Blogs > Cliopatria > Race and Football at Notre Dame

Dec 1, 2004 4:32 pm


Race and Football at Notre Dame



I won’t be the last person to make this connection, but perhaps I will be the first publicly to do so (from what I can tell). Notre Dame has fired Tyrone Willingham. Coaches get fired all the time, no big deal, right? But this strikes me as a hugely big deal. And I am going to run the risk of being accused of playing the race card in asking for an explanation.

With Willingham’s firing, not only does Notre Dame lose its first black head coach, but NCAA Division I-A, a sport that consists of more than 60% African American athletes, is now down to two black head coaches. But more significantly, Notre Dame has broken with its own traditional protocol when it comes to their coaches. No matter how unsuccessful, Notre Dame football coaches have always been given the length of their first contract to prove their merit. This strikes me as fair and wise. We live in a sports culture that believes that the first solution to any rough patch ought to be to fire the coach or manager. More often than not the problems run deeper, as programs most always discover. The almost comically overmatched Gerry Faust got a full run in Notre Dame. So too did Bob Davie, whose teams never won a bowl game. And yet Notre Dame could not manage to find a full five years for Willingham, whose record at Notre Dame was on pace to be significantly better than Davie’s.

So the obvious question emerges: Why fire Willingham now? Why throw him under the bus when other coaches have had every opportunity to prove what they could do in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus? Of course we will never know. The good folks at Notre Dame will talk only of the storied tradition of their hallowed program, but let’s get real. I have a hard time believing that the anti-Willingham whispering campaign that began when the Irish fell to 5-7 last year had nothing to do with race.

Notre Dame has gotten something of a free pass the last ten or fifteen years. They manage to maintain ties to the BCS despite not affiliating with a conference. They have their own television contract with NBC. And yet the best team they have had in a decade was Willingham’s first team. The Fighting Irish went a desultory 6-5 this year and secured a bowl bid. But here is the dirty little secret that no one wants to admit: Notre Dame is simply not that good anymore. And firing Willingham is unlikely to change that. The Golden Dome is tarnished today. The university just got rid of a good coach, their first black coach, after giving him less of an opportunity than they gave his white predecessors. I think it is only fair and right to ask why.




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Ed Schmitt - 12/5/2004

Great story!


Richard Henry Morgan - 12/5/2004

Yeah, he was. So was George Webster. I remember also the signs the Spartan fans held up -- "Kill, Bubba, Kill". Funny story. Bubba started out at Northwestern, where McLean Stephenson of MASH fame was the assistant AD. Bubba came to his office, complaining that he had Freshman Comp on his schedule, and explaining patiently to McLean that Bubba doesn't do English Comp, and that McLean had better change his schedule. McLean explained that all students had to take Freshman Comp. Next thing you know, Bubba was off to Michigan State. So should anybody tell you Bubba was completely fearless, that's not exactly so -- he feared English Comp.


Ed Schmitt - 12/4/2004

I agree the analogy of a game to a season limps, but the principle stays the same and perhaps makes my point more effectively. Just because October 1990 was less painful, that does not mean you'd prefer that team to the '78 Sox, does it? (Unless of course you had a great fondness for Joe Hesketh and Kevin Romine, but I doubt that would have to do with the principle of competitiveness.) Blowouts are one (just one, and again, I agree that they are perhaps not the most important) measure of competitiveness, particularly when they occur against your rivals.
Richard, was Bubba Smith as big in person as he looked on those Miller Lite commercials?


Richard Henry Morgan - 12/4/2004

It just seems to me that, much as I admire the guy, Willingham had never really demonstrated that he was an elite-calibre coach. He had only a 54% win rate going into Notre Dame, he had only three years at Stanford (with a losing season sandwiched between two winning ones), and his last two years at Notre Dame, in aggregate, was a losing proposition. Race may or may not have played a role in his firing at Notre Dame. I think it equally possible that race may or may not have played a role in his hiring. And that may help explain the fact that Notre Dame dumped him short of his contract -- thay may have felt they tossed him a bone to stop with. Just food for thought from a guy that despises Notre Dame, and who actually saw the 1966 game.

http://bubbascasino.com/greatestcollegegame.php


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/4/2004

Ed -
Actually, the 78 Yankees thing is bit different -- we are talking a game versus a season. Put it this way -- a more appropriate analogy with the Sox is that 1990 hurt a lot less than 1978. Or even more apt, the loss ijn the ALCS to yhe Yanks in 1999 hurt a whole lot less than it did in 2003. On the other hand, all losing sucks, and i do agree that it did not ehlp recruiting, excfept to say that a loss to the defending national champion who appears poised to repeat is hardly something that comes standard. Were I an alum or recruit, the four straight losses to BC would be a lot worse than the losses to a clearly superior USC team.
dc


Ed Schmitt - 12/4/2004

Certainly it can hurt worse to lose a close game than to have it completely handed to you. But you're not saying (to bring this issue closer to home) you would rather the '78 Red Sox had finished below the Blue Jays than to have gone out the way they did, are you? It goes to the issue of competitiveness.
I'm not going to say the blowout thing is, of itself, a justification for canning Willingham. But that prime time debacle in the Coliseum certainly hurt recruiting a heck of a lot more than an overtime shootout would have, don't you think? Not that Notre Dame is going to win many recruiting battles with So Cal or Oklahoma or, clearly, Florida these days.

