Is Ty Willingham Racist?

cfb360 .comSenior Analyst IOctober 8, 2008

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When Tyrone Willingham publicly decried the lack of head coaching jobs for black Americans earlier this year, 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 some 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."

A little research shows that he should be pointing the finger in the mirror.

Willingham, together with enablers like John Saunders and Mark May, has done as much to hurt the cause of minority coaches as any other single person I can think of. I would argue that he’s created new minority roadblocks others must now overcome.

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. 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 seven years at Notre Dame and Washington, Willingham has hired exactly zero minority coordinators.

Zero. That's remarkable for someone willing to throw the charge of racism on the table. Zero into the position that is the stepping stone to the head coaching chair.

In contrast, since Willingham left, Notre Dame has 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. Yet IN SEVEN YEARS Willingham couldn’t find one minority worthy of being his second?

So who's racist? The school that hires a minority, or the head coach who hasn't hired one in seven years?

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 coaching ranks.

"You Have to Explain the Numbers."

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. He was given one of the biggest stages in the Pac-10 and failed. There’s no loss of dignity in failure. There is great loss of dignity in blaming racism without cause or proof.

Worse, at Notre Dame he did it the coward’s way, by not challenging charges of racism in the press that he knew had no factual support, even when put on the spot by John Saunders, all while banking millions from Notre Dame with the knowledge that he had already contacted the University of Washington about leaving Notre Dame.

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.

The same can be said for Husky fans.

This isn’t just one data point. Willingham’s pattern of unassociated blame has continued at Washington.

When Willingham's job was on the line last year, Athletic Director Todd Turner intervened, lining up power brokers while James Bible, president of the Seattle-King County NAACP, requested a meeting with UW President Mark Emmert to discuss "the value of Coach Willingham to this community."

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), than 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. 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 becomes incredibly costly.

In college football, however, it’s not just cost which is prohibitive—it's 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 Willingham for him to refute unfounded charges rather than tacitly and cowardly advancing them 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.

This brings up another point: Was Notre Dame racist for hiring Willingham? Was Washington?

Letting the John Saunders of the world dictate how you run your program isn't just asinine and spineless: It's wrong. The law of unintended consequences will eventually make you pay.

It's better to make the right decision for the right reason.

That's what we teach our students...right?


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