Lincoln Kennedy supports Willingham

When Lincoln Kennedy arrived in Seattle three years ago to be inducted into the Husky Hall of Fame, he gave an acceptance speech straight from the heart. Keith Gilbertson, who had been Kennedy's line coach, was on his way out as Head Coach at Washington. Kennedy addressed the assembled crowd at Hec Ed, urging the need for a new coach that, "Understands what it means to be a Husky."

The search was already underway for a replacement, led by new Athletic Director Todd Turner and University President Mark Emmert. About a month later the duo announced that Tyrone Willingham, recently fired by Notre Dame, was coming to Washington.

Three years later and thirty-two games into the Willingham era, the Huskies are 10-22 and not exactly lighting the recruiting world on fire. This season's biggest asset has clearly been quarterback Jake Locker. The largest liabilities have been a porous defense, compounded by inconsistent special teams play. Willingham, along with Defensive Coordinator Kent Baer, have cited their players' lack of talent - among other things - as a reason for their poor results.

While bearing witness to all this, the Husky Nation has become a divided one. Many fans clamor daily for coaching changes, while others plead for patience and stability.

One man firmly in the latter camp is Kennedy. These days, he works for Fox Sports Radio as a commentator. While pained by what he sees, he endeavors to look at the situation in the grand scheme of things.

"It appears to me that when you've got a good thing, you get spoiled by it," Kennedy told Dawgman.com recently. "The Huskies achieved a great deal of success in the time that I played there. Our teams put us on the map with the three Rose Bowls and (a) national championship. We earned respect nation-wide. People put us in the same breath with the likes of Notre Dame, Georgia, Michigan and USC. We got spoiled by it. Now, we've lost a lot of relevance, and we're trying to climb back to that level.

"You have to keep in mind that sometimes anonymity is a good thing," he added. "I don't like the way college football has become all about national championships. Back in our day, (former UW Coach) Don James always told us that if we win the Pac-10 and get to the Rose Bowl, everything else will fall into place. That was our total focus. A lot people forget that Don James didn't just step right into the job and win the national championship. It took many years for our team to get to that elite level."

The Huskies had also always been known for dominating the Northwest in recruiting. It was always known that nine out of the top ten guys in Washington and Oregon would go to Washington. But there has been a wave of change.

"With the anonymity we have now, we have to get back to the basics," said Kennedy. "Until Coach Willingham gets the so-called `Blue-Chip' recruits, we're not going to be able to get back to where we were. He's got a great start in Jake Locker, but he needs a lot more. I believe that Tyrone Willingham is the right man to turn this around. I don't know him very well, but from everyone I have ever spoken to, they say nothing but great things about him. Former players and guys who had been around him, they all say the same thing. We need to give him more time to get it done."

It was mentioned to Kennedy that much of the criticism of Willingham and his staff stems from times when the defense and special teams look outmanned and out of position. Just recently, Washington allowed Oregon to rush for 465 yards on the ground, and Arizona threw for 510 passing yards in a loss where the Huskies were up by 15 points in the fourth quarter.

"I was at the game (at the Rose Bowl) when Washington played UCLA," said Kennedy. "I was sitting with a group of former Huskies, and we were talking about the lack of fundamentals on defense. It will come in time. We've got a lot of young players out there, and you'll never get used to gameday speed until you play someone. They are getting experience. A lot of it is also simply that we don't have the talent yet. The deck is stacked against these kids. I hate to say it, but a lot of them probably belong either at a Division II school, or at one of the WAC or Mountain West schools… You have to recruit what you can, and build from there.

"It's really not about having the plushest weight room and facilities to bring in the best kids," he added. "I have bristled a bit when the University has requested money from me and other former players to build up the facilities. When I was recruited to Washington (in 1987), the weight room was a sliver in the basement of the Graves Building. That didn't deter me from coming to Washington. If a plush weight room is what makes the difference as to whether a kid comes to Washington or not, he's probably not the right player for the Huskies. When I first arrived at Washington as a freshman, I didn't know what I was in for. We would be out there practicing in the darkness and the rain, and swirling 30 MPH winds. At first I wondered, `What the hell are we doing out here in the darkness and rain?' But we just had to go out there and do it. You got used to it, and it became natural after awhile. Those are the kind of players that we've got to bring in."

As our interview drew to a close, Kennedy was asked to describe the biggest improvement and weakness he sees in the Huskies since the time Keith Gilbertson left as coach in 2004.

"The biggest positive would be the overall competitive nature," said Kennedy. "That weekend when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame, I watched them lose to Arizona. Our team gave up, and I felt shame toward our Huskies for not competing. No offense to Arizona, but they are the only Pac-10 team to never have played in the Rose Bowl. What does that say about them as a football program? They were toward the bottom of the league standings and we didn't compete with them. However, I see great improvement in that now. Today's Huskies play hard from start to finish.

"On the negative side, they don't have depth. A lot of these fourth quarter collapses are from just not having enough depth to compete with teams that do have it. I don't know exactly what Coach Willingham's plan is for recruiting, but he's got to bring in a lot more of those blue chip guys before we can perform at an elite level again."

And what of the possibility of letting Willingham go and hiring current Seahawks Assistant Coach Jim Mora? Ever since Mora went on KJR and said he wanted to be the Huskies' Head Coach nearly a year ago - despite being the head coach for the Atlanta Falcons at the time - his comments fueled speculation. That speculation has grown since Mora's departure from Atlanta and subsequent move to Seattle to be the Seahawks' Secondary Coach.

"I think we need to give Coach Willingham more time," said Kennedy. "If you go and bring in a guy like Mora, he's going to bring in his own system, and it's going to be two steps backward all over again. It's just going to set everything back further. We need to stick with Willingham and see if he can get it turned around."
Derek Johnson can be reached at derekjohnsonbooks@comcast.net

His website is www.derekjohnsonbooks.com