LOS ANGELES -- For the Washington faithful, the 2004 season couldn't fade out of memory quickly enough.
Forget the basketball gambling pools and the prescription drugs – other universities have managed, more or less, to save face through NCAA investigations. But a one win debacle of a season, following all of the previous years' controversies, was too much to handle for a program so accustomed to winning.
The Huskies desperately needed a fresh start, which is exactly what they've found in new head coach Tyrone Willingham.
And as glad as Washington may be to have Willingham at the helm, it was evident at the Pac-10 Media Day in Los Angeles on Tuesday that Willingham was relieved to be back in the familiar Pac-10.
"It's awfully nice t o be back in the Pac-10 and back on the West Coast," said Willingham. "This is just one of the most exciting conferences in the nation. In fact, it's more exciting and more balanced from top to bottom then when I left."
When considering Washington's winning tradition in football, Willingham knows there will be pressure with the job. After all, the Huskies are only four seasons removed from a 11-1 record and Rose Bowl victory in 2000. Rather than the pressure to win detracting from the job offer, though, it was one of the things that caught Willingham's eye.
"To me, that was one of the really big attractions," said Willingham. "They have an unbelievable history of college football at the University of Washington, so I'm delighted to be a part of that."
Willingham is a disciplined and respected coach with a history of immediately rejuvenating programs. He turned a 3-7-1 1994 Stanford team around in one year, leading the Cardinal to a 7-3-1 regular season finish in 1995. At Notre Dame in 2002, the turnaround was even more remarkable. The Fighting Irish, with Willingham at the helm, finished 10-3 just a year after posting a 5-6 record.
Even with that impressive résumé, Willingham is cautiously optimistic about the upcoming season, citing that new coaches bring new systems to which players must adjust.
"When any coach takes over, you're trying to install your own system and your own set of beliefs, as to what works out on the football field," said Willingham. "The players have to adjust, but the things I believe in is what we've tried to establish."
Cautious optimism aside, though, it seems that the Huskies have wholeheartedly bought into Willingham's system. Senior linebacker Joe Lobendahn, who was on hand at the media day, said that Willingham made an immediate impression with his no-nonsense attitude.
"My first impression was that this guys serious," said Lobendahn. "When I first met him he was very genuine, great guy – almost like a role model to me. It was obvious that he had great character. I'm just really excited to play for him."
Even with the fresh hope that a coach of Willingham's caliber brings, Washington didn't finish 1-10 last season solely because of questionable coaching. The Huskies were at the bottom of the NCAA on offense, putting up only 14 points per game.
And though Willingham sees potential in the team that returns 19 starters, he knows that experience isn't a fool-proof formula for success.
"Having a lot of returning players should make it easier," said Willingham. "But as always, it's not the fact that you have players returning, but it's how they return. Are they better, are they more focused, are we working together as a team, are we doing a better job of coaching?
"That question applies to everyone, including me. It's how I return. Am I better today than I was yesterday as a coach?"
Despite having the luxury of seven games at Husky Stadium, Washington will have a rocky road to recovery this year. From California to UCLA to USC, the Huskies face the entire top half of the Pac-10. And that's not mention Sept. 24, when Willingham's old Notre Dame rolls into Seattle.
But Willingham isn't concerned about late September. He doesn't even care that the Huskies have been picked to finish tenth in the conference. Willingham is only worried about the first game on the schedule.
"I don't really care about the polls, whether we're picked to finish tenth or first. I just care about Air Force."