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Bulldog Legend Disappointed By Willingham’s Firing
ORANGEBURG, S.C. — It was hard to decipher what disappointed former South Carolina State head football coach Willie Jeffries more on Tuesday.
Like many college football observers, he was surprised about the news of Tyrone Willingham parting ways with Notre Dame after just three seasons.
As he perused a picture of 18 current and former black pro and college head football coaches in his possession, Jeffries was just as saddened by the fact Willingham’s departure leaves only two black head football coaches (Karl Dorrell at UCLA and Slyvester Croom at Mississippi State) still working at Division I-A schools 25 years after he broke the “color barrier” with his hiring at Wichita State.
“I was hoping we would have at least 25-30 guys at one time,” Jeffries said. “I’m very disappointed that it’s down to two and I’m also disappointed that Ty Willingham had to leave.”
The fact that Willingham had a winning record (21-15) in three seasons, took the program to two bowls and often credited Jeffries for opening the door for him to be able to coach at a major Division I-A school made his departure even more disheartening for the Bulldog legend.
“I thought he was doing such a great job,” Jeffries said. “But, it’s a tough job at Notre Dame now. I knew him when he was an assistant coach and then I got to know him quite a bit once he became head coach at Notre Dame and he was always very nice. He always kind of thanked me for opening the door for him, which I thought was nice of him. But I really hate to see that.”
Jeffries believes Willingham’s struggles at Notre Dame have more to do with its high academic standards. Like most major conferences, Notre Dame does not recruit Prop 48 students who may not be ready academically, but who could contribute immediately on the field.
“They are no schools who are taking (Prop 48s) anymore,” he said. “They can’t go to the SEC anymore. Stephen Davis (currently with the Carolina Panthers) was the last Prop (48) in the SEC with Auburn and they’re not taking anymore. You need 4-5…guys on your team that barely qualify for (Division) I-A or I-AA.
“You need four of five of those guys that are real good athletes, not saying the ones who make the good grades aren’t good athletes, but you need those ‘academic stretches.’ They call them ‘academic stretches’ — guys who barely made it — because you’re not going to get them at (Division) I-A school because they barely qualified.”
Jeffries cited Kansas State as an example of an institution where they accept student-athletes on the borderline of meeting entrance requirements, but where a strong academic support system is in place to keep players on track to succeed both on the field and in the classroom. Ultimately, Jeffries says whomever coaches at Notre Dame will have as difficult a time as Willingham did returning the Fighting Irish to prominence.
“That’s why Ty had it so hard out there,” he said. “You could tell that he did not have the typical Notre Dame overall team of athletes.
He did not. He’s an excellent coach. He could coach them, but he was fighting with a shorter stick and you know Notre Dame plays a murderous national schedule. They play everybody.”
Despite Willingham’s dismissal, Jeffries remains hopeful of other aspiring black head college football coaches getting an opportunity in the future.
“I think they’re going to still consider and hopefully hire qualified black coaches the same way they hire qualified white coaches,” he said.
Jeffries used the example of former NFL head coach Dave Wannstedt, whom Jeffries coached at the University of Pittsburgh, as a blueprint for minority coaches to follow in order to position themselves into a job opportunity. He remembered guiding Wannstedt — a center with the Panthers at the time — into becoming a graduate assistant.
Wannstedt ended up hooking up with Jimmy Johnson at Oklahoma State, followed him to the University of Miami and into the National Football League with the Dallas Cowboys. With the assistance of Johnson, Wannstedt eventually became a head coach with both the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins, where he resigned earlier this season.
Jeffries said aspiring black head coaches need to adopt a similar strategy — one he calls “walking with elephants.” While Jeffries sees the low pay graduate assistants receive as a deterrent, he believes this is the best avenue for most black assistants into the “network” of coaching opportunities.