Somebody Up There May Be Listening

After three straight defeats the beleaguered—but very determined—Gerry Faust of Notre Dame got a big win at LSU
November 05, 1984

Gerry Faust's first game as coach at Notre Dame was against LSU in 1981. The Irish won 27-9. "People said then, in some seriousness," recalls Notre Dame athletic director Gene Corrigan, "that we might never lose again." A week later the Irish were taken apart by Michigan, and winning on into infinity hasn't been seen as much of a problem since.

Last Saturday, Notre Dame faced LSU again. This time LSU was unbeaten and ranked 10th by SI, and the game was played in Baton Rouge's Death Valley before 78,033 Tiger fans drooling over the feast. The Irish, 11-point underdogs, were 3-4 and had lost their last three games, all of them in South Bend. They hadn't lost three straight at home since 1956. The Irish were rushing for but 119 yards a game, their worst output since 1941. They were big and slow and were going to fall down and faint in the sultry 84° heat. The Tigers were swift and lean and had a block-long air conditioner behind their bench. Down the schedule, Navy, Penn State and USC waited to pick over the Notre Dame carcass. Faust was asked by ABC's Keith Jackson if he'd ever win again.

Jackson: "You have the definite possibility of a 4-7 season."

Faust: "Yeah, but also one of 7-4."

That exchange defines the man. "Wouldn't it be something," he had said earlier in the week, "wouldn't it be ironical if it was a game with my first opponent that turned the thing around?"

Ironical and euphoric, too. Turning points can only be seen for sure from a more distant vantage than this, but Notre Dame went out and shoved Bill Arnsparger's Tigers into their cooling ducts by a score of 30-22. Sophomore quarterback Steve Beuerlein completed 16 of 23 passes for 168 yards, and junior tailback Allen Pinkett, a charmer of a cannonball, carried 40 times for 162 yards and two touchdowns behind his immense offensive line. "We're stronger, they're quicker," said Pinkett. "So we had to wear them down."

Afterward, the ecstasy on Faust's face was transcendent, a beautiful light after a long, dark passage. "I'll tell you what," he said, standing before the press, wet-eyed, the mud from hugging every player on the roster making him a glorious mess. "Our boys would have quit a long time before the first quarter if they'd believed everything that had been said about 'em. But they were strong. And I'll tell you what else. I'm a strong guy, too. I'm gonna make it."

By contrast, Faust had emerged from each of Notre Dame's four losing locker rooms this year pale and forced. His raspy, George C. Scott voice was no more than a croak, his reflexive acceptance of challenge—"We want to play a tough schedule. You get your respectability back playing tough teams"—seeming, as the losses mounted, ever more detached from the hard facts. But on Sundays, alone in the predawn, this man of 49, who almost literally had been preserved from defeat until he was elevated to the head position at Notre Dame four years ago, absorbed the defeats. Then his native optimism, necessary for the sake of team and press, left him for a while, and the details of the ordeal returned. The injuries, the freak plays that sent games spinning out of reach, the bad calls, the inexplicable fourth-quarter collapses—all replayed themselves in grisly irreversibility.

As he sensed the limits of his ability to bear this train of reversal, Faust always gave himself to prayer. The words came unbidden. He had uttered them thousands of times. "Most holy apostle, Saint Jude, faithful servant and friend of Jesus," Faust began, "the Church honors and invokes thee universally as the patron of hopeless cases—of things despaired of. Pray for me who am so miserable. Make use, I implore thee, of that particular privilege accorded to thee, to bring visible and speedy help where help is almost despaired of...."

Gently, as he prayed, Faust's nature began to assert itself. His instinct for life, his embrace of this troubled job for the best of reasons ("It's simply and purely because I love the kids"), his rejection of self-pity ("No one is going to be sorry for me, so I shouldn't be sorry for myself"), all joined to nudge him back.

"Saint Jude, pray for us," he concluded, "and for all who invoke thy aid."

Two weeks ago, after a bitter 36-32 loss to South Carolina, his color had returned to ruddy health by Monday morning. His voice had lost its wounded undertone. Taking a call from Father Edward Keller—"Indian Joe," now 80, who has been at Notre Dame since Knute Rockne—he said, "Don't even worry about it, Father. You just keep those prayers going. God bless you, Father." When asked about LSU, he spoke of challenge and showed nothing but excitement. In his presence, one filled with both elation and perplexity. Here was either the bravest of besieged men, able to tap all the strength available to any of us, or one who just didn't appreciate the seriousness of the situation. Or maybe both.

