The Real Ty Willie
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

First let's muster up some clichés. The big-time blowout of Florida State by Notre Dame at Tallahassee did more to advance black head football coaches than all the meetings mouthpieces like Johnnie Cochran, Cyrus Mehri and the Black Coaches Association (why isn't there a White Coaches Association?) could ever muster. Tyrone Willingham, The Real Ty Willie, did more for integrating the sidelines than Martin Luther King Jr. ever did. Pull yourself up by your headphones! Cast down your bucket!

Bobby Bowden & Ty Willingham
The old guard -- coaches, boosters, fans -- embraces someone who wins.
Various people are full of various yada-yada on the subject.

Of course, I'm full of various yada-yada myself, sometimes.

But not always. Sometimes I'm coool. Like back in 1988, before Doug Williams QBed the Redskins to the 42-10 Super Bowl win over Denver, I said Doug's play on that one day had nothing to do with how black QBs were perceived.

Wrong. I should have said his play on that one day had nothing to do with how black quarterbacks performed. When I said perceived, some of my white friends shook their heads, as if to say, "You don't hear what we hear when you're not around, big guy." I guess I don't. I do notice the looks.

Fourteen years later, after Doug Williams had not just played in the Super Bowl but played so well as to shatter unfortunate (and convenient) myths, black QBs in pro football are no longer any funny deal.

Go back further, 18 years before that, to 1970, when the black players at the great state universities of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Auburn, Louisiana were ... well, there were no black players at those schools.

Thirty-two years later, there are, shall we say, several.

So. Was the Oct. 26, 2002, Notre Dame-Florida State game reminiscent of the Alabama-USC game of 1970? After USC's blowout victory, many said that USC fullback Sam Cunningham did more for integration than Martin Luther King Jr. To me, this was just a way to denigrate King. Less understood is the fact that Bear Bryant, with his institutional control, did more than Sam Bam by scheduling the game in the first place. The Bear met with USC coach John McKay at LAX before that season, scheduled the game, and only then by performance was the field leveled. By performance and by boardroom (or backroom) executive fiat. (Had to get the chance to do the dance.)
Bear Bryant
Bryant's first, and only, priority was winning.
Bear Bryant agreed at this meeting to schedule SC, and to let Sam's legs do the talking and the arguing. That way, Bear's hands were clean, so to speak. He didn't integrate SEC football (and thereby incur the wrath of the George Wallace fan faction). Sam Bam did. Right. If performance was the issue, Jackie Robinson, the UCLA football player, could've done the trick long before that. Sam Bam wasn't the first black dude who could haul pill.

Bear Bryant found a way, is what happened. He found a way to win, is what, because at the end of the day, winning was what he was about, more than coddling alumni and adhering to a social code of strict segregation.

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Now, in the early 2000s, we have the curious case of Tyrone Willingham, who flourishes and in fact leads the coaching pack, while operating in a world where out of 149 D-1 and NFL head football coaching jobs, exactly six, or 4 1/2 percent, are held by black football coaches, which is less than half of the general population percentage and totally absurd when one contemplates the fact that between 50 and 60 percent of the big-time players are black.

Will what Tyrone did in Tallahassee Saturday change that?

Or, will it be what Tyrone did, in concert with other factors -- lawyers, associations, political parties, pressure groups?

Personally, I tend to think both. But that's just me. I guess.

It is no question that the most effective, obvious, visible change agent, by luck of draw, or Irish, is now Ty Willie. Any meetings taken by lawyers or press conferences held by associations will last no more than a couple hours, and won't be seen by many people. What Tyrone Willingham has done, is doing, will last for as long as men play big-time American football. Ty Willie is forever.

But, for all that, Ty Willie wasn't made in a vacuum. He was made in an environment conducive to his development.

And make no mistake, Ty Willie was made, not born.

