’s involvement. With the golden boy leading the way, the players felt Emmert couldn’t possibly say no to their requests. But again, Locker wanted no part of this insurrection. Everyone was too afraid to be the leader and speak out.
At the end of that month, The Seattle Times made national news with a series articles called Victory and Ruins. The authors were Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry. They wrote a scathing depiction of lawlessness by Washington’s 2000 Rose Bowl season under former coach Rick Neuheisel. Its primary focus was on four members of that team. The criminal exploits of Jerramy Stevens, Jeremiah Pharms and the late Curtis Williams were delved into with great detail. The final feature was on linebacker Anthony Kelley, who had emerged from the ghetto and was now pursuing his Masters Degree from UW. “I was the token black guy,” Kelley recalled. “That was good PR for the Seattle Times. When I realized how big this story was in the beginning, with Neuheisel and Barbara Hedges, I was the token black guy at the university. We’ve got all these bad stories going on, but HEY! WE’VE GOT A BLACK FOOTBALL PLAYER DOING WELL. THIS IS SOME BIG SHIT HERE! This isn’t it a white tennis player. He’s a black football player with a poor academic history coming from a broken home and issues including ADD. I was the poster child for all minorities in the standard. I was held as the exception to the rule.”
Part of the Times’ feature on Kelley described the educational trips he had led to South Africa. Kelley’s own trip there in 2002 had changed his life. Now he was organizing and leading other UW athletes on the same journey. The article seethed at how Neuheisel and his coaching staff had tried to dissuade Kelley from going on that trip, but implied now that Willingham was at UW and cleaning up the program, the focus on academic development was back where it needed to be.
Around the same time that that article came out, Johnie Kirton sat in Willingham’s office having a meeting with his coach.
“I had been approached Anthony Kelley about studying abroad,” Kirton said. “I wanted to follow him there because he became a mentor to me. But when Willingham heard that me and Luke Kravitz were planning on going to South Africa, he threatened to take away our scholarships. 2008 was our senior year, and I promised Willingham to come back in even better shape. Anthony put his neck on the line for us. It came down to him talking to every president of the school board at the university. He went to bat for us, talked to Emmert. I don’t want to blame Willingham, but he sold us a false dream. In that meeting he told me that he needed defensive linemen. He knew I had been a running back and tight end. Not to toot my own horn, but I was always a team guy. He said take your time to make a decision. I prayed on it and talked to my family about it and then told Willingham I was willing to make the switch.”
Kirton and Kravitz spent the time studying in South Africa. For Kirton, the experience was everything he hoped it would be and more. He fulfilled his promise and worked out hard that summer and arrived at 2008 fall camp in good shape. He noticed a profound change in Willingham’s demeanor. “He was a completely different person,” said Kirton. “He was no longer the Willingham third person prick. He had this vibe about him that was really bad. His words were empty, but there was this bitterness. I found out that Willingham had promised those incoming true freshmen that they would be starting on the line if they signed with him. So now on top of everything, he had taken away my NFL dream. That was the biggest blow to me, not only had I never lost so many games in my life, but I made a huge goal of going overseas and fulfilled it, but now I was punished for making the life-changing decision. Willingham had always said to build yourself up and become a great man, and I had bought into it, and then was scolded and punished for developing myself. That fall camp was just a feeling of loathing. Of being punished. Seeing true freshmen who had never taken a class being made starters in front of me. Luke lost his desire to play football at all. To see a guy like Luke put so much time and effort into a program, and then see it all stepped on, was sad to see.”
Kirton wasn’t the only one noticing Willingham’s bitter vibe. The coach’s relationship with the press, always detached and cryptic, had mutated into hostility. Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times caught the full brunt. One day during fall camp, an athletic department official came to him saying Willingham wanted to speak with him in private. When Condotta encountered him, the coach held a clipboard containing that day's article. Certain sections were highlighted. Without giving eye contact, Willingham read the offensive sections. Said he didn’t like his use of sources. When finished, he informed Condotta that he would no longer talk to him – ever again.
