Sunday, January 12, 2003

Willingham hits road to sell Irish

And challenges colleges to hire more African-American coaches

The Associated Press

College football coaches hit the road Monday for the final recruiting push before the national signing day arrives the first week in February. In Tyrone Willingham's mind, nobody else has more to sell.

His first season at Notre Dame ended badly with three losses in the final five games including the Gator Bowl, but Willingham restored plenty of Irish pride in a 10-3 season. He will set out with the fight song on his CD player, ready to spread the legacy of Rockne, Leahy and Parseghian.

"It's important to be cognizant of the history of Notre Dame," he said. "No matter who you are, you are building on a history real and storied."

Willingham will talk about Lattner and Lujack, Hornung and Bertelli. He will talk about winning one for the Gipper and the Four Horsemen.

And then he will talk about opportunity.

"I tell them: 'You can do it the right way. Get a great education and an athletic experience unparalleled in this country. You build a future on that foundation,'" Willingham said.

Willingham is sincere about his school and his philosophy, determined to spread this gospel. As a black head coach in a business populated almost entirely by white ones, he is grateful to have the opportunity to do this because of the efforts of others who have passed this way before - although not at South Bend.

Notre Dame never hired a black coach until Willingham. That put him in the spotlight. He knows others are watching how he deals with the challenge of this high-profile job.

Just the way they watched other black trailblazers.

"The road was gravel when they came along," he said. "Now I've got asphalt to walk on. I am blessed."

The coaching race card is most often played in the NFL, where Herman Edwards with the New York Jets and Tony Dungy at Indianapolis are the lone black coaches. That's two of 32. In college football, the ratio is much more dramatic. Try four of 117 in Division I-A - Willingham at Notre Dame, Fitz Hill at San Jose State, Tony Samuel at New Mexico State and just-hired Karl Dorrell at UCLA.

It is a statistic that is troubling, one that Willingham knows all about. The old boys' network still exists. All over the football landscape, pals still hire pals.

He refuses to view that as a burden for black coaches, though.

"I don't accept that aspect of it," he said. "I believe if you do the right thing, everything falls in place. Maybe not when you want, but it will."

Just as it did for him. Just as it did for Dorrell, who got the high-profile job at UCLA without any previous head coaching experience.

When he was hired, Dorrell said he knew why UCLA picked him. And it had nothing to do with the color of his skin.

"They wanted the best man for this job - I believe I'm that person," he said. "When I decided to be a football coach, I wasn't going to let any obstacles stand in my way."

That is an attitude Willingham endorses heartily.

"Is there one solution or one way to approach the problem?" he said. "I say no. It's got to be addressed in a variety of ways. There are as many views as there are shades of African-American. All of them come down to the right solution.

"You know what that is?

"Hire them!"

When Notre Dame hired him, Willingham stepped into a dicey situation. An also-ran in the original job search, he became a convenient safety net when problems arose with the credentials of George O'Leary, the university's first choice.

"I had to learn a different university and a different operation," Willingham said. "I'm still adjusting. It's not over. Maybe in four years, I'll wake up and say, 'Hey, I've got it!'"

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