One day last month after Notre Dame won the NCAA fencing championship, the new Irish football coach, Lou Holtz, sent a congratulatory note to his fencing counterpart, Mike DeCicco: "I firmly believe that if our team was allowed to use sabers, our chances would be greatly enhanced this fall."
A few days later Holtz strode into a meeting of his staff, popped open a Diet Coke (a Diet Coke at 8 a.m.? "Yeah, well, people complain if I drink bourbon") and moved quickly through his agenda as his assistants accorded him slightly more attention than is normally paid the Pope. "The Notre Dame coach," says Holtz, who was hired for the job last November, "is treated with great respect—initially."
He tells the staff he'll be away during part of a day because he has to see a doctor about a tear duct that isn't tearing. Says Holtz: "I think it's just a signal that one of the prerequisites to be coach at Notre Dame is that you can't cry."
And so it goes these days in South Bend as Holtz settles in with his legendary sense of humor to turn around the Notre Dame football team, which itself has become a joke in recent years. In 1985, the Irish were 5-6, only their eighth losing season since they started playing football in 1887. In the final game of the season they were beaten 58-7 by Miami, the worst Notre Dame defeat in 41 years. Notre Dame had been struggling, in fact, for five years under coach Gerry Faust, which is why he jumped just before he was pushed. Good heavens, the last time Notre Dame went to a major bowl was 1981—when this year's entering freshmen were in seventh grade. This is no laughing matter around a place that takes its football very seriously.
"All we want Lou to do," says athletic director Gene Corrigan, "is wake up the echoes." That's all? Somewhere, Rockne and Leahy and the Gipper are watching with interest. "I didn't come here to be a legend," Holtz was saying late one evening. "I just want to be a football coach. Preferably, a winning football coach."
Not good enough, Lou. His 16-year record as a college coach is 116-65-5, a fine .637, 20th-best among active Division I-A practitioners. That translates into an average season mark between 7-4 and 8-3—which isn't going to cut it in the long haul at Notre Dame, where such a performance would quickly change the name of Lou to Boo. And the 1986 schedule is murderous, with the likes of Michigan, Alabama and Penn State gracing it. LSU, SMU and USC are other '86 rivals, prompting Holtz to muse, "I'm always real leery of schools that have letter abbreviations. They always seem to be real good. We could be 0-11 and be the 12th-best team in the country." Indeed, seven of the '86 opponents went to bowls after last season.
So how does Holtz hope to turn things around before spring practice grinds to a close on April 26? How is he meeting the challenge of succeeding at a school that thinks of winning as winning them all?
Part of the answer: with his sense of humor. While Holtz is not naive enough to think he can laugh his way to many victories—and in fact, behind the kidding facade, Holtz is all spit, polish and hard-guy discipline—his special brand of humor is clearly the underpinning of his revamping effort. His jokes almost always have an edge to them. Holtz is afraid he doesn't have enough tools this fall, and so sabers would be real nice. And while it is true that Notre Dame at its worst is still better than all but a handful of other schools at their best, there are times—especially in the film room—when Holtz does feel like crying. Poring over team stats, he says, "Let's see, we lose 61 percent of our rushing offense [with the graduation of alltime leading Irish rusher Allen Pinkett] but, on the other hand, all of our interceptions return."
He is extremely concerned about both his offensive and defensive lines, his quarterbacks, his tailbacks and his full-backs. However, he does like the looks of the returning linebackers, defensive backs and receivers—most of all flanker Tim Brown. Says Holtz, "The only way people are going to stop us from getting the ball to Brown is if they intercept the snap from center."
In another of his jokes, Holtz recounts the time he was fired as an assistant coach at South Carolina. Rather than be depressed—and Holtz depressed is a contradiction in terms—he sat down and made up a list of 107 goals. Dinner at the White House. That kind of thing. His wife, Beth, coolly eyed the list, then said, "Why don't you add getting a job?" Funny story. Serious story. Holtz knows that long-term goals are fine, but groceries today are more important. And right now he is just trying to get through today.
