Firing of MSU Football Coach Raises Questions, Sparks Discussion
Only three Black head coaches remain in Division I
By Erik Lords
EAST LANSING, Mich.
Then there were three. The surprising in-season firing of Michigan State University football coach Bobby Williams last month left many college sports observers across the nation asking several questions. Did race play a factor in the firing of Williams? Will his highly visible ousting hurt the chances of future Black head-coaching candidates? And, will his firing re-ignite the discussion about why there are only three African American head football coaches at the 177 Division 1-A programs in the nation, while more than 50 percent of the players are Black?
Meanwhile in East Lansing, the Michigan State community is trying to piece back together a football program that — on Williams’ watch this season — went from being a nationally ranked top-20 team to a weekly loser, rocked by rumors, personal scandals and police blotter embarrassments. Most thought a change would come at season’s end, but instead, the firing came on Nov. 4, with three games left on the schedule.
Michigan State athletics director Ron Mason said he pulled the trigger in-season because under Williams, the program seemed to be swirling out of control. He said Williams’ own words after the team had suffered one of its worst losses of the season to archrival Michigan was a strong signal that he needed to go. When a reporter asked Williams whether he thought his team had slipped from his grasp, he said, “I don’t know.” Said Mason: “At that point, I really felt if he wasn’t sure, who was? To me that was kind of a defining moment.”
But Williams, who spent 10 years at MSU as a running backs coach before being promoted to the top job and becoming the first African American head football coach in Michigan State’s history, still has plenty of supporters. The most notable being Joel Ferguson, Michigan State’s only African American trustee. Ferguson voiced support for Williams when the team started its slide this season, and after the firing he hinted that race played a role in the decision.
“What is most incredibly disappointing to me is that MSU, under the cover of night, has decided to ignore the facts, ignore the precedent and damage its reputation of fairness and commitment to diversity,” Ferguson said in the statement.
Ferguson later chastised the student newspaper, the State News, for taking his comments out of context. He claimed that he never implied that Williams’ race led to the firing. In his statement, Ferguson may have been suggesting that Williams’ abrupt firing goes against Michigan State’s “reputation of fairness” as it relates to Blacks in high-profile positions.
In an interview with Black Issues, Ferguson said: “There are many in the White community who felt Bobby should have been fired, but in the Black community there are a lot of people who are outraged and feel he didn’t have a full chance.”
He said Williams was fired in part because of the trouble his players experienced. Quarterback Jeff Smoker was suspended indefinitely, and has admitted that he is battling a substance abuse problem. Greg Taplin, a defensive end, served a one-game suspension for violating an undisclosed team rule. Shortly thereafter, tailback Dawan Moss was kicked off the team after being arrested for allegedly driving drunk and fleeing police.
“He cannot watch 115 kids 24 hours a day,” Ferguson says. “People are acting as if Bobby was in the car with the player when he got pulled over for the alcohol incident.”
Ferguson also said the MSU community is still divided on the issue, “but if the hiring process is fair, the community will come back together,” regardless of who is hired. “My entire goal is to make sure that minorities are in the pool and that the process is not a sham.”
Indeed, the university has long been seen as a leader when it comes to diversity, particularly the confidence it has showed in promoting African Americans. In addition to Williams’ promotion to head football coach, MSU has had a Black athletic director, Clarence Underwood. Blanche Martin, became the school’s first Black trustee in 1969, and in 1970, Dr. Clifton Wharton began his eight-year presidency of Michigan State, becoming the first African American president of a major U.S. university.
Mason said that in firing Williams, he couldn’t consider that history, and had to do what was best for the football program. Hired in December 1999, Williams received a two-year extension last December and had four years left on a contract worth more than $500,000 annually. He compiled a 16-17 record but was only 3-6 this season.
Race played no role in Williams’ firing, Mason said. The Spartans were picked to challenge for the Big Ten title, but lost six of their last seven games. The team lost by margins of 28, 21, 18 and 46 points. And Michigan State’s 49-3 lost to Michigan, was the Spartans’ worst since 1947.
In his first public interview since the firing, Williams told ESPN that he should have been given the opportunity to fulfill his contract.
Asked whether he felt race played a role in his firing by Michigan State, Williams said: “I can’t answer that question. All I can say is I would hate to think it was a factor that played into it.” Williams did not return calls from Black Issues seeking comment.
“To fire someone in the middle of the season is so unusual, that the question is legitimate to raise whether or not race was an issue,” says Richard Lapchick, director of the newly created DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. “But I don’t think we can conclude and say that unless somebody comes from behind the bush and says it.”
The Williams firing drew national attention largely because he was one of only four Black head coaches at college football’s most competitive level, and because in-season firings are rare. With Williams out, the three remaining Black coaches are: Tony Samuel, New Mexico State; Fitz Hill, San Jose State; and Tyrone Willingham, who in his first year at Notre Dame is leading the Fighting Irish to their best season in years.
Bob Minnix, associate athletic director at Florida State University and the president of the Black Coaches Association, says the organization will not rush to judge the Williams firing. Minnix says he understands that Michigan State might have reasons for firing Williams that it did not reveal publicly but might share with the BCA privately. He said he expects to hear both sides of this situation.
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