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 ahead.
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 soon."
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.