***** ***** *****

In the first place, Tyrone Willingham got the Notre Dame job not because the Catholic fathers studied the pool of all possible coaches and came up with his name. He got it only because Notre Dame had fallen on hard times. Notre Dame was old news, passé. Time had passed the Irish by. The thunder was all shook down and done. Bob Stoops wouldn't touch the job (of course, Ty Willie was doing semaphore on the West Coach: I - Am - Doing - It - With - High - Academic - Standards - Already).

George O'Leary
O'Leary's gaffe paved the way for Willingham's opportunity.
Notre Dame hired an applicant certainly no more qualified than Willingham, by recent job history and pedigree. A mid-level coach who had moderate success at Georgia Tech, George O'Leary got the job, and if not for a public gaffe about misstatements on his resume, the Irish would be chugging along at who knows what ... 5-3 in the best case?

Surely after Willingham backed into the job and banished star running back Julie Jones and lost QB Matt Lovecchio to transfer, the Irish were not dreaming of 8-0, or looking at 11-0 going into the USC game. Most college football prognosticators predicted four losses minimum for Notre Dame this year, and those were the optimistic ones. Semi-blue chip or not, the same players that went 5-6 last year under Bob Davie are 8-0 under Tyrone Willingham with the toughest part of one of the most difficult schedules in the country already behind them. No matter what excuse you use for it, Not Your Father's Notre Dame has thoroughly out-coached and outplayed a collection of aging overseers, greenhorns, relatives and other typical D-1 coaching hires.

The difference here, obviously and glaringly, is coaching, and Tyrone Willingham. You can credit whomever else you want -- Touchdown Jesus, candles lit in the Grotto, Bob Davie for bringing in some talent, luck, whatever -- it is also called spirited, inspired, cunning, wondrous, full-battle-dress coaching. It is the small things, detail, expecting the best instead of the worst, preparing for the best, playing opportunistically, discipline, game-planning the hell out of every game, and constructing a defense that can trouble the fanciest college offense. The D line is good, deep, can mount pressure. But it is the secondary that is so outstanding and tilts the field. Tyrone Willingham was a DB, so you would expect this group to be particularly well-coached. Florida State was bigger, faster and stronger at nearly every position -- except, tellingly, down the middle -- quarterback, center, D-tackle, middle backer, safety. ND safety Glenn Earl hits like a train

Ty Willie is going to win a lot more big games at Notre Dame.

***** ***** *****

The danger inherent for Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri, successful litigators, and the Black Coaches Association is to ask for a percentage of jobs, then see them filled by, not bums, but guys who don't have a structure, a philosophy, or even a clue of a coaching way, an art of football war.

Coaching excellence was the opening statement of Tyrone Willingham. This is not as opposed to the BCA, Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri, but in concert with them, if they are smart (I think they are) and study his example.

Tyrone Willingham wasn't created in a vacuum. He didn't pull himself up by any bootstraps. There are no such straps on football cleats. Tyrone didn't get a group of black pro players to lobby for his hiring. Not that they would have anyway. They would lobby for him to get out of their way if he stood between them and the latest model Escalade. Can you imagine a Terrell Owens or a Randy Moss standing up for something that seemed right for somebody else? Neither can I.

(Michael Irvin once wanted to fire the entire NFLPA because he missed a couple of checks when they were trying to negotiate a deal. He wanted somebody to bring in "de white folk" who knew what they were doing running meetings. "I run the deep turn-in, that's what I do," Irvin said.)

D-1 college football players, determining where to play, which colors to wear, what fight song to sing, which body part to leave on what home field, all because of how a school tracks and treats black football coaches?

I wouldn't hold my breath on that one either.

It's true that Kellen Winslow Sr., the former All-Pro tight end, told his son Kellen Jr. that he'd go to Washington to play for Rick Neuheisel over Senior's dead body, precursor to the BCA's strategy of "Why go play where you can't coach?" But how many D-1 college players have fathers in the first place, let alone concerned fathers that are in the home, and listened to? Young people go with what's hot, what's popular, what they can see, and wear, claim, what wave they can ride. This is why Miami and Florida State can recruit nationally. This is why Notre Dame can recruit nationally much better now. That's why for all the talk of institutional accountability by Johnnie Cochran, Cyrus Mehri and the BCA, the spear point is Tyrone Willingham.

