King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Ty Willingham may have gotten a raw deal from Notre Dame, but it wasn't about race. The readers write.

Published December 2, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Wednesday's column about Notre Dame's firing of football coach Ty Willingham generated a lot of e-mail, almost all of it disagreeing with my assertion that race played a role in the school's decision.

Let's get right to the letters. I'll chime in with a fairly long answer to the fairly representative first one, and then mostly stay out of the way. Also, as several readers pointed out, it was inaccurate of me to write that Notre Dame was failing to honor Willingham's contract, rather than not allowing him to fulfill it.

Pete Zaemes: Im just not sure if I can buy into your assertion that race was a factor in the firing of Ty Willingham. If the Notre Dame people are such racists, why did they hire him in the first place? Willingham is certainly not the first coach to be unceremoniously dumped -- just look at poor Frank Solich, [who is white and who was fired by Nebraska last year after going 58-19 in six seasons, including 28-12 in the last three].

Id also like to hear an explanation of your assertion that the University of California has "allegedly tough academic standards." Cal is easily one of the top four of five academic institutions in the U.S. Now theyre one of the top five football schools (at least this season). I really dont think theyre mutually exclusive.

King replies: I specifically wrote that the Notre Dame people are not racists. One need not be a racist -- which I take to mean someone who actively and consciously hates or even dislikes people of another race -- for race to play a factor in one's actions.

Notre Dame was forward-thinking enough to hire Willingham in the first place, and good for Notre Dame. But it sure took some special circumstances to get him there. Notre Dame didn't hire Willingham, remember, it hired George O'Leary -- who also was nowhere near a first choice.

Only when O'Leary crashed and burned did the school turn to Willingham, who was conveniently A) known primarily as a no-nonsense, clean-program guy who had won at an academically rigorous school, and B) a good P.R. move -- Notre Dame breaks down racial barriers! -- at a time when a red-faced Notre Dame really needed some positive P.R.

What I wrote was that Willingham wasn't faced with Confederate flag-wavers telling him to go back to Africa where he belongs. He was faced with having to perform significantly better than his white counterparts to get the same treatment. Merely performing better was not enough.

It's a common problem in both the business and academic world for schools and companies to have good minority hiring or admissions records and lousy minority retention records. The schools and companies aren't racists, or they wouldn't have hired or admitted all those minorities in the first place, any affirmative action rules notwithstanding. But there's no way to deny that race is a factor in the poor retention rates.

It's true Willingham's not the first coach to be unceremoniously dumped, but he's the first to be unceremoniously dumped at Notre Dame, which has always claimed to be different from the Nebraskas of the world. Notre Dame hasn't Nebraska-fied in any other way. Why just this one way, all of a sudden, now, when Ty Willingham was the coach?

Well, for a lot of reasons -- read on for excellent explications of them. But to say race played no role is naive. It will be awfully interesting to see what happens to Notre Dame's next coach, who will almost certainly be white, if he only delivers two minor bowl games in his first three years.

As for Cal, my alma mater: It's a top academic institution with tough academic standards, but that doesn't mean the athletes are always expected to live up to them.

Julian Meeks: There is something different happening this time around, but I think it has very little to do with Tys race or character. Even the most fervent anti-Ty people respect him deeply as a man, a motivator and a role model. He just has not demonstrated once in his tenure at Notre Dame that he can be a great football coach.

It is not enough at Notre Dame to get one or two upsets per year and go to a minor bowl game. Ty was fired because there are no indications from watching this team play 11 times per year that they are a better coached football team than they were three years ago. That is a big problem.

It is true that other failed coaches were given more time. However, Ty Willingham is not following a great, successful coach. He was brought to turn the program around (meaning by winning, not by being a nice man and role model). There is obviously an opportunity this year to shop for a coach and the N.D. board of trustees face the harsh reality that the middleweight donors (and lots of them), as well as many current students, are fed up with the excuses for mediocrity. It was time for change in 1999, and the mistake of extending Bob Davies contract was made. It is time for change now in 2004. N.D. was right not to make another mistake for the sake of looking consistent.

David White: I think the fact that Coach Willingham is black made the decision harder, not easier. Everyone wanted to see him succeed.

Paul Czarnecki: I'm a 1989 Notre Dame graduate and football fan who's thoroughly ashamed of the university's dismissal of Ty Willingham. He deserved at least one more season to prove what he could do for the football program.

Notre Dame and its supporters can say whatever they want, but race was a part of it. Walk around Notre Dame's campus on a football weekend and you'll see acres of recreational vehicles manned by aging N.D. alumni and supporters, virtually all white, who try to vanquish the emptiness of their lives with an unhealthy devotion to a college football team. I've been in the belly of the beast and I've seen it up close. For those pathetic alumni, members of the board of trustees and the cowardly, money-grubbing Notre Dame administration, Ty Willingham wasn't one of "us," so he didn't get the same chance that Gerry Faust and Bob Davie did.

