Monday, December 20, 2004

Black and White | by Teds

Notre Dame's recent firing of Tyrone Willingham has elicited all sorts of negative emotion on various fronts, including the ire of the print media, which revels in contemptuously pointing out its own recipe for injustice in the same sort of way that Courtney Love enjoys a good dust-up with the authorities.

One of the biggest problems with allowing raw emotion to dictate the thrust of editorial matter is that indispensable elements of good writing, such as reason and supporting evidence, get left out in the cold. Take, for example, the article penned by Pete Sampson, a beat writer for none other than Blue and Gold, a publication dedicated to covering Notre Dame sports and primarily football. One might think that having a closer, day-to-day perspective on the program would give Sampson better insight than most journalists and allow him the benefit of reflecting on Willingham's three-year tenure at Notre Dame for what it really was. Unfortunately, he's stricken with the same fixation on race as the end-all, be-all that has warped the minds of so many other media creatures, and he'd apparently rather stroke his own feathers about the fact that NPR invited him into a "cultural" discussion of Willingham's ouster than discuss the coach's accomplishments in the job he was hired to perform.

To wit, here are some excerpts from his weekend column, in italics. (It's a paysite article, so click over to read the entire thing):

Notre Dame sullied itself by dumping Willingham after only three seasons, and the discourse that followed left the school looking like the bastion of arrogance that many people believe it to be.

Ah, yes, the arrogance of Notre Dame in all its glory. It's interesting that Sampson doesn't elaborate on the "discourse that followed", because all I witnessed was an athletic director practically dragged to the podium at gunpoint who bent over backwards in defense of everything Willingham upheld during his three seasons of employ ("Sunday to Friday") that didn't have a lick to do with his primary function. It's worthwhile to recognize that football coaches at major programs are not paid to chaperone players, orchestrate study hall sessions or hold hands. It's winning games that makes the world go 'round, and anyone pretending otherwise is kidding themselves, even at a school like Notre Dame which prides itself on graduating its players and maintaining a "higher standard". That the University expects more from its student-athletes in other respects does not absolve them from desiring to excel on the field of play. In fact, nothing could (or should) be further from the truth, and incoming school president John Jenkins said as much in a public statement last week.

"Arrogance" is one of the most popular words used to describe the University in the wake of this unpleasantness, but no one has yet to clearly quantify what it is that's so arrogant about the dismissal of a coach whose teams were mediocre and trending downward, consistent only in their inconsistency. Mississippi's head football coach accumulated a record eerily similar to that of Willingham at a program with lower expectations and a fraction of Notre Dame's tradition of excellence, but there was little criticism of the school or cries of unchecked arrogance when they decided to fire him in the wake of Willingham's removal. The reality is that people see what they want to see. If they have it set in their mind that ND "puts themselves on a pedestal", then they'll twist whatever supporting information is available to fit squarely into their worldview, whether it's a matter of the Irish rejecting overtures regarding conference affiliation or simply dismissing a coach who failed to do his job adequately.

The structural flaw today isn't Notre Dame's reluctance to give Willingham his first full contract, as was customary with other semi-failing coaches Gerry Faust and Bob Davie. That pair floundered through years four and five before getting canned. Why make the same mistake three times?

The flaw is Notre Dame's failure to understand that there were bigger issues in play with Willingham's firing than wins and losses.

And in this one instant, Sampson torpedoes whatever argument in support of Willingham he might have been attempting to foster. He plainly admits that the fourth and fifth seasons afforded both Faust and Davie proved to be little more than a repeat of what they accomplished during the course of their first three years on the job, which was underwhelming, to say the least. And yet he's insistent that Willingham's color should have afforded him a free pass to prove every bit as incapable of leading a major program to prominence as the mediocre white coaches in Notre Dame's skeleton closet were. How exactly that exercise in futility would advance the cause of minority football coaches in the world of college football isn't clear to me.

When Notre Dame fired Willingham, the University dumped a football coach. That's obvious. But the school also deposed a role model, a mentor, a philosopher and an icon. Willingham went where no African-American coach had gone before, straight to the top of the college football food chain. When The Sporting News named him Sportsman of the Year and Sports Illustrated called him one of the Top 10 most influential minorities in sports, Willingham became a beacon of opportunity in a college football coaching landscape that's short on it.

