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The Firing of Tyrone Willingham

by MICHAEL DONNELLY

First off, let me say that I attended Michigan State and I regularly root for the Spartans and the Michigan Wolverines. I can barely stand Notre Dame. They dodged scheduling Michigan for 38 years. They famously “went for the tie” against the Spartans in 1966’s “Game of the Century” and were rewarded with a national title. The only time I root for Notre Dame is when they play Southern Cal. There’s a lot to not like. They have their own exclusive TV deal. There’s even a special BCS Notre Dame clause ­ if ND wins ten games, they’re assured of a BCS berth. Tell that to Utah!

Maybe it’s because Monsignor Sheridan gave me grief for passing on the Irish and heading off to East Lansing instead. He lamented, “We always have problems when you boys go to secular universities. We seem to lose you.” On that front, he was correct. (Of course, he also asked me when I was drafted and applied for Conscientious Objector status, “Don’t you know we’re over there in Vietnam defending the Catholics?”)

Now, I really can’t stand the Irish. Something is very wrong when a coach wins 60+ percentage of games (65-41-1 overall; 21 ­ 15 at Notre Dame) and while he’s coach players graduate at a 77 percent rate (and at an 85% rate at his previous post at Stanford, both schools hardly academic lightweights) and that’s not good enough!

Even though he was a Spartan, I never liked Tyrone Willingham that much. I admired that he walked on in football as a 5’7″, 139 pounder. I couldn’t believe it when he won three of four games he started at quarterback his freshman year. He also walked on in baseball and was All-Big Ten. He earned three letters in each sport. But, he always seemed cold and humorless to me. I played for coaches (very few, thankfully) like that and it was awful as a player. His players however, stand by him and admittedly I don’t know how he is to play for.

At any rate, there’s no way he deserved to be fired. Before a bowl game, at that! In over 60 years, no Notre Dame coach has had a shorter tenure. ND even kept the not-ready-for-prime-time Gary Faust for four years. Somehow ND went from doing the right thing and dismissing George O’Leary, their first choice three years ago for falsifying his academic resume. They even got a better coach as a reward. And you cannot tell me that if O’Leary had rung up Willingham’s record the last three years, that he would be out of the job. Therein lays the rub.

 

Reverse Affirmative Action?

Now some have said that it is PC to raise the race issue here. But, how can it not be raised? In ALL of Division 1-A football’s 117 teams, there are now just two African-American head coaches and not many assistant coaches. According to the NCAA, just over 51% of all the Division 1-A football players are African-American. Are you telling me that just two blacks are good enough to coach when half the players good enough to play are black? That’s a statistical impossibility.

The current season began with but five African-American coaches. Now, with Tony Samuel’s firing at New Mexico State, Fitz Hill resigning from San Jose State and Willingham’s firing, only Karl Dorrell at UCLA, and Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State remain. That’s deplorable.

 

Sports and Character

I grew up in Flint. I played on integrated teams as a teen. Like John Wooden I believe that sports don’t teach character so much as they reveal it. Like my very athletic father, a longtime community college baseball coach and president, I believe that sports are an antidote to racism. I am a much better person because of my playing alongside of and having friendships with black teammates. After all, on a level playing field, talent trumps skin color anytime. And, for me as an athlete, I wanted to play with good players and good guys. The bonus was that I found out for certain that we’re all alike where it really matters. Monsignor Sheridan and his legion of nuns may have taught us that all the time, but it was the actual experience that verified it.

But this isn’t about me. I only bring up this history to show why I think I have a balanced view on this. And it certainly isn’t “white guilt” that makes me outraged about Willingham’s firing. (Nor do I think it was “white guilt” that caused Michigan State to keep Bobby Williams around as head coach longer than they probably should have.) I would find Willingham’s ouster completely unfair no matter who it was with that record. I similarly feel Earl Bruce was unfairly dumped by the hated Buckeyes back in 1987.

When one compares the mob mentality of Notre Dame students and alums who were vicious in their Fire Willingham efforts and the moral cowardice of the administration with the players’ firsthand reports of how much they liked playing for Willingham and their own gracious taking blame for painful losses, it’s apparent who has character here and who is lacking.

Lots of coaches do get fired for poor records. Just this week, we saw Gerry DiNardo of Indiana (now there’s a football powerhouse) get fired after going 8-27 over three years. The same school endured years of Bobby Knight’s antics. But, then again, Knight was a winner — just like Ohio State endured Woody Hayes’ tantrums for years.

Gary Crowton was ousted at BYU after going 14 ­ 21 the past three years after a first season where he won 12 games.

And, yes white coaches like Bruce still get the shaft. Just look at what’s happened at Ole Miss, where David Cutliffe was fired after going 3 ­ 5 in the SEC this year, losing four games by a total of 19 points. Appears one has to produce an Eli Manning every season to satisfy Rebel fans.

 

It Is broke. So, fix it.

Something has to change here. I’m talking changing from the focus on National Titles and big money, as Michigan’s levelheaded, excellent coach Lloyd Carr consistently points out. The huge coaching salaries, and big money all around, is an affront, in and of itself. The mockery it makes of “student-athlete,” exemplified by the Maurice Clarett debacle at Ohio State, is very sad, if not hopelessly corrupt.

And it had to be tough for a guy like Carr to see all the abuse heaped by Wolverine “fans” on his players, like 2001 – 2003 quarterback John Navarre, Michigan’s all-time leading passer who merely passed for over 9200 yards and 72 touchdown, leading Michigan to a 28-10 record as a starter with one title and two second place finishes in one of the toughest conferences. Somehow that wasn’t good enough for the Michigan fans! Alas, no National Title. (I was at last year’s UM/Oregon game and at half-time was amazed at all the Michigan fans slamming Navarre. Michigan lost a game they probably should have won. So what? It’s hard to beat the Ducks at Autzen Stadium, as anyone will tell you.)

This points to the one race-neutral part of it all. Rumor has it that Carr is sick of it all and may retire. Some think that ND’s move was a preemptive strike in the efforts to woo Urban Meyer away from Utah, given rival Michigan might also join the hunt. Meyer has a specific no buy-out clause in his contract should he go to ND, Michigan or Ohio State. Given this out-of-control belief in Meyer as savior, only an Ara Parseghian might have avoided the ax.

One good thing recently? The grace shown Joe Paterno by Penn Sate — a coach I would have loved to have played for. Perhaps it marks the passing of more than one era. I’m not asking for some sort of Norman Rockwell myth. Just a little fair play and decency.

And, oh yeah, I’m also talking Affirmative Action. Just as the NCAA rightly kept publishing Student Body and Athlete Graduation Rates despite the Department of Education calling for a ban, the NCAA must show the same initiative and courage and push a program designed to graduate more African-American head and assistant coaches and coaches from other ethnic groups, as well.
I’m not saying it has to perfectly reflect the ethnic make-up of the players or even the entire student body, but 2 out of 117 is a record that should get anyone’s attention.

Go Trojans!

MICHAEL DONNELLY played the “Big Three” sports in high school and Cross Country and Basketball in community college. A number of his superior teammates and opponents went on to play Division 1-A ball. He can be reached at: pahtoo@aol.com

 

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MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com

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