For the next ten days or so, the scene repeated itself at each daily briefing. Condotta would ask a question, and Willingham either stared at him in silence or else looked away and said, “next question.” Condotta’s boss at the newspaper told him to keep pressing the issue. But after about ten days Condotta stopped beating his head against this brick wall. Molly Yannity of the Seattle P-I, Don Ruiz of the Tacoma News Tribune and Chris Fetters from Dawgman.com all asked Condotta what was going on.
Fetters would soon have his own run-in with Willingham. For several weeks, a shroud of mystery surrounded linebacker E.J. Savannah. Willingham had inexplicably told reporters that Savannah was academically ineligible. This wasn’t true; Savannah was eligible. The linebacker also suffered an off-season injury and reporters were trying to uncover whether he was going to play. No one had seen him at camp.
During a briefing, Fetters asked for an update on Savannah. At first, Willingham mysteriously acted like he had no idea who Savannah was. As Fetters pressed, Willingham became openly perturbed and refused to answer the question. “Do you see him here?” the coach asked. “Then your eyes are as good as mine.” The gaffe made by Willingham was that a UW camera was on him and broadcast that exchange onto the internet. Within a day, the video had been seen by several hundred people. For some, it was the first time they had glimpsed the dark side to Willingham’s personality.
But the Husky players saw it too. They gathered around computers watching with glee and forwarding the link around. “We all saw the Fetters YouTube video,” said a player. “Willingham never should have kicked E.J. off the team to begin with. Willingham had him undergo a series of drug tests and he passed all of them. That was the condition to coming back. He did everything Tyrone told him to do and he still wouldn’t let him get back on the team.”
For Willingham’s part, he refused to give any reasoning to anyone including Savannah himself, who saw his junior season slip away to Willingham’s whim. "The parties involved know what they are," said Willingham. "Sometimes those things can change overnight. Sometimes they may be forever."
It seemed no one within close range could escape the coach’s wrath that fall camp—even fans. 31-year old James Cornell, a rabid Husky fan and the nephew of former UW fullback Bo Cornell, found himself banned from practice. Being a Tyee member and huge Willingham fan, Cornell had jumped through the necessary hoops with the athletic department to be able to attend practice with his father. After doing so, he went and wrote an innocuous post on the premium message board of Dawgman.com. He jokingly sneered at the posters who wanted Willingham fired, saying that the team was working hard and looking great.
Willingham, who frequently read newspapers, websites and message boards where discussions on Husky football prevailed, was livid. A call came from the athletic department that Cornell and his dad were banned from all practices. Cornell was still in a state of shock when he fielded another call.
“Jennifer Cohen, a really nice lady from the athletic department, called me,” recalled Cornell. “She apologized for Willingham’s behavior and said things had been tense around there. She offered to take me out to lunch to smooth things over and that she appreciated our support of the program. But she said that at this time it’s up to Willingham to let you back into practice. I don’t think I did anything wrong. I defended the guy and said the players were giving great effort. I thought Willingham’s reaction was ridiculous. Maybe it was blind faith just wanting to see him be successful. I had subscribed to the fact they were young and that Neuheisel had destroyed the program. I think I was in denial. I didn’t want to believe that we were going to have to go through all this again. I would listen to Softy Mahler and Dick Baird on the Husky Honks on KJR and they would talk about needing 3-4 years to turn a program around. So I would think okay, Willingham needs one more year. Let’s give him one more year.”
Despite the inner turmoil, Husky fans generally had little idea of its existence. Anticipation for the season opener was building to a fever pitch. Washington was traveling to Eugene to go against 20th ranked Oregon. The game had the entire Northwest abuzz. Jake Locker, now a sophomore, assuredly gave the Huskies some hope. The Ducks, led by quarterback Dennis Dixon, held lofty aspirations for a monster season.
A record crowd jammed into Autzen Stadium for the August 30th matchup. Both teams ran onto the field under the bright lights and electrified atmosphere. As Washington’s offense went out for its first series, the visual discrepancy between the two teams startled anyone there to witness. Washington guard Casey Bulyca, when lining up against the Ducks, felt a surge of anger toward Willingham and trainer Trent Greener. Here were the Huskies linemen, with pipe cleaner arms and beer guts, going against the Oregon players, who were ripped and defined.
