Thu, Dec 02, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Notre Dame lets down head coach in cloistered land

By SELENA ROBERTS  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The Southern Baptist coach did not convert to blend in with the Regis Philbin boosters or morph into John Deere lingo to please the Corn Belt base or recite "Rudy" lines to fit in with the Touchdown Jesus faithful.

"I think people see through actors," Ty Willingham once said as he sat in his meticulously kept Stanford football office on a fall day in 2001.

He seemed so clairvoyant then -- succinctly entering and exiting a discussion about the transparency of coaching chameleons, a popular lot who will say, do and be anything on the banquet circuit and blue-chip trail to land a joke, a recruit or a job.

Months later, Notre Dame would pass over Willingham when he failed to fake the enthusiasm of the Lucky Charms leprechaun, only to be hoodwinked by a caricature of itself when George O'Leary was hired for his values and then fired five days later for his resume sins. Re-enter Willingham, a man without props.

"George appeared to all of us as something out of central casting," Athletic Director Kevin White explained in January 2002. "A second-generation Irish-Catholic. A good football coach and a good institutional fit."

This was an admission by White on how blinded he had been by sentimentality and why he was introducing Willingham -- the mulligan of choices, some would say -- to restore decency and integrity to Notre Dame football.

Somehow these same character traits became a firing offense Tuesday when White announced the curious release of Willingham after only three seasons at Notre Dame, where no coach in four decades had lasted fewer than five years.

White praised Willingham for leading the Irish with "impeccable integrity" and for creating an academic standing for players "that has never been better." But with a 21-15 record over three years, Notre Dame fired Willingham after Southern California declovered the Irish once again. "We weren't manufacturing the momentum" on the field, as White said.

This reasoning is one part truth and two parts o'hooey. Notre Dame's actions underscore the painfully small margin of error offered to black college coaches on the Division I-A level, representing one reason there are only two left when there were eight in 1997.

"It raises a red flag," Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association, said by telephone. "This should be saying to America, `Wake up."'

This is regression by impatience. Often, universities who celebrate minority hires mean well, at first.

When Notre Dame was being criticized in the O'Leary fiasco, when some of its players were tagged as miscreants off the field, Notre Dame saved itself in a magnanimous moment, naming the serious-minded Willingham as its first black coach in any sport.

It is easy to act progressive, but much harder to live progressively. What is the point of seeking coaching diversity if a Division I-A program doesn't know how to embrace it?

The situation at Notre Dame is about "what's comfortable," as the barrier-breaker Doug Williams once put it when asked why more black coaches weren't hired despite their excellent qualifications.

Anyone who has ever had a postgame meal at the Bob Evans off the Dixie Highway in South Bend, knows that tolerance for outsiders is only as strong as the team's current state of glory. Once the magic of Willingham's first grand season at Notre Dame wore off, the feel-good connection between the coach and the Irish base dissolved rapidly.

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