The only two major football programs in this country with black head coaches faced off this weekend in East Lansing, where one of those black coaches is already hearing the masses calling for his job.

Paul Wong
Steve Jackson

The matchup of Notre Dame’s Tyrone Willingham and Michigan State’s Bobby Williams was originally reported to be the first battle of black coaches in history. Actually it was the third, but that is still a horribly low number.

The question of why so few black head coaches exist in Division I-A football is not a simple one to answer. Most of the time black coaches are told that they simply lack the credentials for the prestigious head coaching position.

Gone are the days of athletic directors saying “black coaches aren’t smart enough” or “black coaches can’t work the alumni circuit well.” Those thoughts may not all be gone, but at least the public expression is politically correct.

I think most reasonable people believe that there are a number of very qualified black football coaches that are being denied opportunity. How many is up for debate, but four Divison I-A coaches (Williams, Willingham, Toney Samuel at New Mexico State and Fitz Hill at San Jose State) is widely accepted as too low.

A year ago, the Black Coaches Association sent the names of 50 qualified black coaches to all 117 Division I-A schools. This, presumably, would at least cut ignorance out of the hiring process. Instead, the BCA was rewarded by seeing its numbers cut from five to four.

So now that athletic directors all over the nation have all the information, what can be done to make them change their views of black coaches?

NFL Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow thought he had an idea in January of 2001. His son, Kellen Winslow II, one of the top tight end prospects in the country, was considering attending Michigan State solely because of its black head coach. He refused to sign a letter of intent for his son to go to Washington, where a white coach, Rick Neuheisel, runs the show.

“What type of father would I be, to know what I know, to go through what I’ve gone through and not discuss these things with my child?” the elder Winslow told ESPN at the time. “I’d be the worst father in the world. Race is an important issue in this country and you’re almost burying your head in the sand if you don’t talk to your children about it. It’s denial.”

But in the end, Winslow II ended up with white coach Larry Coker and last year’s national champions, Miami (Fla.).

If Winslow, the self-proclaimed starter of the “send the best black athletes to the black head coaches” bandwagon couldn’t stick to the cause, it’s fair to say that approach will never work. The best black players want to succeed, they want to play on television and they want to go to the NFL. White coaches, like Michigan’s Lloyd Carr, can offer all those things.

Consequently, the coup of the black high school athletes crumbled before it ever began, which leaves one real chance for black coaches to find opportunities.

The current coaches need to succeed, particularly Willingham. Willingham can change the face of the game. No black football coach has ever been given his power, his stage, his chance to convince administrators that black men can be just as effective in headsets as in pads.

Willingham has done well so far, leading Stanford to four straight top-four finishes in the Pac-10, then taking a Notre Dame squad left for dead by many experts to a No. 10 ranking and a 4-0 record so far this year.

It really doesn’t matter what happens to Williams. He earned his opportunity, but the Spartans have lost enough games that they should have won to put his job in jeopardy.

Willingham is the one that people will be watching.

If he takes Notre Dame back to the top of the college football world, people will re-evaluate their thoughts on black coaches all over the country. And everyone, regardless of race, will be better off because all the best coaches will be teaching and leading all the best athletes in America.

A good coach can’t break down the barrier. It takes greatness to change the minds of bigots. If Jackie Robinson wasn’t an excellent player, I have a hard time believing that he would have been able to successfully integrate baseball.

As a Michigan fan, I have always disliked Notre Dame, but I wish Willingham the best. He’s a great man, a great coach and I believe he, and only he, can make the difference.

Steve Jackson can be reached at sjjackso@umich.edu.

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