In six seasons at the helm of the Cardinal football program, Tyrone Willingham has built a reputation as one of the most respected coaches in college football.
A former Cardinal assistant coach, Willingham had established himself as one of the top, young assistant coaches in the NFL during his three seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. So when Stanford Athletic Director Ted Leland went looking for a head coach to follow Bill Walsh after the 1994 season, it was a former Cardinal assistant whose character, integrity and leadership skills had impressed Leland years earlier who became Leland’s top choice.
Willingham, Stanford’s running backs coach from 1989-91 under Dennis Green, returned to The Farm on November 28, 1994 as the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football at Stanford University.
In his six years on The Farm, Willingham has led Stanford to three bowl games, including the 1999 Pacific-10 Conference championship and the school’s first Rose Bowl appearance in 28 years. Willingham has twice been honored by his peers as the Pac-10 Coach of the Year (1995, 1999).
With Willingham came a leader committed to making Stanford football a post-season bowl contender every season. The goal of the program, Willingham said, is to "win."
"I want people to talk about the Stanford football program as one that produces winners – winners on the field, in the classroom and in their social and spiritual development. If we can win in those areas, then I believe that will give us our best chance to be successful."
And in 1999, Willingham hit paydirt. He was named the Pac-10 Coach of the Year for the second time in his career at Stanford after leading the Cardinal to an 8-4 overall record, a 7-1 mark in conference play, the first Pac-10 championship on The Farm since the 1971 season and Stanford’s first Rose Bowl appearance since January 1, 1972. He was a finalist for National Coach of the Year honors and was named the American Football Coaches Association District-5 Coach of the Year.
Willingham already has a list of accomplishments matched by few of his predecessors. He is the only coach in Stanford history to be named conference Coach of the Year on two occasions (1995, 1999). He led the Cardinal to consecutive bowl games in his first two seasons (’95 Liberty, ’96 Sun) at Stanford, becoming only the third coach to accomplish this feat. The other two are Tiny Thornhill in 1933 and ’34 and Walsh in ’77 and ’78.
Willingham also became the first coach since Walsh to have back-to-back winning seasons in his first two years at Stanford. He is one of four coaches in school history to guide Stanford to three bowl game appearances (Walsh, Thornhill and Pop Warner). His current tenure is the longest on The Farm since John Ralston’s nine-year run from 1963-71.
Willingham’s six-year record stands at 35-33-1 overall and 26-22 in the Pacific-10 Conference. His first Cardinal team went 7-4-1 in ’95 en route to earning a berth in the Liberty Bowl while his second team in 1996 finished 7-5 after beating Michigan State 38-0 in the Sun Bowl.
In 1996, Willingham found his team with a 2-5 overall record and a 1-3 reading in the conference. Most people had written the Cardinal off as a team destined to suffer a losing season. But, Stanford wound up winning its final four games of the regular season to finish 6-5 overall and 5-3 in the Pac-10, good for third place. A 38-0 win over Michigan State in the Sun Bowl, Stanford’s first shutout since 1974, gave Willingham’s team a 7-5 final record.
In his first season as the Cardinal head coach, Willingham turned a 3-7-1 team in ’94 into a 7-4-1 bowl team in 1995. Prior to the ’95 season, most of the so-called experts picked Stanford to finish last in the Pacific-10 Conference. But, after the Cardinal’s fourth place finish in the Pac-10, the conference coaches voted Willingham their 1995 Pac-10 Coach of the Year. It was the first time a Cardinal head coach had been selected Coach of the Year since Walsh in 1977. Willingham was also selected the National Coach of the Year by the Black Coaches Association in 1995 and ’96. The award honored Willingham for "Exemplifying the highest standards in coaching."
Willingham, who was a finalist for National Coach of the Year honors in ’95, began his career by going 4-0-1 in his first five games, marking the best start on The Farm in 44 years (the 1951 team won its first five games).
Like his two predecessors – Walsh and Dennis Green – Willingham had previously served as assistant coach at Stanford before being named its head coach. He was Stanford’s running backs coach under Green from 1989-91 before moving with Green to the Minnesota Vikings, where he again coached running backs from 1992-94.
Willingham (born December 30, 1953) was an assistant coach on the collegiate and professional levels for 17 years prior to his appointment as Stanford’s head coach. During his career as an assistant, he coached on offense, defense and special teams. He has been a part of coaching staffs who have turned programs into winners in short order, and his character and leadership skills have become his trademarks.
A 1977 graduate of Michigan State University, Willingham coached under Green for six seasons, three at Stanford and three with the Vikings. In Minnesota, Willingham helped the Vikings return to prominence as one of the top teams in the NFL.
The Vikings finished 8-8 in 1991, the year before Willingham arrived with Green in Minnesota. In his three seasons in Minnesota, Willingham helped the Vikings win two NFC Central Division championships and advance to the playoffs all three seasons.
In 1992, the Vikings finished 11-5 and won the NFC Central Division championship. Willingham’s top pupil that season, Terry Allen, set a club record by rushing for 1,201 yards. In 1993, Minnesota finished 9-7 and earned a wildcard berth. The Vikings won the division title and earned another playoff berth in 1994 with a 10-6 record.
While at Stanford (1989-91), Willingham was part of Green’s staff that helped turn the program around. The Cardinal went 3-8 in ’89, 5-6 in ’90 and 8-4 in 1991. The ’91 season culminated with a berth in the Aloha Bowl, Stanford’s first post-season appearance in five seasons.
