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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Ty Willingham and Notre Dame

I have a lot of thoughts on this subject and some related topics, so I'll try to address them in as logical a fashion as possible.

First, read Eric McErlain's post on the topic at Off-Wing Opinion. He put a lot of thought into creating this post, and it does a very good job of teeing up all of the issues surrounding Ty Wilingham's firing and the expectations (perhaps unrealistic) of Notre Dame fans.

Second, I posted a while back on Notre Dame's scheduling. I can't say that the post is relevant now, but I think that given Notre Dame's mindset, they can still contend for the national title if they alter their scheduling just a bit. I recall a quote from an SI article years ago about a philosophical Division III coach in California who said he scheduled 3 games against teams he could beat, 3 against teams that in all likelihood he couldn't beat, and 3 games that were toss-ups, figuring that this type of schedule would be a good thing for his kids. Well, I think that if Notre Dame modifies that philosophy a bit, they might have something. A chance to win lots of games and still contend in the B.C.S. sweepstakes.

Third, I posted in the late summer about the quarterback situation in Jacksonville. Why Jacksonville, you might ask, as their offense is about average and yes, Byron Leftwich is the starter and a budding star? Why? Because all three quarterbacks -- Leftwich, David Garrard and Quinn Gray -- are African-American. And this is important precisely because no one has talked about it. I believe it's the first time in NFL history that all of a team's quarterbacks are African-American, and the nice part of the story is that no one uses the term "black quarterback" anymore. How long did it take for that term to be eradicated from the vocabulary of some members of the football media and some football fans? That's a big deal in my book.

Fourth, the Jacksonville story is very important because at some point college football at the Division I-A level has to evolve to the point where we're not talking about "African-American head coaches," just coaches who win and lose, coaches who graduate their players, coaches who are good at calling plays in the clutch and coaches who aren't, and coaches who you'd want your kids to play for. I am certain that as a society we'll get there some day, but now college football has taken a step backwards this year, with the resignations/firings of Tony Samuel at New Mexico State, Fitz Hill at San Jose State and now Tyrone Willingham at Notre Dame. That leaves only two African-American head coaches out of 117. It's clearly not enough.

I don't know enough about the Notre Dame situation to comment on Tyrone Willingham's abilities as a football coach, except to say that from what I saw of him at Stanford and at Notre Dame he's a class act and a good football coach. The question, of course, for Notre Damers (some of whom tend to hold others to much higher standards than they hold themselves, but, then again, I think most sports fans fall into that category at times), is whether he could have been a great one, because Notre Dame is always on the lookout for the next Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy or Ara Parseighan (or even Lou Holtz). Apparently, the Notre Dame decisionmakers didn't think so, and they decided to make a change.

I don't agree with what Notre Dame did, and I do think that a school that prides itself on going against the grain (i.e., by stressing high admissions standards) could have gone one or two years further by letting Coach Willingham reap the benefits of at least two of his recruiting classes (i.e., given him two more years). That would have been fair, but as I posted earlier today, A.D.'s at Division I-A schools have lost their patience, and so has Notre Dame.

In hiring Tyrone Willingham, Notre Dame made a big statement, that it really was a special place in so many ways. Unfortunately, in firing Tyrone Willingham, Notre Dame showed, to a certainly degree, that it is just like everyone else, and, most particularly, Nebraska and Florida, both of which also showed very little patience for reasonably good coaches.

There's nothing special about that. Instead of bucking the trend, the Fighting Irish decided to run with the flock.

They talk about waking up the echoes in South Bend, Indiana year-in and year-out. Only time will tell what echoes emerge -- those from the glory days, or those from the brouhaha of conflicting opinions that surrounds this particular controversy.

But beyond Notre Dame, let's hope that in the same way sportswriters and sportscasters don't use the term "black quarterback" any more, the novelty of having an African-American head coach at a Division I-A school will wear off as well.

The time for that novelty to vanish from the college football landscape is long past due.

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