Home / Charlie Weis, Tyrone Willingham, and structural racism

Charlie Weis, Tyrone Willingham, and structural racism


It’s being reported that Notre Dame is going to bring back Charlie Weis for a fifth season, despite the fact the team racked up the most losses in any two-season stretch in the 109-year history of the program in Weis’s third and fourth years.

Weis’s record is, by any reasonable measure, worse than that of his predecessor Tyrone Willingham: he has a worse winning percentage, and he’s been blown out more often (Weis’s teams have lost no less than 15 games over four seasons by two or more touchdowns: Willingham lost a total of 15 games in his three seasons). Weis has never defeated a top 20 team, and Notre Dame’s record against top 50 teams — an extraordinarily liberal definition of what constitutes a decent opponent — is a wretched 8-16.

Yet Weis is getting a fifth year, while Willingham (who is black; Weis is white) got only three.

Now it would be a crude oversimplification to say Weis isn’t being fired because he’s white, while Willingham was fired because he was black. First, Willingham is a crappy coach — a lousy recruiter and a generally low-energy guy — who deserved to be fired. After being fired at Notre Dame, he went on to produce by far the worst team in the University of Washington’s football history.

And it’s not exactly true that Weis isn’t being fired because he’s white: he’s not being fired because his contract contains an absurdly gigantic buyout clause, reported as being somewhere between $10 million and $20 million dollars (Kevin White, the athletic director who negotiated the contract, seems to have been guilty of gross incompetence — no other coach in college football has anything like such a huge buyout).

But racism did play a role in all this, in the following way: Weis signed his preposterous contract extension — for ten years and approximately $30 million not to mention the absurd buyout — seven games into his first season, at a time his team was 5-2, and had just lost a close game to #1 USC (this loss is still by far the most impressive game on Weis’s lousy resume). After seven games at Notre Dame, Tyrone Willingham had a record of 7-0. He didn’t get a ten year fifty trillion dollar extension, however. My guess is that he got a nice fruit basket from Kevin White for a job well done.

See, Tyrone Willingham had to prove he was a good coach. (It turned out he wasn’t). Charlie Weis didn’t have to prove anything. All he had to do was talk a good game and act like he was the second coming of Knute Rockne, and the Notre Dame AD threw piles of money at him and his amazing 5-2 record (Weis had no head coaching experience prior to taking over at ND. He had been the offensive coordinator for the Patriots when the Patriots had below average offenses and were winning Super Bowls with their defense).

Now it turns out Weis is an enormous fraud, but Notre Dame is stuck with him, because they bought his — and their own — hype. They would have been a lot more skeptical about a black guy, because the fact the guy was black would have reminded them that seven games into a head coaching career with what is essentially still someone else’s team doesn’t really mean a thing, especially when you’ve lost a couple of those games.

But Weis just “seemed” like he must be some sort of football genius. There was just something about the guy . . .

Update: To clarify: I don’t think Notre Dame behaved in an unusual way in these situations, and I certainly don’t believe any conscious racially discriminatory thinking was at play. That’s why it’s a structural problem: ironically, unconscious racial bias may have led to Willingham being held to an appropriate standard of evaluation, while Weis ends up being the beneficiary of what ends up being a kind of reverse affirmative action in the worst sense — a ridiculously underqualified clown who falls flat on his face but can’t be fired because he blustered his way into a multi-million dollar sinecure.

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