The 25th head coach in the history of Notre Dame football is on all fours in the middle of his office, peering out the open door of an imaginary airplane. "The wind is howling, and you've got to reach out and grab a strut, and put your right foot on this little platform," says Lou Holtz, who is reenacting a parachute jump he took from an airplane this summer. "Then you pull yourself up and out, and you're looking straight down, 10 thousand feet. Calmly, you ask yourself. What in the world am I doing?"
Back in 1966, Holtz sat down and compiled a list of 107 "things to do before I die." Skydiving was one, as was landing the head coaching job at Notre Dame. Also on the list was winning a national championship, a feat he accomplished last season, only three years after arriving in South Bend. "I don't do these things to get attention," says Holtz. "I do them because it's my philosophy to get involved with life. Once you do something like that, you can relive the experience a thousand times in your mind."
Notre Dame's subway alumni will relive last season's glory in their minds at least that many times—and will settle for reliving it on the field, say, four or five more times before Holtz retires. So decisively has Holtz banished the woeful legacy of Gerry Faust (30-26-1 from 1981-85), so swiftly did he deliver Notre Dame its first national title in 11 years, that expectations, like nose-tackle Chris Zorich's bench press, are off the charts.
Yet Holtz devotes much of his energy to lancing those expectations. Take the day last season before his No. 1-ranked team made pudding of Rice, 54-11. Said Holtz, earnestly, "I'm scared to death of Rice." Minutes after unbeaten Notre Dame stuffed West Virginia 34-21 in the Fiesta Bowl to win the national title—the Irish started 15 nonseniors in the game—Holtz said, "I would be shocked if we had a good team next year."
September 3, 1989
Typical Holtz. Then August arrived, and a spate of ill luck did indeed befall the Irish. Inside linebacker Michael Stonebreaker, who had his license suspended after pleading guilty to a drunken driving charge last March, was booted off the team for driving a car on campus; he had moved the car for a friend to avoid a parking infraction. Starting tailback Tony Brooks withdrew from school after a series of academic and disciplinary problems. Defensive tackle George Williams became an academic casualty, and starting defensive end Arnold Ale, a Californian who had been known to don mittens, scarf and hat when the mercury dipped below 50°, last month signed with UCLA. Backup fullback Braxston Banks, who had knee surgery, and linebacker John Foley, who suffered nerve damage in his right arm, have not recovered from their injuries.
"Had I known the problems I would be confronted with," says Holtz, back behind his desk after reliving the leap, "I might have removed my chute before jumping."
Violinists, this is your cue. While Holtz dwells on the cloud, let us examine the silver lining. In each of the last three years, Notre Dame has plundered the high school ranks for the bluest of the nation's blue-chip prospects. This year, with the national championship in hand, the Irish were turning All-Americas away at the door.
"It's frustrating, because you know those guys have a chance to come back and hurt you," says recruiting coordinator Vinny Cerrato. "Last year we had 60 recruits visit the campus, and only five told us they didn't want to come here."
Stonebreaker will not be easy to replace, but tailback Rodney Culver and defensive tackle Bob Dahl could erase memories of Brooks and Williams. The defense is fast, experienced and—forgive them. Lord—nasty. Nine starters are back on offense, including senior quarterback Tony Rice. Yet Holtz is still laying it on thick. "I thought this might be a great football team, but now we won't be," he says. Even Holtz's staff is secretly amused by his relentless pessimism. "We only found out we wouldn't be forfeiting the season last Tuesday," deadpanned one official in the athletic department late last month.
Every once in a while Holtz slips and the truth leaks out. In his recently released book. The Fighting Spirit, we learn that in a speech to the team shortly before the '88 season began, Holtz decreed, "Nobody will beat us this year. Nobody. There isn't any reason for it." He then spent five minutes supporting that contention.
Once again, the truth is that the Irish are loaded. Holtz has a chance to forge college football's first genuine dynasty since Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma teams of the mid-'50s. How did Holtz and his staff wake up the echoes so quickly? First, they realized that Notre Dame does not have a divine right to the country's best athletes. As a state-of-the-art recruiting coordinator, Cerrato is one of Notre Dame's concessions to big-time NCAA football in the latter part of the 20th century. He is 30, sharply dressed and, as a recent Notre Dame graduate says, "the only guy in South Bend with a tan in February."
Says Holtz, "Vinny is well organized, and communicates exceptionally well with young people"—which means he knows something about rap music, and is familiar with a broad array of handshakes and hand slaps.
