Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Let's Pretend For a Minute.... | by Sean

I know this is going to be sensitive, but since sometime in the last seven days Notre Dame somehow became the symbol of racial injustice, please indulge me and let's play a game of "make believe":

You're an athletics director at a BCS conference football power. Your school has a tradition of football excellence, but recently you had to fire the head coach of your football team because he was "only" averaging around 6 or 7 wins per season. So it's time to select a new head football coach. You sit down at your desk and write down all the traits that would be embodied in the "perfect coach" - great leader of young men, skilled game tactician, relentless recruiter. You make your short list of candidates that your school is going to target, maybe a dozen guys who fit the description. Because you're merely trying to identify "the best", your list naturally includes a handful of African American candidates.

But the color of the coach's skin is not a factor. You just want the best.

Just before picking up the phone to make the first call, you glance at the TV and see the Notre Dame coaching situation leading Sportscenter again. You pause and reflect on this week's events in South Bend. Notre Dame fired a coach three years into his contract. A coach on whose watch the football team became a comedy of "on the field" failure - numerous blowouts, questionable play calling, and generally inconsistent (if not pathetic) performance. A coach who, while a good man, was overseeing a program that was in further decline. You read the piles of statistical evidence supporting the termination of Tyrone Willingham and you think to yourself about what you would have to do if that were happening at your school. It's a no brainer, he'd have to go. Performance like Notre Dame's since 2002 would be a borderline felony at your school. Firing the coach would probably touch off a mini-celebration.

But you look closer at South Bend and notice one glaring problem. The termination of Tyrone Willingham was not touching off any type of celebration about a renewed dedication to winning. It was, however, triggering a firestorm of racial tension. You look down at your list again, and reflect.

You think back to the last week, and you remember every single ESPN "talking head" blatherfest leading off with the "injustice" of the Willingham firing. Never mind that these are the same people who just weeks earlier had ridiculed the Notre Dame on field product - WILLINGHAM'S product - to no end. Rational thought went out the window at 1:00PM on November 30.

You see the Notre Dame Black Alumni Association issuing statements about how unfair the termination of Willingham was, calling it "unprecedented". Never mind that you could use the exact same adjective to describe the poor performance of Willingham's teams over the last 25 games.

You see high profile Notre Dame football alums on television, when given the opportunity to stem the tide and tell people why this decision was really made, instead decide to pile on and say that the school "[did] Willingham wrong" and the "Notre Dame mystique is dead". Never mind that it's that same mystique that is a major reason why at least two of the sportscasters in question have jobs commenting about college football.

You see a mini-civil war at Notre Dame breaking out over the issue of the firing of a black head coach three years into his contract, when all of his white predecessors in the last twenty years got at least five years. Never mind that two of those white coach's tenures ended with their eventual firing and that Willingham has overseen more failure in many categories than either of the two white coaches in question (in some categories, combined).

You see them say that Notre Dame "broke their contract" with Tyrone Willingham. Never mind that the university will be adhering to the agreement to the letter by paying the full buyout of said contract - a contract that Tyrone Willingham signed and his representation negotiated.

You glance at the recent firings of coaches at Stanford, Florida, Ole Miss, and Indiana. Each of these coaches - all white, by the way - got fired only three years in (or less), and the only people saying a word are those nodding their heads with approval. Never mind that these coaches all had time left on their contracts as well. They underperformed, and all will receive buyouts.

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.

Maybe Raghib Ismail, Michael Wilbon, Alan Grant and Bill Rhoden should consider this before insinuating or accusing Notre Dame of firing Tyrone Willingham because he is black.