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Andrew Soukup | Thursday, February 19, 2004

The phrase remains Tyrone Willingham’s most basic mantra. He says it so often that the words are clich when they pour out of his mouth, and the writers who spend day after day around the football coach smirk and discard the quote.But if they knew where it came from, what Willingham endured both as a child and a professional, then they would know the 50-year-old’s favorite expression, “the best player will play,” isn’t just a trite sports phrase.Willingham says it because he believes he was once the best player. And he didn’t play.That day has long passed, and Notre Dame’s first black head coach in any sport refuses to discuss specific instances of the racial battles of his past. But the sting on his face is evident when he talks about segregation in his hometown, when he talks about watching coaches start white players over black players and when he talks about the sorry fact that only five of the 117 Division I-A football coaches are black.”You know there’s a better way,” Willingham said. “You know life doesn’t have to exist that way.”But for the longest time, it did.Willingham grew up in Jacksonville, N.C., a city filled with hostile race relations and segregated schools. Every morning, he rode the bus to the minority school, more than a mile past the white school that was within walking distance of his house.His family lived in a mostly black neighborhood, and in the early years of his life, Willingham rarely felt segregation’s effects. But as he grew older, he began to ask questions. Why are their books better? Why do we have to go into separate bathrooms? Why are their schools in better shape? Why do we have to eat at different tables?His parents’ responses helped shape Willingham the boy into Willingham the man.”They believed there were two kinds of people – good people and bad people,” Willingham said. “There were good Caucasians and bad Caucasians, and good African-Americans and bad African-Americans. Which kind of person you wanted to become was up to you.”Fittingly for Willingham, the most integrated aspect of Jacksonville was its athletic fields, where Willingham had been playing sports for most of his life. There, he said, kids from all ethnicities played together without racial prejudices, and the teams Willingham were on won virtually every athletic title in Jacksonville. But parents were often the ones who ensured those boundaries stayed in place. And even though Jacksonville’s school system integrated in 1966, the future Irish coach never wondered if coaches could still play white kids over black kids. “[It wasn’t that] somebody could,” Willingham said with steel in his voice. “Somebody did.”The closest Willingham will come to giving a concrete example of his past struggles comes when he was in high school. With the team’s white starting quarterback sidelined by injury, the head coach turned to Willingham. He made the most of his opportunity, playing well enough to catch the eye of Michigan State and eventually walk-on to the Spartan football team.But ask him if there were other circumstances behind his second-string ranking in the first place, and Willingham grimly smiles and says, “That is partially correct.”What is the other part?”We won’t go into that.”Why not?”Those are feelings that don’t need to be rehashed,” the coach says after an extended pause. “Do you have to have an awareness of the past? Yes. But it’s what you do in the future that makes all the difference.”I make sure that as a head coach that I run a program that none of those things matter. The color of a guy’s skin makes no difference. His religion makes no difference. Only his ability to perform and help the team matters. To create a world where there is true equality based solely on your playing, that is the future.”That mentality is classic Willingham – a forward-looking coach who refuses to dwell on the past. But the very fact that Willingham refers to his hopes for a future quality and not his analysis of a present one implies that the Irish coach believes society still has much to accomplish.Willingham points to the fact that nobody brought up race when he decided to replace black quarterback Carlyle Holiday with white quarterback Brady Quinn midway through Notre Dame’s 2003 season – a situation that shows remarkable progress to Willingham’s own high school experiences. And while Willingham generally avoids discussing specific instances of racial problems, he’s not afraid to criticize the fact that only four percent of all Division I-A football coaches are minorities. To that, he attributes a mentality against hiring minority coaches that exists in some athletic offices around the country. He felt that mindset when he was an assistant coach and his opinions were ignored – he won’t say at which school – and believes that attitude still persists.”You have to look at the numbers, and that’s what I’ve said for years and years,” Willingham said. “It’s an easy thing to adjust. You gotta hire the best people. That’s how simple it is. Whether they are Asian, African-American, it doesn’t matter.”Willingham disagrees with those who claim that Notre Dame’s decision to hire a black coach was largely a public-relations move in the wake of the George O’Leary fiasco. On the contrary, the third-year Irish coach said, Notre Dame took a risk in hiring a minority when hiring a white coach would have been the safer move.”I think it might worked the other way, that [race] was more of a detriment,” Willingham said. “It creates more of a split among those who might have an interest in the issue. … If there is a decision to be made, it’s easier to go with the safe decision than one that involves a diversity of interests.”But as to why it took 162 years for Notre Dame to hire its first black head coach, Willingham declines to answer. “Only the people who have been here and been in a position to hire are able to speak on that issue,” he said.The black Methodist is grateful for the warm reception he has received from the white Catholic Notre Dame community. But as one of just five minority coaches – UCLA’s Karl Dorrell, San Jose State’s Fitz Hill, New Mexico State’s Tony Samuel and Mississippi State’s Sylvester Croom are the others – Willingham argues that he is in a group of coaches who are held to a higher level of scrutiny. Where the pressure comes from – other hopeful minority candidates, high-level administrators, fans – he doesn’t say. He only says the pressure exists.”As a minority, you’re held to a much higher standard than anyone else in terms of your transition,” Willingham said. “Even though, in many situations, you may be as qualified as other coaches. Everybody would say that’s not fair.”But what would Willingham say?”I would say that’s not fair.”Then again, few things in life have been fair for Willingham. Faced with racial oppression his entire life, the Irish coach simply met the challenges directly. And instead of trying to get others to change via speeches and pontificating about the state of race in college athletics, Willingham prefers to show his beliefs in the way he runs his football program.”There’s a saying on our football team that a man with a backbone is more valuable than a thousand with a wishbone,” the coach said. “You don’t convince anybody. It’s not a matter of who follows, it’s how you value yourself. Do you really stand up for what is right?”