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...I've been comfortable with Tyrone Willingham for some time."
That self-confidence probably began with his parents, Nathaniel, a North Carolina brick mason, and Lillian, a schoolteacher. They raised four children, all of whom earned college degrees.
"We were blessed that we had parents who thought education was important, that made the sacrifices to send their kids to college, believing that that in itself gives you an opportunity to have a better life," the coach says.
Willingham, defying those who said he was too small to play, became a quarterback of the Michigan State team, as well as a standout baseball player. Knowing he had no future in the pro ranks, he focused on coaching, going through a series of assistant coaching jobs.
Credits NFL program
Willingham gives credit for his breakthrough out of relative coaching obscurity to a National Football League program initiated in 1987 by Bill Walsh to promote the hiring of minority-group coaches. Through that program he met Denny Green, then an assistant to Walsh at the 49ers. When Green became head coach at Stanford in 1989, he asked Willingham to join him. And when Green went on to become coach of the Minnesota Vikings, where he remains one of only two African-American head coaches in the pro ranks, Willingham went with him.
"I had hoped that my path would some day lead to being a head coach, but those are things you can't control yourself," Willingham says, reflecting on his steep path to Stanford. "What I can control is the job that I do day to day. So when I was at Michigan State, I worked as hard as I could to be the best I could. And at every university or pro team, I have used the same work ethic, the same mentality."
But looking at the disparity between the number of black players and coaches in football, Willingham sees the familiar signs of racial discrimination. He makes a carefully stated case for programs that seek to create diversity in sports and in all walks of life.
"I just think we need to open up," he says. "My issue is one of skills and talent... Let's get past the color issue and look at the skills that people can bring to make any organization better." Willingham believes that opportunities for minority advancement will come readily "if we have open access, if people are open to the fact that there is nothing wrong with diversity."