Notre Dame is special for its heritage of Rockne and Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian, for winning 638 games and losing only 185 since taking up the sport in 1887. However, all those granted wishes, not to say answered prayers, have built up the irresistible expectation among the school's students, friends and far-flung subway alumni that the dominance will continue. Must continue. Listen to All-America guard Larry Williams: "At other schools hope springs eternal. Here, demand springs eternal."

The tone of that demand has grown anguished. Even with the win over LSU, the Irish are 4-4 this season and 22-19-1 since Faust took over. He has been hung in effigy, and The Cincinnati Enquirer has urged him to resign. But he has hardly been declared a pariah. His three children have lost no friends. His wife, Marlene, is coping well, thank you, though she bristles some at journalistic excess. She has a point. It was widely reported that FOR SALE signs had been planted on the Faust lawn. None ever has. "The only thing on the lawn was a big M when we beat Michigan [in 1982]," says Faust. "If that's the price for that, I'll pay it every year."

Faust was plucked from an extraordinarily successful program that he constructed over 18 seasons at Cincinnati's Moeller High. It was the "biggest promotion in the history of football," in the words of USA Today columnist Tom Weir, who has all but called for Notre Dame to remove Faust. Faust is now in the fourth year of a five-year contract. Therefore, unless he steps aside, he's safe for this season and next, no matter how much he loses.

Don't smirk. At Notre Dame, "contracts are sacred," says the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, for 32 years vice-president of the university and the man who hired Faust, as well as Parseghian, Dan Devine and the three others since Leahy. Let newspaper headlines grow strident. Outside voices will have little or no effect on the Notre Dame administration.

"Understand, we all want success," says Joyce. "Winning is important. But it is one element among several. We would never tell a coach he has to win a certain number of games. The judgment won't be made on mathematics."

Nor does it seem that Faust's record is perceived as a financial burden. Notre Dame TV and gate receipts are eternal. "We lose only bowl game income," says Joyce. "For years we never played bowl games, so we don't necessarily think in those terms. And we have never seen any correlation between games won and donations by alumni. You get that only when you have a booster club raising funds just for athletics. We don't have one. Abuses come that way. We've never wanted to start down that path."

So the leverage might be termed strictly spiritual. "It comes from the man's own wish to succeed," says Joyce, "and the huge body of fans who want him to win." Number Joyce in that body. His long embrace of the muddy Faust after the LSU game was poignant proof. The unique Irish pressures aged Parseghian even when he was winning. In 11 seasons, the worst Parseghian teams were 7-2-1 in both 1965 and '68. In '66 and '73 he led Notre Dame to national championships. He quit in '74, at 51, for the sake of his health.

Now he strains to imagine what it must be like for Faust. "He's a good man, and no one has supported him more strongly than I have," says Parseghian, "but the obvious criticism has got to affect him and his family. Under those circumstances, I would not stay, myself. It is Gerry's decision. He has said that he will never embarrass the university."

Recently Parseghian has leveled specific charges. "The repeated errors concern me," he says. "The same things every week, down to fumbled snaps. It's not the winning and losing I care about, it's the fundamentals and intensity." Again he says, "It's Gerry's decision."

Faust, a plainspoken man of torrential energy, saw no need for talk of resignation, even before LSU. He doesn't minimize the heat in the crucible. "It's hard for me because I know our losses end up hurting people," he says. "I know what it means to them. I want to win, more than anyone. I love Notre Dame. I know I can't go on endlessly letting it down. And I would never stay if they didn't want me. But I have received nothing but support from the people who count."

That might settle the issue for a time at another school, or in a less bloodthirsty profession, but it doesn't at Notre Dame. Ten minutes after Faust made that pledge to endure, Notre Dame's sports information director for the last 18 years, Roger Valdiserri, was saying, "Well, if his record this year is 4-7 or 3-8, he'd have to at least consider leaving on his own." Have to decide if he loved his university enough to leave it. That seems the traditional choice in straits like these, an echo of the option given Prussian cavalry officers or samurai who "dishonored" their units through honest defeat. It's an option that everything Faust holds sacred tells him to reject.

Faust is a man absolutely without pretense. His is the commonest of touches, or of pops on the arm or hugs, because he incessantly initiates rough contact. His gray sweaters often bear witness to energetic gestures at meals. His shirttail is always out. His corduroy pants are comically rumpled, in part because trousers aren't engineered to fit his broad-beamed, knock-kneed, duck-walking lower half, in part because he's always sprawling across the arms of chairs or leaping up to act out things like how a slipping lineman's cleats knocked the ball out of quarterback Beuerlein's hands on the South Carolina one-yard line.

