Race has nothing to do with Notre Dame football

Tyrone Willingham, who happens to be black, was fired this week from his position as head coach of football at the University of Notre Dame after serving three years of a five—year contract worth $15 million.

Willingham, who happens to be black, was fired because the Irish have lagged on the field and in the recruiting battles over the past couple of years. He was fired because the Irish have failed to win enough games to land in a big money post—season bowl game. He was fired because the expectations at Notre Dame are absurdly high given the current climate of college football. He was fired because he failed to meet the expectations of his lucrative contract. He was fired despite his players excelling in the classroom, and despite bailing out Notre Dame when the coach hired before Willingham was dismissed for falsifying his resume. At Notre Dame, all of that is simply not enough.

Willingham, who happens to be black, was not fired because he is black, though that is not what many sportswriters and ESPN talking heads would have you believe. Chief among them is Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post who, among others, is claiming that influential racist elements within Notre Dame's administration and alumni just couldn't wait to perform a modern—day lynching and dump the black coach.

Willingham, for his part, said out loud why he was fired. While he admitted that he was surprised about his dismissal during a news conference in which he answered questions honestly and honorably, he said he realized why he was let go: 'I understand that I did not meet the expectations or standards that I set for myself in this program, and when you don't meet your own expectations, you won't meet the expectations of others.' What were those expectations? 'There's only one thing. Win. That's it. That's the bottom line. Win.'

Willingham started out doing just that, winning the first eight games he coached at Notre Dame in 2002. Since that high point, though, the Irish have struggled mightily, including three blowout losses to USC by a combined 93 points, two straight defeats to in—state rival Purdue, and losses administered by the likes of BYU, Pitt, and Boston College. Notre Dame lost eight games by 25 points or more. Think about how long a coach at Ohio State would be kept on after losing three games to Michigan by 93 points.

Willingham's recruiting classes were consistently rated only in the top 20 or 30 in the nation and slipping. No matter how well Willingham or anyone else coaches football, the best programs have the best players, pure and simple, as South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier pointed out to Wilbon on Wednesday's edition of Pardon the Interruption on ESPN. Someone should ask Wilbon if the scores of black high school players who spurned a Willingham—coached Notre Dame are racists, too.

Coaching at a major collegiate program may be one of the toughest jobs in the country. Expectations are insanely out of proportion, especially at traditional winners like Notre Dame. But they are what they are and coaches at prestigious programs are compensated handsomely for their commitment (Willingham will leave South Bend with a $6 million buyout and potential new gigs at Stanford or Washington). Alumni and big—money boosters grumble even when their schools produce winning records and minor bowl appearances. The goal — every year — is to be a part of the Bowl Championship Series and the national title. Failure to meet this standard results in some terminations that might seem curious to the casual observer.

Earlier this season, Florida head coach Ron Zook was fired before completing his third season in Gainesville and before completing his initial contract. The program had fallen off sharply in wins and in the race for top—flight high school talent. The pressure at Florida is akin to Notre Dame, and Zook was released. Last season, Frank Solich of Nebraska was fired after finishing 9—3. Nine wins at many schools would be cause for a parade down the main drag of campus, but not at Nebraska, where admission to the biggest and best bowls is the coin of the realm. Alabama has become a revolving door of coaches trying to fill the shoes of Bear Bryant.

Because of relatively quick turnarounds from coaches like Bob Stoops and Kirk Ferentz, who raised Oklahoma and Iowa respectively from the doldrums, the window of opportunity for coaches of elite football schools shrinks by the day. Many of the race—card dealers have pointed out that Notre Dame honored the full contracts of white coaches Gerry Faust and Bob Davie, Willingham's predecessor. But this is not the mid 1980s, and Notre Dame officials have admitted that Davie should have been given the boot in his third year. Incidentally, in his column, Wilbon fails to note that Davie was shown the door merely one year into a five—year extension for failure to perform. Because other schools have turned pig's ears into pearls quickly, Notre Dame thinks it can as well. If the next coach, white or black, cannot win quickly or bring in the best players, he will be fired before his contract is finished.

Failing to point out the similarities in circumstances between Willingham's case at Notre Dame and those of Zook at Florida, Solich at Nebraska, and elsewhere seems to suggest that Willingham is somehow in need of special treatment. This is a failure to treat Willingham as an equal among his peers and deliberately marginalizes the degree of the win now mentality of college football today, and ignores how coaches are evaluated and retained or fired.

Fans of Notre Dame want nothing more than success on the field, and it is ridiculous to think that Irish fans or brass would root against their team because it had a black head coach or root for that black head coach to fail. If anything, Notre Dame fans and administration would have liked nothing better than to have a black coach succeed for the obvious accolades that would flow the school's way, not to mention the enhanced ability to attract recruits. Unfortunately for Willingham, the administration thought he was not on his way to that success, and thought the school needed to look elsewhere.

There is no question that the shortage of black head coaches in college football is shameful, but that is irrelevant to this particular situation. A few questions are relevant, however. Nobody has presented — or even attempted to present — evidence or an argument that Notre Dame under Willingham was on the verge of a breakthrough. The downward trend in performance is clear. Do the chuckleheads think Willingham deserved more time simply because he is black and, therefore, above the right of a university to evaluate, retain, or fire their coach at will? 

The most important question, though, is whether this sort of thinking among those who cry discrimination and demand a different standard is racist in and of itself.