Notre Dame players seem to appreciate Holtz's upbeat manner. No matter how crummy the weather, he walks around saying, "What a great day to work." Already the players are walking around saying this to each other, occasionally even believing it. Of course, they think Holtz went a little too far when, on a windy, harsh day, he exuded, "What a great day to work. I tell you, people come to South Bend to vacation." And after practice recently, Holtz asked a wealthy alum to say a few words to the team. The man did, and conceded along the way he was "fat." Holtz responded, "I don't think you're fat. But I do think for your weight, you should be nine-three." The players, tired and sweaty and dirty and sore, howled.
The Irish may not be very good right now, but they sure are slow. The situation is the perfect one for Holtz, who is at his best in bringing out the best in athletes in unpromising circumstances. He did it at North Carolina State, at Arkansas, and most definitely he did it at Minnesota, where he promised, "We will get the heart and soul of our football team from the state of Minnesota. However, we'll have to go elsewhere for the arms and legs."
Holtz is a kind of combination snake-oil salesman, evangelist and hard-nosed business executive. That means he is constantly talking out of both sides of his mouth. At one moment he is saying last year's pass rush was so bad that the opposition either "completed the pass or the quarter ended." In the next breath he is saying of his players that, "If you can't hug 'em, pat 'em and brag about 'em, you don't want 'em on the team. Well, I can do that with all mine, and there are some pretty good athletes. We have a lot of ingredients."
So he is trying to poor-mouth and praise all at once. It's a fine line, just like the one between comedy and tragedy. Former Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian says he thinks Faust got in big trouble because he kept talking about national championships and about how good the players were—while getting tied by Oregon. Says Parseghian: "The players got to thinking, 'Hmmm, either I'm not as good as he says or I'm not getting good coaching.' " Of course, it didn't take the players long to come to their conclusion. The fans concurred.
Holtz knows the value of humor and says simply, "If they laugh, they're with you." The Irish are laughing. The other day quarterback candidate Terry Andrysiak was doing well in practice, and Holtz hollered, "Not bad—for a nonathlete." He actually got a chuckle out of that. Well, the players were tired.
In openly critcizing the Irish football program, Holtz has taken some unkind swipes at Faust, who is now coach at Akron (See box, page 40). Holtz says he was appalled to find six quarterbacks on scholarship—and only four defensive linemen, two of whom are hurt. Holtz feels every recruited quarterback must be able to play another position. So, can any of them play elsewhere? "Yeah, I think one may be able to play shortstop." Pointing out such an inexplicable imbalance in recruiting is a slam on Faust. But, come on, whose fault is it? Holtz isn't mean about it, but it's a fact; he doesn't like it; and he'll do the best he can to cope with it.
This spring Holtz is working in six specific areas to put the glitter back on the Dome:
•Discipline. When Holtz was introduced last December, he walked in front of the slouching, lounging players and—without joking—immediately had them sitting up straight, paying attention and ready to learn. Says linebacker Mike Kovaleski, "All you heard was body language." The team was undisciplined. The Irish were penalized 603 yards to the opponents' 340 last season. No wonder Holtz explodes when he sees offensive guard Shawn Heffern jump offside. "Give Heffern a message for me," he says. "Tell him if the quarterback doesn't start giving him the snap count, I'm going to get me a new quarterback."
No longer are the players late to meetings; no longer are they likely to wear dirty football pants day after day. Discipline also means resolve, and the Irish have lacked that, too. Under Faust, in the 15 games in which Notre Dame was behind at half, the Irish came back to win only one. These days discipline is much more in evidence. Winter workouts several days a week at 6:15 in the morning certainly helped. These sessions were called quickness and agility drills, but don't be deceived by the benign terminology. There was plenty of throwing up. Veteran assistant coach Joe Yonto says, "It was good. It gave 'em a chance to work up an appetite." Previously these workouts had been not only loose but in the afternoons. "Yes, sir" is the phrase these days in South Bend.