Faust has so much energy and such an affinity for shooting the breeze that he swears he even likes recruiting. He does 50,000 miles in 2½ months, reveling in the chance of carrying word of Notre Dame to 70 or 80 hungry-eyed boys and suspicious families he has never seen. And such is his earnest warmth that he's wonderful at it, envied for it, and now in something of a bind because of it, for his team in theory has all the talent it needs to do far better than it has. Twenty-six current players were Parade high school All-Americas.

Faust grew up in Dayton, shaped by two forces that remain in his every cell, his father and Roman Catholicism. Gerry Faust Sr., or Fuzzy, coached 49 years at Chaminade High. Fuzzy would not have it suggested that he was granting special treatment to his son, so he granted special treatment in reverse. The first day Gerry came out for the team his freshman year, Fuzzy cut him. Gerry eventually became an all-state quarterback, but he had to work harder and he received less praise than any other Chaminade player, which is to say none.

After Gerry's senior season, Fuzzy told a reporter, "It's been tough over the last two years, because I've never said anything to him. But I'd have to rank him up there with the best quarterbacks I've ever had." Gerry had to read the paper to find that out.

Somehow, however, Fuzzy knew his son, knew he was such a relentlessly loyal soul that he would hold no grudge. And he was right. Gerry did what Fuzzy had done. He hit him with the opposite of what he deserved. He gave him love. When the time came, before his junior year at the University of Dayton, to make a career choice, Gerry wanted to emulate his father and become a coach.

Given the patriarchal realities of the Faust home, this decision required Fuzzy's permission. And damned if Fuzzy didn't stiff-arm him again. "I always wanted to coach," says Faust now. "But my dad didn't want me to. He knew the trials. He thought it was a rough profession." Ultimately Faust wore his father down.

"But if he'd said a final no, I'd have done what he told me to do," continues Faust. This is such a startling sentence that he feels bound to explain. "That was another era then. It's just that I had so much respect for both my parents that, sure, I'd have bowed to their wisdom."

Faust is therefore a man who fits comfortably, even willingly, into a hierarchy. "The janitors call me Gene," says his athletic director. "Gerry calls me Mr. Corrigan. I tried for two years to get him to quit that before I gave up." Corrigan occasionally speaks of Faust with a certain fond exasperation. "I can never get him to sleep on anything," Corrigan says. "He's a reactive person, not a cunning, reflective one. My son adores him. He's like a child sometimes; he's almost giddy." A nice word: Long ago it meant "filled with God."

Faust graduated from Dayton in 1958, spent two seasons assisting at Chaminade and then took on the job of building a program from scratch at the new Moeller High, a Catholic boys' school. When he left for Notre Dame, he had won 90 of his last 93 games and had a reputation for unabashedly muscular religion. "Gerry unquestionably is the most prayer-oriented football coach in the world," Denny Dressman, his friend and biographer through the Moeller years (Gerry Faust: Notre Dame's Man in Motion), has written. " 'Say a Hail Mary' was an order given to everyone on the Moeller sideline on every play of importance for 20 years."

"I pray to win," Faust told Dressman. "I pray for good weather and a good crowd; I pray that we don't have any serious injuries; I pray for my friends."

It was not necessarily Faust's devotion that brought him to the attention of Notre Dame. It was his voracity for winning, and the Moeller players he sent to the school. "They were so much the kind of young men we want to send on to the world," says Joyce, "and his ethics were so sound that we took a calculated gamble. You may now underline gamble."

Going from Moeller to Notre Dame, Faust seems to have experienced some of the awkwardness of transition that every high school kid undergoes. He brought a Moeller assistant with him and kept but four of Devine's, which made the transition uncomfortably abrupt. At Moeller he had been athletic director, coach, fund raiser, groundskeeper and lunchroom monitor. It took four men to replace him. At Notre Dame it was hard for him to delegate authority, and that caused him to be stretched too thin and created confusion over the role of assistants. "Let's face it," said Penn State's Joe Paterno, "Gerry had a lot of players out of position in his first year."

He installed a wing-T offense that wasn't right for the massive but not especially swift players Devine had recruited for his power I. "That is probably the only real mistake, the only thing I'd really do differently," says Faust. "The rest was more learning how things are done."

Faust must have come as a shock to upperclassmen used to the mild-mannered Devine. Faust had been a mythic father figure to most of his Moeller players. No longer. "Gerry at first wanted to control the kids' lives more than Notre Dame has ever done," says Corrigan. "He suggested mandatory 7:30 a.m. breakfast until he found out how late engineering students stay up studying."

In his office Corrigan keeps a copy of the Oct. 14, 1946 TIME with Frank Leahy on the cover. The cover billing is a Leahy quote: "Prayers work better when the players are big." At Notre Dame, Faust had to tone down his use of religion.

