Saturday, September 15, 2007

Willingham Is Vindicated by Early Success

Sports of The Times
September 15, 2007

About three years ago, I began to carry around an imaginary college football scoreboard. It is a colossal contraption with all sorts of facts, figures and notations that go beyond the mere statistics of a game.

Notre Dame-Charlie Weis is the “team” on one side of the scoreboard; Washington-Tyrone Willingham is on the other. I keep weekly and season-to-season updates.

Today the scoreboard reads Notre Dame-Weis, 0-2; Washington-Willingham, 2-0.

I began keeping score on the imaginary board in 2004 after Willingham was unceremoniously, and unfairly, jettisoned as the Notre Dame head football coach, three days after an embarrassing road loss to Southern California.

In the press box that evening, Notre Dame faces were understandably red with humiliation as No. 1 U.S.C. routed the Irish, 41-10. It was the fifth loss by 30 points or more in Willingham’s three seasons.

After an outstanding first year was followed by a losing season, Willingham had been under fire from rabid Notre Dame alumni. So on Nov. 30, 2004, Willingham, Notre Dame’s first African-American head coach in any sport, was fired. Weis was hired from the New England Patriots a month later amid toasts and platitudes, and I’ve been keeping score ever since.

Even though nearly three years have come and gone, Willingham’s tenure at Notre Dame is frequently mentioned. The nature of Willingham’s firing and Weis’s hiring says a lot about standards and double standards and about the enduring unlevel playing field for African Americans in sports and beyond.

Weis was named the 28th head football coach in Notre Dame history in December 2004 when he agreed to a six-year contract worth a reported $2 million a year.

Weis, unlike Willingham, has always been a news media favorite, with his one-liners and zingers. He was a Notre Dame student, loved Notre Dame and bled Notre Dame, but the Irish really wanted Urban Meyer.

In Weis’s first season, the program improved significantly — with Willingham’s players. You can argue that Weis did a better job of coaching Willingham’s players; I like to think they were older and wiser. Midway through the first season of his six-year contract, Weis signed a new contract: a 10-year deal worth a reported $30 million to $40 million.

The common wisdom is that Weis got the contract on the strength a 5-2 record and Notre Dame’s close loss to a great U.S.C. team. There was also the misguided belief that Weis might run off to the N.F.L. I imagine that the same influential forces behind Willingham’s departure felt they’d better lock up their resident genius.

Newsflash: There are no geniuses in this business, only great players. There is smoke and mirrors, and there are video cameras. No geniuses.

Notre Dame has lost four consecutive games by at least 20 points, going back to last season when they were routed by U.S.C. and Louisiana State. The 2007 Irish have not scored an offensive touchdown and could be looking at 0-3 after today’s game at Michigan.

This season Weis is playing with his own players. He recruited quarterback Jimmy Clausen, the high school all-American, and apparently is going to stick with him through thick or thin.

In Seattle this afternoon, Willingham continues to ride his high school all-American quarterback, Jake Locker. Locker, a redshirt freshman, has led Washington to its first 2-0 start since the 2001 season.

Here are a couple notes to put on the imaginary scoreboard:

¶A fourth season should be mandatory for any head football coach at the Division I level. Every coach needs four seasons, at the very least, to coach the classes he inherited and bring along the players he recruited.

¶When a university finds a gem of a coach like Willingham, keep him. The cost of losing is high. Fishing for talent these days requires “feel” and “touch.” Not looking far enough, wide enough or deep enough for talent, choosing the safe and familiar, is not good business; eventually you will pay.

¶Willingham should not be the last African-American head football coach Notre Dame seriously considers — or hires.

¶Finally, the great thing about football is that results don’t lie. From South Bend to Seattle, 0-2 is 0-2; 2-0 is 2-0.

Washington faces a tremendous challenge against Ohio State this afternoon, and Willingham knows how quickly things can change.

Notre Dame could find its rhythm today and defeat Michigan; Ohio State could easily burst Washington’s bubble. Last season Washington went into October with a 4-1 record, including an upset victory over U.C.L.A. The Huskies lost their next six games and ended up 5-7.

That’s why today is an early-season day of reckoning for Notre Dame-Charlie Weis, and Washington-Tyrone Willingham.

Make no mistake: I’ll be scoreboard watching this afternoon.



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