But I agree, as I said earlier, that Willingham didn't get enough time and that you have to be willing to build despite all the increasing pressure. I am clearly biased, but I just don't see the race thing being anywhere near the factor as the pressure to be elite, and despite your attempts to isolate that as the only viable reason, unless more evidence comes out, which I'm sure will happen, I remain unconvinced.


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/4/2004

Ed --
I absolutely believe that. In the long run, the difference is negligible. If you are telling me that it feels worse to lose by 20 than it does to lose in overtime by one, you've never played sports.

Richard --
Davie did not in fact recruit great players. Willingham inherited a train wreck and got on a magic run that he carried through with smoke and mirrors. It is shortsighted to say that building a program means an unbroken run in which each season has more wins than the one before. Even programs that are good have ups and downs. Stop being silly. I'm beginning to think you don't even like sports at this point!
Yeah, the Bonds thing will get uglier before it gets better. I just hope that it ends up being primarily a west coast borne controversy, at least as far as BALCO goes.
dc


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/4/2004

Ed --
Wow! I had not given that even a scintilla of thought, and it would never happen, but that would be interesting!It would certainly be popular and might even allow Notre dame to turn chicken poop into chicken soup.
dc


Richard Henry Morgan - 12/4/2004

You can't have it both ways when it comes to building a program. At Stanford, Willingham sandwiched a losing record between two winning records. Then at Notre dame he had his one great year the first year out the gate , using Davie's players. Remember Davie? He's the guy who, it is claimed, couldn't recruit or coach. Following on that first year Willingham posted a losing season and a barely winning one. Which is not to say they shouldn't have honored his last two years of his contract, but merely to point out the trajectory was not onward and upward when he was there.

In any case, my other sports intuitions seem to be holding up better. AP and CNN/SI are reporting, based on grand jury testimony, that Bonds admitted to "unknowingly" using steroids. Knock me over with a feather.


Ed Schmitt - 12/4/2004

"People who care about sports do not think that losing by 31 is of necessity worse than losing by 2."

Derek - You cannot really be saying that with a straight face, can you?


Ed Schmitt - 12/4/2004

Try to hide your glee a bit more transparently. I say Ditka for coach of the Irish!


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/4/2004

Richard --
That's not a good comparison at all for those who value the idea of building a program and how much work that takes, by which I mean, people who actually watch football. Let's remember where Willingham was and what he did there (Stanford -- a place with actual admissions standards and no culture of winning football). Blindly taking winning percentage is just a silly standard. Again, please remind me of the list of Notre Dame coaches in the last decade who won ten games and gatrered national coach of the year awards.
Finally, people keep mentioning the 20+ point loss actor. What a colossally stupid measurement that is. Point differentials are for guys who determine championships by computers. People who care about sports do not think that losing by 31 is of necessity worse than losing by 2. These people are not football fans.
dc


Richard Henry Morgan - 12/3/2004

Just to throw a little more fat onto the fire of argument, one can compare the records of O'Leary and Willingham, both of whom had been head coaches for 7 years prior to being hired by Notre Dame. Willingham had won 54% of his games, O'Leary 61% of his games. It would be interesting to see just how many Notre Dame coaches were hired with a 54% winning record. Food for thought.


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/3/2004

Which makes this even more of a hamhanded disaster. And by the way, for those of you who are arguing that Notre Dame is the pinnacle of football, this is exhibit A against your case: Urban meyer, a guy with Notre dame ties and a clause in his contract that specifically allows him a free walk if Notre Dame comes calling has the option, Notre Dame or Florida, and chooses Florida. Ouch. That's gotta hurt!
dc


Steven Heise - 12/3/2004

But if ND was trying to grab Meyer, it appears their strategy backfired, as everyone is reporting Meyer is heading for Florida.

Steve


Richard Henry Morgan - 12/3/2004

i think I read in the papers over the weekend that Willingham holds the Notre Dame record-setting rate of 5 blowouts by 30 or more points in three years. I'm rather confident that's not a record he wishes he had. He seems a class act, and his players respect him. I suspect he'll land on his feet somewhere and may prove more of an embarrassment to Notre Dame after leaving than he ever was while there.


