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Michael Wilbon

Notre Dame's True Colors

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, December 1, 2004; Page D01

The powers-that-be at Notre Dame, way too many of them anyway, never wanted Tyrone Willingham in the first place. The alums and the club boosters who donate tens of thousands of dollars and who influence opinion in South Bend never coveted Ty Willingham in the first place. They tolerated him. They made their peace with him being there. They hoped he would win. But they didn't want him. The whole three years Willingham was there, the power brokers stood with arms folded and feet tapping, staring at the clock trying to determine when his time would be up.

They hired George O'Leary, not knowing he had lied on his résumé. They wanted Jon Gruden, but he wouldn't leave the NFL. They wanted Mike Shanahan, but he wouldn't leave pro football, either. So when they had grown exhausted from chasing, but not catching their favorites, they turned desperately to Willingham and hoped he would deliver them not only from the O'Leary debacle but deliver magic. For the most part, they were never emotionally committed to him. They never loved him or treated him like "The Coach." The thinking was that if he went 10-1 every year, he could stay, and at that point they might even grow to like him. A good many of them were betting against him when he arrived.

Tyrone Willingham, who had a 5-year deal, was 1st black coach the Irish had hired in any sport. (Michael Conroy -- AP)

_____Filling Fast_____

These teams have made their bowl commitments (games in which neither opponent is determined are not listed):

Alamo: Ohio State vs. TBA

Capital One: Iowa vs. TBA

Champs Sports: Georgia Tech vs. TBA

Continental Tire: North Carolina vs. Boston College

Emerald: Navy vs. New Mexico

Fort Worth: Cincinnati vs. Marshall

Gator: Florida State vs. West Virginia

GMAC: Memphis vs. Bowling Green

Hawaii: Alabama-Birmingham vs. TBA

Houston: UTEP vs. TBA

Insight Bowl: Notre Dame vs. TBA

Las Vegas: Wyoming vs. TBA

Liberty: Louisville vs. Boise State

Motor City: Connecticut vs. TBA

MPC Computers: Virginia vs. TBA

Music City: Minnesota vs. TBA

New Orleans: North Texas vs. Southern Mississippi

Outback: Wisconsin vs. Georgia

Rose: Michigan vs. TBA

Sun: Purdue vs. TBA

_____College Football Basics_____
Area Colleges Section
College Football Section

So Willingham was fired yesterday three years into a five-year contract by a school that loves to claim the moral high ground. Notre Dame, the school that never before fired a coach before his initial contract expired, fired the first black head coach the school had ever hired in any sport. I'm sure everybody ever associated with Notre Dame will tell you color had nothing to do with letting Willingham go, that it's totally a coincidence, which is like spitting in somebody's face and telling him it's a rain drop.

This is a story about arrogance, about the Neanderthal nature of big-time college football, about a man who has more dignity than the bums who started calling for his head last season or those who plotted his firing for the last couple of weeks.

Not that Notre Dame is the only school operating a football program on complete arrogance, but it's the latest. Nebraska, Florida and Alabama are also among that small group of schools still believing it's their inalienable right to finish in the top 10 every season. They can't accept the fact that they don't own college football anymore, and that they'll never own it again. Not only do they have to share with the Southern Californias and Oklahomas, but with the Louisvilles and Marshalls and Utahs. In fact, the man Notre Dame is coveting right now, Urban Meyer, is the head coach of 11-0 Utah.

USC and Oklahoma are sitting pretty right now, but they'll cycle off just as they cycled on recently after down periods. Nebraska, only a year ago, fired a coach who went 8-3 because they felt he wasn't getting them close enough to a national title. So the good Cornhuskers people went out and hired a Super Bowl coach from the NFL, Bill Callahan, who just led them to 5-6. The Notre Dames and Nebraskas can't stand the sight of upstarts such as Boise State taking a seat at the table they used to control. They want college football to look just like it did in the 1950s and '60s. They want it controlled by a handful of big-conference teams. They want to tie up all the good bowl games. And they certainly do not want anything as modern, as democratic and as merit-based as a playoff. They want to live in Pleasantville as long as possible, and Pleasantville, in case you didn't notice, doesn't include black coaches telling white boys how to block or tackle, which is why there are only two black head coaches in Division I-A.

People at institutions such as Notre Dame don't sit around any more, even off the record, talking about getting rid of a person because he's a certain color. Such a conversation, if proven, would be illegal in this country, and most folks aren't that dumb. Intolerance has increasing subtlety. But the passionate distaste for Willingham in some quarters, including on campus after a loss, had an unmistakable stink to it.

Had Willingham been everything Notre Dame could have wanted? No, not yet. After going 10-3 his first year, he had a lousy second season. He was blown out by USC three times. But did he deserve to continue? Of course, he did. We're talking about a program that yielded one first-round draft pick in the past five years, meaning recruiting had fallen off long before Willingham arrived. They asked him to overhaul the offense, which takes more than a couple of seasons even at the professional level. They asked him to get rid of the knuckleheads who had embarrassed the school under the previous coach, and Willingham did that, too. Now, they say it came down to wins and losses.

When Willingham left Stanford, I winced. The people at Stanford loved Willingham; perhaps they still do. They wanted him there. They thought and demonstrated he was one of them, which did not happen in the main at Notre Dame. He knew he was taking a chance when he left Palo Alto for South Bend. But he felt he owed it to himself to try to win on the biggest stage in college football.

I hope Stanford brings him back. I hope the recruits who grew close to Willingham follow him wherever he goes. It'll be interesting to see how black parents, high school coaches and recruits respond to how Willingham was treated. I received an e-mail last night from the father of a Big Ten lineman, a white player by the way, who had been recruited by Willingham.

It reads in part, "Coach Willingham should not have been fired before his contract expired. Coach Willingham did a great job recruiting my son and really pushed the history of, and the opportunities available at, Notre Dame. In the end it was the lack of participation in a major conference and the off-campus activities available that made the difference. We wish him the best."

Maybe Meyer will come from Utah and, as they like to say in South Bend, wake up the echoes. But given the hype over this guy, he had better be The Goods. Maybe they'll turn to Gruden, who'll come to campus flashing his Super Bowl ring and galvanize the program. Either way, Willingham is better off coaching somewhere he'll be appreciated to the level of his expertise and class. And Notre Dame will hire a coach with the promise of returning the Irish to a preeminent place in college football. That's a place Notre Dame hasn't been in quite a while, and it's a place, given the school's shortsightedness, it won't be seeing anytime soon.

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