Willingham’s Defenders Play The Race Card

After three seasons of frustration, punctuated by un-Irish-like blowouts in big games, Notre Dame fired Ty Willingham as its football coach yesterday. Those of us who have watched as the program continued its slide into mediocrity had no illusions about Willingham’s status; Irish coaches are expected to win, and certainly not allowed to get blown out of games with traditional rival USC. After the third straight 31-point loss to the Trojans and the second blowout loss this year, anyone who couldn’t see this as the end point doesn’t know Notre Dame football.
However, that hasn’t stopped people from speculating that the Irish fired Willingham because of his race. Understandably, people are sensitive to the lack of African-American head coaches in the NCAA; at the beginning of the season, Willingham was one of only eight, an embarrassing number in a division with 117 head-coaching positions. After the usual exits at the end of the year, only five remain. However, Ty’s exit does not make the Irish racists, a point predictably lost on the head of the Black Coaches Association:

Willingham’s firing sends a clear message, said Floyd Keith, executive director of the BCA:
“It tells you something is really wrong. And it should tell all of America something is really wrong.
“What’s magnified this thing is, there’s simply not enough African American coaches out there. People know it’s wrong. You have to know it’s wrong. You’ve got such a disparity.”

No, it doesn’t. Willingham’s hiring into the most prestigious head-coaching position in college football told us that progress had been made, and his firing also tells us the same thing. Willingham was held responsible for his performance. He had three years to turn the program around and simply didn’t do it. Should Notre Dame have sacrificed its program just to turn Ty into a token? Does the BCA think that would have satisfied Ty Willingham, or helped other schools take black coaches any more seriously?
The Los Angeles Times piece provides balance, with a diversity expert in sports, Richard Lapchick pointing out that AD Kevin Smith had the courage to both hire and fire Willingham, so the issue likely went beyond race. ESPN disappoints in its analyses of the situation. Pat Forde argues that Willingham’s firing makes Notre Dame no better than USC in its efforts to provide excellence while emphasizing academics:

The athletic director stressed that the football coach has done wonderful, inspirational work off the field. The academic performance has never been better, he said. The coach is a man of unassailable character who has recruited players of similar ilk.
“In a lot of ways,” the athletic director said, “this program hasn’t been this healthy in a long time.”
Firing Ty Willingham exposed Notre Dame as nothing more than a football factory.
Except for one way. The wins-and-losses way. Which is what truly matters at all football factories.

Forde tells ND fans that they had better face reality — that Notre Dame is hypocritical in its claim to be any better than USC or Oklahoma in selling their students out to athletic success. Really? A quick look at the NCAA graduation-rate stats shows that Notre Dame graduated 89% of its student athletes, compared to 64% for the Trojans, 55% for the Sooners, and 52% for the Texas Longhorns. (Doesn’t ESPN pay their analysts to actually do research before opining?) Forde also says that Notre Dame had better have a “good answer” to allegations of racism — as if no one at ESPN can read a won-loss record or margin of loss analysis. Bob Davies and Gerry Faust didn’t rack up as many blowout defeats in their generally reviled tenures as Willingham did in an abbreviated time frame, and they managed to win a game against USC during their tenures.
In college football, the final criterion will always be the won-loss record. Coaches should already know that, and sports analysts who don’t should find work elsewhere.