King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Ty Willingham, Notre Dame's first black coach, gets fired quicker than any of his modern predecessors, some of whom were less successful. What could possibly explain that?

Published December 1, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Ty Willingham is out after three seasons as football coach at Notre Dame. When Willingham was hired away from Stanford in 2002 he became the first black head coach at Notre Dame -- in any sport.

And he wasn't Notre Dame's first choice, remember. Willingham was only hired after George O'Leary, hired five days earlier, had been forced to resign following revelations that he'd lied on his résumé.

The Fighting Irish were coming off a 5-6 season in 2002 and they shot out of the gate 8-0 before stumbling to a 10-3 record that included a loss in the Gator Bowl. It was the best first season for a Notre Dame football coach since Ara Parseghian went 9-1 in 1964.

Last year the Irish fell back to 5-6, then went 6-5 this year and accepted a bid over the weekend to the Insight Bowl.

Willingham had a six-year contract. Never before has Notre Dame failed to honor the contract of its football coach. Other than a pair of interim coaches, the last man who lasted as few as three years on the Notre Dame sidelines was Hunk Anderson, who took over when Knute Rockne died in a plane crash. That was in 1931.

Let's put our heads together and see if we can think of anything that separates Willingham from all of his predecessors -- in every sport -- at Notre Dame.

I can't think of anything, can you? That's because this isn't about race, it's about winning. That's the story from Notre Dame, and it's something I think Notre Dame's people believe as they're saying it.

The school's board of trustees held an "emergency" meeting Monday night to discuss the coaching situation, and I don't think the first, last or middle thing said was "We gotta get rid of the black guy." The emergency wasn't that the trustees finally looked at a picture of Willingham.

But just because nobody's waving Confederate flags around doesn't mean race isn't part of the equation.

"From Sunday through Friday our football program has exceeded all expectations in every way," athletic director Kevin White said at Tuesday's news conference. "The academic performance is at a fever pitch. It's never been better. Tyrone has done some wonderful things. But again, on Saturday, we struggled. We've been up and down and sideways a little bit, a little bit inconsistent."

It's worth stopping here to note that Notre Dame is that rarity among big-time football schools in that talk about academic performance is by most accounts genuine. "Academics are very tough," former coach Bob Davie told ESPN Tuesday by way of explaining some of the unique challenges at Notre Dame. "Players are just like members of the student body."


Notre Dame hasn't won a bowl game in a decade, hasn't won a national championship in 16 seasons, the longest drought in school history. That's the problem as Notre Dame sees it.

Willingham looked like he was going to solve that problem when he came over from Stanford and got off to that 8-0 start, but since then his teams have gone 13-15 and been smoked on a regular basis by embarrassing margins, most notably the three 31-point defeats to arch-rival USC.

"Notre Dame and big-time college football is about winning," Mike Golic told USA Today. Golic, an ESPN commentator, was a star lineman at Notre Dame in the early '80s. "The color of winning is what it is. Ty could be green, and if Ty is 9-2, 10-1, there would be no discussion about firing him. It has nothing to do with race and everything to do with winning."

Well, it's true that if Willingham were going 10-1 every year nobody'd be shouting for him to be fired, although it should be noted that boosters were already grumbling at the end of that 10-3 season in 2002. But it's not a measure of the colorblindness of a situation to say that the black guy would have been all right as long as he sustained an unrealistic level of excellence.

Davie, Willingham's predecessor, took over in 1997 from Lou Holtz, whose last team had gone 8-3. Davie's first three teams went 7-6, 9-3 and 5-7. That's a 21-16 record after three years, half a game worse than Willingham's 21-15, and a big falloff in Year 3. Notre Dame fulfilled its contract with Davie and the Irish went 9-3 and 5-6 in his last two years.

Before Holtz, who won the school's last national championship in his third year, had come Gerry Faust, who took over from Dan Devine in 1981. Golic, who says it's all about winning, played for Faust. Devine's last team had gone 9-2-1 and lost a close game to national champion Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

Faust's first three teams went 5-6, 6-4-1 and 7-5. In that third year, 1983, the Irish finished the regular season with consecutive losses to 18th-ranked Pitt and unranked Penn State and Air Force before sheepishly accepting a Liberty Bowl bid and squeezing out a one-point win over Boston College. Not exactly finishing on an upward trend.

Notre Dame fulfilled its contract with Faust. His last two teams went 7-5 and 5-6.

So Willingham took the reins of a team coming off a worse season than the teams Faust and Davie took over, and had more success in his first three years than either Faust or Davie had.

"I think the program is closer than when he arrived," athletic director White said, "and I think we were making progress. But my view and the view of the university was that it wasn't enough progress."

But it was more progress than Faust and Davie had made, and they got to stick around. Willingham was fired.

"I think race made it easier," Gene Marshall, former chairman of the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee, told USA Today. "The reason they departed from protocol is they could do that because this was an African-American coach."

Times have changed since Faust was retained for 1984. Notre Dame is no longer a colossus, can no longer simply point to Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Dome and watch the best high school athletes in the country flood through its gates. With so many games on TV every week, other schools now command much of the attention that used to be paid to Notre Dame, even with the Irish having their own NBC contract.

Perhaps desperate times call for desperate measures. But times haven't changed so much since Davie took over in 1997. All of the above was true then too, and Davie was retained after a losing season.

One of the criticisms of Willingham has been his failure to reverse the recruiting trend, to bring A-list skill players to South Bend. But he wasn't even allowed to stick around long enough to have his entire team made up of players he recruited.

White's comment that progress was being made, but just not enough progress, is interesting because we can say the same thing about the hiring of black coaches in college football. Eight days ago there were five of them in Division I-A, which has 117 teams. Pathetic as that sounds, it actually represented some progress, though not enough.

Now, there are two. In the last week Fitz Hill resigned at San Jose State and Tony Samuel was fired by New Mexico State. The survivors are Karl Dorrell at UCLA and Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State, who have been on the job for two and one seasons, respectively. How good will they have to be to stick around for five years?

The "emergency" that prompted that meeting of Notre Dame's board of trustees was that Urban Meyer, who has quickly built Utah into a national power with a high-octane offense, is reportedly playing footsie with Florida, which has a vacancy. Meyer spent six years as an Irish assistant and has a clause in his contract allowing him to leave for Notre Dame without a buyout. Notre Dame doesn't want to lose out on him.

If it does, there are three names that are floating around as serious candidates: Jeff Tedford, who has built Cal into a powerhouse despite allegedly tough academic standards; Kirk Ferentz of Iowa, whom White hired as the head coach at Maine in 1990; and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, a South Bend native whose father was an assistant under Devine.

Let's put our heads together and see if we can think of anything that those three and Meyer have in common.

Previous column: Brett Favre's streak

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