Irish move is a blow to black coaches

Notre Dame fires Willingham

some disturbed by latest trend

December 01, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The monster that is Notre Dame football has swallowed another of its coaches, but this time the move has ramifications that go well beyond the boundaries of South Bend, Ind.

Tyrone Willingham, who was brought in from Stanford three years ago to return the Fighting Irish to national prominence after first choice George O'Leary was found to have falsified his resume, was fired yesterday.

There are some who wonder whether college football is moving backward because the firing of Willingham cuts the number of African-American head coaches in Division I-A football to two.

Willingham was the third black head coach to be fired or forced to resign in the past eight days, following Fitz Hill at San Jose State and Tony Samuel at New Mexico State.

The remaining African-American head coaches in Division I-A are Sylvester Croom, who just finished his first season at Mississippi State, and Karl Dorrell, who has been at UCLA for two years.

"It is a step backward if no African-American coaches are considered for those vacancies," said Hill, who had a 14-33 record in four years. "I think African-American coaches should have the opportunity to succeed and fail just like their white peers."

But Hill and others point out that the trend is certainly going in the wrong direction. There were eight African-American head coaches in 1999. Of the more than 100 vacancies since then, only five have been filled by African-Americans.

Calling Willingham "the most significant hire in the history of college football," Richard Lapchick, who directs the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, said he was greatly disturbed by yesterday's developments.

"All of the things that told me that Tyrone Willingham was safe as recently as this morning in terms of going to a bowl, having a five-year contract at a school that has never voided a contract, having good prospects for next year, having seemingly a brighter future there, the plug is pulled more rapidly than it was with the previous coaches," Lapchick said.

Willingham began with a 22-0 victory over Maryland at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., during an 8-0 start in 2002, but he ended with a 41-10 road defeat to top-ranked Southern California on Saturday, the fifth such blowout loss under Willingham's watch.

The Fighting Irish, who fell from 10-3 in Willingham's first year to 5-7 last season, finished 6-5 this season to leave Willingham with an overall record of 21-15.

While praising the job Willingham, 50, did with his players in practice and in the classroom, Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White said in a nationally televised news conference that it came down to Saturdays.

Players are considering whether to play in the Insight Bowl on Dec. 28, and White said he didn't know who would coach the game. Notre Dame accepted the bowl invitation Sunday.

"I was thinking about it this morning, from Sunday through Friday our football program has exceeded all expectations in every way," White said. "Tyrone has done some wonderful things, but again on Saturday, we've struggled.

"We've been up and down and sideways, a little bit inconsistent. I think the program is closer than when he arrived. I think we are making progress, but in my view and in the view of the university, we just didn't make enough progress."

White said he has not spoken to any potential successors to Willingham, though Utah's Urban Meyer, a Notre Dame assistant under Lou Holtz in 1996, is expected to be offered the job.

"I don't have any particular parameters in mind other than identifying an individual who can lead Notre Dame football back to the sustained level of excellence that everyone associated with the university and the program wants and desires," White said, reading from a statement.

It marked the first time in four decades that Notre Dame has fired a coach before his initial contract expired. Willingham had two years remaining on his original five-year deal. Even Gerry Faust, considered the worst coach in the program's modern era, was allowed to finish his contract.

Asked about the decision to fire Willingham before his contract expired, White said: "I think the best way I can respond to that is there's very high expectations, competitive expectations relative to Notre Dame football."

Once considered the most storied program in the country, Notre Dame has fallen off the map in recent years. Its last Heisman Trophy winner was Tim Brown in 1987, and its last national championship was under Holtz in 1988.

Since Holtz resigned under pressure in 1996, neither Bob Davie nor Willingham could satisfy the school's far-reaching fan base made up of alumni as well as those who grew up rooting for the Fighting Irish.

"Football is very important at Notre Dame. I think everyone understands that, and competing at the highest level is of the utmost importance," White said.

Former Notre Dame star and Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung, who found himself in the center of a controversy last spring after saying that the school needed to ease the academic requirement to recruit more black athletes, reiterated some of those comments yesterday.

"They've got to make it easier for the kids, black and white," Hornung said by telephone from his office in Louisville, Ky.

Even more importantly, Hornung said, whoever replaces Willingham has to open up the offense.

"The kids want to go to the next level, and they want to go to a school where it's going to get them to the next level," Hornung said. "They are not going to come to Notre Dame, with such a crappy offense. They want to have fun."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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