Coach Lou Holtz couldn't believe his eyes at last Thursday's practice. A few hours earlier he had been sitting in his office wearily describing how the Irish passing game had a margin of error so great that "out of every 10 passes, three will go into the stands." Said the man known around the Notre Dame campus as the Quipper, "We'd like to narrow that margin so that if we throw a hand grenade out there, someone might get hurt. Right now they won't."
But suddenly Notre Dame's passing offense was going like clockwork. Snappy square-outs and crisp crossing patterns were connecting just like they were drawn in the playbook. It didn't matter who was playing quarterback, sophomore Tony Rice or freshman Kent Graham, every ball was on the numbers. Every cut was sharp. Every reception clean. The nit-picking, demonstrative Holtz had nothing to complain about.
At any moment Tim Brown, Notre Dame's extraordinary receiver, expected Holtz to go into what Brown calls his "famous fainting act," in which the coach swoons prostrate when something that has been going wrong all year finally goes right. "I can't believe how good we look," gushed Holtz. "It's like the Bad News Bears to the Minnesota Twins overnight."
For the Irish, overnight has been a long time coming. Holtz may have been talking about his passing attack, but he had really just described the Notre Dame football program of the past six years, five under the beleaguered leadership of Gerry Faust (30-26-1), and the frustrating first season under Holtz. Last year the team went 5-6, and five of its losses came by a grand total of 14 points. Mediocrity seemed to have settled over Gipperland like a plague.
November 9, 1987
But those days seem very distant now, and these days there are a lot of people who, like Holtz, can't quite believe how good Notre Dame looks. There are even locker room rumblings about an 11th national championship, a lofty goal indeed for a team whose last postseason appearance was in the 1984 Aloha Bowl. Well, the famine is finally over. The 6-1 Irish are back.
On Halloween Saturday, poor Navy discovered how much ground Notre Dame has gained as the Irish carved up the Midshipmen with consummate ease 56-13. Not that anybody expected otherwise. Navy, under first-year coach Elliot Uzelac, is now 1-7, and the last time the Middies beat the Irish was 24 meetings ago, when Roger Staubach was quarterback and John F. Kennedy was commander in chief. This is a rivalry?
Not that Notre Dame was complaining. With the toughest schedule in the country—it is possible that eight Irish opponents will be invited to bowl games this season—the Notre Dame players deserved a breather before closing out against Boston College, Alabama, Penn State and Miami. The Irish rolled up 630 yards in total offense against the Middies—fullback Anthony Johnson scored four TDs—and could have gained 1,000 if they had wanted to. Holtz sat his starters down 70 seconds into the third quarter while the scoreboard operator caught his breath at 42-6.
As for Brown, forget Heisman. He looked like Superman. Brown touched the ball just nine times and gained 173 all-purpose yards. He ran for 80 more yards that were wiped out because of penalties. Not bad for a guy who played only one full quarter in the game—the second—having missed most of the opening period after the nail on his ring finger was torn off on Notre Dame's third play from scrimmage. Holtz's assessment of his star: "He's the most exciting player I've ever seen."
But it is Holtz who has really brought excitement back to South Bend in this, the 100th year of Notre Dame football. "People had doubts he could turn this around in two years," says cocaptain Chuck Lanza, a fifth-year senior center. "But I knew it would happen. This is why I came to Notre Dame."
Well, of course, players go to Notre Dame expecting more than a trip to the Aloha Bowl. "I wanted to be part of the Notre Dame mystique," says junior line-backer Ned Bolcar, who leads the so-called No-name defense in tackles. "And then I got here and thought, it doesn't exist. Coach Faust didn't know how to handle players at this level. The team was pulling apart, and we weren't playing with any emotion. Then Coach Holtz came in, and it was like a breath of fresh air."
"He told us that to be winners, all we had to do was what he asked," says senior linebacker Wes Pritchett. "We believed him and still do."
Holtz, who was hired on Nov. 27, 1985, first asked of his players that they report at 6 a.m. three days a week for winter conditioning. Not that they were out of shape. But the team, under Faust, was something less than harmonious. "We weren't together in our thinking," says senior linebacker Cedric Figaro, the only three-year starter on the defense. "Coach Holtz told us to stop thinking of ourselves and play as one."
