More than just an Irish upset

Santo Caruso

I wish I could have been a fly in the bedroom of Tyrone Willingham on Saturday night.

Not in a creepy way, but just to see what it is like to sleep without worries when the whole world has been lifted off of your shoulders.

The head coach of Notre Dame appears to have escaped the frying pan, at least for now, with a huge upset over No. 8 Michigan in South Bend. On national television. With half the world watching, including alumni, board members, ADs, AP voters and coaches alike.

It wasn’t the biggest upset. Unranked Fresno State put a beat down on No. 17 Kansas State in Manhattan.

It might not have been the most exciting game, either. Ohio State won on a 55-yard field goal, while Miami beat Florida State in overtime.) But for Tyrone Willingham and black coaches across the nation, it was the most important.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Ty is black.

He is the first African American coach in Notre Dame history, and one of only a handful of African American Division 1A coaches. Some of the other ones? Sylvester Croom of Mississippi State, the first black coach in the SEC and Karl Dorrell of UCLA. Most people wouldn’t know that, though. They might remember how many black coaches there are (four) or the name of the fourth coach’s school (Marshall), but no one would recognize them. They weren’t on channel 10, six or three.

Ty Willingham was.

They also don’t coach one of the most storied franchises in college football. In addition to the Golden Dome, Joe Montana and green jerseys, the Fighting Irish also have the Gipper, Rudy and Knute Rockne.

Willingham wasn’t around then, yet his understanding of tradition enables him to compose himself like a golf pro during one of the most exciting sporting events around- a big time college football game.

He plays the game like it is meant to be played: Run the ball. Play defense. Get after it on special teams.

Was it a fluke, then, that Notre Dame blocked a punt? Was it a big surprise that the winning touchdown was a result of an overzealous defender tearing the ball away from a vaunted Michigan receiver? Were the tying and go ahead touchdowns merely just power sweeps around the end?

No, they weren’t.

What is a surprise is that Notre Dame won. Last year they lost 38-0. Last week they lost 20-17 to a weaker BYU team. Before Saturday’s game, Rocket Ishmael told the New York Times that none of the players on this year’s Notre Dame squad could have started for the 1988-1990 Notre Dame teams. Not exactly a ringing endorsement from an alumnus.

Brody Quinn threw three interceptions, killing several Notre Dame drives. If Willingham wasn’t bald already, he would have torn his hair out watching his quarterback, who was supposed to replace the turnover prone starter, Carlyle Holiday, force passes.

However, Willingham and his team won. A huge upset for the team, as well as for the country.

Willingham showed on national television that a black coach can win a big game, beat a top ten team and lead a storied franchise to victory.

Like Darryl Green, the first black QB in the Super Bowl, Willingham wasn’t the first – just the most visible.

This isn’t a story about a black man succeeding in a white man’s world. To hear him speak or read an article about the game, you would never know Willingham was black since he never once brings up the race issue.

Instead, this is a story about a man who plans on shining up the gold-flaked helmets a little bit more. It is about a great coach winning a big game. And that’s what matters most to people.

On Saturday, millions of people didn’t read an article in a paper, watch a few highlights, or even just catch the score on the bottom line. In prime time against a top 10 team with the world watching, Tyrone Willingham, in full color, won.