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IT’S THEIR TIME

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tyrone Willingham neatly turns his wrist, looks at his watch, stops talking and starts walking.

He’s on Ty time, and your time is up.

Try not to take it personally.

It doesn’t take much more than five minutes around Willingham, the coach who has brought Stanford back to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 28 years, to pick up on a certain precision about the man.

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“It took you that long?” defensive coordinator Kent Baer said, laughing. “Everything’s on time, believe me. I think he sets his watch to the telephone every morning. You know, where you call for the time? Seriously.”

On Saturday, when an official walks into the Stanford locker room to synchronize watches for the countdown to the Rose Bowl kickoff, don’t expect Willingham to have to adjust much.

“His watch is usually about five seconds off the official’s watch,” Baer said. “Everything is so precise.”

Willingham’s meticulousness in all things, his ramrod posture and a seriousness tempered by a disarming wit make him wonderful fodder for injured star receiver Troy Walters, who does a dead-on impression of the slight, erudite Willingham, eyeglasses and all.

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“Troy plays that pretty well,” quarterback Todd Husak said. “He’s got that demeanor. You know, the stone face. He’s got the walk and the talk.”

And the watch-checking?

“We’re used to it,” Husak said, laughing. “He’s always on a tight schedule, so I think he does it more to know where he’s going the next two seconds.”

Not many people had the Rose Bowl figured on Willingham’s well-planned schedule this season, not after a 3-8 record last year followed by a 69-17 loss to Texas in the opening game.

Willingham persuaded his team to think of Texas as a preseason game, and to simply persist.

That is much the approach Willingham, 46, has taken since the early 1970s, when he was a high school quarterback from Jacksonville, N.C., looking for a chance to play college football.

Being a 5-foot-7 quarterback wasn’t the only obstacle he faced.

“He didn’t get recruited in this state,” said John Thomas, a family friend from Jacksonville. “Race probably did play a part.”

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In the recesses of Willingham’s mind was a game he had seen Michigan State play against Notre Dame in 1966.

“A young man from North Carolina, Jimmy Raye, who’s now the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, was the quarterback then,” Willingham said.

A young black man.

“It was just one of those things that hang in your subconscious, that you don’t know why they’re there, but at some point it ties in,” he said.

By the time Willingham was in high school, Raye had become an assistant coach at Michigan State.

Another quarterback from North Carolina--Charlie Baggett, a neighbor of Raye’s from Fayetteville--had joined Raye at Michigan State, transferring from North Carolina.

“Bill Dooley was the head coach at North Carolina,” said Baggett, now an assistant coach for the Green Bay Packers. “He promised me I was going to be the first black quarterback. I got there and they asked me to switch positions.”

Like Baggett, Willingham made his way to Michigan State too, but as a walk-on, and he and Baggett became roommates.

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“He’d make his bed every morning,” Baggett said. “Kept his clothes in order, line up his shoes in the closet.”

The record albums were stacked in a wooden crate--alphabetical order, naturally.

“One of the big things he and I used to talk about was, his parents were paying that out-of-state tuition,” Baggett said. “He busted his tail and earned a scholarship.”

Willingham also earned three letters in football as well as baseball, and as a quarterback was named the team’s most inspirational player in 1976.

With such successes, Michigan State gained a reputation not only for giving minority players a chance, but later as a cradle of coaches--producing not only Raye, Baggett and Willingham but Packer offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis as well.

“I think the university is well-documented for providing opportunity for African American players and coaches before it was popular around the country,” Willingham said. “I’m not sure if it went back as far as Biggie Munn, but I’m quite sure Duffy Daugherty did his fair share to enhance the opportunities for African Americans.”

Relatively little fanfare has accompanied Willingham’s distinction as the first African American to coach the Rose Bowl game, but it is a passage worth noting.

“I saw an article on the Internet where he talked about being the first black coach in the Rose Bowl mattering more to other people than it matters to him,” Baggett said. “I know deep down inside, he’s proud he can represent blacks by what he’s done.”

What he has done is in no small part a tribute to Willingham’s late parents, Nathaniel and Lillian.

“They were kind of no-nonsense people who taught their kids to be self-reliant,” said Thomas, the old family friend.

“I think I was very fortunate to have two great parents, both Mom and Dad,” Willingham said. “My mother was a career teacher for 31 years. Served on the board of education, served on the city council, was involved throughout the community.

“That impact is tremendous, when I look back at it. Not only the impact she had on her own kids, but the impact they had on other kids and people’s development in our community.”

Willingham’s coaching career began at Michigan State in 1977, and took him to Stanford as an assistant coach under Dennis Green in 1989 and then on to the Minnesota Vikings with Green three years later.

It was there that Lillian Willingham showed some close friends a letter she had received.

“Dennis Green had written her, just telling her what a nice job she had done, that she had a wonderful son,” Thomas said.

Green has had considerable influence on Willingham, and no one is better positioned to see that than Viking assistant Trent Walters, Troy’s father.

“I talk to Troy, and he’ll say we’re doing this or that, and I can almost tell him what he’ll do this day or that day,” Walters said.

“But what I’ve picked up most is work ethic. [Willingham is] a determined, driven person. Part of that comes, I think, from where he’s from. He learned to have the drive and determination it took to be successful. He’s an intense guy who stresses attention to detail and believes in discipline.

“There’s a jovial side, but when it comes time for football, there’s a different side. All business.”

Willingham can be stern and private, always the one in control.

But at moments, the other side slips through.

“He loosened up after we won the 102nd Big Game,” defensive tackle Willie Howard said. “He had a big smile and was proud we worked so hard and got ourselves in the position to be here.

“Then after about five minutes he went back to himself and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got Wisconsin next.’ ”

Still, his loyalty--he called Thomas in Jacksonville after Stanford had clinched the Rose Bowl bid--has bred regard for Willingham that spreads far and wide.

“I don’t know if anybody’s ever said anything bad about Tyrone Willingham,” said Baer, the defensive coordinator. “After you lose a couple of games, somebody may say you’re not a very good coach, but personally? No.”

Besides, even Ty time pauses sometimes.

After a Stanford practice this week, Willingham stopped on the sidewalk to sign an autograph for a man who had helped the team during its stay in Southern California.

With the clock ticking, he made a perfect T-y-r-o-n-e W-i-l-l-i-n-g-h-a-m, taking what seemed like most of a minute to sign his name, then embellishing it with a flourish.

“I wanted to make that one particularly nice,” he said.

*

ROSE BOWL

Wisconsin (9-2) vs. Stanford (8-3)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m., Channel 7


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