Early on, by some sort of miracle, the Huskies weren’t getting blown out. When UW fullback Paul Homer got stuffed at the goal line, it set up a fourth and goal situation. Washington called time out and Locker jogged over and pleaded with offensive coordinator Tim Lappano to go with Homer again. Lappano relented, and on the following play, Homer took the ball off tackle and into the end zone. As a Duck defender grabbed Homer by the legs and tried to pull him backwards. But Locker intervened, pushing the opposing player away and shouting “He’s in, bitch!” This cut Oregon’s lead to 14-10.
But the second half was when the dam burst, as was so typical in the Willingham era. The Ducks outscored the Huskies 30-0 in the third and fourth quarters, to win the game 44-10. The derisive laughter and mocking coming from the Oregon fans was surreal, but the Huskies had to stand there and take it. Up in the visitor’s suite, newly-appointed athletic director Scott Woodward was in meltdown mode, referring to Willingham as a “fucking idiot.”
Johnie Kirton, now embarking on his senior season, mostly watched that Oregon game from the sideline. As requested, he had made the switch to the defensive line, but it was all for naught. Pure freshmen were starting on the line, just as Willingham had promised them. “It was my senior year. I had made a huge position change. It was a bad feeling, unfortunately. Now, I was turning over the old coals… should I have transferred back in 2005? Should I have never signed with Washington?
“Coming out of high school, I made a signing day decision to not sign with Oregon and go with Washington,” Kirton recalled. “I was so passionate about beating Oregon, because I felt like I should have been there. Just to show Coach Campbell and Coach Bellotti that I didn’t make a mistake. The last two times I played them, I cried. I was more mad at myself than anything. It was those reoccurring thoughts.
“I was a senior who had put in my blood, sweat and tears, and then for the lineup against Oregon we’ve got freshmen in there starting and they were shaking in their boots to be going against one of the best teams in the Pac-10.”
Following a 28-27 home loss to BYU, the third-ranked powerhouse Oklahoma Sooners came to Seattle with Heisman Trophy Candidate Sam Branford at quarterback. In years past, a screaming sellout crowd would have been a given. But several thousand tickets remained for this one.
During pre-game warm-ups, a group of Husky players were walking down the tunnel on their way to the field, when up ahead they saw a group of Sooner players blocking the way. The Oklahoma contingent boxed the Huskies in, taunting them with threats of physical abuse, and herded the Huskies back up the tunnel. The Washington players knew that fighting back could mean a permanent trip to the Willingham doghouse, so they dared do nothing. A few minutes later, while the entire Husky squad was in the team room, the door flung open and a handful of Sooner players entered and strutted to the front of the room. Again, they openly taunted the Washington players. When they left, a couple Huskies shouted they were going to pay Oklahoma back for that insult. Willingham ordered them the team to refrain from any retaliation. “Gentlemen,” he said, “we will let our play do our talking for us on the field.’
“You know,” added Kirton. “At alumni BBQs, the players from the Don James years would tell us stories how they would cut the lights in the tunnel and fight with the other team to intimidate them. But now we had a Big 12 team trying to intimidate us. It was kind of sad. Some of our guys were fired up after that, but coach Willingham said there will be none of that coming from us. It had a crushing effect to our spirit. Nobody before ever came into the Dawghouse and bullied us. When Willingham first came to Washington he said that a Dawg was a vicious animal. But that Oklahoma thing, that sucked the life out of us. Even the fresh meat guys who were out there playing saw that happen, and it crushed their sense that we could be a top 10 team.”
Once the game started, Washington never stood a chance. With seconds left in the first half, Oklahoma led 34-0. The Huskies had the ball inside the Sooner 2 yard line, and Willingham inexplicably sent out the field goal unit. Of course, the kick was botched. Fans were booing and the whole scene at Husky Stadium was a disaster. By game’s end, Bradford had completed 18 of 21 passes for 304 yards and 5 touchdowns, as Oklahoma cruised 55-14.