•Back to basics. This is a football team that has forgotten several skills, such as how to block and tackle. "We are taking nothing for granted around here," says Yonto. "We have gone back to the first page of the textbook, and they seem real anxious to learn." Everything—breakdown position, hitting position, keeping feet moving, putting helmet on frontwards. At a meeting, Holtz, who is studying a film, suddenly points and blurts out, "See the right tackle and how his heels are turned in? He has to have them turned out."
Going back to the basics also means back to simple, tough football. Asked by an assistant if he wanted any adjustments in the goal-line defense, Holtz snapped, "The only adjustment they need to make is their chin straps."
Not all athletes like to drill on fundamentals, and some Notre Dame players have been particularly resistant. Spending time one day on an extra-point formation, fullback Pernell Taylor was clearly unhappy to find himself called on for such mundane work. "What a great day to work," hollered Holtz. "Why, Pernell, you have a chance to make the All-America extra-point team." Taylor managed to look marginally enthusiastic.
•Strength and speed. Holtz wasn't just horrified to find out that only four players could bench-press 400 pounds (he says every man must—or be real good at a lot of other things), he was furious. Now there is a seriousness of purpose in the weight room. As for speed, there was no need for stopwatches, just egg timers. Still, the optimistic Holtz ("Hey, look, we're gettin' better. Eight guys did the right thing on that play") doesn't give up. He has brought in instructors to help with speed and running technique. "I think it helps," says quarterback Steve Beuerlein, no speedster himself.
•Solid coaching. Holtz promptly put himself in charge of the offense, and he took a major step in hiring former Pitt head coach Foge Fazio to handle the defense. The players also like the fact that Holtz is down on the field with them, not up in the tower as Faust was. Organization is improved. And Holtz knows what he is doing. "I'm impressed with him," says an obscure quarterback. O.K., so the QB is Skip Holtz, a senior who preceded his dad at Notre Dame.
•Rebuilding spirit. Laughing and little things are crucial. For example, Holtz made sure the athletes got nice winter workout outfits instead of being left to use whatever they could find. No big deal, but the athletes liked the new shoes and the shirts. And, as with real people, when athletes' spirits soar, so does their confidence. Wide-receiver coach Pete Cordelli concedes, "We learned you don't just crack out the gold helmets and win. Their confidence is a little shaken. They have to believe they can win again." Kovaleski says glowingly, "We have a lot of talent." Then reality creeps in: "And a lot of work to do." Yet, central to the rebuilding is the players' budding Holtzophobia. Says tight end Andy Heck, "We all have a fearful respect for Coach Holtz." That, too, is a big change.
•Recruiting. The first thing Holtz did was look for linemen. He found them: Sixteen of the 22 athletes he recruited play on the line. Having six QBs and only four defensive linemen on the team is history. And he says he will focus on northern urban areas as his natural recruiting grounds, abandoning the helter-skelter cross-country wooing of the Faust years.
Parseghian, for one, is sure Holtz is up to the challenge. "I predict that within three years he will have Notre Dame in a major bowl," he says. Some Notre Dame backers may expect such results sooner.
Meanwhile, Holtz's tongue rolls on. After a recent scrimmage he had this exchange with a reporter:
Q: What did you think of Beuerlein's arm compared to last year?
A: I don't know. I didn't bat against him last year.
Q: Did you ask him how his shoulder felt?
A: I try not to ask people things. I tell them. See, I'm the coach.
Indeed he is, with seemingly all the qualities the Irish need. But a subdued Holtz was saying the other day, "I'm not a miracle worker, and I'm not a genius." Well, those would be two very fine things for him to become anytime before the season opener on Sept. 13 against Michigan. And having a gross of sabers would help.