Given that such firings are hardly earth-shattering developments, it’s interesting to see how much attention is being paid to a personnel decision at Notre Dame University. The school’s trustees recently decided to fire head football coach Tyrone Willingham after three seasons, only one of which could be described as successful.
Fans of the Fighting Irish may recall similarly abrupt endings for several Notre Dame coaches, like the sadly miscast Gerry Faust — a hero at Moeller High School in Ohio, a bust in South Bend — and the underachieving Bob Davie. None of those others firings at Notre Dame generated the controversy surrounding Willingham’s dismissal. That’s because none of those other coaches, even Faust, was dumped after a mere three years. And none of those coaches was African-American.
Willingham’s race inevitably became part of the story. One prominent columnist stated that Willingham was ousted because he was an “outsider” to the Notre Dame culture, which this commentator apparently associates with “leprechauns” and “blarney.” Gee, whatever could that mean? Ah, I see: Notre Dame’s culture is Irish-American, and coach Tyrone Willingham is African-American. So this sad ending was inevitable, because those “leprechauns” wouldn’t give their “outsider” football coach a chance.
That these same people actually gave Tyrone Willingham a chance in the first place apparently was lost on the race-based critics. And let’s face it: If Tyrone Willingham had delivered a national championship at Notre Dame, why, he’d be a unanimous choice as grand marshal of the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Oops. Sorry — that couldn’t happen. Willingham is not a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. (Talk about an outsider!)
Tyrone Willingham should not have been fired, not now anyway. Recent tradition has it that the school gives a football coach five years to prove himself. Willingham got three. Frankly, when a high-profile school like Notre Dame hires its first African-American coach for a sport that is overwhelmingly African-American, yes, the school should go an extra mile and then some before dropping the axe.
Several days after Willingham learned of his fate, the school’s president, the Rev. Edward Molloy, told a gathering of college administrators that he disagreed with the firing. The school’s trustees, not Father Molloy, made the decision. And Father Molloy was embarrassed. Willingham should have been given more time, he said.
But time is not on the side of any high-profile college coaches anymore, with the exception of Papa Joe in Penn State. You either win immediately, or you can expect no better treatment than Willingham received. That’s that way it is in College Sports, Inc.
As luck would have it, that’s the title of a book written by my friend Murray Sperber, a retired professor at Indiana University and the nation’s most-learned critics of big-time college sports. Murray — a prot