SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The legacy of Ty Willingham is officially over. No one at Notre Dame is thinking about it, no one is talking about it. In the minds of most, it's time to move on. If you bring it up, "That was so three years ago" is the standard response.
But three years does not amnesia make. Notre Dame's season is over. The Irish won their final two games to finish 3-9 -- pushing Charlie Weis' record at Notre Dame to 22-15, one win better than Willingham's 21-15. From the outside looking in, the only difference between now and then is an issue of black and white.
So I ask, At what point now as an African-American person (not a sportswriter) am I supposed to believe that Ty Willingham getting fired at Notre Dame had nothing to do with race?
"I would hate to think race had anything to do with Tyrone's dismissal since Notre Dame does, after all, have a sacred history of quickly pulling the trigger on coaches not immediately winning national championships," Doug Krikorian told me recently after he wrote a "Weis Gets Little Heat, But Deserves Plenty" piece for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. "But I will say this: There's no doubt in my mind if one of Tyrone's teams were 2-9 and performed as horribly as Weis' team has been this fall, he would have been fired at the end of the season, if not before the end."
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander told me, "Race always underlines things subliminally; in the case with Notre Dame, it made Ty an outsider. [Notre Dame was] hoping against hope with Ty. It all became compounded by their impatience and impetuousness. I'm sure that wasn't Notre Dame's intent, but that's the way it looks. I hope to think that they wouldn't hire someone to fail. Even if it's not malicious, there is always a sense of scrutiny whenever race is involved; you just can't just rule these things out. The question that needs to be asked: Who is the right coach for this place?"
Now, before you stop reading, understand that this is not one of those blacker-than-thou rants I get accused of going on. I will admit I have waited three years to write this column, but not for those "told you so" reasons. This is not about validating a belief; this is not my Petey Greene moment. But unfortunately for Notre Dame, the chickens finally came home to roost.
So if not melanin or hair texture, what is the reason Willingham was treated so differently than the guy who replaced him? A couple of weeks ago, I walked the campus, made contact with students, alums, employees, players, the board of trustees. I asked the question. In my mind, it was a question about fairness -- related to race -- that needed an answer. The answers I got were a covert cry for stability and sensibility; legit reasons as opposed to excuses, spin and BS. The answers I got were devoid of anything connected to race.
"As unfair as the university was to Ty at the time, right now it's about continuity, not race," said a member of the Notre Dame staff. "If we keep firing coaches every three years or after every losing season, no one of significance is going to want to coach here."
I heard stories of recruiting and how the school's administration seriously worried about the direction Willingham was going in because Notre Dame was losing elite players to non-elite schools. They hit me with the "Weis has three Super Bowl rings" piece, the Notre Dame pedigree piece, the "if Willingham was a Notre Dame grad like Weis, he'd have been treated the same way Weis is being treated now" piece. The "any way you slice it, coaches get fired here after two losing seasons in a row regardless of color" truth. (Forget that Willingham didn't have two losing seasons in a row; he went 5-7 and 6-5 his final two seasons.)
People I talked to dismissed race and talked about "subconscious responses" and the how the "rush to give [Weis] that 10-year, $30 million extension" is haunting Notre Dame right now. I was told how the school gave Bob Davie a contract extension after one good season and it came back to haunt them, and if they don't keep Weis "it will look like we are incompetent." Nothing said that had anything to do with race, color or creed, just the politics of big-time college football.
There was honesty in their beliefs. SID John Heisler made more sense to me in our 20-minute conversation than anyone I talked to during my eight hours there. His conversation played into the psyche of reasoning behind the difference of treatment. Continuity kept coming up. It made me begin to think differently.
But then I talked to Jelani McEwen, a 2005 graduate. "Ty basically did not represent the university in a way the university needed to be represented," McEwen said. "Was part of that because he was black? It would be foolish not to think so. But Notre Dame to a fault prides itself on winning, especially in football. Now I personally think that race played a part in Coach Willingham getting fired and it is also playing a role in why Coach Weis hasn't been.
"In talking to my white friends, they don't see it that way. Honestly, I think it's preposterous to think otherwise. But I was once one of the 450 or so black students there, one of the 2 percent. I was at the demonstrations, I was part of the T-shirt campaign against his firing. They made sure we all knew he was black in the beginning and they made sure he knew he was black in the end."
When I got home, I told my wife of how I heard some legitimate non-race reasons why Willingham was fired and why Weis hasn't been, that I now had more clarity on the situation than before. She asked if there was a fresh and creative angle I could take on the column without injecting race and unfairness. She asked if there was a way to incorporate all of the things I'd learned by visiting Notre Dame's campus. She asked if I could do this column as a sportswriter first and an African-American second.
I thought back to my original question, thought about what I'd learned, thought about what Jelani said. Then said, "Nope."
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for Page 2.