The next week was another home loss, this time to Stanford. Then the Huskies traveled to Tucson to play the Arizona Wildcats. Another day, another defeat, this time to the tune of 48-14. Senior offensive lineman Casey Bulyca, at 330 pounds, was beset by a knee injury. Doctors drained fluid from his knee, which had ballooned to the size of a beach ball. Two days later, he had surgery. When he awoke, his parents informed him that the doctor said he couldn’t play football ever again. “I didn’t even get a phone call from Willingham, the guy I had sacrificed and played for all those years,” said Bulyca. “I’m out there busting my ass and getting shot up with drugs to play football for this team, and did he come to the hospital? Not a chance. It just broke my heart. It was like getting kicked in the nuts.”
A second overthrow was plotted, but it too was doomed to failure. “I tried to get guys to organize a coup de grace on Tyrone,” said Bulyca. “The wheels had fallen off. All his fancy words and bullshit freshmen running around doing whatever they wanted. I was at a loss. What is going on? Why did I get punished for cursing in public, and yet these guys who have barely been on campus are getting away with murder? These guys are not going to class or workouts, but starting in the games on Saturday. And this is the kind of shit you’re going to allow to happen?”
By October 18th, when Oregon State came to Husky Stadium, a suffocating despair hung like a death pall over the entirety of Husky football. Athletic director Scott Woodward reaffirmed his position that Willingham’s job performance would not be evaluated until season’s end. Public pressure was enormous for a firing. Almost everyone that had defended Willingham tooth and claw the previous December were nowhere to be seen. And another beat down was now in store, administered by the Beavers to the tune of 34-13. Washington’s record was 0-6.
With Notre Dame coming to town, an odd feeling of things coming full circle was in the air. Willingham’s old team, struggling mightily under the guidance of coach Charlie Weis, would square off one final time against his current team.
Willingham was cracking under the pressure. At a 7:30 AM team breakfast at a downtown Seattle hotel, some players were talking and broke out in laughter. Willingham stood up and slammed his silverware down, spilling grape juice all over the suit and tie of assistant coach Mike Denbrock. “We felt it made him look like a fool,” said Kirton. “But we knew it was because he was on the hot seat.”
Kirton saw his senior season frittering away, as he was only playing sporadically. Football held little meaning for him anymore, and daily life was arduous. “By the Notre Dame game, we’re 0-6,” said Kirton. “We were thinking wow, how did it get to this point? I started seeing the young guys no longer care. And 60% of the starters were freshmen and sophomores, and we were getting blown out in every game. And why? Oh that’s right, you’re letting my senior year go to waste because you made promises to high school students that if they signed at Washington you would make them a starter. It was one of only two times that I broke down in college. I called my dad and told him: I need you more than ever to keep me grounded and motivated, because football is no longer what I ever thought it would be. I had my handful of teammates that were going to stick it out no matter what, and yet all these underclassmen were out there. We had no power of word, we had nothing. It was a disaster.”
The players were again wondering why Emmert and the administration had given Willingham a fourth year. “It had become comfortable to lose, and that’s not a good thing at all,” Kirton said. “You’ve given him a fourth year. We had a team there back in 2006 that should have won at least 8-9 games, but we had the wrong guy coaching us. We already had the pieces in place to succeed, but there was all the talk about needing to rebuild.”
But nothing was being built, everything was being torn down. Willingham’s surly manner was getting worse by the week. Athletic department employees, including Scott Woodward, were apologizing profusely to the players on a daily basis.
To long time observers of college football watching the Washington-Notre Dame game, it was surreal seeing thousands of empty seats throughout Husky Stadium. As Jake Locker, dressed in street clothes, continued to watch helplessly from the sideline, the Huskies were overwhelmed by another opponent. By halftime, the Fighting Irish led 17-0 and had outgained Washington 238-38 in total yardage. UW’s backup quarterback Ronnie Fouch mustered a mere 5 yards passing in the first half. By the end of the day, Notre Dame left Seattle having won a laugher, 33-7. Washington was now 0-7.