Ed Schmitt - 12/3/2004

Derek - I'm not trying to misrepresent anyone. My point all along has simply been that I don't believe Willingham was fired because of his color, but because of exaggerated expectations. You're certainly right to point out that Duke is the measuring stick when it comes to college hoops, and that is the closest thing to Notre Dame's glorified popular status in football, and also with regard to their emphasis on athletes as students. I was discussing Notre Dame's status with regard to football, not overall athletic programs a la Stanford, etc. I don't get all of this other stuff about your repeatedly saying its a good school - that's not in doubt and that's not a point I'm defending. Perhaps I just have not been clear enough - Mr. Lamovsky's post says a lot of what I've been trying to say. But these message boards eventually seem to turn into something approximating urban sprawl, heading outward to no good end. It is fun, though. Say, when is your book coming out?


Jesse David Lamovsky - 12/3/2004

Two reasons come to mind:

1.) Urban Meyer is probably the hottest coaching prospect in the nation, and he has a history at Notre Dame, and

2.) The third straight 31-point loss to USC. Granted, the Trojans have probably been the best team in the nation over the last three seasons, but you can't keep losing to an arch-rival in that fashion, that often, and not expect to take some heat. Willingham came under the gun last season when Michigan beat the Irish 38-0, for the same reasons.

It's a fair question to ask why Willingham got only three seasons while Faust and Davie got five. I think one reason is that Willingham followed Davie, and after the Bob Davie regime, the ND athletic department probably couldn't stomach the thought of another five-year rebuilding plan. And again, Urban Meyer is available now, but probably won't be in two seasons. Faust is a special case, an Irish Catholic who eats, sleeps, and dreams Notre Dame, and probably got too long of a tenure out of sentimental reasons. In comparison between him and Willingham, it's probably more accurate to say that Faust was retained for too long because of what, and who, he was, more so than Willingham was fired because of what, and who, he was. Does that make sense?

I agree with Derek that Willingham was fired too soon. Three years is hardly enough time to gauge the progress of a program. It's only fair to give a coach enough time to see his original recruiting class all the way through. And Notre Dame hasn't played at a national-championship level since 1993; they're going to need more than three seasons to get back to that level. Still, Willingham himself admitted that he didn't live up to his own expectations at the job. I just don't think race played a role in Willingham's firing- although it may have played a role in his hiring in the first place.

I also think that Willingham will be head-coaching before the beginning of next season, although I don't think it will be at Washington. Methinks he's going back to Stanford.

Oh, and as far as "playing the race card" is concerned, Derek is a model of subtlety compared to the hysterics at ESPN.com's Page 2. Jim Caple's column, in particular, is a trip- a grown man, a sportswriter at that, who seems to be channeling post-election Maureen Dowd. Ugly stuff.



Tom Bruscino - 12/3/2004

Sorry, this posted in the wrong place so here it is again:

Oklahoma was terrible until just a few years ago. Florida has not seriously competed for a national championship in the last few years. What changed at those places? Did Oklahoma lower its academic standards for athletes? Did Florida raise its academic standards for athletes? No. Oklahoma got Bob Stoops. Steve Spurrier left Florida.

This is football, not basketball or baseball. By its nature, coaches are far more important to the success of a team in football than in most other sports. Lou Holtz's teams were in the running for national championships almost every year. Bob Davie took over a good program but was a terrible head coach at Notre Dame and left behind a mess. Willingham never got a real chance to turn the program around. The problem at Notre Dame was coaching, not academic standards.


Tom Bruscino - 12/3/2004

Oklahoma was terrible until just a few years ago. Florida has not seriously competed for a national championship in the last few years. What changed at those places? Did Oklahoma lower its academic standards for athletes? Did Florida raise its academic standards for athletes? No. Oklahoma got Bob Stoops. Steve Spurrier left Florida.

This is football, not basketball or baseball. By its nature, coaches are far more important to the success of a team in football than in most other sports. Lou Holtz's teams were in the running for national championships almost every year. Bob Davie took over a good program but was a terrible head coach at Notre Dame and left behind a mess. Willingham never got a real chance to turn the program around. The problem at Notre Dame was coaching, not academic standards.


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/3/2004

Ed --
Except that I do believe that Duke has won a national championship or two in sports, indeed, in a fairly major one. Yes, by golly, I do. And I believe Stanford has the best athletic program in the country by the measure of overall athletic excellence. And in any case, are you saying Notre dame did not want to win in year three of davie? because they didn't. And they have won one national championship in three decades or thereabouts. So they may see themselves as a national championship contender every year, but believing in little fairies that spew championship dust does not make it so.
In any case, you are making arguments against things I never said. How many times do i have to say that Notre Dame is a good school and that indeed its standards are higher for athletes than at many schools? I've done it, what, five, six times here now? Are you intentionally misrepresenting me? That would be rather against the Notre Dame spirit. What I am saying, and I thought it had been fairly plain all along, is that there are a lot of places that value academics, but that nonetheless bend the rules for their athletes. I've no problem with that, save when they then pretend not to, which is the whole problem i have with Notre Dame.
In any case, no one has yet explained why Willingham lost his job before his contract up but Bob Davie did not, though Willingham had a better record and a ten win season and national coach of the year award under his belt. And davie inherited Holtz'sd program while Willingham inherited the train wreck that was davie's. Why the double standard, and why the reluctance to identify the only salient differentiating factor, race?
dc


