It was a sign of the times, but Tyrone Willingham could hardly
believe his eyes. A two-hour bus ride on a North Carolina highway
was nearing its end on a late spring day in 1966 as Willingham, a
slight, well-mannered 12-year-old, craned his neck out the
window. The bus had reached the town limits of Smithfield, where
Willingham and his fellow Little League All-Stars from
Jacksonville, N.C., would face another of the state's finest
youth baseball ensembles. There to greet Willingham, the lone
black member of the Jacksonville team, was a large billboard
bearing a sketch of a hooded rider on a horse rearing upward and
the words WELCOME TO THE HOME OF THE UNITED KLAN.
Willingham felt scared as he stood in the outfield that day, but
being a target was nothing new for a kid who would grow up to
become one of the best college football coaches in the land. The
tumult of desegregation that had begun six years earlier, when
black students from North Carolina A&T sat at a whites-only lunch
counter, was about to reach a boiling point. Not long after the
trip to Smithfield, Willingham recoiled in horror when he learned
that Georgetown High, the school he was slated to attend, had
been ravaged by fire on graduation day.
"The origins [of the fire] have never been explained," Willingham
recalls, "but most of the people who lived in my community
believe the school was destroyed by a bomb. Integration came the
next fall, so what would you think?"
The origins of Willingham's finest professional qualities--focus,
discipline, an acute awareness of right and wrong--can be traced
to that era of racially exclusive bathrooms and water fountains.
When he and his friends and siblings would head up Court Street
on their two-mile walk to and from Jacksonville Junior High,
Willingham was careful not to talk too loud or act too proud as
he passed through all-white neighborhoods. At times he felt he
should take the long way home, but Willingham resolutely forged
August 20, 2000
Thirty-four years later, as coach of Stanford's Pac-10 champion
football team, Willingham still hasn't escaped racial
inequality, which is now so apparent in the dearth of
opportunities extended to African-American football coaches in
the pro and collegiate ranks. The problem is particularly
glaring in the NFL, where, despite making up roughly 70% of the
player pool, blacks hold only two head coaching jobs (6.5%) and
10 coordinator positions (16%).
Forget affirmative action. If Willingham, 46, isn't offered an
NFL head coaching job soon, fans of perennially losing teams
should be as outraged as Jesse Jackson is. For it's not a stretch
to say that in taking Stanford to its first Rose Bowl in 28 years
last January, Willingham stamped himself as the brightest NFL
coaching prospect--of any color--on the horizon. "He's one of the
best up-and-coming coaches in football, college or pro," Kansas
City Chiefs president Carl Peterson says. "The way he handles
players and motivates them is excellent. His day is coming, and
Another AFC executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says
Willingham and Mack Brown of Texas (who is white) are the hottest
NFL coaching candidates in the college ranks. "When you win at
Stanford, it really says something," the executive says. "That
tells me he's every bit the candidate for our league that Mack
Brown is, and Mack Brown is high on everybody's list."
In January 1997, after having taken the Cardinal to bowl
appearances in his first two seasons, Willingham's name surfaced
publicly in connection with the Indianapolis Colts' head coaching
vacancy. Several days later Willingham's agent, Ray Anderson, was
contacted by Indy president Bill Polian. Says Anderson, "I told
Bill, 'Don't use Tyrone as a pawn for political correctness. If
there's serious interest, step up and say so. Otherwise, take him
off the [list], because he's in the middle of recruiting season.'
[Polian] never said he wasn't serious, but he never called back
either." Says Colts vice president of public relations Craig
Kelley, "Any queries the Colts make about the interest in an
individual for possible employment is because of our genuine
interest." Polian, who hired former Saints coach Jim Mora, calls
Willingham "an excellent coach, a good motivator and a very
intelligent man." Anderson says the New England Patriots and the
Green Bay Packers inquired about Willingham's availability before
filling head coaching openings last January.
Willingham coached with and remains close to the NFL's two
African-American coaches: the Minnesota Vikings' Dennis Green,
who hired him as an assistant at Stanford (1989-91) and in
Minnesota (1992-94), and the Tampa Bay Bucs' Tony Dungy, another
former Vikings assistant. Green's staff in Minnesota also
included Brian Billick, now the Baltimore Ravens' coach, but
Dungy says, "After six months [in '92] I was telling people, 'If
there's one guy on this staff who has what it takes to be a
successful NFL coach, Tyrone is it.'"
