Notre Dame Football: Ty Willingham and Racial Bias

The Rock NDNation.comSenior Analyst IMay 19, 2008

I’m biased.

I know this because I publicly came out in support of Tyrone Willingham when he was hired by Notre Dame, noting that the color of his skin would be both good for the program and good for minorities in coaching.

Color made a difference to me in the way I thought about future performance on the job and in image. And in a profession overwhelmingly controlled by white males coaching black athletes, I genuinely thought that Willingham might be a leader who would open doors and change what I viewed (and view) as a backward dynamic. I bought into the vision that Willingham was a boundary-breaking hire.

I was wrong.

I now think Willingham is a detrimental force to the cause he no doubt deeply believes in.

When Willingham publicly decried the lack of head coaching jobs for black Americans this past weekend, he made an irrefutable point…that something in the system is broken. Willingham further points to the good ol’ boy network as a culprit, which would appear to have validity in my opinion.

"You've got to explain the numbers,” said Willingham. “There's more than one answer. But it's alive and well in certain places, yes."

He should be pointing the finger in the mirror.

Willingham has done as much to hurt the cause of minority coaches as any single coach in recent memory. I would argue that he’s created new minority roadblocks others must now overcome—and in some respects, Willingham closed far more doors than he opened…if he opened any to begin with.

Let me explain my beliefs and my frustrations. The stepping stone to a head coaching position is a coordinator position. Now granted, Willingham skipped this step on his way to the head coaching position at Stanford, but being a coordinator is almost a prerequisite to the head coaching position (note that it certainly doesn’t guarantee success).

Yet in his six years at Notre Dame and Washington, Willingham has hired exactly zero minority coordinators.


Zero into the position that is the stepping stone to the head coaching chair. In contrast, since Willingham left, Notre Dame filled both of its coordinator positions with black coaches. Now, I’m not saying that Corwin Brown or Mike Haywood were hired for their color, but their positions at Notre Dame will make them prime candidates to step into the head chair at another school.

By contrast, IN SIX YEARS, Willingham couldn’t find one minority worthy of being his second?

There would have been no better way to further the cause of minority coaches than by the notoriety gained by being a coordinator at Notre Dame. I don’t know what the minority pool looks like for head coaches, but theoretically you would think there has to be a bigger pool to choose from when hiring for a coordinator position.

Yet, Tyrone Willingham hired whites for those key positions…again, the ones that make up the pool for the next head coaches.

But his worst transgression, by far, was legitimizing the idea that it’s okay to blame racism without cause for personal failures.

Willingham was given the biggest stage in the college football world and failed. There’s no loss of dignity in failure. There is great loss of dignity in blaming racism without cause or proof.

Worse, he did it the coward’s way, by not challenging charges of racism in the press that he knew had no factual support, even while put on the spot by John Saunders. All the while, he banked millions from Notre Dame with the knowledge that he had already contacted the University of Washington about leaving Notre Dame. By the way, that is grounds for firing with cause (read, no buyout).

And be clear on this: Notre Dame fans wanted Willingham to succeed.

We needed to him to succeed.

We were, in fact, desperate for him to succeed.

But when wins and recruiting nose-dived simultaneously while Willingham talked in sweeping platitudes about nothing and perfected his lob wedge, those of us who followed the program closely knew Notre Dame was on the precipice of a virtual death penalty.

Willingham, despite one very good class, was considered a lazy recruiter (as noted in the Chicago Tribune) who was letting the program rot from underneath.

We were treated to the results on the field last year, as Willingham’s last two classes were the juniors and seniors. Don’t get me wrong, he was a great recruiter when he got into a family’s living room—but unlike Weis, Willingham expected the talent to come to him.

It didn’t. Even at Notre Dame, you have to work for it.

But this isn’t just one data point. Willingham’s pattern of blame has continued at Washington. Last year, Willingham’s job was all but over after Washington President Mark Emmert had decided to go in a new direction. Again, Willingham, without having to do the dirty work himself, played the race card.

Athletic Director Todd Turner intervened, lining up power brokers while James Bible, president of the Seattle-King County NAACP, requested a meeting with Emmert to discuss "the value of Coach Willingham to this community."

The Turner/Willingham end-around forced Emmert’s hand.

Willingham won again—but the subversive actions of Turner in support of Willingham reportedly cost him his job.

And at what cost to other aspiring black coaches?

If you can’t fire a black head coach with cause (and an enormous payday), then what signal does that send to other schools who might hire a minority head coach?

I’ll answer.

To a school, it means you may not be able to fire him when you want to, despite performance on the field. And that equates to a much riskier long-term hire, which tilts the scale away from prospective black head coaches.

I know this because “fireability” is a key employment proposition at every major company. It’s the very reason many companies won’t do business in Spain and France, because changing out talent mistakes become incredibly costly. But in college football, it’s not just cost which is prohibitive, but also the negative publicity that comes with firing a minority head coach.

Willingham’s passive-aggressive, tacit approval of racial attacks on Notre Dame showed everyone how painful a process that can be. It would have been far more beneficial to those who came after him to just keep quiet without the benefit of proof.

So if you’re an AD on the sideline, you’re thinking, “Do I need this headache? I just want a winning team.”

Not only isn’t Willingham filling the minority pipeline with potential head coaching candidates, he’s created a giant hurdle for others like him by selfishly protecting his own reputation and job.

I wanted Tyrone Willingham to succeed at Notre Dame more than anybody.

He didn’t and that’s a shame.

That he sees fit to drag others down with him by playing the race card again and again is a crime.


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