Ed Schmitt - 12/2/2004

This is probably approaching the point where we're talking past one another, but again, no one is claiming Notre Dame is better than Duke, Stanford, or Cal. It is not about simply fielding a successful D1 team, it's about winning it all. So there, we're not looking at Duke, Stanford or usually, Cal (this year is an exception). Michigan is a much better comparison in the pool of elite schools, but I don't know the difference in standards between their general student body and their athletes. And on what grounds beside a wink wink, nudge nudge assumption do you base your assertion that standards for Irish players are not significantly higher than at Florida or Oklahoma? All I can go on is my own anecdotal experience, but the players I had associations with did not get away with Basket Weaving as a major. The majority weren't in the same academic admissions pool as the rest of us, but they did have to live in the dorms with regular students, they did generally have to show up for class, and many were very good students. It may be a question of sanctimony that bothers you, but because the school isn't exactly the image it portrays, it doesn't mean it's the polar opposite, either. It really is the "holier than thou" thing people despise, and I'm there with you on that. But I also see lots of exceptional things there...


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/2/2004

Ed --
Good point on Ismail and the Heisman, though to my knowledge that does not make the Rocket any slower. And let's not pretend that not taking Peop 48 cases makes one a paradigm of scholarly virtue. Again -- Notre Dame is a good school. But this idea that the academic standards are burdensome is simply not true. There are lots and lots of schools that have comparable or higher academic standards that field successful DI sports teams. Duke? Stanford? Cal? The fact is, like every school, Notre Dame relaxes its standards for its athletes. This is simply a fact. Notre Dame won 10 games two years ago. What happened? How is it that you guys explain that? And the landscape of college football is simply not that different from what it was a decade ago. The Solich case is not probitive one way or the other. Things have simply not changed that much in ten or twenty years, and there is not enough substance to this Notre Dame academic superiority thing to be worth arguing about except that some people seem to think that the football team actually has the same admissions burdens as the regular student body. It's the sanctimony that is so galling.
dc


Jason Nelson - 12/2/2004

I have to disagree, respectfully. There was no BCS 10 years ago. There were far fewer black coaches who were given the opportunity to coach 10 years ago(in the aggregate, not the number in any particular year). The 85 scholarship rule had not taken its effect 10 years ago. There is much, much, more parody in college football today than 10 year ago. Further, the media scrutiny, 24 hour cable sports news, the internet, bloggers, all were much less of a factor 10 years ago. Things in college football today are drasticly different than 10 years ago. But, perhaps Im just struggling for an argument.


Jason Nelson - 12/2/2004

I did not mean to question your credentials at all. I apologize if you took that question personally. I was adressing all readers, and since I have yet to conquer calculus, I made an poor assumption that there may be some readers who share my mathematical limitations.


Ed Schmitt - 12/2/2004

Not to be picky, but Ismail never won the Heisman - Tim Brown did in 1987. The climate has changed in South Bend. Notre Dame does not take Prop 48 cases like Tony Rice anymore. This is what broadcaster and rushing great Allen Pinkett had to say after the Paul Hornung controversy over lowering standards:

"I know what he was saying. I think what you can do is track it back to the last time Notre Dame won a national championship [1988]. During that time, they relaxed the standards for players to get into Notre Dame. Some of the players that played on those squads wouldn't get in today. The thing is, some of those players turned out to be some of the best ambassadors the school has ever had. So, I think what Paul is saying is that relaxing the academic standards puts you in touch with a larger pool of players you can recruit. Right now, there are a number of players they can't recruit because they can't get in. However, I understand why Notre Dame has its academic requirements as high as it does. In fact, they protect the integrity of my degree by keeping the academic standards high. I'm also a believer that you can't win long term with stupid players. So, you're looking at a small pool of players that Notre Dame has to go get that have the total package."

One of the folks Pinkett is referring to as a great ambassador is certainly Chris Zorich, who said he is ashamed of Willingham's firing.

Ultimately, it comes down, as it often does I think, to the rub between ethics and the demands of competition. This pervades life in U.S. society. Notre Dame is a Catholic institution, but the firing of Willingham was made for business reasons. Can I categorically say race wasn't a factor, or some other inside dynamic wasn't at work? No. But the climate has changed everywhere, as the stakes are higher and the leash is shorter across the country. Two words - Frank Solich. Coaches are the expendable element, not players, in this new super-competitive atmosphere in the huge money world of college sports.

And fairly or unfairly, like the Yankees, people care just care more about Notre Dame - both their supporters and their detractors, who are disproportionately represented here. The school is different in that regard.


Jason Nelson - 12/2/2004

I am not going to take it personally, thanks for your response. However, I respectfully think you are being too idealistic and not realistic enough. I am not giving any excuses to anyone. I am simply objectively stating the reality that making too big a deal over this justified firing could have on the rational decision making of AD's in the future.