Matt May can be reached at matthewtmay@yahoo.com; his blog is located at mattymay.blogspot.com

Tyrone Willingham, who happens to be black, was fired this week from his position as head coach of football at the University of Notre Dame after serving three years of a five—year contract worth $15 million.

Willingham, who happens to be black, was fired because the Irish have lagged on the field and in the recruiting battles over the past couple of years. He was fired because the Irish have failed to win enough games to land in a big money post—season bowl game. He was fired because the expectations at Notre Dame are absurdly high given the current climate of college football. He was fired because he failed to meet the expectations of his lucrative contract. He was fired despite his players excelling in the classroom, and despite bailing out Notre Dame when the coach hired before Willingham was dismissed for falsifying his resume. At Notre Dame, all of that is simply not enough.

Willingham, who happens to be black, was not fired because he is black, though that is not what many sportswriters and ESPN talking heads would have you believe. Chief among them is Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post who, among others, is claiming that influential racist elements within Notre Dame's administration and alumni just couldn't wait to perform a modern—day lynching and dump the black coach.

Willingham, for his part, said out loud why he was fired. While he admitted that he was surprised about his dismissal during a news conference in which he answered questions honestly and honorably, he said he realized why he was let go: 'I understand that I did not meet the expectations or standards that I set for myself in this program, and when you don't meet your own expectations, you won't meet the expectations of others.' What were those expectations? 'There's only one thing. Win. That's it. That's the bottom line. Win.'

Willingham started out doing just that, winning the first eight games he coached at Notre Dame in 2002. Since that high point, though, the Irish have struggled mightily, including three blowout losses to USC by a combined 93 points, two straight defeats to in—state rival Purdue, and losses administered by the likes of BYU, Pitt, and Boston College. Notre Dame lost eight games by 25 points or more. Think about how long a coach at Ohio State would be kept on after losing three games to Michigan by 93 points.

Willingham's recruiting classes were consistently rated only in the top 20 or 30 in the nation and slipping. No matter how well Willingham or anyone else coaches football, the best programs have the best players, pure and simple, as South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier pointed out to Wilbon on Wednesday's edition of Pardon the Interruption on ESPN. Someone should ask Wilbon if the scores of black high school players who spurned a Willingham—coached Notre Dame are racists, too.

Coaching at a major collegiate program may be one of the toughest jobs in the country. Expectations are insanely out of proportion, especially at traditional winners like Notre Dame. But they are what they are and coaches at prestigious programs are compensated handsomely for their commitment (Willingham will leave South Bend with a $6 million buyout and potential new gigs at Stanford or Washington). Alumni and big—money boosters grumble even when their schools produce winning records and minor bowl appearances. The goal — every year — is to be a part of the Bowl Championship Series and the national title. Failure to meet this standard results in some terminations that might seem curious to the casual observer.

Earlier this season, Florida head coach Ron Zook was fired before completing his third season in Gainesville and before completing his initial contract. The program had fallen off sharply in wins and in the race for top—flight high school talent. The pressure at Florida is akin to Notre Dame, and Zook was released. Last season, Frank Solich of Nebraska was fired after finishing 9—3. Nine wins at many schools would be cause for a parade down the main drag of campus, but not at Nebraska, where admission to the biggest and best bowls is the coin of the realm. Alabama has become a revolving door of coaches trying to fill the shoes of Bear Bryant.

Because of relatively quick turnarounds from coaches like Bob Stoops and Kirk Ferentz, who raised Oklahoma and Iowa respectively from the doldrums, the window of opportunity for coaches of elite football schools shrinks by the day. Many of the race—card dealers have pointed out that Notre Dame honored the full contracts of white coaches Gerry Faust and Bob Davie, Willingham's predecessor. But this is not the mid 1980s, and Notre Dame officials have admitted that Davie should have been given the boot in his third year. Incidentally, in his column, Wilbon fails to note that Davie was shown the door merely one year into a five—year extension for failure to perform. Because other schools have turned pig's ears into pearls quickly, Notre Dame thinks it can as well. If the next coach, white or black, cannot win quickly or bring in the best players, he will be fired before his contract is finished.

Failing to point out the similarities in circumstances between Willingham's case at Notre Dame and those of Zook at Florida, Solich at Nebraska, and elsewhere seems to suggest that Willingham is somehow in need of special treatment. This is a failure to treat Willingham as an equal among his peers and deliberately marginalizes the degree of the win now mentality of college football today, and ignores how coaches are evaluated and retained or fired.

Fans of Notre Dame want nothing more than success on the field, and it is ridiculous to think that Irish fans or brass would root against their team because it had a black head coach or root for that black head coach to fail. If anything, Notre Dame fans and administration would have liked nothing better than to have a black coach succeed for the obvious accolades that would flow the school's way, not to mention the enhanced ability to attract recruits. Unfortunately for Willingham, the administration thought he was not on his way to that success, and thought the school needed to look elsewhere.

There is no question that the shortage of black head coaches in college football is shameful, but that is irrelevant to this particular situation. A few questions are relevant, however. Nobody has presented — or even attempted to present — evidence or an argument that Notre Dame under Willingham was on the verge of a breakthrough. The downward trend in performance is clear. Do the chuckleheads think Willingham deserved more time simply because he is black and, therefore, above the right of a university to evaluate, retain, or fire their coach at will? 

The most important question, though, is whether this sort of thinking among those who cry discrimination and demand a different standard is racist in and of itself.

Matt May can be reached at matthewtmay@yahoo.com; his blog is located at mattymay.blogspot.com