Fighting Irish Fire First Black Coach

Despite compiling a 21-15 record, including a standout inaugural year with a 10-2 regular season and a trip to the Gator Bowl, the first black head coach of any sport for the Fighting Irish is gone. Tyrone Willingham was fired as head football coach by Notre Dame University, a move many called unjust.

During Willingham’s second year, the Irish fell to 5-7. The team’s record for the 2004 season was 6-5. But critics say Willingham wasn’t given enough time to install a completely new system — he wasn’t even there long enough for his first recruiting class to become seniors. Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association, says in three years, “Willingham has done everything short of winning a national championship, and I don’t think he inherited national championship talent,” he says.

Even Notre Dame’s president, Rev. Edward Malloy, spoke out against the firing. During a panel discussion at the Sports Business Journal’s Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, Malloy stated that Willingham’s firing was the most embarrassing moment in his 18 years with the school. Malloy’s assistant, Chandra Johnson, shaved her head in protest, stating she would remain bald until the Irish win a national championship since that would be justification for some people of why Willingham was fired.

There are only two other black head coaches out of the 117 NCAA Division I-A football programs. This is underscored by the fact that of only 32 NFL franchises, there are twice as many black head coaches — five — as there are in the college ranks. Prior to Notre Dame, Willingham spent seven years as head football coach at Stanford University, where he took the Cardinals to four bowls. “To say I am disappointed, I think that very much misses the mark,” Willingham expressed at a press conference. “But at the same time, I understand that I didn’t meet the expectations or standards that I set for myself in this program, and when you don’t meet your own expectations, you won’t meet the expectations of others.”

Willingham’s unemployment was short lived. He was hired to coach the University of Washington’s football team, making Washington the only I-A school with black head coaches in two major sports; Lorenzo Romar leads the Huskies men’s basketball team.