One of the most popular and lazy defenses of Willingham has been to resort to speaking of him in very general personal characteristics rather than his record of performance, and this is no exception. Willingham is predictably characterized here as a "role model" and "mentor", but those are hats that college football coaches regularly wear in handling their own players, as well as those they attempt to bring into the program. I've seen very little hard evidence that proves Willingham to be a better role model or mentor than the average college coach. Sampson ups the ante by waxing delirious with terms like "philosopher" and "icon". Willingham doesn't speak extemporaneously enough to qualify as a chatty tax accountant, let alone a philosopher. The man may be a lot of things, but Plato he ain't. And any "icon" status Willingham might have stumbled into has simply been gifted him by unconscionably generous writers such as Sampson, certainly not based on anything accomplished in accumulating a .560 winning percentage over ten seasons as a head football coach.

Notre Dame then snuffed that flame. Most Notre Dame fans missed that dimming. Most media members did too, or at least ignored it. That's because race isn't a popular topic to discuss, especially when dialogues go the unfortunate way that Paul Hornung's did last season.

If Sampson honestly believes that most media members missed the racial aspect of Willingham's dismissal or thinks that it's not a popular topic for discussion, then he must be so completely debased from other media outlets and forms of mass communication that I can only assume him to have been shot forward in time to December of 2004 from a staring point sometime during the Taft administration. If anything, Willingham's actual performance has been needlessly dwarfed by handwringing over his skin color and flowery platitudes about what a fantastic individual he is in spite of his actual record of performance.

So we talk about the legacy of Year Three, the glut of 21-plus point losses and the sub-par recruiting. We don't want to be bothered with the fact that something more important is in play.

Of course we want to talk about "Year Three", because it represents Willingham's most recent and meaningful performance in his job as Notre Dame football coach. Of course we want to talk about the losses and the recruiting, because they represent tangible failures in the execution of his obligations to his employer, for which he was paid handsome, seven-figure annual salaries.

There are three African-American coaches in Division I-A football now that Willingham landed at Washington. Notre Dame knew that number before it let its coach go after three years.

I'm going to say this once and only once: the University of Notre Dame is not responsible in any way for how the other 116 Divison-I football programs conduct themselves. That Willingham's ouster from ND left only two African-American football coaches in major college football is unfortunate. It's also not Notre Dame's responsibility to carry the torch for minorities in this particular arena at the expense of its own fortunes simply because practically no one else is willing to accept the relay. There's entirely too much made of the fact that Willingham was fired by the University and not enough made of the fact that they gave him a meaningful opportunity three years ago to begin with. Not that I believe Notre Dame should have been awarded a gold star by the NAACP for the hire, but I don't think it's too much to ask for some consistency in the reaction to and treatment of the two events. Instead, the embarrassing hissy-fit that Sampson and other irresponsible media members have thrown in defiance of Notre Dame's decision has accomplished nothing but to discourage other major programs from considering minority coaches in the future. Why would any halfway-intelligent university open themselves up to the potential of such a media-induced tempest when there are perfectly good white candidates available who can be hired and fired with not much more trouble than second-shift fry cooks at Hardee's?

Notre Dame trustee and football alumnus Dave Duerson told a Chicago radio station that: "Anyone who's walking around with blinders thinking racism doesn't exist and race doesn't matter, they're fooling themselves."

Duerson's blind support of Willingham has been painfully apparent to many ND followers for some time. And of course racism still exists, but Duerson cheapens the impact of the word and does a great disservice to those who are genuinely discriminated against by recklessly insinuating that there's been such wrongdoing here. Duerson would do well to apply the same critical eye with which he has recently denounced the state of the Chicago Bear organization to that of his other beloved former team. The reality is that the same directionless attitude and lackluster play which has plagued the Bears for a number of years has also been a hallmark of Willingham's Irish teams since the tail end of his first season on the job. That Duerson's is apparently oblivious to the parallels one could easily draw between the two teams is sufficient to make me wonder who's actually wearing the blinders.

When someone in (Chandra) Johnson's position shaves her head to protest the process, when a group comprised of minority students (not a large contingent in the Notre Dame student body) demonstrates against Willingham's ouster, when an NPR show contacts a sports reporter to make sense of the blow to opportunities in college coaching for African-Americans, those issues deserve the attention over football recruiting, offensive schemes or bowl bids.

No, they don't. The job of the Notre Dame football coach is to win football games. By any historical measure of this team's fortunes, Willingham's performance in leading the program has been inadequate. The insinuation of Sampson and so many others seems to be that the University should treat Willingham with kid gloves, that the expectations for him should be lessened based on the color of his skin and the cultural significance of his success or failure in this job. But if the greater goal is to reach a point in time at which the world no longer sees color and considers all individuals truly equal, what sort of message would the school be sending by acting as if Willingham should be riding the equivalent of the coaching short bus? Isn't it far more offensive to Willingham and those of his race to analyze his handiwork with diminished expectations than to hold him to the expectations set by coaching greats like Rockne, Leahy, Parsegian and Holtz?

