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Jerry Brewer explains the thinking behind his columns and invites readers to express their views on the sports world.

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August 7, 2008 10:43 AM

Q&A(rgue): Willingham, Locker and the unavoidable hot seat

Posted by Jerry Brewer

It's Thursday, which means it's time to debate again. Today, we will focus on coach Tyrone Willingham and the Huskies. My guest is ESPN.com writer Mark Schlabach, an excellent reporter who covers college football and men's college basketball at the Worldwide Leader.

Most pertinent to this discussion, Schlabach recently wrote his list of coaches on the hot seat. Of course, Willingham made the cut. You cannot avoid the certainty that this is a make-or-break season. But let's debate the subject by hitting on some broader topics for a few minutes. Let's also see, through Schlabach, what the national view of the situation is.

All right, let's get to it.

1. We know Tyrone Willingham must win to retain his job. But should he be on the hot seat after just three seasons at Washington?

Schlabach: In today's college football, three seasons (or even two) seems to be the window of opportunity for most coaches. I don't think it's fair for Willingham because the Huskies' schedule has been one of the toughest in the country since he's been there.

Brewer: In a perfect and patient world, it's unfair. For a program with a lesser reputation, it's unfair. But at Washington, this is the way it has to be. The Huskies have had four straight losing seasons, including three under Willingham. Their record during that span: 12-35. Many people wanted Willingham gone after last season, but I disagreed. I thought he needed another year. Now that he has it, he must show progress in the won-lost column. He knows it. His players know it. Everybody knows it. Let's see if progress can be made.

2. One argument for retaining the coach of a struggling program is continuity. What do you think about the idea of continuity versus making change for a fresh approach?

Schlabach: I think any time there is a coaching change, there's a transition. A coaching change tends to set teams back in recruiting. A perfect example is Steve Kragthorpe and Louisville. Kragthorpe is a terrific coach and turned Tulsa, of all schools, into a winner. He inherited a Louisville team with quarterback Brian Brohm, but the Cardinals struggled last season. A coaching transition is never seamless, and there's a lot to be said for continuity.

Brewer: Remember the days when almost every coach got four years to turn a program around, for the sake of recruiting, for the sake of continuity? You can destroy a program by making a change every two years. At the same time, a coach must show himself worthy of patience. It's a tough call, and it's different for every situation. For instance, at Michigan, Rich Rodriguez will get fired in two years if the Wolverines don't perform. But he's inheriting a program on solid footing. Willingham? He inherited a program that had hit rock bottom, winning only one game the previous season. So he deserves a little more time. But the Huskies can't keep suffering through poor third quarters and losing games in the second half. They have to finish, even though they don't have great depth. If they don't get out of that rut, it is time for change.

3. The Pac-10 was fantastic last season. How tough do you think it will be this season? Can Washington win seven games playing the Pac-10 schedule along with non-conference games that include BYU, Oklahoma and Notre Dame?

Schlabach: I think Washington will face an uphill climb in trying to get to seven wins. The non-conference schedule is brutal again. Oklahoma is a national championship contender, and BYU might crash the BCS party. Notre Dame will be better after playing so many freshmen in 2007. USC is still the class of the Pac-10, but the Trojans are replacing a lot of great players. Arizona State and California are probably next in line.

Brewer: My contention is that, because the Huskies are such an unknown commodity, we can't start marking off wins and losses just yet. Unless something dramatic happens, we probably can say that the Huskies won't beat Oklahoma and USC. Beyond that, I just don't know. I have to see the team play first. Having a winning record with this schedule won't be easy, but when will it ever be? The Pac-10 is always going to be a nine-game grind. The Huskies are always going to play a challenging non-conference schedule on top of that. If the team is good enough, it will win. If not, it won't. Simple as that. I do think the Pac-10 won't be as much of a bear this season. Beyond USC and Arizona State, I see a lot of question marks.

4. You can make some comparisons between Jake Locker and Tim Tebow. But will Locker ever become the all-around quarterback that Tebow is?

Schlabach: Locker has a chance to be as good as Tebow in many aspects of his game. The thing most people don't realize about Tebow is if Florida had a true tailback, Tebow's statistics wouldn't be as gaudy. He runs the ball every time the Gators get close to the goal line.

Brewer: Locker is more physically gifted than Tebow, which is saying something. Locker is faster, more athletic. But Tebow is bigger and far more superior as a passer. The guy has completed roughly 67 percent of his passes during his college career. Locker has yet to show that accuracy. I don’t see Locker winning a Heisman Trophy, whereas Tebow might win again this season. So they won't compare there. But don't be surprised if, 10 years from now, we look in the NFL and recognize Locker as the better player.

5. When Willingham came to Washington, he was charged with building a winning team with tons of character. In college football today, can you build a perennial BCS contender and avoid the embarrassing off-the-field incidents that seem to burden every major program?

Schlabach: A lot of guys have tried, but off-field problems are even hurting some of the coaches who have the highest ethics. Look at Mark Richt at Georgia. He takes his players to Honduras for a Christian mission trip during the summer, then has eight players arrested at home. Joe Paterno is facing similar problems at Penn State. You really have to work to have it both ways -- recruiting great players and great citizens.

Brewer: I don't think it can be done. I think a coach can limit the number of problems that arise. I think a coach can make statements through the ways he punishes his players. But this is football. A team full of choir boys won't win the national title. The reality is, you must have some roughnecks. The problem I have is when a coach recruits a kid who has been in trouble multiple times in high school and then acts surprised when the kid finds trouble in college. And also, the second and third and fourth chances these guys get are out of control.

So, you can win with a character-based team, but you can't expect every player to stay out of trouble.

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