The Golden Dome seems to have lost some of its luster. The Irish were 5-6 in 1981, their worst record in 18 years. And even if that was an aberration caused by Coach Gerry Faust's having been plucked from Moeller High School in Cincinnati (where he had gone 174-17-2 over 18 years) and set down smack in the middle of the most tradition-laden college football program in the country, it's hard to see Notre Dame doing any better than 7-4 this season. That holds, no matter how firm a grasp Faust gets on things this time around.
Prudent souls must mark Notre Dame down for a loss against Michigan in its nationally televised Sept. 18 opener, along with defeats at the hands of Pitt and Penn State. And to have a 7-4 year the Irish either must beat USC in L.A. or pull off a home win over Miami. It was the Hurricanes who humiliated the Irish 37-15 in the final game of 1981. Things got so bad at Notre Dame that for the first time in years there was bickering and grumbling in the locker room, the players openly doubting the coach. Their goal ultimately became not winning but getting to the end of the season without embarrassing themselves. They accomplished neither.
Faust says of his 1981 baptism, "I'll never get over it. It makes you take stock." Which he did, and some of the things that showed up on his inventory sheet weren't to his liking. He fired Offensive Line Coach Tom Backhus, and Defensive Line Coach Bill Meyers left to take a job with Green Bay. Faust replaced Backhus with Carl Selmer, a former Miami head coach and an assistant at Nebraska for 11 years, and Greg Blache, an offensive backfield coach for the Irish last year, takes over the defensive line. Backhus was a longtime friend, and his dismissal immediately took care of Faust's nice-guy image. It also established him as a take-charge type at a time when the most volatile of the Irish faithful were beginning to think they were taken.
Another 5-6 season could give Faust a chance to get into a new line of work, and not surprisingly he's a much more sober and cautious fellow this time around. "Our football team is a big question mark," he says. "But we're not going to be bad."
No, but the fact that 19 starters return from last year's team isn't the good news it might seem to be. As many as half a dozen of those holdovers won't be starting this fall, including two of the nine returning defensive regulars.
And there's uncertainty at key positions. Junior Quarterback Blair Kiel won the job in spring practice, but Kiel hasn't been an effective passer—he completed only 44% of his attempts last year—and Faust wants to pass a lot this fall. The new quarterback and receivers coach, former UCLA assistant Ron Hudson, is installing a system that, he says, "will give Blair a chance to succeed. There will be shorter routes and more high-percentage patterns. We'll stretch the defense deep and open the windows. We'll scheme and give a lot of different looks." Most of all, the Irish will have Kiel rolling out much of the time so he can get a better look at his receivers. Nobody is saying so, but there's an underlying feeling that should Kiel falter—even a little—it might be an excuse for replacing him with a heralded sophomore, Ken Karcher.
Whoever the passer is, he'll be helped by senior Tight End Tony Hunter, the leading receiver the past two seasons. Hunter will at last be playing full time in the right position, after having to divide his time between split end and wingbaek for much of last season in a Faustian experiment that ended up backfiring on the coach.
Tailback Phil Carter, one of the Irish tri-captains, doesn't have a lock on his position, what with junior Greg Bell having played brilliantly in the spring. The offensive line has familiar and talented players on hand, including Tom Thayer, Randy Ellis, Mike Shirer and Mark Fischer, but its depth is dubious. The defensive line must be rebuilt, but that's usually an easier task than doing the same job on offense. The secondary is firmly anchored by senior Strong Safety Dave Duerson, who last year had 55 tackles and two interceptions. Says Faust, "Dave is a blue-chip blue chip, as a football player and as a person." Duerson, who passes off '81 as "just a transition year, that's all," sees nothing but blue sky. He says he's still learning how to be patient. In the past he has often been too anxious to be where the action seemed to be, which meant he was generally too quick to come up and help against the run, only to be stung by a pass. "I never feel that one of those receivers will get past me," he says, "but I guess every good defensive back feels deep in his heart that if a guy does get by you, you can scramble back in time."
Nobody doubts the talent that Notre Dame can put on the field; it's the man standing on the sideline who's still a question mark. Faust is well aware of that and he's not offended by it. 'I know what I have to do," he says. "Win." A lot, because around South Bend, a 7-4 year is no cause for great celebration. And 5-6, well....