The glory and legacy of Washington football was now destroyed. For anyone within the program’s orbit, the pressure and sadness were unbearable. Tyrone Willingham’s record at Washington was 11-32. He was the only coach in UW history to have four consecutive losing seasons. The three worst defenses in UW history belonged to Tyrone Willingham. The following Monday, Woodward summoned Willingham to his office to inform him he was being fired. Willingham took the news badly, becoming very upset and emotional. Woodward heard him out and then thanked him for his service. But Woodward explained that he and President Emmert had made the decision and it was final.
Willingham, with one year remaining on his contract, would receive a $1 million buyout at season’s end. At Woodward’s request, he would also remain as head coach until the season was finished.
At noon on Monday, Woodward and Willingham sat together before the media and made the announcement. Woodward said the search for a new coach would begin immediately. Willingham indicated that he didn’t have any desire to quit. "It's just not in my makeup,” he said.
In speaking with the Seattle-PI, President Emmert said "discreet inquiries" had already been made in their search for the next Husky coach. He said how he and Woodward would be aggressively combing the country in the search for the best candidate. Media speculation immediately centered around Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Christensen and former Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin, Boise State’s Chris Petersen and Fresno State’s Pat Hill.
Added Molly Yanity of the Seattle-PI: “Fans continue to clamor over Seahawks assistant head coach and former Huskies player Jim Mora, who signed a contract in January to take over the NFL team after Mike Holmgren resigns at the end of the season.”
For Johnie Kirton and most of the Husky players, the miserable beat marched on. A trip to USC to take on powerhouse USC and its coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Washington trudged onto the field with lifeless, long faces. As the opening kickoff sailed through the air, the beat down commenced. The Trojans tallied touchdowns on their first six possessions to lead 42-0 at the half. They played subs in the second and cruised to a 56-0 win. It was Washington’s worst loss since 1929. Only a handful of Huskies showed effort. “I was embarrassed to be playing with a lot of the guys on the team that day,” Kirton said. “A lot of guys quit. I was talking to my teammates throughout the game. USC is USC, they’re a big time school like we used to be. But it wasn’t registering with them. They didn’t care.”
Throughout the contest, the Trojans toyed and taunted the Huskies. They called them pussies, faggots, and the like. Washington offered neither effort nor resistance.
“I felt like shit, I felt awful,” said fullback Paul Homer. “My goal was no longer focused on getting everyone else up. My goal was to show that I was a man and that I was one of the Huskies that still had some dignity. I saw guys quitting. I have played sports my whole life, baseball, football, basketball and soccer. I’ve seen bad players and I’ve been on bad teams in my life. But I’ve never seen guys just quit. That was tough to see so many guys quit. It hurt me a lot. It hurt a lot of guys on the team. It will take me a long time to forgive some of those guys.”
Following a 39-19 loss to Arizona State, the Huskies (now at 0-9) prepared to host UCLA for the final home game of the season. This one came with an odd twist: former UW coach Rick Neuheisel would be coming back to Seattle, as he was in his first year as UCLA’s head coach.
“It was the last home game for seniors,” Kirton said. “I thought about the all the older guys going back many decades, about how they always had a fire about them and about what U-Dub meant to them. The night before the game I made a sleeveless white t-shirt that said DAWG 4 LIFE, and THANK YOU. I was going to wear it. The hardest part was like I felt I failed my university. Not only did we lose a lot of games, we were going down in history as one of the worst teams in college football history.
“Before the game, I put the shirt on,” said Kirton. “Willingham pulls me aside and says you’re not going out there with that shirt on. I gave him the yes sir. But I was thinking you’re crazy if you think I am going to listen to you at this point.”
As the team exited the tunnel, they formed a line through which the seniors would be introduced one-by-one. At the last moment, Kirton put the white shirt on.
“I run through the line of teammates, and Willingham sees me coming closer and closer,” Kirton said. “The look on his face is like THIS SON OF A BITCH IS REALLY GOING TO DEFY ME. As I shook his hand, I felt no bitterness or remorse. But you could cut his tension with a knife. But it was like that final sentence of a book. It was like he didn’t want to be here for us or for the U-Dub. The audacity of telling me not to wear a shirt that says Dawg 4 Life.”