Opportunity knocks with some regularity, but Willingham isn't
necessarily ready to head for the door. Ted Leland, Stanford's
athletic director, says Willingham has been contacted for "at
least a couple of college jobs a year" since he succeeded Bill
Walsh as the Cardinal coach following the '94 season. Last
December, for instance, Willingham turned down a chance to talk
to his alma mater, Michigan State, agreeing instead to a
lucrative extension, through 2004.
"Having Tyrone as your football coach is like having the
best-looking girl in school as your girlfriend," Leland says.
"You're complimented and you're challenged. When I go to athletic
director meetings, people say, 'Man, do I love your coach.'"
Willingham is vague about what the future may hold. "I try to
stay in the here-and-now," he says, "which is one of the life
lessons that's served me well."
Sometimes Willingham's perception of the here-and-now varies
sharply from what most people consider plausible. In '96,
Stanford lost to Pac-10 doormat Oregon State--allowing the
Beavers to break a 15-game losing streak--and a week later lost
to Arizona State 41-9 to fall into a 2-5 hole. "We can still go
to a bowl game and win it," Willingham told his dumbfounded
Recalls tight end Greg Clark, now a starter for the San Francisco
49ers, "There was a lot of bitterness after that Oregon State
game. But he exuded confidence, and he has this knack for
weathering the ups and downs and transferring that confidence to
the players. When the horses are going in a zillion directions,
he can harness them and get everyone going to the same place."
That Cardinal team closed the regular season with four straight
wins, then hammered Michigan State 38-0 in the Sun Bowl.
Last September, Stanford, picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10,
opened in cataclysmic fashion, losing a nonconference road game
to Texas, 69-17. In a closed-door meeting immediately afterward,
Willingham admonished his assistants in sharp, measured tones.
Yet when he addressed his players minutes later, he was upbeat.
"There's a champion in this room," Willingham told his team. "He
wasn't here today, but we've got to find him."
The following Monday he received a call from Sherm Lewis, the
Packers' offensive coordinator at the time and a fellow Michigan
State alum whose futile quest for an NFL head coaching job has
become emblematic of the frustrations faced by African-American
candidates. "I just wanted to see if your spirits were up," Lewis
said. Replied Willingham, "Sherm, I'm doing fine. You know what?
I've got an excellent team, and we've got an excellent chance to
have a hell of a year." Lewis hung up, walked down the hallway
and related the conversation to fellow Green Bay assistant
Charlie Baggett, who had been Willingham's roommate when the two
were quarterbacks at Michigan State. "I just talked to Ty, and
he's out of his mind," Baggett remembers Lewis saying. "He must
be on drugs or something."
Stanford's subsequent trip to the top of the Pac-10 was
mind-blowing. After losing a 44-39 shootout to San Jose State in
early October, Stanford, then 3-2, appeared to be a high-scoring
team with a porous defense. Four weeks later Stanford suffered a
35-30 loss to Washington and slipped behind the Huskies in the
Rose Bowl chase, but there was no hint of locker-room conflict.
With a well-crafted attack led by All-America wideout Troy
Walters and quarterback Todd Husak, the Cardinal offense--which
would finish the season ranked fifth in the nation--carried the
team, and the defense, after ranking 110th out of 114 Division
I-A teams, rallied to play its best game of the season in a 17-9
Rose Bowl loss to Wisconsin.
"Ty is all about discipline, and you can see it in the way his
teams play," Baggett says. "They're smart and crisp, and they
stay together. Some coaches think you've got to be a drill
sergeant all the time, but Ty has learned you've got to be
There is nothing ambiguous or mysterious about the 5'7"
Willingham. He wants things done the right way, and he is the
final arbiter of right and wrong. "Just watching him work out is
intimidating," says Oakland Raiders fullback Jon Ritchie, a
former Stanford player. "You get frightened when you talk to
him--your palms are sweaty, and you fumble with your words. But
once the conservation is over, you want to go back and talk to
him some more, because he has interesting things to say."
When most people hear the phrase "breakfast club," they think of
a cheesy Brat Pack movie from the 1980s, but Stanford players
guilty of even minor transgressions associate those words with
the horror genre. "When I was a senior," Clark recalls, "I
switched my weightlifting times and forgot to tell the strength
coach. It was nothing, but Coach Willingham told me to show up
for Breakfast Club at six the next morning. He put a
stair-climbing machine on the highest level and told me to start
running. After eight minutes I practically got caught under the
machine, so he turned it down. Then he went back to watching me
with his arms folded. He just stood there for 25 minutes without
saying a word. For a little man, he can put the fear of God in
When Clark's story is related to Willingham, he lets out a hearty
bellow. "That was my way of telling Greg, 'You're not alone. I'm
making that same commitment.' Probably every kid has a story like
Willingham's story began in Jacksonville, a coastal town adjacent
to the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base. Willingham's
parents--Nathaniel, who managed rental properties, and Lillian, an
elementary school teacher, school board member and city
councilwoman for whom a Jacksonville parkway is named--ran a tight
ship. The oldest of four children and the only one who did not
attain a graduate degree, Tyrone learned early on about
sacrificing for the common good. When he was in elementary
school, his parents gave up the first floor of their two-story
home so that it could serve as the neighborhood rec center.