The ’91 squad, known as the "Now Boys," began the season 1-3, but came back to win its final seven regular season games to finish 8-3 overall, 6-2 in the Pac-10. It was Stanford’s best season in five years and first bowl appearance since the 1986 Gator Bowl.
Willingham coached two of the top running backs in Stanford football history during his brief tenure on The Farm: Glyn Milburn and Tommy Vardell. Vardell was a first round NFL pick following the ’91 campaign. Milburn is the fifth leading all-time rusher in Stanford history with 2,178 yards and he is second in the Cardinal record book in all-purpose running with a three-year total of 5,857 yards. Vardell, meanwhile, is sixth all-time at Stanford in rushing with 1,789 yards and is first on The Farm in touchdowns with 37.
Vardell earned the nickname "Touchdown" Tommy after his record-setting performance in 1991. In spearheading the "Now Boys" attack, Vardell set a school record for rushing (1,084 yards) and touchdowns (20) while being named the Academic All-American of the Year. Milburn, who set a Stanford record for all-purpose running in 1990 with Willingham as his coach (2,222 yards), went on to earn First-Team All-America honors as an all-purpose player in 1992.
Willingham’s career has taken him to several stops along the way. After graduating from Michigan State in 1977, he continued with the Spartan program as a graduate assistant in ’77 under head coach Darryl Rodgers. In ’78-79, Willingham was the defensive secondary coach at Central Michigan University.
From 1980-82, Willingham was the defensive secondary and special teams coach at Michigan State University under head coach Muddy Waters. He moved on to North Carolina State University for three seasons (1983-85), where he again coached special teams and the defensive secondary.
Prior to accepting the position as running backs coach at Stanford under Green, Willingham coached receivers and special teams at Rice University from 1986-88.
Since his arrival at Stanford in 1995, Willingham has taken an active role in both campus and community activities. He is currently a board member for OICW (Opportunities Industrialization Center West) and is a former National Advisory Board Member for the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford. He is member of the American Football Coaches Association rules committee and a speaker for American Football Quarterly University, and other coaching clinics. Willingham has participated in numerous appearances for local charities and has been a guest speaker at Nike Coach of the Year clinics.
For his commitment to community service, Willingham was honored with the 2000 Eddie Robinson Coach of Distinction Award. The award is presented to a college football coach nationwide for career achievement and his outstanding service as a role model.
A walk-on in both football and baseball at Michigan State, Willingham went on to earn three letters in each sport. As a quarterback, he was named the team’s Most Inspirational Player in 1976. In 1977, Willingham was awarded the Big-10 Medal of Honor as the Outstanding Scholar-Athlete in the conference. In baseball, he received the Sportsmanship Award in 1975 and was an All-Big-10 selection in ’77.
A native of Jacksonville, North Carolina, Willingham earned his degree in physical education with a minor in health education from Michigan State. Tyrone and his wife, Kim, have three children: Cassidy (born 1/10/84), Kelsey (born 5/9/88) and Nathaniel (born 7/9/90).
The Tyrone Willingham File
- Full Name: Lionel Tyrone Willingham
- Date of Birth: December 30, 1953
- Hometown: Jacksonville, North Carolina
- High School: Jacksonville High School, Jacksonville, North Carolina
- College: Michigan State University, B.S., Physical Education, 1977
- Wife: Kim
- Children: Cassidy, Kelsey, Nathaniel
- Playing Experience: QB, Michigan State, 1973-76
|1977||Michigan State||Graduate Assistant|
|1978-79||Central Michigan||Defensive Secondary|
|1980-82||Michigan State||Defensive Secondary, Special Teams|
|1983-85||North Carolina State||Defensive Secondary, Special Teams|
|1986-88||Rice University||Receivers, Special Teams|
|1989-91||Stanford University||Running Backs|
|1992-94||Minnesota Vikings||Running Backs|
|1995-01||Stanford University||Head Coach|
|1991||Aloha Bowl||Stanford (Assistant Coach)|
|1995||Liberty Bowl||Stanford (Head Coach)|
|1996||Sun Bowl||Stanford (Head Coach)|
|2000||Rose Bowl||Stanford (Head Coach)|
|1991||Aloha Bowl||(Stanford vs. Georgia Tech)|
|1992||NFC Central Division Champions||-|
|1993||NFC Wildcard participant||-|
|1994||NFC Central Division Champions||-|
|1995||Liberty Bowl||(Stanford vs. East Carolina)|
|1995||Pac-10 Coach of the Year||-|
|1996||Sun Bowl||(Stanford vs. Michigan State)|
|1999||Pac-10 Coach of the Year||-|
|2000||Rose Bowl||(Stanford vs. Wisconsin)|
Year-by-Year with Willingham
|Year||Overall||Pac-10 / Finish||Bowl Game/Result|
|1995||7-4-1||5-3 / 4th||Liberty Bowl/lost to East Carolina 19-13|
|1996||7-5||5-3 / 3rd||Sun Bowl/defeated Michigan State 38-0|
|1997||5-6||3-5 / 7th (tie)||none|
|1998||3-8||2-6 / 8th (tie)||none|
|1999||8-4||7-1 / 1st||Rose Bowl/lost to Wisconsin 17-9|
|2000||5-6||4-4 / 4th||none|
|Totals||35-33-1||26-22||3 bowl appearances|