My vote for the bestor at least the most positivesports story of the past year is an easy one … indeed, a very, very easy one. It’s Tyrone Willingham and what he did at Notre Dame, rehabbing the most storied football program in the country, and far more importantly, trying to save the dinosaurs of college football from themselves.p. Notre Dame’s 10-2 record is not just a success for the school or Tyrone Willingham, but for college football and the entire country against all the prejudices of the past which present themselves not as in the past, as clear political-legal blocks to progress, but in far more subtle and more insidious contemporary forms. (“Well, we’d like to get onewe’re looking for one, but we have to get just the right person …”, or, translated: “Get me a black coach who has already won the national championship somewhere else.”) These are prejudices that should have died long ago, and they represent not merely the darker side of college football, but of the entire society.
It is Tyrone Willingham’s singular achievement that he walked into the most important and most visible program in college football, a place where the scrutiny is unmatched, took over a troubled, almost discredited program that was in a downward spiral, and without adding players, turned Notre Dame into a completely different, vastly improved team. No different players, just a different attitude and different coaching. But Note Dame went from 5-6 last year to 10-2, and was clearly a greatly improved team. The change was palpable: It was obvious the Irish were beating a number of teams that had significantly superior manpower on the way to those 10 victories. This was a football team that wasted nothing.
Willingham, not exactly Notre Dame’s first choice, took over a program that was headed south and was said to be in long-range trouble because of problems in recruitingits standards were said to be too high for today’s more academically limited recruits (read inner-city or poor rural black). He simply maximized the talent he had, and turned the Irish into an aggressive, opportunistic team that had the capacity to force other teams into mistakes. The offensive shortcomings were obvious, and it was clearly a team that was going to have trouble coming from behind in big games. But it won and won and won.
More, he did this as far as I could telland I started watching early onwith grace, dignity, a respect for his players and for the other team’s players and a respect for the game that seemed, well, old-fashioned. He seemed infinitely more attractive than any number of other college coaches (I could not stand Lou Holtz’s manic behavior on the sidelines, and my least favorite college coach was Steve Spurrier because (a) he seemed to me the absolute champion at running up scores, and thus someone thinking largely of himself and ignoring the impact of his decisions on half of the football players on the field, and (b) a man with a peculiar smirk on his face when there were busted Florida plays, a smirk which seemed to indicate that he had coached well, but the players had screwed up).
With Willingham thriving on college football’s biggest stage, other ADs will be forced to consider minority candidates. There are some other coaches I’d like to mention, considerably more likeable on the surface, but I’d like them a lot more if they got their graduation rates above 40 percent. (How about this, by the way … how about an NCAA rule that whenever a game is broadcast, the broadcasters are required at the beginning of every program to mention what the graduation rate in the sport is?) In sum, Willingham seemed to behave like a grown-up who understood the importance of football, but understood as well the limits of the importance of football in the grander scheme of things.
By coming in, taking the job, coaching so well and handling all the ancillary parts of coaching with such elegance, he has seriously damaged one of the great redoubts of prejudice in U.S. society, the world of college coaching. That is, he did it in the very citadel of learning and opennessgreat universities, where the faculties in sociology and law spend long hours explaining the roots of prejudice and the horrendous consequences of prejudicea place where the teachers teach one way and the athletic administrators, when it comes to hiring coaches, hire another way.
With luck he has helped a generation of timid college athletics directors to find the otherwise missing character and courage to name some black coaches at major universities. Here we have what might well be described as a scandal. My demon researcher, Linda Drogin, tells me that, until UCLA hired Karl Dorrell, there were exactly two other black head coaches in Division I-A footballwhich has 117 colleges there. (There were four black head coaches at the start of last season.) That brings the percentage, if I evaluate correctly, to less than 3 percent. More, she found a story in which Floyd Keith, the executive director of the Black Coaches Association, is quoted as saying that since 1995, there have been 112 openings for head coaches, and only fiveyes, fivehave gone to blacks, with two of those slots going to Willingham.
(One can almost hear the ADs thinking to themselves: Well, we do know that those black folks surely can run fast and jump high and hit hard, and more recently we’ve learned that they can make great reads at quarterback, but we’re not sure that they can coach. It’s just not in their nature. Everyone knows it takes special people to coachwhite folks. Oh, we know the Army has loosened up, and a lot of black people have made general, and a lot of stars have been handed out, and a lot of blacks are battalion commanders, but there’s a lot of difference between leading men into battle and leading real men, real warriors onto a football field. You can’t take chances if you’re in the more serious business of leading men onto a football field …)
Is this a scandal? Yes. A disgrace? Yes. Would you like to estimate what percentage of the top starting 22 offensive and defensive players on the top 25 teams in the country are black? Perhaps 60 or 70 percent, perhaps even more. What this means is that at the place where it means the most, our great universities, which are supposed to foster openness of the mind (and to educate us to the damage done by the prejudices of the past), and where change should be taking place at a faster level than in the society at large, in no small part because so many players are in fact blackreflecting a revolution taking place among those who are actually playing the gamethere has been virtually no change in the power structure.