In conclusion, you say that there are other schools that recruits would rather go to now. You are right. Part of the reason for that is the failure of Davie and Willingham. Notre Dame is tring to correct this and become more competitive. There are better ways to push for equality that trashing Notre Dame about this.

By the way, I do not like Notre Dame at all and usually root against them. I begain to kind of root for them because of Willingham. Now I can go back to hoping they lose by 50 every week. I just can not support piling on them for this decision. It punishes them for doing the right thing in the beggining. As a head football coach you are hired to be fired, and thats just the way the world works.


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/2/2004

Oh, and Jason -- when you write: "I wounder how many of the members of this web site would qualify if that standard was imposed upon them?" No need to "wounder" about our "acedemics" here on Rebunk: I'm afraid that I'll toss my PhD out there and my background at an undergraduate institution that compares favorably with Notre Dame. I've no problem with you arguing with us with regard to Notre Dame. Don't pretend to be able to speak to my academic credentials. I am, after all, writing as a university professor on my blog on History News Network. I'm no Rick Mirer intellectually, in your estimation, I guess, but I'll hold my own.
dc


Tom Bruscino - 12/2/2004

Sorry, the logic of Paul Horning does not stand up unless you want to argue that Notre Dame's academic standards made a huge jump at precisely the same time Bob Davie became head coach. The problem was that poor coaching and poor recruiting by Davie led to poor performance on the field. Poor performance on the field made it harder for Davie and then Willingham to recruit players. Still, a solid coach could get that program going again, because Notre Dame still has that mystique and thus is the only school that has the huge advantage of being able to recruit in big numbers anywhere in the country. I don't even like Notre Dame, but I would be pretty impressed if the Irish came to recruit my son.

And that is even with their supposedly elevated academic standards. At Notre Dame, the general university requirements for mathematics are at this site: http://www.science.nd.edu/science_undergrad/courses/math_courses.htm . Based on this information, it looks like Arts and Sciences students can take finite mathematics and statistics and avoid the basic calculus courses to fulfill the two-course mathematics requirement. Many, though not all, schools have basic math requirements for all of their degrees. But if you think Notre Dame doesn't do the same as every other big name program and figure ways to get their athletes through the requirements, you are just being naive.

Naivete might be something to watch out for, especially for someone who comes on a website whose members are two Ph.D.'s and one near-Ph.D. and writes, "I wounder how many of the members of this web site would qualify if that standard was imposed upon them?" My math is a little rusty--I took Trig/Pre-Calc as a sophomore in high school and physics the next year--but I somehow managed to get through my undergraduate degree while playing a little football at a Division II school where I spent five or six weekends a Fall driving in old buses 8, 12, or 16 hours to games all over the West. I think I probably could have handled Notre Dame's academic requirements while eating at training tables, flying in comfortable jets, and getting my ass wiped by my team-appointed personal assistant. But I could be exagerrating--I'm no Rick Mirer, Jerome Bettis, Mark Edwards, Jeff Faine, or Rocket Ismail.


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/2/2004

Sorry, got cut off there -- (By the wqay, thanks for reading, and take these arguments for what they are, nothing personal intended):
I was about to say,:Wow -- talk about looking for the flimsiest excuse possible to avoid doing the right thing! There are two black head coaches in NCAA DI-A, and you are trying to send a warning to those who are critical of the fact that there are only two coaches and that Notre Dame has just seriously screwed up and that race has to be a factor to impose yet another barrier to hiring black coaches. that is rather astounding. Criticize a bad race situation and you'll only make it worse? Talk about giving an institutional pass.
I'm not much impressed with Hornung's answer to the problem now, nor have I ever been. BC has admissiosn standards that are pretty rigorous, and I cannot help but notice that they have pounded Notre Dame four years running.
i also am nopt convinced that any,one outside of Notre Dame still sees South bend as the epicenter of football in the US. And I am not certain that anyone in the South ever really did. i think this arrogance is part of the problem -- you all can think you are the most important program around. But the fact is that you are not. Firing a good coach who came in under crappy circumstances is not going to change the fact that a whole lot of kids today would choose Florida or Miami or USC or LSU over Notre Dame and admissions won't even begin to enter the equation at that point.
dc


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/2/2004

Well, first off, let's recall that motre Dame stumbled onto Willingham and made a virtue out of necessity. Willingham was not the school's first choice. Or has l'affaire O'leary already slipped into the recesses of the consciosness of Golden Domers.
But I love how you then turn the tables -- the problem is not Notre Dame sudden;y changing its age old policy; it is not firing a black coach who did measurably beter than his predecessor based both on records but as importantly on where the program was when the guys inherited it. No, the issue somehow becomes one of schhols not being willing to hire black coaches becuse of the blowback! How noble! NCAA DI programs can now say that if they hire a coach who is black, they are just courting trouble. W