A standout quarterback for Jacksonville High, Willingham wrote
letters to 150 colleges promoting his achievements. Only two
schools wrote back--after all, Willingham stood 5'6" and weighed
139 pounds--and the most prominent of those, Michigan State, told
him he could walk on. Willingham made the team as a freshman and
over the next four years worked his way up to second string,
ultimately starting five games as a senior when Baggett was
Working toward a degree in physical education that year, he
met his future wife, Michigan State freshman Kim Normand, and won
her over by taking her to see Mahogany and Lady Sings the Blues
at a campus film festival. In raising a family of three--daughters
Cassidy and Kelsey and son Nathaniel--they followed a coaching
path that included assistant's jobs at Central Michigan, Michigan
State, North Carolina State and Rice. "A lot of times I wanted
him to move on, to get out of losing situations," says Kim, "but
he stuck it out."
The reaction to Willingham's hiring at Stanford was, to put it
nicely, underwhelming. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Glenn
Dickey, noting that Willingham had never been a coordinator on
any level, charged that "a combination of incompetence and
political correctness has caused Stanford to name an
underqualified, inexperienced man...as its head football coach."
His immediate predecessors, Green and Walsh (in his second
stint), each had just one winning season in a combined six years,
and despite inheriting a fractured squad that had wheezed to a
3-7-1 record in Walsh's final season, Willingham has had a
winning record in three of five years in Palo Alto. Nevertheless,
because he gives ample latitude to his coordinators, he is not
normally lauded for his strategic prowess. "He doesn't get as
much credit for being innovative as he deserves," Dungy says,
"because he understands that X's and O's go only so far. His
attitude is, Let's not overwhelm them or outsmart them; let's
just outplay them."
Those close to Willingham swear he has a dry, biting sense of
humor. Ritchie recalls a speech in which Willingham, displeased
by the abundance of litter outside the weight room, deadpanned,
"Men, I've noticed quite a few empty water bottles along the bike
rack--and I know that bike racks don't drink water." He can be
silly, too. "He loves to dance and he loves to sing, even though
he can't carry a tune," Kim says. "The other day he was doing a
rendition of [a number from Stevie Wonder's] Songs in the Key of
Life, but I'm not sure it was in the key of anything."
If Willingham fulfills his contract, he will be the
longest-tenured coach in Stanford football history. He has told
Dungy he would have a hard time leaving because he feels a sense
of loyalty to his recruits. Dungy says that if he were an NFL
general manager seeking a coach, "Tyrone would be the first guy
I'd call. This is the best football coach I've been around in a
lot of ways. He has had success running his own program, and he
was a highly regarded NFL assistant. His determination, ability
to get the most out of his players and insistence on doing things
the right way make him very attractive."
Anderson, Willingham's agent, says "it would be disingenuous to
suggest that the NFL is not in his future." One major reason is
Willingham's desire to help pave the road for African-Americans
in his profession. "That's what the people in the previous
generation did for me," he says. "That's what my parents and high
school coaches did. A lot of the younger African-American coaches
have allowed themselves to become frustrated by the lack of
opportunities, and that bothers me, because frustration means you
can't change a situation.
"There are a ton of qualified black coaches who aren't getting
opportunities. That, to me, is very sad. It's no different than
corporate America. If you have someone who can make your
organization better and you don't hire that person, we all
suffer. In some cases the guys who get the jobs may be good, but
maybe there are people of color who can do even better."
Surely, someday soon, an NFL owner will decide Willingham is one
of those people. If it doesn't happen?
Well, what would you think?
"HAVING TYRONE AS YOUR FOOTBALL COACH IS LIKE HAVING THE
BEST-LOOKING GIRL IN SCHOOL AS YOUR GIRLFRIEND," LELAND SAYS.
"YOU'RE COMPLIMENTED AND YOU'RE CHALLENGED"
"TY IS ALL ABOUT DISCIPLINE," SAYS BAGGETT, "AND YOU CAN SEE IT
IN THE WAY HIS TEAMS PLAY"