Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Fallout | by Jay

In America these days, the subject of race is always incendiary. We knew that firing a black coach would generate some acerbic reactions, and not just in the press. Yesterday we had reports of two groups issuing statements, but of different tenors and borne of different agendas.

1. On Monday the ND Faculty Senate voted 26-4 to pass a resolution to express "its concern over the decision to terminate the contract of football coach Tyrone Willingham." The gist of the complaint:

"The Senate is particularly troubled by the signal that his firing sends regarding the role that intercollegiate athletics plays in the life of this University. The Senate extends its appreciation to Coach Willingham for his commitment to exemplary academic standards and for the professional integrity he brought to the football program and the University."
Now, I liked almost every one of my professors at Notre Dame. Nearly to a person, they were intelligent, conscientious, and inspirational. But to be honest, not one of them was a football fan (okay, maybe one). I really think that to most professors at ND, football is a distraction from purer, more academic pursuits; a sidelight to the real purpose of the University. Put it this way: when football prospers, the faculty are pissed.

So here comes Tyrone Willingham, a coach from one of the premiere institutions of higher learning in the country, and he does everything a good, upstanding coach is supposed to do at Notre Dame. He runs a clean program. He makes sure the kids get to class. He upholds the academic standard, and really lives up to that "molder of men" image he likes to talk about (and as far as I'm concerned -- and I know there are opinions out there that differ -- that's not a façade). He does everything the right way.

The only problem is, the head football coach isn't being held to the same standards as a professor. There's this little performance clause called wins and losses, something completely foreign to the classroom. Strictly speaking, the coach isn't a faculty member; he's part of the support staff of the University, and he's got a very specific job to do, and a fairly transparent measuring stick to adhere to. So when the Faculty Senate votes to censure the firing of the football coach, I don't put much stock in the opinion. Think of it this way: if the football coaches all got together and voted to pass judgment on an English professor, you'd laugh, wouldn't you?

The thing they're missing is that any number of people (hell, half the people reading this blog right now) could accomplish the baseline academic duties required of the football coach. You and I could make sure our charges got to class, kept up the grades, and stayed out of trouble. Ty did this sufficiently, but to be honest, ND has always had a high rate of academic success for its athletes, so Ty's achievement, in context, is not particularly noteworthy. But the football coach isn't simply a placeholder for academic enforcement, and his job is much broader.

His job is to win football games, period.

2. The other voice of discontent came from the ND Black Alumni association, reported in an article in the South Bend Tribune on Tuesday. As detailed in a letter to the Board of Trustees, their complaint shares much of the same outrage as the faculty senate:
"The decision made by the Administration is both premature and unprecedented. It disregards (Willingham's) outstanding first season, off-field success and increased integrity and academic strides among our football players."
Personally, I can understand the outcry from the Black Alumni Association, to a certain extent. After all, here's a guy who was named the 6th Most Influential Minority in Sports, right after Arte Moreno (and just before Yao Ming). As Sports Illustrated wrote last May:
Football Coach, Notre Dame
Clout comes with winning, especially on the grandest stages. No one exemplifies this better than Willingham, who in just one season restored the glory to perhaps the most prestigious program in college football. His success as Notre Dame's first African-American coach could embolden other schools to hire a black football coach.
I don't pretend to fully understand the plight of blacks in America and the pernicious discrimination that has worked against them for so long, but I certainly have a great deal of sympathy for promoting the hiring of minorities, especially in the college coaching ranks, where the numbers of coaches of color are deplorably low. So when Tyrone Willingham was first hired, I read the decision as being at least in part about getting the first black coach installed at ND, and so I was impressed that Notre Dame decided to break new ground and set an example for the rest of the NCAA. I appreciated the symbolic importance of getting a black man in the head coach's office at the University of Notre Dame, and I realized that this could have a ripple effect across the rest of college football (Unfortunately, it didn't. The numbers of black coaches are even fewer now than they were when Ty was hired).

So, this was a good thing -- as long as the rest of the job description was fulfilled as well. Unfortunately for ND, and to the chagrin of everyone cheering for his success (including the Black Alumni), Ty turned out to be a less than adequate coach. By any rational, objective measure of achievement, Willingham just wasn't getting it done -- and there was no reason to believe things were going to get better. I could rehash the damning statistical failures -- terrible offensive production, questionable coaching strategies, some of the worst blowouts in ND's history -- but we all know them by heart at this point.

The essential thing to remember is that the job is larger than the color of your skin, and if you're not getting it done on the field, then you don't deserve to continue coaching. (Below, Dylan posits a simple thought experiment on this very issue. Try it out for yourself).

One final note from the Black Alumni letter, and it's an interesting one:
"It seems as if the decision [to fire Willingham] was made in a bubble. I don't know of any people of color who were consulted," [group chairwoman Danielle] Boucree said."
This statement cuts both ways. On one hand, you'd think that ND's brass would want to consult with their black alumni if they were thinking of firing Ty, if only to gauge what the reaction would be and to maybe mitigate any potential fallout. ND's always (and notoriously so) making decisions without consultation of various affected parties, whether it's the students (banning SYRs, for instance) or the alumni (funds appropriations to white elephant projects), and so this type of hubris isn't exactly foreign to us.

On the other hand, there's no reason to believe that the general reaction to Ty's firing would have been any different had they consulted with them. We all could have predicted a firestorm of criticism at the prospect of firing a black coach, and I'm not sure there was any legitimate way of avoiding it. Even if "people of color" were involved in the decision, would that have mitigated the outcry? Of course not. If you would rather measure a football coach's worth not by wins and losses and athletic achievement, but rather by a sensitivity to his "symbolic" worth as a black man in a head coaching position, then it really doesn't matter why you fire him. It's going to be a brouhaha any way you slice it.