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/2/2004

Jason --
there are lots of reasons why a school may not compete successfully at the highest level. Scademics are only part of this. Otherwise, the alternative question can be asked -- how do you explain when Notre Dame does compete? in othger words, if being bad is an argument for their academic excellence, then the only conclusion one can draw is that when they are good it is because of academic failings. this is a foolishly reductionist argument. the factr emains, notre dame is a fine school. But as with all schools, athletes at notre dame are given serious advantages in admissions and in their time at school. The issue is not the quality of notre Dame, it is the artifice that they are somehow an exception among elite football programs. I do recall that Notre Dame won 10 games just two seasons ago. has the competitive climate really changed that much? has it really changed that much since a guy with a little speed, Raghib ismail, won the heisman? I'd venture to say that those who want to argue that college football is radically different from what it was ten years ago are really struggling for an argument.
dc
dc


Jason Nelson - 12/2/2004

I want to begin by agreeing with many of you in saying that the current state of diversity among the ranks of college head football coaches in America is woeful. I am not defending the situation as it is. I loved to see Sylvester Croom hired at Mississippi State this year, the first black head coach in the SEC conference. I root for his success. While there is much work to be done, it should be noted that progress has been made.
I fear that this discussion of the possibility that Willingham’s dismissal was motivated in part by racism could result in a further setback to the cause of racial equality in college football. Think very carefully about the possible ramifications of this point of view.
First, Notre Dame is widely considered to be the premiere head-coaching job in the country. Notre Dame set a good precedent by not only considering Willingham, but also hiring him. Further, his success three years ago was trumpeted nationwide. These actions do not seem to be of a school motivated by racism.
Second, what could be the results if Notre Dame is unfairly tarred with a “partially racist” label. This is a clear signal to any other school in the country that there are great risks on the backside of any hiring of a black head football coach. What I am saying is that even if an Athletic Director is completely pure of any racist considerations, the possibility that if he hires a black head coach, he will be forced to keep him regardless of his performance to avoid a public relations nightmare, like this one, may influence his decision. He may rationally determine that the risks outweigh the benefits of hiring a black head coach. This is not France. An employer should have the freedom to fire if deemed wise.
Personally, I am sensitive to this disincentive. If I understand most of your opinions right, does not the black head football coach in America already face a very difficult road to opportunity? Why pile on an additional factor of disincentive to schools who may be open to hiring a black head coach?
Noter Dame should be given credit for giving the opportunity to a good man, Ty Willingham. I do not believe that others should be too critical with the firing until every other school in the country has also given a black head coach the same opportunity. The cause of equality and justice would be better served by posts highlighting the closed-minded approach of all the other universities that have not given this opportunity to qualifying candidates. There are many jobs available this year. If you want to advance the ball on this issue, put pressure on these schools to consider qualified black candidates. Convincing them that there are great public risks on the backside of a good decision does nothing to advance the ball.
Lastly, equality means equality. Along with opportunity come the risks of failure and the spoils of success. Ron Zook, a white coach, was fired with a much better record. Frank Solich was fired from Nebraska last year with a great record. If America is to become a land where the color of skin becomes irrelevant, black coaches must accept the fruits of failure, as determined by their employer, along with the fruits of success. Notre Dame did change their tradition by not fulfilling the contract. Yet I would argue that this change was inevitable in the current competitive environment. The color of Willingham’s skin would have not made any difference.
Willingham will be fine. He will get another job, and he will be a success. Please consider the unintended consequences of making a big deal out of this natural occurrence in the competitive world of big time college football


Jason Nelson - 12/2/2004

You not asking the right question. Notre Dame is still considered by many to be THE elite football program in the country. The football team currently lacks the talent, phisical abilities, speed, etc., of the other top schools. How do you explain this if not because Notre Dame imposes more rigerous acedemic standards upon its student althetes? The antecdotal evidence you presented is simply not convincing. All students at Notre Dame must take calculus, including "student" althetes. I wounder how many of the members of this web site would qualify if that standard was imposed upon them? If Notre Dame wants to be competitive in the current environment, the school must lower its acedemic standards, as Paul Horning has suggested. No coach, black or white, will be able to compete without speed.


Steven Heise - 12/2/2004

I think I'll buy that race had to be at least a bit of a factor in the ND situation, but, to play the devil's advocate and avoid writing on a paper for a few minutes, I wonder what the outcry would be had Willingham's record been an MSU-esque 0-11 next season?

Now, realistically, I highly doubt Notre Dame can pull an 0-fer, but had Willingham been left in charge, and had he lead his team to such an inglorious record his firing would be completely justified I believe, but some would probably cry racism on the basis that Notre Dame kept him on for too long, and that the Irish should have canned him this year after barely scraping together a winning record.