What stood out for senior lineman Casey Bulyca, hobbling out of the tunnel on crutches, were the empty seats and the sadness in the stadium. “I stuck it out for that long, I figured I might as well get introduced even while on one leg. Being a Husky was all I wanted to do since I was a little boy. I was emotional about it since I couldn’t go out the way I wanted. I gave Coach Neuheisel a hug before the game. It was a real sad experience, because he was the one that recruited me to Washington.”
Prior to kickoff, the look on Neuheisel’s face as he looked into the grandstands of Husky Stadium was one of stunned exasperation. Long gone were the days when he roamed those sidelines before crowds of 70,000. Despite this game’s announced crowd of 59,738, there were maybe 25,000 fans in attendance.
UCLA was an awful football team, having won only 3 three games that year. But they would head back to Los Angeles with their fourth, having beaten Washington 27-7.
On November 19th, amid the bitter cold and darkness, approximately forty people gathered at the mouth of an upscale neighborhood in Kirkland. Word was that Jim L. Mora always left extremely early for Seahawks headquarters. The gathering group didn’t want to take any chances of missing him. Even though Mora was slated to become the Seahawks coach in 2009, these fans wanted to let him know he was wanted, especially on his birthday.
The group’s leaders were Craig Robinson and Joel Koppenaal, who had created the website hirejimmora.com back in September when it was clear to them that Willingham had lost the team. Their goal was to draw attention to Jim L Mora as well as to poke fun at the absurdity of having given Willingham the fourth year. It didn’t take long for the website to take off. Several media outlets drew attention to it and numerous Husky fans emailed them looking to see how they could get involved.
A few days prior, KJR’s Dave “Softy” Mahler emailed Robinson asking him to rally the troops to gather and greet Mora on his birthday. Robinson sent out a call to arms, via his website on the message boards of Dawgman.com. When the group assembled, they were wearing Husky gear and carrying signs and banners. The clincher was Softy, who arrived with the event’s centerpiece: a birthday cake with the inscription: HAPPY BIRTHDAY JIM! The group flanked the road and waited. Roughly an hour passed and others from his neighborhood started leaving for work. Some stopped their cars and chatted with the group, while others honked as they drove by. After ninety minutes, there had been no sign of Mora. A scouting party was dispatched to go to Mora’s house to see if he was awake or if they had missed him. They came back and reported that he was still home. So the wait continued, and members of the group began phoning in to their workplace to tell them they’d be late.
At about 7 AM, a reporter from KOMO news radio suddenly showed up. Dave “Softy” Mahler ducked out of sight and the rest debated what to do. The project was intended to be a stealth mission. The reporter got pushy in trying to get a few sound bites or even an interview, but no one would talk. Shortly thereafter, most of the group disbanded and left. The leaders of the group took the cake, signs, and banners to Mora’s house where they were staged so he could see them. “Despite not seeing him,” said Robinson, “we were told that he heard we were there and was flattered by the gesture. Even though we didn’t actually complete the project as intended, we succeeded in letting Mora know that UW wanted him.”
Most fans and media types thought the incessant Mora talk was ridiculous. After all, he was under contract with the Seahawks for the 2009 season. If Washington had wanted him, surely they would have hired him the previous December when the opportunity was there. KJR host Ian Furness banned all talk of Mora-to-Washington from his show. “We’re only going to discuss realistic candidates,” he said. Three years later, when asked if Mora was a candidate, Scott Woodward said: “I’m not going to go into it specifically. But I was going to engage Jim from day one about who he recommended. Because I knew he wasn’t going to be a candidate and had no interest in being a candidate because of his obligation to Vulcan. So I respected that. So it was clear that I wanted to seek his advice and counsel on who we should talk to and where we should go.”
But in reality, Washington had offered Mora the Husky job. They never met in person, presumably for plausible deniability. But the two men had extensive phone conversations. Inside his Kirkland home, Mora agonized over the dilemma. At the end of the deliberation process, Mora turned away from his dream job and told Washington he was remaining with the Seahawks.