(By the way, did Pete Sampson just say that a black woman shaving her head in protest is more important that the fortunes of the Notre Dame football team? I was pretty sure that he did, but then I blacked out for a spell and my head smashed into the keyboard. Err...where were we?)

In almost five years at Blue and Gold Illustrated I've talked to dozens of football alumni about what makes this University so unique. Ask 10 to define the "spirit of Notre Dame" and prepare for 10 different answers. Some talk about academic excellence, most talk about leaving the University a better place than when they found it. Even more talk about giving something back to society.

No one mentions beating Southern California or Boston College.

Well, that's a problem, and it's indicative of the sea change fostered by the recent administration and feared by the old guard. Winning should matter. And if we consider football important enough to pay the coach $1.5 million annually for his services or to charge our alumni and fans $53 a ticket to watch the games in person, then I can only assume that it really does. Like it or not, success in football has a great deal to do with the widespread following Notre Dame enjoys, the revenue it generates, the buildings it houses and instructs its students in and the value of the diploma it awards its graduates. The University has parlayed its gridiron exploits into improving its stature in many other respects and shaping a school that is one of very few that is recognized worldwide today. It's quite possible that there wouldn't be a Notre Dame at all without that damnable foothold of great football history, and I'm quite certain that the soapbox Sampson is preaching from would disappear faster than hard road under Wil-E Coyote if the school had always been so laissez-faire about the fortunes of its team.

When Notre Dame fired Willingham, athletics director Kevin White boldly stated the football program had never been better from Sunday-Friday than with the deposed coach in charge. It was the Saturdays and that 21-15 record was the problem. So Notre Dame, or at least the incoming president, vice president and a couple of wealthy trustees, demanded more.
But they got less. Not because the University hired Weis, a dynamic alumnus coach with three Super Bowl rings, but because Notre Dame made some major edits to its mission statement in firing Willingham.

I'm impressed that Sampson possesses the foresight -- all of 20 days since Willingham was relieved of his duties -- to know what exactly Notre Dame will "get" from the coaching change. What I've personally gathered from this turn of events is that the school's new management is committed to winning football games at a championship level, a sentiment in and of itself that no one should ever have to apologize for, least of all a school with the tradition of Notre Dame. And Sampson will have to point out to me the part of the University's mission statement that references the coddling of minorities for the purpose of enacting widespread societal change, because that passage is not one that I'm familiar with.

But when football success comes at the cost of Notre Dame's spirit, that's where a line must be drawn. The deal when Notre Dame hired Willingham was that the school could not only win games, but also start to remodel the landscape of college coaching with its high profile hire. Three years later the University decided that reconstruction process wasn't worth the price of five losses per season. Notre Dame honored Willingham's contract in a buyout, but it skirted an obligation for something bigger.

Here's the kicker for Sampson and everyone else crying foul: there never was a "deal". Tyrone Willingham was hired by Notre Dame for the express purpose of winning football games, not to act as the instigator in a societal domino-tumbling session. If there was any greater cultural significance to the event three years ago, it was extrapolated by Sampson and his ilk at the time. Now that the "landmark event" has come and gone without any sort of greater change coming about on the landscape, all that's left are unfulfilled wishes and bruised feelings.

And this gets to the root of why everyone is so angry at Notre Dame for having the gall to wake the Willingham's enablers from their fanciful dreams. The average media creature looks at Tyrone Willingham and sees in him great things. They watch him in the press conference as he bids farewell to Notre Dame -- proud, upstanding, diplomatic -- and flesh out his hard, bony character with all sorts of heroic qualities in order to build the feature-film-worthy individual they so badly want him to be and the barrier-breaking legend they wish for him to become. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that he's a respectable and hard-working man but nothing truly spectacular. And the biggest hit is that he's not a very good football coach. He's been at this for ten years and led two solid-to-great programs without making a championship-contending dent in any single college season, so hopeful rationalizations about "learning from his mistakes" and the like ring somewhat hollow at this point. Willingham simply doesn't have it in him to be what everyone so desperately wants: not a fine, upstanding man, but rather a historic winner.

Not that this will stop Pete Sampson or anyone else in the media with an axe to grind from trying to cloud a black-and-white issue of wins-and-losses with one of another type entirely.