I'm not arguing in defense of Notre Dame in any way, and you make a very convincing argument Derek but as we both know race in America is a touchy subject. For every Tyrone Willingham that gets fired before his contract runs out there is an outcry of racism on those who did the firing. On the flipside though, for every Clem Haskins or Dennis Green who gets fired for legitimate reasons (Clem for all sorts of academic fraud, Green for allowing the Vikes go from Purple People Eaters to Driving Miss Daisy on Defense), there's a call that racism was involved. Yes, racism is an over used word, and it has lost a lot of its impact in today's world, but sometimes a firing is a clear cut business move. Notre Dame demands success. They have not been having success lately. They don't know how to handle losing, or the discovery that they're starting to outlive their legacy, so now they're trying to find the magical fix it man to take their team to a BCS bowl quickly, no questions asked. Expect the next coach at Notre Dame to be involved in an academic scandal.

Steve


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/2/2004

Richard --
Oh, no intent to associate you with them at all. I'm just making points in my vehement way! And I certainly do not believe in monocausality -- all of the factors you and Ed address are absolutely part of the equation. i just think the final nudge was probably an element of race. it may be too much to call it racism per se, a word that is overused, but i think that Willingham's race has to be factored in.
And I absolutely hate Notre Dame too. In fact, in a way I am happy because i really like Willingham and he'll have no problem getting a job (Washington?) so i can root for him again.
Ed -- I wish you'd overheard Lou's confession. Surely lying about the might of the likes of navy would have had to have come early on, albeit as a warmup for the truly juicy stuff!
dc


Richard Henry Morgan - 12/2/2004

I hope, Derek, that you don't take me for a defender of Notre Dame. Whether they are racists there, or Willingham (a black man) just had the misfortune of being there when Notre Dame got desperate (I suspect that, since Meyer was an assistant there, they think they have the inside track on a guy who won't be available very long), I don't know. What I do know is that I'm a charter member of the "I Hate Notre Dame Club" -- ever since they ran out the clock for a tie in their 1966 game against Michigan State (a game that ill live in infamy).


Ed Schmitt - 12/2/2004

Again, it really goes back to Steven's point and mine - the highest level of pressure and desperation in South Bend is right now. I also see the hypocrisy, as I mentioned in my first comment, and I deeply dislike it. Academic standards for athletes at Notre Dame have been raised since the Tony Rice years, however, so this is a different element in the dynamic. I'm not defending Holtz either, although I did have the unique experience of being ahead of him in line for confession once. I didn't try to listen in...


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/2/2004

Richard and Ed --
fair point Richard, on the differences. Except for this: Davie inherited the Holtz legacy. Willingham inherited Davie's trainwreck of a team, and that following the debacle of the O-Leary affair. despite this (oh, and one national coach of the year award to davie's zero) Willingham had a better record. one game better, perhaps, but better.
As for Ed's point about Notre Dame and National Championships, this is precisely the problem -- they have won one championship in, I believe, 27 years. And I'm going to say it because it needs to be said -- Lou Holtz has never been clean anywhere he's been, so Notre Dame can feign purity if it wants, but I'm not buying it. They can guage themselves by that measure if they'd like. But it is stupid to do so. Nebraska has the same problem. I hope you are happy with Urban Meyer. There will be no excuses in three years when he has a 21-15 record with them. Will they fire him? No firing of Davie before his contract was up. No firing of Joe Kuharich. No firing of Gerry Faust. Of those three Willingham had the best record despite being dealt the worst hand. What is the factor that differentiates Willingham from those others?
dc


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/1/2004

Ed --
regarding your first comment -- rebunk is on HNN because the three of us are historians. But we write about anything under the sun that tickles our fancy. We believe that our interests in history and sports and pop culture and politics and whatever are fair game. And certainly there are historical elements here.
As for the larger issues you raise, even more noisome, i think, than the alums of Notre Dame are the notorious subway alums. All schools have them -- folks who never attended a class at the school but have adopted them as their own. And again, in principle I've no problem with this -- indeed, having gone to a small school for undergrad, a mid-major basketball school with no football program for an MA, and a MAC school for my PhD I am effectively a subway type for BC in some sports, UNH in others, and so forth. But the problem comes when those folks are making the most noise.
In any case, thanks for the contribution.
dc


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/1/2004

Richard --
Nice point. But trust me when I say that the academic admission standards for the Ivies across the board drops for athletes. And I am not even opposed to this -- at the end of the day, a good kid with a 1200 SAT with a special skill (hockey, oboe, long jumping, debate) is equal to a bookworm with 1400 but not much separating him. Now of course all of these schools have lots and lots of athletes who are also fantastic students. I am a former athlete from one of the schools that they focused on in The Game of Life, and I was recruited by several of the ivies as well as a few other schools with good academic-athletic reputations. I believe in sports and have no qualms when schools recruit athletes. What I do have a problem with is schools who pretend that they do not, because the record is so very clear about this.
dc


Ed Schmitt - 12/1/2004

I guess as historians, to go back to the point I tried to make, you have to look at the overall context of years removed from a national championship, not just look at Davie's and Willingham's records in isolation. The standard in South Bend is national titles, not bowl games or shifts of two losses more one year versus the next. Unrealistic expectations, yes, but that's the reality of attitudes in the 46556 zip code.