***** ***** *****

Tyrone Willingham is no accident. Besides being very well-raised, having personal drive and character, he also was trained, tracked and institutionally groomed to be a big-time head football coach. His environment helped make him a great coach. That environment was the San Francisco Bay Area, starting when he was a DB with the 49ers.

The 49ers of the 1980s and early to mid-'90s won five Super Bowls, and part of the rhyme of that, the reason and genius of it, was Bill Walsh being willing, able, even eager to delegate, to be aware of the contributions and potential of his black employees and players, as well as the white ones. The 49ers didn't just draft Jerry Rice in 1985. They brought in the coaching staff at Mississippi Valley State and other HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) for coaching clinics with the 49ers. Not a bad trade, since Walsh would borrow their formations. The 49ers PR director was black. Dr. Harry Edwards was brought in as a consultant. The 49ers didn't just talk a good game.

Bill Walsh
Walsh believes in giving talented people a leg up on the system.
Bill Walsh groomed not just his figurative sons like Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan, but also his "other" figurative sons -- Ray Rhodes, Dennis Green and, yes, Tyrone Willingham. Walsh opened up his playbook, shared his philosophy, his structure; he gave them important and meaningful work, and recommended and referred them to jobs. Not just any jobs. He referred Tyrone Willingham to Stanford, one of the top and most difficult jobs in the country. Even Bill Walsh couldn't take Stanford to the Rose Bowl. But Tyrone Willingham did.

Because of the institutional leg up provided by Bill Walsh.

Without that institutional cooperation for tracking, training, grooming and then placing appropriate candidates, you just have a haphazard scattershot, turkey shoot approach; such as, "Well, that one doesn't threaten me, so move him up."

Bad business.

Without institutional cooperation, you are reduced to one man's opinion, be it a university president, or an NFL team owner. Such men can be notoriously limited.

Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders, believe it or not, is one of the few men to hire head football coaches for what he knew they could do in the game of football. That's why he hried Tom Flores, the first Super Bowl winning Latino-American coach; and why he hired Art Shell in 1989 as the first black NFL coach in the modern era of the game. How many NFL owner-operators know the game like Al Davis? Damn few.

Hiring can't happen in a social or football vacuum.

Maybe it's a moot point now. You'd think it would be, after Ty Willie and his coaching staff turned around Notre Dame, and convincingly repelled a superior force at Florida State with a better game plan and a better overall approach.

Who would you bet on in the near future?

Florida State, with Bobby? Or Notre Dame, with Tyrone?

Tyrone Willingham is the spear point of what may become an avalanche of big-time black head football coaches. This assumes there is a pipeline of these coaches. People will do what they see others do in order to win; winning is a great cosmetic. The point is to have something in the cupboard when institutions reach in. Can't say, "I'll have somebody ready in a year." Must say, "This is what else I've got."

Bill Walsh tracked Tyrone Willingham, and he didn't need to have his arm twisted by lawyers to do it. It was the right thing. By his doing many right things, five Super Bowls came to the 49ers. The two matters are definitely related.

The pipeline for Ty Willingham was not in his bootstraps, but in institutional accountability.

And where will that institutional accountability pay off? Notre Dame.

I wouldn't be surprised. In fact, I'd be gratified. It would be something like right. Because of the universal balance of all things -- you get back what you put out, and if you've lived long enough, say 18 years, you already know this -- good stuff will keep happening to Notre Dame.

Still, myself, personally, just in case, I wouldn't be kicking Johnnie Cochran, Cyrus Mehri and the Black Coaches Association out of bed.

When Notre Dame basically had to call Tyrone Willingham (that's when you get the job if you are black; when nobody else wants it, or nobody else thinks they can do it), more than being black, he was ready.

That's the trick to it, if it can be properly called that.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."



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