Throughout that winter, from 6:00 to 6:45, Holtz and his coaching staff would run the squad through quickness drills at such a relentless pace that the players would often rush back to the locker room to—ahem—converse with the porcelain telephone. That is, if they had enough quickness left in them to make it that far. "Getting up at 5 a.m., walking across campus in a blizzard and then throwing up together—that's what brings a team together," says Bolcar. "That's when you look to your teammates for comfort first and not to your friends back home."
To the players the identical 5-6 records of Faust's last year and Holtz's first were as different as darkness and dawn. Under Holtz the Irish actually outscored their opponents 299-219 (under Faust they had been on the short end, 230-234). They out rushed them, outpassed them and equaled them in turnovers. They did everything but win. Says Pritchett, "There's no excuse for losing, but it did make it a little easier to live with a 5-6 record."
What really made it easier was the 38-37 upset of 17th-ranked Southern Cal in the Los Angeles Coliseum in the season finale. Trailing 37-20 with 12 minutes left, the Irish roared back with 18 unanswered points. Says Brown, "Finally we'd come all the way back. It gave us something to build on."
Thus the Irish players were not greatly surprised when, in their first three games this season, they beat Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue by a combined score of 101-35. Week 4 was a disaster: The Irish not only lost to Pitt 30-22, but they lost quarterback Terry Andrysiak for the season with a broken collarbone. But judging from the way Rice has filled in for Andrysiak, the Pitt game may not have been as horrific as it first appeared. As Holtz says, "I wasn't looking for a starting quarterback. But I wasn't looking for a wife when I found one, either."
Rice, who was academically ineligible as a freshman, had spent only eight weeks in the Notre Dame football program when he stepped in. With the Irish trailing Pitt 27-0, Rice directed the team to 22 second-half points. "I was scared," says Rice, who's from Woodruff, S.C. "I still can't believe I'm even at Notre Dame. I didn't even know where it was at first. All I could think of was the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I thought, Where is this place, England?"
Rice's sense of direction was still a bit off. On his first play from scrimmage against Pitt he was so distracted checking for the 25-second clock that he lined up behind a guard. But he has been doing everything right since, and Notre Dame's offense has been off to the races.
Using six different running backs in the last three games, the Irish rushed for 354 yards in a 35-14 win over Air Force, 351 in the 26-15 beating of USC (the most ground yards the Trojans have allowed in 10 years) and 406 against Navy. With an offensive line like theirs—the Irish start four fifth-year seniors—who needs a receiver like Brown? Says Holtz, "I wish we could get him the ball more. He understands. All he wants to do is win."
Indeed, Holtz, who calls all the offensive plays, has ordered passes only 30 times in those last three victories. Eleven of the passes, including a 51-yard touchdown toss to Brown on Saturday, have been thrown by Graham, the 6'5" freshman who has a better arm than Rice. Holtz is even toying with the idea of alternating the two quarterbacks from series to series, although he calls Rice his starter. If this sounds like a quarterback controversy in the making, it's not. "There are some things I can do well, and some things Kent can do well," says Rice. "I don't get mad at all. I'm happy to see him in there."
He's certainly happier about that than he is about seeing Holtz barge into the huddle at practice. A stickler for perfection, Holtz takes a hands-on approach to coaching. In a practice last year Holtz broke a finger while showing Brown how to field punts. Holtz runs pass routes for his players. He demonstrates ways to fend off blockers. He picks up a football and shows the proper technique for releasing a flare pass.
"He told me, 'I'm going to make it so hard on you in practice that the games will seem easier,' " says Rice. "He's right. I used to think he didn't like me until [assistant coach Pete] Cordelli told me, 'Listen to the words coming out of his mouth, not the tone.' "
The words coming out of Holtz's mouth these days—well, Holtz is too cagey a veteran to say them aloud. So you'll have to read his lips: The Irish are for real. As Brown will tell you, "We control our own destiny. All we have to do is win the rest of our games, then beat the Cornhuskers or Sooners in the Orange Bowl...."
Easy, Tim. This has been a long time coming. Let's take it one game at a time.