In Search of Heroes

Notre Dame fired its head football coach Ty Willingham yesterday, and in doing so failed us all. University Athletic Director Kevin White said at yesterday afternoon’s news conference, “From Sunday through Friday our football program has exceeded all expectations in every way. The academic performance is at fever pitch; it has never been better.” Indeed, Willingham is nationally known as a fine nurturer of his players’ character and a standard bearer of integrity as coach.

His firing comes on the heels of Ron Artest and his Indiana Pacer teammates running headlong into the stands to punch out unruly fans during a game with the Detroit Pistons.

It comes after a hideous political season in which the two presidential candidates ruthlessly beat each other up, this time with words and ads and surrogates, and then had the audacity to call for unity, as if we were to believe them.

It comes after Martha Stewart, the sage of home etiquette, was led off to jail; Jim McGreevey, the embattled governor of New Jersey was forced from office for his errant judgment and misdeeds; and Tom DeLay, the House Majority Leader, now tries to barricade himself within the halls of Congress, trying to hold off his enemies.

It’s not a question of “When do the good guys win?” That’s too sentimental and soft. Rather, Willingham produced, did so with integrity, and outshined all the public characters we have seen in recent months. He brought high standards to a college game known for cutting corners, always knowing that his real job was to rear good people and instill solid values.

As I write this entry, I am completing a book on Americans’ views toward politics and hope over the last fifteen years. One of the key themes I found myself writing about yesterday, just as Willingham was being canned, was people’s desire for real heroes – not someone with superhuman qualities, but individuals with admirable qualities such as personal perseverance, helping others, and honesty. Willingham is a real hero.

But Notre Dame wants to have its cake and eat it too: it wants credits for hiring Willingham, and yet seeks to leave behind his solid values so it can pursue a “national championship.” But at what cost will it pursue this trophy? And how does one pursue a prize when giving up what one has said it treasures most: character, integrity, values, and academic preparation? Notre Dame: just what is the prize?

Winning almost always comes at a cost. Look at recent events, like those I mentioned earlier, and that cost has been to the public trust, to our common values, to our sense of hard work and decency. The result: lost faith in ourselves, each other, our institutions.

In this day and age, Ty Willingham stood out because he was different. He understood that the cost of winning should be hard work and one’s constant struggle of integrity. Just think how much better our society would be if those people involved in recent public events were more like Ty Willingham. Just think of how much better off we would be if Notre Dame had exercised the courage to stay with him and served as a beacon of hope in our society.