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Coaching football and race

By Greg Pomeroy
web posted January 6, 2003

Football Coach Tyrone Willingham is African-American. Black. A person of color. He's also Irish. As in Fighting Irish. As in Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus, win-one-for-the-Gipper, Knute Rockne, 13 national championships Irish. Think this combination of race and occupation isn't significant? Consider that Notre Dame has never had a black head coach, in any sport, in its history. And the students at Notre Dame have been playing sports since footballs where shaped more like volleyballs. Consider further that of the 117 big-time college football teams around the country, only four (that's 3.4 per cent) have African-American head coaches. What is just as amazing as Willingham's ascension to the top of the coaching ranks, however, is the mature and fairly quiet acceptance of it by liberals and those in the columnist caste. They haven't rallied around and cheered it as some breakthrough against racism. Perhaps they just missed the opportunity, or, perhaps, there has been some real change in this country.

Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham directs his team from the sideline against North Carolina State during the Gator Bowl at Alltel Stadium on January 1
Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham directs his team from the sideline against North Carolina State during the Gator Bowl at Alltel Stadium on January 1

Sure, a year ago when Willingham was hired there was some minor Black on White rhetoric. Jesse Jackson: "It's a victory for fairness and equal opportunity." Black Coaches Association executive director Floyd Keith: "This opens up a lot of doors for a lot of people. We have minority candidates out there that just haven't been considered before." But, all in all, there was much more of a focus on Willingham the coach than on Willingham the African-American.

And the oft-bespectacled, cerebral coach has made the most of his opportunity. Despite being upset by the 17th ranked North Carolina State Wolfpack in the Toyota Gator Bowl, the 10-3 Irish will finish the season ranked somewhere in the top 20. And though the future isn't set, things are looking pretty good. The gravity of Notre Dame football itself will draw blue chip recruits from all over nation to South Bend, and Willingham seems determined to capitalize on that human capital for years and, perhaps, championships to come. The main question seems to be whether race-conscience liberals will continue to allow Willingham's race to be a non-issue. And my guess is that they'll have to. In college football, at least, the color of one's jersey is so much more important than the color of one's skin.

Even in the Deep South things aren't what they were just a few years ago. The University of Alabama recently lost its head coach to Texas A&M University's greener, read $$$er, pastures. Finding a replacement took a couple weeks and weeding through a couple dozen candidates. One candidate was Sylvester Croom, an ex-Crimson Tide player and current assistant with the NFL's Minnesota Vikings. Encouragingly, Croom's race, he's black, was seen as just one small asset by many alumni and fans. What's more encouraging, however, is that for most of these folks, perhaps the most dedicated and demanding fans in the country, race wasn't an issue at all. When one's happiness for the next few weeks rides on beating Tennessee or Auburn by at least one point, there's no room for racism.

Interestingly, though, what best signals college football's progress in race relations is not the hiring of Willingham or the near hiring of Croom, but the firing of Coach Bobby Williams at Michigan State. The African-American Williams lead the Spartans to only three wins this season, their worst performance since 1947. Not only did skin color not save him, but there also was no outcry of racism from anyone, not even a peep, when Williams was axed. Not only are coaches in college football being hired without regard to the color of their skin, their being fired that way too. This is true progress.

Unfortunately, nothing similar to this is going on in the National Football League where the fact that only two of the 32 head coaches are black is taken by many as prima facie evidence of racism (2 of 32, that's 6.25 per cent, or almost twice what it is in college ball). Johnnie Cochran has threatened to sue. The NFL has set up a committee to diagnose racism in the league and prescribe a cure. The cure for this disease is, of course, quotas. Any team that wants to hire a new head coach will have to at least interview one minority for the job, if a recent recommendation is accepted and followed. This is akin to giving a pneumonia patient tuberculosis as the cure.

Amid some bitter sniping in the NFL one word has be conspicuously absent: Racism. Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, one of the two black head coaches, held forth at length on the subject recently without mentioning the word. Then there's Marvin Lewis. Lewis, an African-American defensive coordinator with the Washington Redskins, recently said this of his attempts to secure a head coaching position: "I've been battling something here in the NFL. I'd like to be a head coach…there are some things left undone I've been battling." What? Could he not speak the word? Could he not say its name? Perhaps if he did, he'd have to look at the owners of the 32 NFL teams, point fingers, and call some of them racists. It is reckless and irresponsible to toss out charges of racism at a general group of people without naming names and offering evidence. But nobody wants to do that; nobody has the courage of his convictions. That is, if anyone involved here really has convictions.

It is impossible to tell whether the Trent Lotts or the Johnnie Cochrans in this country are doing more damage to race relations. The folks who are doing the most good, however, are easy to spot. They are the African-Americans who work hard and succeed without moaning about racism or anything else. Tyrone Willingham is but one example. Anyone who is racist or has that bent simply can't argue with Willingham's success. Anyone who wants to argue that Blacks can't succeed in this country because of racism can't argue with his success either. The longer Willingham stays on as the headman at Notre Dame, the more they'll win. And the longer he stays on, the more we'll all win too.
Greg Pomeroy teaches at Karns High School in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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