Notre Dame's return to glory! (Part 23)

Why does the college's legendary -- but creaky -- football program have to keep coming back?

Published September 27, 2002 7:50PM (EDT)

I am now old enough to have lived through three eras of Notre Dame comebacks. This week's Sports Illustrated cover, which reads "Return to Glory -- Notre Dame," blurs in my memory with past covers with practically the same message. In 1964 Ara Parseghian took over from a nonentity named Joe Kuharich and came within one quarter in the final game of the season (against Southern Cal) of leading Notre Dame to a national championship. Two decades later, Lou Holtz succeeded Gerry Faust, who once admitted that he didn't watch game films of upcoming opponents, and, within five years, had brought Notre Dame all the way back to another national championship.

All of which, in retrospect, makes me wonder why is it continually necessary for Notre Dame to keep coming back? Why does Notre Dame keep falling from the top tier every couple of decades and need to hire a hotshot coach to bail out the program? Other traditional football powers go into periodic slumps, but not like Notre Dame from the late '50s to the early '60s or Notre Dame over the last nine seasons. Why does Notre Dame follow so many long periods of success with long periods of mediocrity?

It's probably because Notre Dame, unlike, say, Miami and Florida State and Nebraska at one extreme and Stanford and the Ivy League schools at the other, is the only college that talks itself into believing that football dominance and academic excellence are compatible.

In their arrogance, the powers that rule Notre Dame seem to feel that they can win in football without emphasizing the game. Every few years they sit back, revel in their success, and assume they can win without concerning themselves about the sordid details of what it actually takes to win in big-time college football. And every 20 years or so they find, again, that they are wrong, that they can't stay on top simply by presenting themselves as a beacon of all that is good and noble about college football, that they can't afford to entrust a multimillion-dollar business to a holy fool like Gerry Faust.

They find that they must once again hire a coach who knows where the best football players are and how to talk them into coming to a small school in the Midwest which prohibits many of the pleasures which other football powers put up front as a lure. Oh, yes, and a coach who knows how to get athletes to study and who will plead the athlete's case to the university when a blue-chip linebacker is putting out but still having trouble maintaining that C+ average.

Not that Notre Dame, despite a solid reputation, is quite up there with Stanford and the Ivy League schools academically. But then, it doesn't really rank with Nebraska and Florida State and Miami in football -- it hasn't for a long time and probably won't for a while again, no matter how many newspaper, magazine and TV stories are generated by the school's first black head coach, Tyrone Willingham. For the record, I think Willingham is the real thing: He seems to have eliminated the awful slackness that surrounded the Irish program under Bob Davie, which means that Notre Dame will probably stop losing games to schools it shouldn't lose to, like Air Force and Purdue, and probably stop losing any games on fumbles at the goal line or bad snaps on field goal tries.

That, however, is a long way from rebuilding a program ready to compete for the national championship. Notre Dame is currently 4-0 against Maryland, Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State. Much of that is due to luck, although, as Branch Rickey was fond of saying, luck is the residue of design. The point, though, is that the Irish have dodged four bullets against much weaker teams (with the possible exception of Michigan, whom they beat at South Bend by two points) than they'll need to beat if Coach Willingham wants to do what Ara Parseghian very nearly did in 1964. Powerhouse teams don't dodge bullets, they stopthem.

And speaking of bullets, that's not what Notre Dame quarterback Carlyle Holiday was throwing before he was injured against Michigan State last week. In fact, he was only 5 of 17 for 84 yards before he suffered a shoulder separation. You can go 5 of 17 for 84 yards against Michigan State and still be within one miracle pass of winning the game in the fourth quarter. You go 5 of 17 for 84 yards for three quarters against Florida State, whom Notre Dame will face Oct. 26, and you'll be looking at the wrong end of a four-touchdown deficit.

What is peculiar about the Notre Dame football program over the last 20 years or so is how outdated it has become in terms of tactics and strategy. Notre Dame did not invent the forward pass, but under quarterback Gus Dorais and end Knute Rockne they perfected it when they connected for 243 yards in a legendary victory over Army in 1913. Over the next 60-odd years, Notre Dame, more than any other school, became famous for producing quarterbacks: Angelo Bertelli, Paul Hornung, John Huarte -- all Heisman Trophy winners -- Terry Hanratty, Joe Theisman and Joe Montana.

Yet, in the '80s, when a school came along to revolutionize college football by stressing the total dominance of the passing game, it wasn't Notre Dame but the University of Miami, a team the Irish had been humiliating for decades. When national title after national title was won by a school with a rifle-armed quarterback and a fleet of wide receivers, Notre Dame was still trying to win with a Model T offense built around the triple option. Don't get me wrong -- I much prefer the triple option to an offense based on 50 drop-back passes a game. But college football now, for better or worse (and I would argue for worse), is mostly a game of passing and pass defense.

Notre Dame hasn't featured a first-rate drop-back passer since Jimmy Carter was president. Earlier this year at a dinner, Coach Willingham drew cheers from Notre Dame alumni by telling everyone that he was dropping the option offense in favor of "the West Coast Offense." There was an irony in that statement that a generation of Notre Dame fans aren't old enough to appreciate. The so-called West Coast Offense was designed around a quarterback named Joe Montana who was the last pocket-passer to win a national championship for the Irish. If Notre Dame had had a progressive head coach in 1977, instead of Dan Devine, if Bill Walsh had been at Notre Dame, where many think he should have been, the new model offense that emerged in the '80s would have been called "the Fighting Irish Offense" instead of The West Coast Offense.

I can't believe that a modern college team that goes through its first three games without a touchdown pass will make a serious run at the national title. But I will be rooting for Notre Dame. So will a lot of people who don't particularly like Notre Dame or even profess to loathe the name. The truth is that the college football season is a lot more interesting when Notre Dame is winning. Though not of course when they're winning against your team.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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