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Tyrone Willingham and the issue of race
By Derek Johnson, Posted 4 January 2005

Photo courtesy of maxwaugh.com

The hiring of Tyrone Willingham was never a racial issue for me until the basketball game between U-Dub and North Carolina State.  Prior to that, when I first heard that the recently fired Notre Dame Coach had been hired by the Huskies, I felt mixed emotions.  On one hand, there is something about Willingham that strikes me as a good fit for Washington.  He has that sense of discipline and organization, and an aura of being in command.  He has coached a team to the Rose Bowl and has also been named National coach of the Year.  The majority of coaches can’t claim these credentials on their résumés. 

On the other hand, if you look at the win-loss record throughout his career, there are mediocre seasons peppered throughout.  I wondered if UW athletic director Todd Turner had just condemned Washington football to a forthcoming decade of 6-5 seasons.  Then to my horror, I read that activist Jesse Jackson was publicly lauding the University of Washington for this hire.  I had to go lie down for a few minutes.

Come halftime of the North Carolina State game in mid-December, Tyrone Willingham was introduced to the crowd at half court at Hec Ed Pavilion.  I was surprised by the turbo-charged, jubilant response the crowd gave him, as thousands rose to their feet and applauded him wildly.  Although Willingham is a dry personality, he possessed a commanding presence and dignity as he took the microphone and waited for the applause to settle down.

My eyes were trained upon Willingham, before scanning other parts of the arena.  Stationed directly across from me was the NC State bench; and right behind it was current Sonics’ coach and beloved Seattleite Nate McMillan.  He was looking dapper in a white dress shirt and black slacks.  His 6’5” frame was standing and turned in the direction of Willingham.  He was applauding the new Husky coach respectfully but emphatically.  I was thunderstruck.  There was a look on McMillan’s face that conveyed happiness and intense pride.  It was recognition of something symbolic.  Suddenly, to me this situation represented something else entirely.

Just three weeks after being humbled before the entire nation by the most storied program in college football, an African American had landed back on his feet as head coach at a major university.  He wasn’t given this new position from some affirmative action program or from the lowering of standards.  Tyrone Willingham secured it because he didn’t get enough time at Notre Dame and deserved another chance somewhere.  What this hiring at UW meant was that America is evolving just fine.

To trace the lineage of Willingham and McMillan’s ancestral roots gives us a helpful perspective.  From the crowded slave ships that festered with disease and misery, Africans were brought by the hundreds of thousands to America’s eastern shores.  They toiled for decades in the scorching hot fields of the south.  Following emancipation, they were often duped into the inescapable trap of sharecropping.   Or for those that dared to venture outside the south, they often scrounged for work in some of the filthiest, industrialized venues of the north.  They struggled for dignity, and at times it was so difficult just to make a living and support families.

As the timeline progressed, there were parts of the country where blacks were not allowed to use the same bathrooms, water fountains and schools as whites.  These were petty slights that cumulatively created an environment where it was difficult for blacks to their maintain dignity. 

Then there are the vivid images:  Of the beautiful young black singer Billie Holiday on stage before an all-white audience in the 1930s, singing the song “Strange Fruit”, containing lyrics that depicted the lifeless black bodies that swung from the tree limbs in the south; the perpetrators often mocked the murdered, swaying bodies by singing Amazing Grace

There are the images of the Jim Crow laws, and the federal enforcement of desegregation in schools.  There was Jackie Robinson playing baseball in the otherwise lily-white National League—and he was often not allowed to stay in the same hotels as his teammates.  There was suddenly a forthcoming generation of blacks witnessing the excitement and prosperity of post World War II America…  And they felt resentment but also wished to be a part of it. 

There followed the lunch room sit-ins, the emergence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the march on Washington, Malcom X, the water cannons on protestors and in Seattle the devious and politically engineered black players’ boycott of the 1969 Husky football team.  This painful era was capped by America retreating in humiliation from the Vietnam War.

Then in the 1980s a different type of fruit began to emerge…  At the time when Ronald Reagan helped usher America in from the darkness of the 1970s and inspire the population with confidence, entrepreneurialism began to take off.  Economic prosperity began to flourish.   Educational opportunities emerged, either within major colleges or with the advent of additional junior colleges.  Slowly but surely, some African Americans were now coming along for the ride. 

In the past twenty years, we’ve seen the economics of college football change.  Due to the saturation of TV coverage, high-profile coaches are among the most famous figures in America.  Many African Americans are securing valuable college educations.  Many other African Americans are not, as they are weighted down by poverty and inequities, both real and imagined.  The scars of the past are still clearly visible in the behavior of today’s athletes.  The showboating defiance effused by many black athletes and rappers stems from a subconscious belief of…  “I’ve been held down and denied, and you’re going to pay attention to me now.”  It is also from a feeling of inadequacy and being threatened—in the same way a cobra expands its hood to look terrifying when it feels threatened and under duress.

It was at that NC State game that a predominately white crowd in Seattle gave its thunderous approval to a recently fired African American.  This man is obviously a valuable role model to young players, like blue chip recruit Jonathan Stewart.  But he is also a shining example to some black kid in high school somewhere who has no athletic ability, who maybe is getting a 2.5 GPA but could do so much better if he was motivated and had someone better to identify with than a foul-mouthed rapper.  To a kid like that, Tyrone Willingham represents a successful African American in a high-profile authority position who was fired, but then given another chance.  All Americans have their ongoing, personal struggles.  Yet all Americans have available to them limitless opportunities if they work hard and pursue their goals.     

At some level, I believe this is what Nate McMillan was thinking as he stood and beamed with pride as he applauded newly hired Washington football coach Tyrone Willingham. 

Derek Johnson can be reached at uwsundodger@msn.com 

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