PTI Timeline: Notre Dame -- History not kind to Wilbon
There are numerous reasons I find HBO’s The Newsroom grating. Skipping past the one-dimensional female characters, melodramatic plot cheats, and overly political agenda, the biggest issue I have with Aaron Sorkin‘s one-hour drama is the omnipotence of Will McAvoy and his news team. The ACN News Night team never gets a story wrong, a product of Sorkin and a writing staff building a show set in the very recent past, and equipping their altruistic journalism staff with a time machine that feels like it’s at their disposal.
If you were to believe Sorkin, Jeff Daniels’ McAvoy -- the savvy, battle-tested evening anchor that’s ready to cut through the B.S. and give America the straight story -- is the only reporter willing to cut out bias and tell you the truth. But that truth is mighty easy to find when you’ve got the benefit of time and history.
I suppose that’s a very long introduction for something that only tangentially applies to the point of this post. But after being asked a few dozen times what I thought about the PTI Timeline on Notre Dame, I wanted to make sure that any reaction wasn’t simply the product of being able to look back at history and use that as a determining factor of right and wrong.
Of the past decade, Pardon the Interruption -- PTI as it’s more commonly known -- made household names out of sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon. The debate show between two friends and Washington Post colleagues was a game-changer for sports television programming, an instant hit that spawned dozens of imitators.
The crew at PTI put together a very interesting look at Notre Dame football over the past eleven years, starting with 2001, when PTI went on the air. Of course, anyone that followed the Irish over that time period knows there was plenty to talk about, and most of it pretty bad.
Here’s a look at Part One, a segment that looks at the firing of Bob Davie, the hiring and resignation of George O’Leary, and the selection of Ty Willingham as head coach, who was fired after three seasons:
It’s not hard to watch this segment and think that Mike Wilbon didn’t have many nice things to say about Notre Dame. Whether it was his Chicago upbringing, his Northwestern degree, or anything else, from the very first frame of this video, you get the feeling that Wilbon dislikes Notre Dame and doesn’t have a problem saying it.
Another thing that’s quite interesting to follow is the PTI crew’s building of a narrative that lasted the better part of a decade. First, it’s the firing of Bob Davie.
In retrospect, the decision to fire Davie -- even after a mind-boggling five-year extension -- seems like an easy one. Yet instead of looking at the regression in the program over Davie’s tenure, Kornheiser, who presented himself as a Notre Dame fan, positioned the move as one that was hypocritical.
“He has a 100 percent graduation rate, which is something that every school would strive for,” Kornheiser said. “But they didn’t reward him for that. They fired him, because he doesn’t have a 100 percent win rate.”
One of the brilliant parts of PTI is the use of a running clock to push the pace of the show. Yet that seems to be to the detriment of this discussion because in the 90 seconds the two hosts had to discuss the firing, Kornheiser selects Davie’s inability to win 100 percent of his games as the reason he’s fired.
From there, Notre Dame’s most high profile coaching search dominates the discussion. Most pointedly, will Notre Dame hire Stanford’s Tyrone Willingham? Wilbon, who advocated Notre Dame tabbing Willingham as their coach, had this to say at the time.
“I don’t think Notre Dame is going to give serious consideration to Ty Willingham,” Wilbon. “They’re scared of hiring a black candidate. That’s why... Is his resume not impeccable? Give me another reason.”
Again, looking back there were plenty of reasons why Willingham might not have been the ideal candidate. While he did have the experience of coaching at an academically elite university, his on-field results were far from a slam dunk. In Palo Alto, Willingham had only one more winning season than he did losing. He won eight games or more only twice. Yet Wilbon, with perhaps one of the loudest microphones in the media at the time as a part of a sky-rocketing TV show, tabbed this decision as one that was largely based on race, leading him to crow after George O’Leary, whose Georgia Tech team beat Willingham’s in the Seattle Bowl that year, was hired.
“They seriously considered him?” Wilbon crowed at the time. “I told you Notre Dame wouldn’t seriously consider a black coach. This time around, even in 2001. And I told you they wouldn’t seriously consider Ty Willingham. Did I stammer? Did I stutter? No.
“I’m not saying they shouldn’t hire George O’Leary. I don’t believe they seriously considered Tyrone Willingham. And I don’t believe they were going to seriously consider him. And I’ve got a lot of history on my side.”
“History on his side,” hangs there, with what Wilbon isn’t saying feeling far more incriminating than anything he is. And with just a few seconds remaining in the segment, that’s how the PTI crew is willing to leave it that afternoon, though Jason Whitlock, who guest hosted for Kornheiser later that December, crystallizes Wilbon’s stance on Willingham’s chances of getting the job in South Bend.
“Before there’s a Tyrone as the head coach at Notre Dame there’ll be a Shaniqua as the first lady in the White House,” Whitlock cracked, getting a laugh out of Wilbon.
Of course, after a second search, athletic director Kevin White tabbed Willingham as the head coach of the Irish. But that didn’t satisfy Wilbon.
“I’m not going to admit I was wrong. You can make Notre Dame into Branch Rickey now if you want, but the fact is they didn’t consider Ty Willingham the first time, they didn’t even interview him,” Wilbon said. “They called, they got permission. They didn’t interview him. They wanted Tom Coughlin. They wanted Mariucci, they wanted Shanahan, they wanted and didn’t get six different coaches before finally they got desperate and turned to Ty Willingham.”
Let’s take a look at the candidates that Notre Dame had in front of Willingham, according to Wilbon:
Tom Coughlin - NFL head coach (with Jacksonville at the time)
Steve Mariucci - NFL head coach (with the San Francisco 49ers at the time)
Mike Shanahan - NFL head coach (with the Denver Broncos at the time)
Jon Gruden - NFL head coach (with the Oakland Radiers at the time)
George O’Leary - Georgia Tech head coach
It’s hard to know who Wilbon thought the sixth coach was, but if that’s the list in front of Willingham, who could have a problem with that? While it may have been unrealistic at the time and was the basis for two more very unhappy coaching searches, Wilbon wasn’t satisfied, though he was willing to give Notre Dame a bit of credit.
“Here’s the credit I’ll give to Notre Dame: They got it right,” Wilbon said. “But don’t expect me to sit here and tell you that this is some great movement in progress for the hiring of black coaches. You know you aren’t going to get me to go in that direction.
Of course, after three seasons, Willingham was on rocky ground, bringing back to a boil the emotion Wilbon had for the hire and Willingham’s chances for survivial at Notre Dame.
“I think they are quick on the trigger with Ty Willingham,” Wilbon shouted. “What’s my position on Notre Dame and Ty Willingham?”
“They never fired somebody before the end of their first contract,” Kornheiser responded.
“How many of those people that they didn’t fire were people of color?” Wilbon asked.
“Let me think,” Kornheiser said, knowing the answer, and knowing that the segment was already over.
And with that the bell rung, signaling a chance of topics, and the audience likely frothing for more. Yet as we look back on Willingham’s era, and his subsequent years in Washington, it paints a more complete picture of Willingham’s inability to survive as a head coach in the modern era. His four seasons in Washington had the Huskies at rock bottom, opening with a two-win season and ending with an 0-12 thud.
Of course, that’s what we know now. And while it’s too easy to shout that from the rooftops, Wilbon even acknowledging how the story ends shouldn’t be too much to ask.
But then again -- that doesn’t make good TV.