One of college football's brightest young coaches — black or white — Mike Haywood was poised to celebrate 2011 in grand fashion, having risen to a big-time school after just two seasons as head coach at lower-tier Miami (Ohio) University. The University of Pittsburgh announced him as its new coach on Dec. 16, giving him a five-year contract believed to be worth about $1 million annually. At the ninth stop in his 13-year coaching career, he had landed the top gig in one of the Bowl Championship Series conferences.
But the celebration ended abruptly on New Year's Day. Haywood was arrested Dec. 31 at his home in South Bend, Ind., on domestic violence charges; hours after being released on bond Jan. 1, he was fired. "Head coaches are among the university's most visible representatives and are expected to maintain high standards of personal conduct and to avoid situations that might reflect negatively on the university," Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said in a statement. He said the decision "is not tied to any expectation with respect to the terms on which the legal proceeding now pending in Indiana might ultimately be concluded. Instead, it reflects a strong belief that moving forward with Mr. Haywood as our head coach is not possible under the existing circumstances."
Haywood disagreed with the university's decision and professed his innocence. "It isn't fair," he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "The truth will eventually come out." Perhaps he didn't attack the mother of his child. Perhaps he will be exonerated in court. And perhaps Pittsburgh will have to pay damages if he files a lawsuit.
Regardless, this "rush to judgment" was the right move. The charge, upgraded from a misdemeanor to felony domestic battery in the presence of a minor, came after police were called to Haywood's home. The woman told officers that he "held her in a choke hold" and pushed her because he didn't want her to leave with their son. Officers said they could see red marks on the woman's neck, arms and back.
That's enough for a university to reach a verdict. While Haywood is still "innocent until proven guilty," standards in the court of public opinion aren't as stringent as they are in courts of law. By dumping Haywood right away instead of waiting for the legal process to play out, Pittsburgh sends a swift, strong message that even a whiff of domestic violence is unacceptable. The school kicked defensive back Jeff Knox off the team in September after he was accused of assaulting a woman who told him she was pregnant.
Granted, it was easy for Pittsburgh to fire Haywood. He wasn't a popular choice for the job, with fans and boosters suggesting that the school settled for a cheaper, less established coach instead of aiming higher. If any officials at Pitt were experiencing buyers' remorse, Haywood prodded them to action by turning himself into damaged goods. It would be interesting to see Pittsburgh's reaction if Haywood were, say, Nick Saban, or another coach with championship rings and a lengthy winning record. Not that it should make a difference — but we all know that "should" doesn't always work out.
Coaches are given leadership positions on college campuses, where the issue of domestic violence is never an afterthought, especially regarding athletes. Coaches should set the example of responsible behavior and be held to the highest standards, higher than those for their players. The exact details of what happened in Haywood's home Dec. 31 don't matter as much as the general events: Police were called, violence was alleged, marks were observed and an arrest was made.
Perhaps a professional team would cut Haywood some slack if it really liked him, but institutions of higher learning should consider the impressionable student body. Haywood's only hope might have been if he already had a long tenure at Pittsburgh as an outstanding community member with a sterling reputation. Then — maybe — the school might have weathered the storm and kept him in place, expressing its faith and belief based on history.
But considering his lack of popularity, his thin résumé and his status as an outsider, Haywood didn't have anything working in his defense. And he didn't give Pittsburgh much choice except to pull the trigger.
Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to The Root. He can be reached at email@example.com.