Richard Henry Morgan - 12/1/2004

One little quibble, Derek. You have it that Willingham's record was on a pace to be significantly better than Davie's. By my count, at this point in their two tenures, Willingham was 21-15, and Davie was 21-16. Davie had taken the Irish to two bowl games, both of which they lost. Willingham took them to one bowl, which they lost. Davie bounced back from a 5 and 7 season in his third year, to post a 9 and 3 season in his fourth. Willingham followed his 5 and 7 season with a mediocre 6 and 5 year. Just to extend the argument.


Richard Henry Morgan - 12/1/2004

As far as I can remember, Harvard is alone in the Ivy League in not releasing average SAT figures. No mystery there, for people who were in the know. If you could play hockey, the entrance requirement consisted of putting a mirror under your nose and looking for condensation.


Ed Schmitt - 12/1/2004

I'm not really sure what this has to do with history, but I'll offer my two cents as an alum. My freshman year at ND, 1988, was the last time the program won a national title. By my senior year, there were alumni and even some fellow students infuriated that the Irish had not won another. None of us knows what went on behind the scenes, but I chalk this up to just what Steven Heise suggests - desperate flailing. For as much as I love Notre Dame football, I hate the spoiled brat mentality that has surrounded alumni attitudes about a divine rite to the national championship. This was about pressure to be elite again. Period. Maybe they see Utah's coach as a savior, maybe the Irish will be spurned again. It is very unfortunate for Willingham, who by all accounts is a terrific man. He did not get less time because of his ethnicity, but because patience is thinner than it was three years ago and panic is setting in, as this is the longest stretch without a title in decades. It is about winning at the highest levels (the College Football Hall of Fame is not in South Bend by accident), and it is sad the school thinks things can't be done the old fashioned way anymore - by building them.


Derek Charles Catsam - 12/1/2004

For years, this has bugged me: yes, Notre Dame is a good school. But let's dispatch of this canard that Notre Dame holds its athletes to the same standards as its general student body. let's also get rid of this idea that Notre Dame belongs in the same class as Duke or Stanford when we talk about academics. Notre dame's football team may have to pass slightly higher admissions hurdles than those at most Big Ten schools, say. But Notre Dame lowers its standards substantially for athletes, as does just about every Division I school (anyone here seriously think Christian Laetner, Elton Brand or Cherokee parks scored 1300 on their SAT? Anyone really believe Elway had a 4.0 and 1400 coming out of high school?). Put it another way. When I was just out of college, one of Wiliams' football coached interviewed for a job with the harvard football program. The Harvard guy told him point blank that Harvard could not field a football team if they had to adhere to Williams' admissions standards for athletes. And Williams certainly would recruit guys who did not necessarily adhere to the norms for the Williams student body. Is anyone going to say with a straight face that Harvard lowers its standards for athletes but Notre Dame does not? And if they are going to try to say that, I would point thm toward quarterback by the name of Rice who was on the scene when notre Dame returned to glory -- he was Prop 48 qualifier.
dc


Steven Heise - 12/1/2004

As much as I believe this is a totally valid question to ask, especially of one of the more storied football programs in the college game, I think we have to simply mark it up to the hopeless flailings of a dying dynasty.

Its Notre Dame. They're not in any way related to any of the big conferences, they play to a national audience most weekends despite their schedule being a B-list fare for college football at best, but their name evokes memories of the good old days of the game, like, before the forward pass when casualty lists weren't uncommon.

They are one of the reasons that college football has the BCS to start with. All the BCS is, is a prop for the old 'established' conferences to use to make money off the newer programs. The Minnesota Gophers haven't been to the Rose Bowl since 195-something, and they're not an exceptional case when it comes to big time bowl bids. And they're from the Big Ten, a major player in the BCS world. On top of that, they're not even an exceptional case when it comes to big bowl droughts.

In the end, while it is a hypocritical disgrace that Notre Dame, which glorifies tradition and beats people over the head with their storied history, went and broke one of their own traditions to get rid of a coach who inherited a losing team before he could really rectify the situation, I simply view the whole issue as a form of high commedy. Sure, race probably played some role in the firing of Tyrone Willingham, and such a motivation is reprehensible, but, I think Notre Dame is so far along its decline into obscurity that we might as well enjoy watching the ride. Of course, I always do like to see the mighty crumble from their own hubris.


Tom Bruscino - 12/1/2004

Total b.s. to fire Willingham this fast. He inherited a trainwreck of a team from Davie, who was a terrible head coach and left almost no talent at Notre Dame. That first year, Willingham was doing it with mirrors, and it kind of worked for a while, but it also had the adverse effect of creating high expectations. I can't believe they didn't give Willingham a chance to get one or two of his recruiting classes through.

I'm not sure Notre Dame fired him because of his race as much as their own unrealistic expectations and ignorance as to how little talent Willingham inherited, but I'm not afraid to say that the Irish have some serious explaining to do.

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