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Trustee says race played role in dismissal

November 5, 2002

An MSU trustee issued a statement Monday alleging officials treated Bobby Williams, the university’s first black head football coach, differently from his white predecessors.

Williams, one of only four black coaches in Division I-A football and the first black coach of any MSU revenue sport, was fired Monday night by Athletics Director Ron Mason. Mason said the football program was headed in the wrong direction under Williams’ leadership.

But MSU Trustee Joel Ferguson, the only black member of the Board of Trustees, said Williams should have been given the same opportunities as other struggling Spartan head coaches.

“Since I have been an adult, MSU has had a reputation for fairness to minorities,” Ferguson said in a written statement. “What is now 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 the two coaches who immediately preceded Williams, Nick Saban and George Perles, were given four years to build a program, and most Big Ten coaches need five years to build a strong team. Williams was under a five-year, $214,800 per-year rolling contract.

While running for re-election to the MSU Board of Trustees in 1994, Ferguson supported dismissing Perles as football head coach, although he supported possibly naming him athletics director. Ferguson lost in the race and Perles was fired on Election Day. The football program was sanctioned by the NCAA for violations under Perles’ tenure.

But not everyone agrees with the approach that Ferguson took.

“That’s Joe’s opinion,” Trustee Colleen McNamara said. “I hate pitting trustees against each other, but I don’t believe it. You can look at all kinds of circumstances and Ron Mason made his decision based on the appropriate circumstances. Ron Mason is not racist.”

In his statement, Ferguson also said the football team does not have a drug problem.

“The fact is the vast majority of the team members are staying out of trouble and trying their best - in the midst of a firestorm of criticism, not to mention pressure - to win football games,” Ferguson said.

The statement said grade-point averages of the team have improved each year under Williams’ tenure.

Interdisciplinary humanities senior Jaqkeshia Carr said she is upset with the former coach’s firing.

“They didn’t give this man a chance at all,” Carr said. “I feel like this is a racist university. They don’t care about the team. MSU fans don’t care about anybody.”

Resource development Professor George Rowan, president of MSU’s Black Faculty, Staff and Administrators Association, said he believes Williams should have finished the season.

“I respect Bobby Williams a great deal. He is a fine individual.” Rowan said. “Then they should have evaluated him after the season.

“In any case, a minority coach is held to a different standard than other coaches, and it’s not fair. It definitely sends signals to black coaches that they better perform at the level of (Notre Dame football head coach) Ty Willingham because that is the standard they are being held to.”

Willingham, an MSUalumnus, is one of the remaining three black coaches in Division I-A football.

MSU’s first black athletics director, Merritt Norvell, who resigned in 1999, called media coverage of Williams’ tenure as coach a “classic example of how the press and media defined the character of the guy.”

“I think it’s unfortunate,” Norvell said. “The situation got out of control.”

But Mason said there were several key reasons for firing Williams.

“It became clear to me that the direction of the football program required this decision,” Mason said. “There was no one incident, event, episode, or game that determined my conclusion.

“Therefore, I don’t think it wise or helpful to publicly analyze any single event or incident. I made the decision today. There was no reason to prolong what I had determined was inevitable.”

Staff writer Romando J. Dixson contributed to this report.

Brian Charlton can be reached at charlt10@msu.edu. Kristofer Karol can be reached at karolkri@msu.edu.

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