In 1973, as a high school senior, the 5’7″, 139lb quarterback sent out more than 100 letters to colleges across America seeking an opportunity to play college football. Tyrone Willingham heard from only two schools, Michigan State and Toledo, so he chose Michigan State.
Willingham made the Spartans as a walk-on and after a solid freshman season he was rewarded a scholarship.
Twenty-nine years later, the former Stanford head coach is again a walk-on at Notre Dame trying to impress, but this time so his fellow black coaches’ scholarship in football can be seen and rewarded with Division 1-A head coaching positions.
Like a walk-on, he came out of nowhere and was named the first black coach in any sport at the University of Notre Dame, one day after his 48th birthday last year, on Dec. 31.
Going into the 2002 season, Willingham was one of only four (the others are Bobby Williams at Michigan State, Fitz Hill at San Jose State and Tony Samuel at New Mexico State) black head football coaches at the 117 Division 1A football schools. And he, like the others, must succeed not so much for himself but for the many black head-coaching hopefuls.
When this veteran of 25 years of coaching experience at the collegiate and professional levels took over arguably the most prestigious coaching gig in sports, he knew he had one of the toughest tasks imaginable, trying to win at Notre Dame while keeping up with their soaring academic standards.
In his first season, Willingham has certainly impressed and more importantly he’s winning. His team notched a 25-23 upset over the Michigan (No. 6 ESPN/USA Today, No. 7 AP) on Saturday and obliterated Maryland (at the time No. 20 ESPN/USA Today, No. 21 AP) 22-0 on Aug. 31, with a solid victory over Purdue in between. This is Notre Dame’s best start (3-0) since 1996.
Willingham’s hire came five months after Charles Farrell, director of Rainbow Sports, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson met with NCAA officials, pushing for the desegregation of sports’ most segregated position – the collegiate head football coach.
In the last 50 years, there have been around 750 openings for head football coach in Division 1-A and less than 20 blacks have filled those openings. Grambling State’s Eddie Robinson, the winningest coach in college football history, never even received an interview to coach at a predominantly white university.
I will be rooting for Willingham this season and the seasons to come as I root against segregation in the 21st century. And I hope that if a volcano of success erupts from South Bend, that the lava will burn away all the racism in many Division 1-A athletic directors across America, so our very own great and deserving head football coach Billy Joe may be able to move up if he wants to.
-Ibram Rogers, 20, is a junior magazine production student Manassas, Va. He is one of The Famuan’s assistant sports editors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org