Williams was a freshman that first year. "I'm Catholic," he says, "but I was a little offended to be told to 'Say a Hail Mary that we get this first down.' You don't hear that anymore."

No, and Faust surely was asked to consider the last line of his beloved Prayer in Trials: "Saint Jude, pray for us, and for all who invoke thy aid." If you pray for a win, and the other side does too, it puts the saint in a jam. "We pray no one will get hurt," says the venerable Father Keller. "We don't pray for a victory. That would be superstition."

Faust says, "I don't think God cares who wins football games, do you?" He goes to mass every morning and visits the Notre Dame Grotto to pray twice a day.

In Faust's first season, Notre Dame was a less than exemplary 5-6. For 1982 he changed to a multiple offense, brought in Ron Hudson from UCLA to coordinate it and tried to delegate more authority. The Irish were 6-1-1 until quarterback Blair Kiel went down with a shoulder injury. They finished 6-4-1.

In 1983, despite a messy situation at quarterback with Beuerlein, then a freshman, taking over for Kiel after early-season losses to Michigan State and Miami, Notre Dame was 6-2 at the end of October. The Irish then lost three straight in November. Faust's teams have a 3-8 record in his three Novembers, probably as a result of his long practices. "We were always overworked," says receiver Tony Hunter, now with the Buffalo Bills. "We were so worn out as the season went on, it got the best of us." Kiel led a movement that got practices shortened from three hours to 2¾. This year, after the sixth game, they were cut to two hours.

Last season Notre Dame went to the Liberty Bowl, but even that was controversial. The seniors opposed the trip, and it took three votes to get team approval. Not long before the game Phil Hersh, then of the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote a long article detailing Faust's alleged shortcomings. Faust agreed with some of it—his struggle to delegate, his unwise switching of offenses, his oppressive hovering over players to get them to class—but not the implications that he was incapable of improvement or that the team was mutinous. The article seemed to become a rallying point, and Notre Dame played well in beating Doug Flutie's Boston College 19-18.

"He's grown and matured just like the rest of us," says Pinkett. "He's improved every year, and so have we. He's gotten better at shielding us from the criticism, at being consistent. And a lot of that criticism is unjustified. He doesn't have the pads and helmet on. We do. Over the years few teams have really beat us. Mostly we beat ourselves. We have the plays to get the job done."

The LSU game proved that. The Notre Dame offense, often called predictable for its "Pinkett over the top" tendencies, got its second touchdown from third-and-goal at the two. "A great, great call," sang Frank Broyles of ABC. It was Pinkett over the top. Execution makes plays.

During halftime, ABC ran a summary of the charges against Faust gleaned from former players and a former assistant. It wasn't a powerful indictment, listing his impatient shuffling of assistants, his reluctance to accept blame and his inability to find the best use for players' specific strengths. All are problems Faust has addressed.

"My wife and I think there is a reason we were sent here," Faust says. "God has a reason for everything. Maybe he's put me through tough times, and Notre Dame through tough times, to see how we do or to make us better." Better how?

"If you tell people to stick with something, and you have never stuck with something, they don't have to listen. But if you have, if you've really had faith and lasted, you have a greater effect." Assuming you do last.

"God would never give you anything you can't handle. Whether you do handle it is another question." This is the Faust that considered the priesthood. He is a believer, as all consummate tryers must be, at least while trying. Commitment is as natural to him as popping your shoulder. "I could never be a good official," he once said, "because I'd pick a side and subconsciously root for 'em. I'm not a cold, calculating person."

So as a coach his métier is probably not Byzantine strategy, and certainly not iron intimidation, though he's both smart and compelling. His true virtue as a coach, that which lifted Moeller and is taking so long to catch fire at Notre Dame, is as a bringer of faith, that almost innocent, unshakable, self-fulfilling faith. It takes winning to get it to spread, but if it spreads far enough, a lot more winning will follow.

And until then: "It's like my father says. Pray as if everything depends on God. Work as if everything depends on you."

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERFaust visits Notre Dame's Grotto twice daily to pray (left), and he attends Mass every morning. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERFaust refuses to feel sorry for himself. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERFaust asserts that he relishes the Irish job "simply and purely because I love the kids." PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERBefore facing LSU, Faust was a tower of strength. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERThe "Pinkett over the top" attack may be predictable, but LSU had no answer for it. PHOTOHOWARDCASTLEBERRYThe Tigers pawed but didn't claw Beuerlein, who had 16 completions in 23 attempts. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERFaust won't be smiling a month from now unless he improves his 3-8 November record.