'Affirmative Action' Coach Silences Critics by Winning One of Six Black Football Coaches among Top NCAA Schools, Tyrone Willingham Leads Stanford University to the Liberty Bowl

Article excerpt

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 start. …


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