Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Firing of MSU Football Coach Raises Questions, Sparks Discussion

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Firing of MSU Football Coach Raises Questions, Sparks Discussion

Article excerpt

Then there were three.

The surprising in-season firing of Michigan State University football coach Bobby Williams last month left many college sports observers across the nation asking several questions. Did race play a factor in the firing of Williams? Will his highly visible ousting hurt the chances of future Black head-coaching candidates? And, will his firing reignite the discussion about why there are only three African American head football coaches at the 177 Division 1-A programs in the nation, while more than 50 percent of the players are Black?

Meanwhile in East Lansing, the Michigan State community is trying to piece back together a football program that -- on Williams' watch this season -- went from being a nationally ranked top-20 team to a weekly loser, rocked by ramors, personal scandals and police blotter embarrassments. Most thought a change would come at season's end, but instead, the firing came on Nov. 4, with three games left on the schedule.

Michigan State athletics director Ron Mason said he pulled the trigger in-season because under Williams, the program seemed to be swirling out of control. He said Williams' own words after the team had suffered one of its worst losses of the season to archrival Michigan was a strong signal that he needed to go. When a reporter asked Williams whether he thought his team had slipped from his grasp, he said, "I don't know." Said Mason: "At that point, I really felt if he wasn't sure, who was? To me that was kind of a defining moment."

But Williams, who spent 10 years at MSU as a running backs coach before being promoted to the top job and becoming the first African American head football coach in Michigan State's history, still has plenty of supporters. The most notable being Joel Ferguson, Michigan State's only African American trustee. Ferguson voiced support for Williams when the team started its slide this season, and after the firing he hinted that race played a role in the decision.

"What is most incredibly disappointing to me is that MSU, under the cover of night, has decided to ignore the facts, ignore the precedent and damage its reputation of fairness and commitment to diversity," Ferguson said in the statement.

Ferguson later chastised the student newspaper, the State News, for taking his comments out of context. He claimed that he never implied that Williams' race led to the firing. In his statement, Ferguson may have been suggesting that Williams' abrupt firing goes against Michigan State's "reputation of fairness" as it relates to Blacks in high-profile positions.

In an interview with Black Issues, Ferguson said: "There are many in the White community who felt Bobby should have been fired, but in the Black community there are a lot of people who are outraged and feel he didn't have a full chance."

He said Williams was fired in part because of the trouble his players experienced. Quarterback Jeff Smoker was suspended indefinitely, and has admitted that he is battling a substance abuse problem. Greg Taplin, a defensive end, served a one-game suspension for violating an undisclosed team rule. Shortly thereafter, tailback Dawan Moss was kicked off the team after being arrested for allegedly driving drunk and fleeing police. …

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