TYRONE WILLINGHAM exhibits the same trim physique and quiet
determination he had as a 140-pound walk-on to Michigan State's
football team. Now, more than two decades later, Mr. Willingham has
capped a long climb up the coaching ranks to become the head coach
of Stanford University.
A controversial appointment last winter, Willingham has
effectively silenced critics with a winning season that earned the
Cardinals a berth in tomorrow's Liberty Bowl game. Perhaps a more
telling tribute is that fellow coaches have named him the Pacific
10 Conference (PAC-10) Coach of the Year.
Coach Willingham's arrival at Stanford attracted national
attention because it highlighted college football's startlingly
poor record for hiring African-American head coaches. He is one of
only six African-American coaches among the 108 National Collegiate
Athletic Association's top division schools, despite the fact that
more than half the players are black.
The decision to name Willingham, then an assistant coach of the
Minnesota Vikings, was still somewhat controversial. Although he
had labored in the trenches of collegiate and professional coaching
for some 17 years, he had never served as a head coach, or even an
offensive or defensive coordinator, usually the stepping stone to
the top job. Some local sports columnists and radio hosts, labeled
the move an 'affirmative action' hire.
Filling big cleats
To add to the heat, Willingham succeeded the legendary Bill
Walsh, who had come back to coach Stanford after turning the San
Francisco 49ers into the best team in professional football. But
Walsh's magic appeared to have finally run out, with the Stanford
Cardinals turning in disappointing losing seasons the last two
years. Still given his near-godlike status, there was widespread
expectation that Walsh would prevail in his desire to have his
deputy follow him.
"Quota-based and politically correct, some said when the 41-year
old African-American was hired," recounted sports columnist Monte
Poole this fall. "Stanford yielded to social pressure, they said,
hiring a black man to quiet cries of discrimination."
But Willingham's success on the football field has quelled the
critics. Despite being picked to finish last in the PAC-10
collegiate conference, the Cardinal have finished the regular
season with a 7-3-1 record.
Does he feel vindicated? Typically, Willingham answers the query
in a few, well-chosen words. "No," he says in an interview in his
Stanford office, his favorite rhythm and blues music playing in the
background, "I was never concerned with those issues from the