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Willingham versus Williams was an anomaly

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By Leland Stein III

EAST LANSING – I hope everyone saw the Michigan State vs. Notre Dame encounter in East Lansing. Those that didn’t, don’t hold your breath, it may be a long time before we see it again.


Although the playing fields are loaded with African-Americans in college and the pros, the position of head football coach remains a closed fraternity.
In fact, there are only four men of color prowling the sidelines at 117 Division 1-A colleges. The short list includes Tyrone Willingham of Notre Dame, Bobby Williams of MSU, Tony Samuel of New Mexico State and Fitz Hill of San Jose State.
The NFL is no better, employing only two African-Americans — Herman Edwards of Philadelphia and Tony Dungy of Indianapolis — out of 32 head coaching jobs.
Willingham’s hiring at one of the most storied football programs in America is indeed a major occurrence; he’s the first Black head coach of any sport at Notre Dame.
When I went to South Bend a couple weeks ago to cover Michigan vs. Notre Dame, evidence of the importance of football to the school was obvious - there was media from almost every major paper in America.
One only had to look through Notre Dame’s media guide to find sections devoted to movies made about its coaches and players and homage paid to the football landmarks on the campus like: Touchdown Jesus, We’re No. 1 Moses and Fair Catch Corby. Throughout the guide words like: hear the echoes, tradition, legends and National Championships abound.
This is the environment Willingham now inhabits, and, to a lesser extent so does Williams.
Samuels and Hill are at so-called dead end jobs - both coach at perennial losing programs. Jobs like theirs lead to the “unenjoyment” line.
The late Fred “The Fox” Snowden, who coached at Northwestern High and was also a pioneer becoming the first Black head basketball coach in the PAC-10 at Arizona, always said to me: “After my successful run at Arizona, I never got another head job. It’s almost impossible to get fired and get another job.”
That’s why Willingham and Williams’ successes will be a beacon in the coaching integration process.
So, when MSU and Notre Dame lined up to do battle, I felt like a living breathing oxymoron.
Being a MSU graduate, surely, I wanted the Spartans to win. Plus, MSU is the first Big Ten University to entrust its beloved football program to an African-American.
On the other hand, Willingham and I have known each other since college. Our friendship was renewed when he became coach at Stanford while I was covering UCLA and USC in Los Angeles.
In this historic encounter whom do I root for?
The fact of the matter was Williams needed the victory more than Willingham, since the vultures were circling Williams’ carcass after his loss to California.
MSU lost to the Fighting Irish 21-17 in an important game, but the Willingham/Williams match up was just as important for some – especially minorities.
Williams continued: “I know people were watching, maybe a young person watching will gain motivation and start to believe its possible to be a coach at this level.”
Meanwhile the Willingham express just keeps on rolling. Notre Dame has not opened a season 4-0 since 1993. “It’s great to be 4-0, but it’s how you end that matters,” Willingham noted. “It’s tough every week finding a way to win, but the guys are rising to the occasion.”
I saw Willingham lead Stanford to the Rose Bowl when there were at least three PAC-10 teams with more talent. Maybe that is why he is the only Stanford coach to win two PAC-10 Conference Coach of the Year awards.
There’s a football halo hanging over Willingham’s head. And to think, it took a George O’Leary embellished resume for him to get the opportunity. The ironies of life are profound.
Leland Stein is a veteran journalist/columnist and former BVN Sports Editor; he can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com

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