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Coach made his mark off the field, inspired minorities at the University

Claire Heininger | Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Unlike his wins and losses on the football field, Tyrone Willingham’s impact on the Notre Dame community can’t be spelled out in statistics.

As the University’s first black head coaching hire in any sport, Willingham inspired a sense of pride in many people, said Mel Tardy, assistant professional specialist in the First Year of Studies program.

“I sensed a hope when he was hired,” said Tardy, whose personal connection with the coach runs deep.

“It’s difficult to be African-American and male at Notre Dame, and you never see anybody who is like you,” he said. “To see someone of his stature, one of the biggest symbols of Notre Dame, to be somebody like you, there’s no way to put it into words – that’s what I think will be a big loss to the Notre Dame community.”

Many minority faculty members and students likely felt a similar bond with the coach, said University spokesman Matt Storin.

“It was very encouraging to them to see him leading the Notre Dame football team, very reassuring,” Storin said. “I think internally he was a champion for diversity at the University.”

The national visibility of the football program elevated Willingham’s stature above that of other minorities in prominent University positions, said Iris Outlaw, director of multicultural student programs and services.

Officials such as assistant to the president Chandra Johnson and associate dean of graduate studies Donald Pope-Davis are known internally at Notre Dame, Outlaw said, but lack the external recognition of an Irish football head coach.

“I think he did provide a lot of visibility and exposure for the institution,” she said.

Willingham’s tenure at Notre Dame coincided with an increase in minority students, contributing indirectly to the success of long-term diversity programs already in place at Notre Dame, director of admissions Dan Saracino said.

In 2003, after Willingham’s first season as coach, ethnic minority students composed 21 percent of the incoming freshman class, compared to 17 percent in 2002. The level remained fairly consistent in 2004, at 22 percent.

“There surely has been an increase across the board … and having someone in a key position like the head football coach at Notre Dame surely helped,” Saracino said. “He surely made himself available in our efforts.”

Jill Bodensteiner, associate vice president and counsel for the University, said Willingham’s hire likely also made Notre Dame more attractive in the eyes of potential minority faculty members.

“I cannot measure [a positive effect on recruitment] objectively, but would speculate that his arrival at Notre Dame certainly had nothing but a positive impact on the minority community at Notre Dame and on prospective minority faculty and administrators,” she said.

Despite the time constraints his job imposed, the coach seemed to genuinely enjoy interacting with students and faculty, Storin said.

“He certainly didn’t hold himself aloof from the University as some coaches do, and I think the Notre Dame family appreciated that,” Storin said.

Willingham spoke to black students during welcoming events and end-of-year recognition ceremonies, Outlaw said.

What was most telling, she said, was that Willingham seemed to be just as interested in the students as they were in him.

“He saw them as individuals,” she said. “To me that was key.”

These interactions made it clear to Outlaw that the coach remained humble despite the headlines. On a visit to her church, he introduced himself as just ‘Tyrone Willingham’ – “he didn’t say ‘Coach,'” she said.

“Of course everybody just pounced on him and he didn’t like being in the spotlight,” she said. “But he was very gracious.”

The “intelligence, discipline and integrity” Willingham brought to the coaching position helped him leave his mark on Notre Dame, Storin said.

But in Tardy’s view, that poise – and sense of pride – will be difficult to replace.

“It’s disappointing to a lot of people,” Tardy said. “It’s going to be hard to restore that hope.”

Meghanne Downes contributed to this report.