Mora rumors swirled throughout the Husky team. Nevertheless, there were two games left to play. Pundits nationwide dubbed the 2008 Apple Cup as a matchup of two of the worst teams in college football history. The Cougars entered the contest at 1-10 having only beaten Division II Portland State. The Huskies, of course, were 0-10. Locally, Seattle fans were jokingly referring to it as The Toilet Bowl or the Pillow Fight. As the Huskies got dressed before the game, there was actually a slight uptick to team morale. “The conversation was nothing about Willingham,” said Kirton. “We were like `let’s not worry about the younger guys with next year ahead of them. Let’s put our differences aside and go out there and play for each other.’ Everyone throughout the state cared about the Apple Cup whether they went to those schools or not. To make it worse, we were the two worst teams in America. And we played like it, going double overtime. But for 99% of the game there was a positive vibe.”
But for the Huskies, that last percentage point was pure torture. Washington led 13-10 with thirty-seven seconds left, WSU quarterback Kevin Lopina found freshman Jared Karstetter behind a beaten Washington secondary. Karstetter, with only three catches all season, went 48 yards to the Washington 18 yard line. Kicker Nico Grasu drilled a 22-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. In the second OT, Grasu converted a 37-yarder for the 16-13 victory. Martin Stadium erupted as thousands of Cougar fans poured onto the field in screaming celebration. Willingham had his grim-faced players trudged toward the locker room following another crushing defeat. WSU coach Paul Wulff jumped about the field in an comically uncoordinated manner, before giving hugs to his wife and son. Bending forward, he asked his youngster a simple question. “Who's still winless?" The boy looked at his dad and beamed a smile, before replying: “The Huskies!"
Washington players were well aware of the winless albatross hanging from their necks. “One of the shittiest feelings I’ve ever had,” said fullback Paul Homer. “On the bus ride to the airport I just stared out the window. Then we got on the plane and all I did was stare at the seat in front of me. The Cougars were the worst college team I have ever seen in my life. When I was out on the field, I thought they were worse than our scout team. I couldn’t believe that game would be close. I hate talking about that game to be honest with you. I can’t understand how our offense couldn’t tear that defense apart and score touchdowns at will. And how does Karstetter catch that pass? You know they’re going deep. All you have to do is be there and knock the ball away. It’s very simple. I was standing right there on the sideline and it happened in front of me. I couldn’t believe he caught it.”
For Washington, it was now two more agonizing weeks before the season finale against Cal in Berkeley. The assistant coaches had already cleared out their offices. Taped up boxes stood in tall stacks. Desks were cleaned out. In the most visible manner, the staff was mailing it in.
“The words coming out of Willingham’s mouth were just air,” Kirton said. “He was no longer there. My teammates were ready to get these sixty minutes over with and go home. For myself, I wanted to fight to the end. I wanted at least one win.”
But there was no way Washington could win that game. Everyone knew it. Tyrone Willingham's final hours as Washington's football coach proved pitiful. California running back Jahvid Best toyed with Washingon, racing for a school record 311 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns in less than three quarters of play. The Bears led 31-0 and won with ease 48-7. The Washington Huskies were officially the first team in Pac-10 history to go 0-12.
“That game was gut-wrenching,” said Kirton. “It hit me that it was really over now. All the effort and time putting in the effort was now a closed book. Nothing more I could do. Couldn’t break a leg and ask for another year. It was over. I spoke to my family on the field. I spoke to Juan Garcia and Chad Macklin about the things we had gone through. It was a dead day. That was that. That would be one of the times you could question Willingham's integrity. You can fault him for checking out on us. For having no emotion and not preparing for the game. All he seemed prepared for was going back home and moving his family back to wherever. The whole thing was just sad.”
Seattle-area reporters got confused where to go for post game interviews. They stood on the field, await word, when Bob Condotta’s cell phone rang. It was media relations coordinator Jeff Bechtold wondering where they were. “Tyrone is up here,” he said.
The reporters rushed up a hallway near the locker room. They got there just in time to glimpse Willingham trying to duck up some stairs. Don Ruiz of the Tacoma News Tribune shouted: “Tyrone! Aren’t you going to talk to us?” Willingham allowed ninety seconds, exuding an angry defiance as he gave a series of terse answers. And then he ended the interview, and his tenure at Washington as well.