Sunday, September 25, 2005

Man of Integrity | by Jay

Regardless of what they do, you are to handle yourself as a true professional, a true man of integrity. -- Tyrone Willingham, 9/24/05.

I'd like to keep this pretty simple, because I think there's only one new point to be made here, only one new revelation in the saga of Tyrone Willingham, Wronged Man.

It isn't that John Saunders is a muckraking, pot-stirring, race-baiting, libelous fraud of a "journalist". That's not much of a surprise.

No, the bombshell was more startling, actually, and it's one I never imagined transpiring.

John Saunders: You weren't just coming in and taking over a program that was storied and had stumbled on hard times. You were taking on a program that had stumbled into some scandal. You cleaned ALL of that up, and your reward was to get fired.

Tyrone Willingham: That's life, you know, and that's what I prepared myself for when I took over the job. They say that the microscope is big there. No question about that. But I prepared myself for all of that, and as an African-American coach, your position is somewhat tenuous. There are not a lot of guarantees, as a matter of fact, there are not a lot of coaches getting positions, period, okay, so tenuous may be an understatement.

JS: You weren't given the five years that other coaches got to demonstrate those skills. Do you think it is in part because you're an African-American?

TW: I've always said that in this country there is no absence of racism, okay, we're all aware of that, it's been here for quite some time, okay. And to think it would NOT factor in may be naïve on my part. But the people that really know that answer are the ones that we need to talk to.

This is incendiary stuff. To my knowledge, Willingham has never made such accusations publicly before yesterday, preferring to let minions like Alan Grant carry his water for him. But there he was, pointing the finger and playing the race card.

What is the claim, exactly? Let's spell it out. Willingham says that he was fired because of the color of his skin. Period. I don't know how you can parse what he said and come to any other conclusion. He refutes none of Saunders' inflammatories, and actually says he'd be naïve to think race wasn't a factor in his firing.

So, Father John Jenkins, John Affleck-Graves, and the Board of Trustees are racist, and Notre Dame is a racist institution? Ty's position at the Unversity was tenuous from the very beginning, because he's a black man? And in the end, his blackness got him fired? By his statements to Saunders on national television, he's allowing all of these accusations to germinate.

In truth, there is no evidence whatsoever that race played a part in Willingham's firing. The reality is that Willingham was an objective failure as a football coach. The evidence to that end is legion, having been discussed and documented here and elsewhere for quite a long time now. And while the tenuousness of the position of head football coach at Notre Dame is a very real phenomenon, it has nothing to do with race -- it's because the expectations of the job are so high. Ty's predecessors were under the same scrutiny; Charlie Weis toils under the same overwhelming pressure to succeed. Ty knows this. As he himself said on Saturday, "I make no bones about it -- I am very competitive, I like to win, I like to win all the time," and that's the benchmark for a ND coach. He understood the job requirement, and he didn't fulfill it. At no time during his interview with ABC were his own expectations for the football program at ND discussed, at no time was there even a mention of his track record "on Saturday", not one note about the record blowouts, the losses to inferior teams, the ineptitude of one of the worst offenses in college football (an offense that now, with all the same players, ranks among the very best), and the refusal to upgrade his own coaching staff. Although stewardship of the football program is line item A on his job description, there was not one word spoken about his track record nor the performance of his teams.

He didn't defend his record, because he can't. Instead, encouraged by a muckraker like Saunders, he put on the mantle of "victim", obfuscating the real reasons he was fired and tossing a hand grenade at the "racist" school that hired him in the first place.

A claim of institutional racism is insidious. It's an easy accusation to make, as it requires no actual evidence. Racism charges tend to stick even when they're unwarranted and completely unfounded. Willingham's claim is highly irresponsible, exploitative, and it's highly damaging, too -- in a few different ways.

First of all, and most obviously, it tears away at the fiber of Notre Dame. It slanders everyone associated with the school, branding them with a scarlet 'R', painting the institution as a despicable place where discrimination and prejudice hold sway. It's especially hurtful considering the moral principles and Christian tradition that ND strives to uphold, and it's ironic considering that throughout its history, ND has struggled against similar discrimination and prejudice itself (ND students fighting the Ku Klux Klan in the streets of South Bend comes to mind, as but one example). It's a cheap, unfair slander that nonetheless cuts very deeply.

Secondly, it belittles and dilutes legitimate claims of racism in our society. I think we all agree with Willingham when he says that racism is a very real problem; yet, when he applies the charge to his own situation, he's exploiting the real victims of racism to his own selfish end. He's trying to rehab his image, trying to save face, trying to obscure the fact that he was a lousy football coach and hide under the veil of a fictitious institutional prejudice. In doing so, he insults and disgraces all those who have struggled against actual racism in their lives.

Thirdly, as Sean wrote back in December, Willingham's just made the atmosphere a degree more difficult for other black college football coaches.

You're the athletics director at a big time school, and you're about to make a monumental decision. You consider all of this - the campuswide strife, the undue criticism, the selective tunnel vision of the naysayers. You ask yourself what would happen at your school if you were forced to make the same decision Notre Dame made. And you'll never admit it, but now the color of the coach's skin IS a factor in your decision.
You know, I never hated the guy. I thought he was inept as a football coach, but I bought into the image to some extent, believing Willingham to be an upstanding, honest man, and a role model -- if a little overmatched in his job. Over time, I began to realize it was all a façade, a carefully constructed public image that obscures the fact that he's a man of very little football substance. It's an act that keeps him employable, and it's an image he'll defend at any cost, even if it means unfairly branding as racists the very people that gave him the opportunity in the first place. (Look out, University of Washington.)

On Saturday, he pulled back the curtain on himself, just a little. It was uncharacteristic of Willingham to reveal so much. And what we saw was sad and pathetic, a desperate man imputing dangerous, irresponsible and unwarranted accusations. A Man of Integrity would admit his failings, formulate a plan to improve, and move on. When his team fails, a Man of Integrity would take the blame himself, and not hang his players out to dry. A Man of Integrity wouldn't drag his employer through the mud, even while that employer has made good on the agreed-upon contractual terms and paid a buyout numbering in the millions of dollars.

This is no Man of Integrity.

I don't know if this will be the last post on BGS regarding Tyrone Willingham, but we're hoping so. With Saturday's crucible finally over, and our series with UW ending, we won't be crossing paths with Ty again anytime soon. A new chapter in Notre Dame football is already being written, and it'd be nice to leave all this ugliness behind. There's football to be played, by God.