There are some Notre Dame alums hanging their heads in shame, though I'm sure we're in the minority (pun intended).

King replies: If my in box is any indication, you're in a very, very small minority.

C.R.: You may or may not be right about Willingham, but I think Notre Dame's expectations are unrealistic. They had a resurgence of glory under Lou Holtz, but that was a fluke. Every now and then a Stanford or Northwestern or Duke (under Steve Spurrier) comes along and surprises people, but it's just impossible to keep it up the way Miami does with any kind of academic standards. Firing Willingham is just a refusal to accept reality.

Name withheld: I think the questions you raise are, by and large, pretty legitimate. On its face, it seems clear that Bob Davie got his full five years and Coach Willingham did not while finishing with roughly equal records over that time period. What's the wild card? Clearly, we must conclude, it's race. Right? Wrong.

I'm a liberal, and a minority student at Notre Dame. Before arriving in South Bend I completed 16 years of public school education. If any student here should be expected to trumpet the race issue in relation to Coach Willingham's firing, it's me. Honestly, though, I don't think it's the case.

I think you have to be on this campus, and in this football-frenzied environment, to understand the mind-set here. Since even before Coach Willingham arrived, there has been this ever-increasing sense of anxiety with regards to the perceived loss of Notre Dame's gridiron legacy. With every passing year, the "glory years" slip further into memory. With every new recruiting class, the school struggles more and more to land those prized players, and the N.D. fan base grows collectively more uncomfortable. There is a very real sense here that Notre Dame football is slipping down a precipice and must be rescued fast.

I do not think that the key difference between Willingham and Davie is race. I think the key difference between Willingham and Davie is the fact that now it's three years later. Notre Dame is now three years further removed from that 1988 national championship, which grows ever more distant. The level of panic has grown exponentially greater over that time. The school is not looking for a white coach to lead Notre Dame. The school is looking for a coach to FIX IT NOW.

Whether the school's goal can be accomplished remains to be seen. Personally, I think that terminating Coach Willingham will prove a grave mistake. However, I feel that your article ignored a great deal of nuance which perhaps from a distance you were unable to perceive, and that subsequently your conclusion was erroneous.

Pat Johnson: I backed Willingham until the losses to Boston College and Pittsburgh this year. I wanted him to succeed at Notre Dame. But you know what? N.D. has been plain awful the past two years. The offensive line is bad, the play calling is utterly predictable, the secondary is awful and the team seems to give up when they get behind in games. Simply put, it is not a good team.

My guess is that Notre Dame fired Willingham because they think they have a chance to get Urban Meyer, not because Willingham is black.

Greg Porter: If Notre Dame had fired Willingham after one bad season I might agree with you, but this is about Urban Meyer, not melanin or the lack of it. The stink of racism in its in-your-face and more subtle forms is alive and well. This just doesn't smell like it to me. Whatever the policy is at Notre Dame, it isn't "everybody gets five years to suck except black guys."

Chris Shaheen: I think Willingham is not a victim of race so much as the failure of his predecessors. He was given a shorter leash than other more recent coaches because they didn't produce winners and the perception of the trustees was that they needed to act more quickly because of this recent history of failure. I do think they are looking at Utah's coach.

And yes, I think it illustrates the hypocrisy of collegiate athletics: "Well, the program was clean as could be, a credit to the school, not rampant with rape, pillage, and academic fraud, but we haven't won the national championship ..."

George Long: With Davie and Faust, Notre Dame was not very far removed from its most recent glories (five years or less). But here we sit, with 1993 a distant memory (remember grunge?), and patience has become anorexic. Put it this way, if you flipped the Davie and Willingham eras, it would be Davie getting the early hook. No difference. Willingham was probably pulled too early, but I think he ended up bearing the cumulative burden of 11 years of frustration and futility.

Having said all of this, it's a travesty that there aren't more African-American coaches moving up through the system, and if Urban Meyer lasts longer than three years without fielding a markedly improved team, I disavow everything I just wrote.

Jim Kelly: Here's why I believe it's not about race. If Faust were black and Willingham white, Willingham still would have gotten the fast hook, and I'd still be more optimistic about Notre Dame's chances next year and beyond than if he hadn't.

One thing about playing the race card is, you take away all the credit the school should get for hiring a minority candidate in the first place, and make all schools that much less willing to hire minorities because you get called racist when you can them for cause. What a rip-off.

Previous column: Willingham fired

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