With Willingham’s firing, not only does Notre Dame lose its first black head coach, but NCAA Division I-A, a sport that consists of more than 60% African American athletes, is now down to two black head coaches. But more significantly, Notre Dame has broken with its own traditional protocol when it comes to their coaches. No matter how unsuccessful, Notre Dame football coaches have always been given the length of their first contract to prove their merit. This strikes me as fair and wise. We live in a sports culture that believes that the first solution to any rough patch ought to be to fire the coach or manager. More often than not the problems run deeper, as programs most always discover. The almost comically overmatched Gerry Faust got a full run in Notre Dame. So too did Bob Davie, whose teams never won a bowl game. And yet Notre Dame could not manage to find a full five years for Willingham, whose record at Notre Dame was on pace to be significantly better than Davie’s.
So the obvious question emerges: Why fire Willingham now? Why throw him under the bus when other coaches have had every opportunity to prove what they could do in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus? Of course we will never know. The good folks at Notre Dame will talk only of the storied tradition of their hallowed program, but let’s get real. I have a hard time believing that the anti-Willingham whispering campaign that began when the Irish fell to 5-7 last year had nothing to do with race.
Notre Dame has gotten something of a free pass the last ten or fifteen years. They manage to maintain ties to the BCS despite not affiliating with a conference. They have their own television contract with NBC. And yet the best team they have had in a decade was Willingham’s first team. The Fighting Irish went a desultory 6-5 this year and secured a bowl bid. But here is the dirty little secret that no one wants to admit: Notre Dame is simply not that good anymore. And firing Willingham is unlikely to change that. The Golden Dome is tarnished today. The university just got rid of a good coach, their first black coach, after giving him less of an opportunity than they gave his white predecessors. I think it is only fair and right to ask why.