Black Head Coaches: History Vs. Reality

By Fred Whitted
Updated: January 14, 2006

Herm Edwards

Herm Edwards

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Paul Hornung did the world a favor a while back when he spouted off about Notre Dame lowering their academic standards so they could recruit a higher number of Black football players. While most people moved to shut him up, and give an empty apology, I wish they would have given him another shot of his favorite drink and let him keep talking.

His assessment was denounced as an insult to the integrity of a great institution. In reality, it proved to be true, and actually pointed out that Notre Dame is just another institution that is more worried about their BCS standing that academics. When you look at the swill expressed by their athletic director, you see that academics is really the last thing on their minds.

They are much more concerned about player getting a 4.0 in the 40 yard dash than a 4.0 in the classroom. In his words, Willingham did all of the right things off the field, i.e. he raised the GPA and graduation rate among Irish players. He just did not win as many games as they wanted, all of them.

It should be understood that Tyrone Willingham was not their choice for football coach. They had the man they really wanted in George O’Leary. Unfortunately, O’Leary was the Irishman who was the dream come true for he Fighting Irish. Somewhere along the way he forgot that he did not have the Masters degree that was listed on his resume. When this became public, O’Leary resigned, leaving the Irish faithful with egg on their golden faces.

Hiring Willingham was a convenient method to cover their ‘behinds’ YES, the “Mighty Irish” were trying to deflect the heat from this incident as if having a Masters degree really meant something. O’Leary was a football coach at a D-1 school. He was not going to teach anything academic, not even a class in football. He was hired as a football. All that followed was a case of an integrity façade.

It is hard to tell who gets screwed the worse, or most often: the town hooker or Black coaches at white schools. At least the town hooker knows exactly what is expected of them. Black coaches ride a roller coaster of almost maybes that, in the end, gets them fired or forced to resign.

Listening to Notre Dame’s athletic director reading from a prepared statement why Ty Willingham was being fired sounded much the same as when he was being hired. Renewal of the academic standards is the easy part of the picture, and Willingham did all of that. Putting together a team that can compete against the best in the land takes more than three years.

If the truth be known, lowered academics was not the coach’s responsibility to fix. If standards had been allowed to slip, there are some deans and educators somewhere in South Bend who should have been looking for a job. That notwithstanding, Willingham had done all of that. His players were discipline, and were becoming competitive.

So, why was he being fired with three years left on his contract? A quick look tells you that Willingham was not ‘one of the boys.’ Yes, even Notre Dame has its own ‘good old boys’, and, there are no Black ‘good old boy.’

Who are the good ole boys? These are the movers and shakers at the major universities. They are the ones who write the checks, call the shots, they decide who is or is not in. They are the ones who have historically agreed to banning Blacks from the playing fields.

They are those moral giants who held Blacks players out of games when they played schools from the south. They are gentlemen who agreed not to have more than two or three Black players on their teams, and never to play all of them on the court at one time.

At a time when half of the bowl participants are graduating less than half of their players, Willingham had Notre Dame graduating 77% of its football players after just three years. This put them third behind Syracuse and Boston College. Notre Dame was first in the graduation of Black football players, at 76%, which was equal to the number of white players graduating.

While most schools have a great disparity between the percentage of Black and white players with over two-thirds of the bowl selected teams graduating less than 50% of their Black football players. Instead of hearing the school fight song, Willingham heard the door slammed in his face.

Black coaches are victims of much the same mentality that Black quarterbacks suffered for many years. (As matter of fact, Blacks in general suffered from the same stupidity.) Whites were saying that there were no Black quarterbacks in the NFL because they did not exist.

At the same time, there were at least a few Black quarterbacks at the 50 plus HBCUs who had football. Most of them had at least one, so they were not nonexistent. Now, the question is how can you miss so many human beings, many of whom were better than the whites who were playing.

Fast forward to the 21st century and you find Black players like Alcorn’s Steve “Air” McNair as dominate forces in the NFL. The floodgates opened after Doug Williams’ stellar performance in the Super Bowl. Most coaches finally stopped judging Black quarterbacks on what they could not do and began to look at what they could do.

Today, there are at least 20 Black quarterbacks in the NFL, and, one team as three of them (Jacksonville). Black coaches have proven their value. It is time they were recognized for what they can do.

Coaching has become one of the most high risk jobs on the planet. In announcing his firing, the athletic director read a prepared statement that sounded like they should have keeping him because it stated that he had done all of the right things, except win every game. Improving the program had not been good enough.

Improving the graduation rate was apparently not part of what administrators, who brag about their great academics, wanted. On the field, Notre Dame was bowl eligible two of his three years, and, they have moved from the academic sewer to the penthouse.

There is a certain irony in all of this because it puts Notre Dame in the same box with all of the football factories that they had always tried to separate themselves from. By their actions, Notre Dame is no longer the great academic institution. It is just another football school, all idiots should apply.

