My Edmonds News had an opportunity to interview former Edmonds resident and long-time Husky football fan Derek Johnson, author of “Bow Down to Willingham.” Before writing the book, which Johnson said presents “a shocking side” of ex-Washington Huskies football coach Tyrone Willingham, he wrote two other books about Husky football: “Husky Football in the Don James Era,” published in 2007, and “The Dawgs of War: a Remembrance,” published in 2009.
Q: First, could you provide background about yourself, including your connections to Edmonds?
A: I was born on a foggy Saturday morning in 1970. Ninety minutes after I entered the world, my dad exited Swedish Hospital and hurried over to Husky Stadium to catch the football game. That definitely set the tone for my life in terms of loving the Huskies. I started attending games when I was 5 years old, which was fortunately when Don James began his coaching career at Washington. By the time I was 7, the Huskies had beaten Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and I was hooked for life. As a friend of mine says, college football is a bigger addiction than nicotine and heroin combined. Such is the pull of Husky Stadium on a Saturday in the fall.
I moved to Edmonds in 1998 when the company I worked for relocated there. I moved into an awesome apartment in downtown Edmonds and would remain there until 2007. It remains the favorite place I’ve ever lived. I had a deck that overlooked the water and I loved watching the ferry boats come and go and to hear the wailing whistle of the rumbling trains in the middle of the night. It was in that apartment, from 2004-2006, that I wrote my first book “Husky Football in the Don James Era.” Remembering those days has put a smile on my face.
Q: Did you play football as well?
A: Starting in the first grade, I played pee-wee football and continued in organized ball for eight more years but I didn’t play football in high school. In subsequent years, many people have confused me in name with former Husky Derrick Johnson. However, I didn’t play college football.
Q: The first two books you wrote appear to be a celebration of Husky Football, while the latest one is more of an expose’. What inspired you to write this latest book?
A: I was very reluctant at first because the 2007 and 2008 seasons were traumatic to endure. I don’t just mean in terms of the win-loss percentage, but in terms of the disinformation and politics involved. But a couple of UW boosters who are friends of mine separately pushed me toward the topic. One of them said, “Seattle’s mainstream media is scared of this topic. You’re the perfect person to tackle it because The Seattle Times sure as hell never will.”
The idea remained dormant until the summer of 2010. At the time, I was doing a series of interviews with a former UW player with the idea of writing a novel based on his life. One day I was at Green Lake with a woman named Lucy and we were standing in the sunshine eating ice cream. Something, I don’t remember what, triggered my memory and I went off on a tangent about how the two worst defenses in Husky football history had occurred under coach Tyrone Willingham and they still brought him back for the 2008 season (which resulted in UW becoming the first Pac-10 team ever to suffer an 0-12 season). Lucy remained silent and attentive to her ice cream as I babbled on about how playing careers and an entire season were sacrificed for the sake of trying to keep Tyrone Willingham employed at Washington.
Finally, in her typically practical and nonplussed manner, Lucy told me I should write a book about the Willingham era. “You need to get it out of your system,” she said. And something inside me clicked. Within 72 hours, I had begun interviewing players. At first, some of the players were wary. One of them said, “I’m not sure I want to speak with you. Are you trying to glorify him?” I responded, “I want to depict the Willingham years as accurately as I can, which includes anything good or negative that I uncover, while staying true to the premise.” One-by-one, as dozens of players developed trust in me, it was like a dam bursting with stories and behind-the-scenes information pouring forth.
Q: What type of feedback have you received about the book, positive and negative? What’s been the response from the players who played for Tyrone Willingham?
A: The responses have been mostly positive, but there’s been a wide variety including some anger. Some people love the entire book and are very enthusiastic. Some love the entire book but are offended by the politically-charged epilogue. One person said the epilogue alone was worth the price of the entire book. Others have decided to never read the book, deeming me to be racist because of the provocative subtitle (when I point out that the book defends dozens of black players, the detractors respond with variations of “yeah, but…”) Some Notre Dame fans have been wildly enthusiastic about the book, as they still resent the national media calling them racist for having fired Willingham back in 2004 after only three seasons. They view my book as vindication that they weren’t racist, but that there were justifiable reasons for firing him that were never reported and focused on.
Regarding former UW players, there have been a variety of responses, mostly positive. Of the guys who played for Willingham, most have been incredibly enthusiastic. They’ve expressed happiness of having their stories finally told and details about Willingham and former athletic director Todd Turner coming out. On the other hand, one former Willingham player has reportedly stated that if he ever sees me in the street he will attack me.
Of former UW players who didn’t play for Willingham, there are guys who have read it that are very enthusiastic. One of them says he wishes he had heard these stories back in 2006-2007, so he could have spoken out on behalf of the players. There are other former players who haven’t read it and are very angry because they know Coach Willingham and are protective of him, and they consider me and the book to be full of it. Of course, if they read the stories, they’d be stunned and have to rethink their positions. But I know that some will refuse to ever read it and will maintain their belief that the book is an unfair hatchet job.
Q: What’s your next book project?
A: It looks like my next book is going to be about a certain segment of the military that appears to have been unfairly maligned by the media.
For more information about “Bow Down to Willingham,” visit Johnson’s website.