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Willingham firing stirs emotions at ND

Maddie Hanna | Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Students both protesting and supporting the firing of Notre Dame football coach Tyrone Willingham clashed in a heated gathering outside the Main Building Tuesday.

About 30-40 ethnic minority students gathered on the building’s steps to contest the University’s decision and carried posters reading “$ cost ND its integrity,” “Never before, never again” and “We want Ty back.”

The demonstration coincided with a cancelled student rally planned to call for Willingham’s removal. However, some students involved with the original protest still showed up at the Main Building, which led to arguments between the protesters.

“We are standing in solidarity with Ty because we feel that his termination was unjust,” junior Ukachi Okoronkwo said.

Students said further explanations for Willingham’s removal would be necessary.

“There are a lot of issues here that make his termination questionable,” Okoronkwo said.

Sophomore Krystal Hardy said the University didn’t give Willingham an adequate chance.

“It was really, really unfair,” Hardy said. “Notre Dame has had a series of losing seasons before Ty.”

She also emphasized Willingham’s role as a positive figure in the black community.

“He contributes to the African-American clubs on campus as well as other clubs and is really a great loss to the Notre Dame community as a whole,” Hardy said.

The student protest on the steps of the main building was organized in a last-minute effort to “channel emotion,” according to Hardy.

While only around 40 students were actively protesting after the press conference announcing Willingham’s dismissal, Okoronkwo said she believed most black students on campus would support their actions.

“This is bigger than a race issue – this is about a man with a family,” sophomore Frank Duerson said.

Despite the vocal animosity towards the administration, many students came out in support of the decision to terminate Willingham.

Junior Mike Fremeau, involved in ndnation.com’s Call for Change movement that helped organize the original protest, said while Willingham’s removal was a start, more action was needed to improve Notre Dame’s football record.

“This is a step in the right direction. At the same time, we have to make sure that we get a top-flight coach to get back to championship football,” Fremeau said.

Senior John Hamburger said the “Student Rally for Excellence” planned by the Call for Change a week ago intended to show the administration students still cared about the quality of the football program.

“The rally was designed to ask the administration to take proper steps to return Notre Dame’s program to historical standards of excellence,” Hamburger said. “Notre Dame strives for excellence in everything – football should be no different.”

Although he supported Willingham’s termination, Hamburger expressed regret about the student backlash Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s very unfortunate, the way this has turned out,” Hamburger said. “We’re happy to have a very active African-American community at Notre Dame. But my impression is that they seem to think race came into consideration, when this had absolutely nothing to do with it.”

He said the football team’s poor performance and decreased level of donations because of it led to Tuesday’s announcement.

Despite being surprised by the press conference, Hamburger said he thought the dismissal was meant to preempt the planned student rally, which was cancelled after the firing announcement.

“I don’t think the timing of the announcement was a coincidence,” Hamburger said. “I don’t think it would have been good public relations to have students protesting the administration.”

According to Hamburger, ESPN radio and local South Bend media were aware of the rally, leading him and Call for Change to believe that there would also be press coverage.

Graduate student Elizabeth Moriarty stopped by to support the students protesting the administration’s actions.

“I’m very sympathetic to what the black students are doing standing out here today, and I want to show support for them as fellow Notre Dame students. I think their voices should be heard,” she said.

Moriarty said the protest was not predominantly related to race or even football, but derived from broader issues.

“For most of them, the issue is not football. The issue is losing a good friend and that he didn’t get a fair chance,” she said. “It’s about members of this community feeling like they don’t belong and that it’s our job to make them feel like they belong.”