Much has been made about the fact that Coach Willingham being the first, and only, Black coach at Notre Dame. Within a week, more than half of the Black coaches at D-1 schools were given their walking papers. And now, there are only two Black head football coaches at the 117 D-1 schools.

According to their actions, one is led to believe that coaching college football at this level is beyond the capacity of Blacks. Until recently the SEC, which has about 60% Black players, had never hired a Black head football coach. Alabama missed the opportunity to be the first and allowed Mississippi to hire Sylvester Croom as its new football coach.

When you look at these precious programs, you would think that they were gold. The problem is they are crap. Most have been losing for several years. Some are under the NCAA microscope for major violations, and still others are one step from the NCAA death penalty.

So, most of these schools should be glad that someone, Black or white would even attempt to restore them to some measure of glory. For those who do, they should be given a fair chance. Willingham had proven he could get the job done at Stanford. That is the only reason Notre Dame even looked at him. At the same time, they did not give him a real chance to get the job done. This was the first time Notre Dame had ever terminated a coach before his contract expired.

A friend, upset by this turn of events, asked if the problem was that Blacks cannot coach, or if they just cannot beat teams coached by white coaches. While I knew the answer was yes they can coach, and, they can beat teams coached by whites. Still, I thought it would be interesting to take a look through the Resources 2000 Sports Library and see what the numbers look like.

It was obvious, with both of the HBCU teams in the NCAA Playoffs being eliminated on the same day that this question centered on why it seemed that even good Black failed in the face of white coached teams.

Well, the numbers did not look good. It took going back a ways to find HBCU coaches with winning records against white schools. As a matter of fact, when you look at the likes of Joe Taylor and Pete Richardson, you find that they all have losing records against white schools.

It should also be stated that Billy Joe’s game by game record at Central State is not available to us, he did win a lot of games against white coaches, including two NAIA National Championships.

Of the coaches that we looked at, only Eddie Robinson, John Merritt and Willie Jeffries had winning records against white schools. Coach Robinson was 15-8 against white schools, but was only 1-4 in postseason play.

Jeffries narrowly escaped the also ran group with a 20-19-1 record. (This does not include his record at Wichita State where he was 21-32.) John Merritt was the most successful, posting a 26-6-4 record, and was 6-1-1 in postseason play.

What is it that sets these coaches apart from other Black coaches? Over the years I have watched a number of games between Black and white teams. Among the things that stick out are the aggressiveness on offense. Teams that win play to win, not to avoid losing.

The team that attacks with its offense tends to beat the team that wins. Also, teams must be aggressive on defense. They cannot wait to see what happens, they must make things happen. Defense still wins championships.

As I continue to follow football, I strongly suspect that as more and more Black coaches come on the scene, they will soon go the way of the Black athlete, when he was given the right information, and properly prepared, they eventually dominated their realm.

Let this be a lesson to parents of young Black men who are so dead-set to send their sons to predominately white colleges. Your child may be wanted as a player, BUT, he is not wanted on the coaching staff. To put things in their proper perspective, your child stands a better chance of becoming a coach in the NFL or NBA than at a major college.

If you look around the landscape of Black college football you will find that nearly 40% of the coaches at Black colleges are Blacks who graduated from white colleges. In the SWAC, half of the coaches are from white colleges.

Only one coach from a HBCU ever headed a white college. That was Willie Jeffries in 1979. He was the first Black to named head coach at a white college. Since then, there have been roughly a dozen Blacks who led white football programs.

So, with these numbers in place, should Blacks give up on becoming coaches at white institutions? NO, they should continue to be students of the game and take every possible opportunity that comes their way. Look at history and you will see that someone somewhere will come through and break through the wall and soon there will be a flood.

Once upon a time, it was common thought that Blacks could not play quarterback in the NFL. Today, after Doug Williams led the Redskins to a Super Bowl title, there are 20 Black quarterbacks in the NFL. This includes one team that has three Black quarterbacks.

There was a belief that Blacks could not play center, Larry Tearry proved that wrong. It was believed that Black could not play middle linebacker, but Willie Lanier proved that wrong. As long as Blacks continue to prepare themselves to success at that level, a door will eventually open to them.

It is easy to recognize that Ty Willingham got the shaft. Yes, he was used to cover someone’s mistake. Now, he had the opportunity to do something great. Still, right is going to win in the end. As other barriers have fallen, so will the barrier that keep quality Blacks from becoming head coaches.

In the main time, Notre Dame will eventually wake up and figure out that Tyrone Willingham was not the problem. The problem is their administration wants to be part of the BCS, but, they all want to be an independent in football. At some point they will realize that they are screwing both Black and white coaches trying to have their independent cake, and eat from a conference table.