It means that the primary lesson being taught at most schools is that the university is willing to exploit the talents of black players but not to listen to them or to let them into the athletics power structure. It means, in all of these great universities, chock full of brilliant sociology and law professors, who are experts on the cruelties of prejudice, and the insidious nature of contemporary prejudice, what the university says in its classrooms, and what its most important and most visible agents do in the university’s most public manifestation are dramatically differentindeed, diametrically opposed to each other. This is a profound violation not so much of this nation’s laws, but of its spiritthat we earn our place and our right to advance up the hierarchy by dint of our successes, our hard work, our excellence which we exhibit at the lower levels of it. What we have today is success at the bottom of the hierarchy with far too little reward in advancing up it.
What does it say about the men who run these universitieswhere for more than 30 years there have been countless black players who have come, excelled, graduated, some going on to the NFL, some ending their careers upon graduation but just as passionate to continue in the game and coachthat they did not think that a single graduate of their own school was worthy of coaching there? What does it tell us about what they thought these young men learned while they were at their particular college?
Vince Lombardi was driven to succeed by the prejudice he encountered as an Italian-American. This is not the time or place to go into the hyped-up credentials of Willingham’s putative predecessor. But it is the moment to ask why the athletic directors who are always looking for new coaches know so little about their own business and what the real sources of passion and excellence are. Would they hire a young Vince Lombardi today? You bet. Has anyone ever explained to them that what made Lombardi great was not his knowledge of X’s and O’s (his best play was effectively student body right or student body left), but his rage to excel because of the prejudices inflicted on him as an Italian-American in an era when Italian-Americans were just beginning to work their own way up from the back of the bus.
Lombardi had seen enough other jobs that he rightfully deserved go to others, and that made him, when his chance finally came, the most passionate and fierce of coaches. When he got to Green Bay, he had a few things to prove, and they were not necessarily about football. Don’t today’s athletics directors know that today’s Lombardis are more often than not black? Willingham represents (like Tony Dungy and any number of other exceptional coaches), this generation’s Lombardis, men with great talent and a lot still left to prove to the society. But here we are, almost 50 years after the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education, effectively outlawing legal segregation, still struggling with these issues, where black intelligence and talent and passion are still so palpable and where so much that is rightful is still denied them.
As I was writing this, I checked out Arthur Ashe’s immensely valuable three-volume work on blacks in U.S. sports, published 14 years ago, and found out that there were threeyes, threeblack head coaches in Division I-A schools back then. Some progress, huh? About eight years ago, I wrote a book about the Yankees and the Cardinals in the 1964 World Series (“October 1964”), and I examined, at length, the prejudices of George Weiss, the Yankee general manager who, for a long time, would not sign blacks at all, and then signed them most reluctantly. Weiss had always liked a certain kind of kidtalented, hungry, overachieving; yet Weiss, because of his prejudices, did not realize that the best and most talented young men like that were now blacks. That fall, the Cards had themGibson, Brock, Flood and Whiteand the Yankees did not, and that was an important reason an era in which the Yankees had dominated finally came to an end. It reflected a terrible blindness on Weiss’ part, but at least as an excuse his decisions were made some 45 years ago, and he was a man born in 1894, in another century.
I have seen the workings of prejudice all my life. I was 13 when Jackie Robinson broke in. I know what people said back then, that blacks were fast, but they lacked guts and would fold in the clutch. And I have seen the prejudices become ever more sophisticated, and I know the prejudice that keeps blacks out of coaching, the timidity and cautiousness of weak men at the head of so many programs, fearful of taking a chance, believing blacks so far are not good old boys. The alumni might not want to schmooze with them. Well, if they get the jobs, and they win, the alumni, believe me, will want to schmooze with them.
I think Tyrone Willingham’s success has changed all that: The skills of one good man manifest in one good season. There was a quote from Emerson that Robert Kennedy was fond of — “If one good man plant himself upon his convictions, the whole world will come ’round.” Willingham is, I think, that one good man, and I suspect Notre Dame will have a slight advantage this year when it goes after certain blue chip athletes, which, as much as anything else, should affect the athletic directors elsewhere.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 best sellers, including “Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made,” “The Best and the Brightest,” “The Powers That Be,” “The Reckoning” and “Summer of ’49,” writes occasionally for Page 2.