Ex-players say nothing but good things about Willingham

  • By Larry Henry / Herald columnist
  • Saturday, December 18, 2004 9:00pm
  • Sports

Talk to the players. They’re the ones who know him.

Talk to them after they’re done playing for him. Talk to them when they don’t feel obligated to say nice things about him. Talk to them when they can open up and be honest about him.

Here’s your chance, fellas. Here’s your chance to vent. Here’s your chance to express how you really feel about your old Stanford football coach, Tyrone Willingham.

He can’t call you into his office and lecture you. He can’t force you to run stairs. He can’t take away your scholarship.

So have at it. He’s fair game.

Glad to be out from under his command?

“Man, it was an incredible experience,” said Amon Gordon, “one that I wish could have kept going.”

“There were some things we didn’t see eye-to-eye on,” said Riall Johnson, “but I always had to respect his opinion.”

“Great man,” said Kerry Carter, “great role model.”

Three former Cardinal players. Three separate interviews. Three men with nary a negative thing to say about their old college coach who last week took the head job at the University of Washington.

By now, you’ve read the accounts of Willingham and you’ve gotten a pretty good idea of what he’s all about. UW president Mark Emmert said character and integrity were “without a doubt the single most important attributes for both mine and Todd’s (athletic director Todd Turner) point of view and the board of regents’ point of view.”

That was an administrator talking.

But what about the guys who were on the field with Willingham day-after-day in college? What do they say about his character and integrity? Is he everything he’s cracked up to be?

Apparently, he is.

If you were to talk with every guy who ever played for Willingham at Stanford and Notre Dame, you could probably find a few who weren’t enamored of him. Just don’t count Amon Gordon, Riall Johnson and Kerry Carter among his detractors.

Gordon is a rookie defensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns. Johnson is staying in shape and hoping to hook up with another NFL team after three years with the Cincinnati Bengals. Carter, a running back, is in his second NFL season with the Seahawks.

Area football fans remember Gordon and Johnson from their days at Mariner High School. Gordon and Johnson’s younger brother, Teyo, left the Western Conference school after their junior year and moved to San Diego where they attended Mira Mesa High School, then went to Stanford together. Riall played four years at Stanford, Amon was there for three years and Teyo for two.

Carter, a native of Ontario, Canada, who also played four years for the Cardinal, was Gordon’s host when he made his recruiting visit. Later, they were roommates.

Gordon would have been a Husky if Willingham had been the Washington coach when he came out of high school. “I’d have been there in a heartbeat,” he said.

And if Riall Johnson hadn’t had a good experience, he said he wouldn’t have encouraged Teyo to attend Stanford.

Aside from the school itself, Carter acknowledged that Willingham was a big reason he went to Stanford. “A lot of other schools I visited, I didn’t get the same vibes from the coaches,” he said. “He just had the demeanor of someone you would really trust and really want to play for.”

Willingham was a big pull for Riall Johnson to become a Cardinal. “I couldn’t have cared less about Stanford before he came and recruited me,” Johnson said.

Carter was impressed with the way Willingham presented himself when he came to his home. “Not only for me, but for my mom, who played a big part in helping me make my decision,” Carter said. “He does a really good job with parents.

“Basically if we were able to get guys on campus, I think about 98 percent of them committed. They saw what he really preached and what he really believed.”

Gordon gave Willingham high marks for his organizational skills, among other things. “He runs a very tight ship,” Gordon said. “It was so organized that if he had to leave, the program basically ran itself.”

Willingham would sometimes have meetings at odd times. “Like 2:38,” Carter said, “but we’d be on his time, so we’d be there a couple of minutes early. We knew what time his watch was on.”

The words “disciplined,” “standup fellow,” “fair” and a “motivator” were also used to describe Willingham.

“Really, no one could listen to him speak and not want to try to give their best for him,” Gordon said. “He’s doing this in his everyday life. He commands so much respect and he gives that respect right back.”

Willingham didn’t try to be buddy-buddy with his players, which was fine with Riall Johnson. “College football is still a business,” he said. “You don’t want your coach to be your friend.”

But, he added, he never felt that Willingham shut himself off from his players, that if you wanted to go talk to him about something, you could do that.

“He seems stern and real serious, but that’s the side the public saw,” Carter said. “With us, he was very relaxed, just like a father figure, someone we could really talk to about basically anything.”

At his first press conference with the Seattle media, Willingham conducted himself with dignity and chose his words carefully. “I learned from him, it’s not all the time what comes out of your mouth that’s important,” Gordon said, “but the way you carry yourself and what you do. That’s his mantra.”

Carter applies a metaphor to his life that he got from Willingham. “Your approach to life is kind of like the ocean beating against a rock,” Carter said. “Eventually, the rock is going to break down.

“That’s how I’ve kind of patterned my life, knowing that I can be relentless in my pursuit of anything I want. Never let anything slow me down, just like the ocean. That stuck with me from his teachings.”

One thing that stuck with Riall Johnson was the work he put in under Willingham.

“Hardest workouts I’ve ever had,” he said. “I hope those (UW) players are ready.”

The coach certainly will be.

Gordon was about to take part in a kickoff drill one time when Willingham lined up next to him. “I’ll beat you down there,” he said.

“I was dead from two-a-days,” Gordon laughed, “and he almost did.”

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