The NCAA forbids anyone but a team's nine full-time coaches from going on the road to recruit. Even though Cerrato only coaches kickers—and very little, at that—Holtz made him a full-time coach. Holtz brought Cerrato with him from Minnesota, and Cerrato has attracted to Notre Dame the top-ranked crop in the country in each of the three recruiting years since then, according to most of the scouting publications.
The names of 250 prospects, on yellow tags, are affixed to a board behind Cerrato in his office. That number has been reduced from more than 1,000 by the unsmiling gatekeepers over at the admissions office and by the coaches' scrutiny of game videos. Over the course of this fall's prep season, Cerrato will view more tapes of most of the 250—"if they play on a Saturday, we can usually get video by the following Tuesday." he says—enabling him to pare that number to a workable 80 or so. For five months, beginning Nov. 1, Cerrato hits the road—from California to Florida.
Over the past 25 years, Notre Dame has graduated more than 98% of its football players. Coaches are up-front with recruits about what kind of grind the place can be, and do not go after athletes they think won't be able to hack it. "They definitely don't try to fool you," says Eric Simien, a freshman defensive end from Gardena, Calif. "They don't wine you and dine you. They promise you a lot of hard work. It's like, 'This is Notre Dame, take it or leave it.' "
By signing with the Irish, was Simien fulfilling a lifelong dream? "Actually, I didn't even know where this place was," he says. "My mother wanted me to go to Notre Dame, but all mothers want their sons to go to Notre Dame. Then I came here for my visit, and it was like magic."
The difference between a recruiting visit to Notre Dame and one to another school is that recruits generally remember their stays in South Bend. Rather than getting a beer-drenched, whistle-stop tour of every party in town, they meet with academic counselors, tutors, professors and coaches. "The first thing they do is sit you down with an academic advisor," says another freshman, Rick Mirer, considered by many to be the best prep quarterback in the country last season. "That's your introduction to Notre Dame."
Though he was raised in Goshen, Ind., only 25 miles from South Bend, Mirer was not automatically sold on Notre Dame. Mirer's parents are from Michigan, and he says, "I was raised on Wolverine football." He also visited UCLA and Indiana. "Those places had more to offer socially," says Mirer, who will probably major in business. "But you can do a lot of things with a degree from this place."
Cerrato recruits according to need. Two years ago he brought in a class top-heavy with linemen, linebackers and running backs. Last year's crop is renowned for its speed; it included two receivers who started as freshmen, wideout Raghib (Rocket) Ismail and tight end Derek Brown. This year's bunch of 25 was again laden with some of the country's finest linebackers and linemen, in addition to Mirer, who is expected to pilot the Irish into the '90s. For next year, Cerrato is concentrating on defensive backs.
Notre Dame has also moved to the cutting edge in strength and conditioning. When Holtz arrived in South Bend, weight workouts were held in cramped quarters in the Athletic and Convocation Center and consisted of "90 guys falling all over each other," as new strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt puts it. Schmidt now presides over structured weight-training sessions in the gleaming $6.3 million Loftus Sports Center, which was opened in September 1987.
Schmidt invites a visitor to inspect the team's performance charts, which list the leaders, by position, in such events as the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, bench press and 300-yard shuttle run (a series of five 60-yard sprints). The charts reveal that nosetackle Zorich has the most formidable bench press, at 460 pounds, and also runs a 4.68 40.
After each season, players decide on "strength goals," which are fed into the Loftus Center's computer. The computer disgorges an individual weekly off-season workout schedule and keeps a four-year strength and conditioning profile of each player. For their four-times-a-week lifting sessions, athletes are broken down into intimate little "lifting groups." A player stays with the same group all year, so if he misses a session, it's hard to go unnoticed. Orwellian? Perhaps. Successful? Unquestionably.
Twice a week at prescribed times—class schedules are consulted to avoid conflicts—the players report to the Loftus Center for speed training, an hour of punishing agility drills and running with a concrete sled strapped to their waist.
Says Holtz: "Strength is great for their confidence"—and not merely confidence in their playing ability.
"One thing you notice about these guys," says Schmidt. "They'll fight you in a second." Indeed, the Christian virtue of turning the other cheek has taken it on the chin under Holtz, whose coaching style has restored the fight in the Fighting Irish. Recall the unseemly pregame rhubarb with Miami last year, initiated, to the nation's surprise, by the choirboys rather than the "convicts," as Notre Dame students had sanctimoniously dubbed the Hurricanes. Recall the eight personal fouls committed by the Irish in the Fiesta Bowl. University officials cluck their tongues at such behavior and coaches mouth condemnations of it, and meanwhile everyone is secretly tickled that the boys aren't taking guff anymore.
Notre Dame also brags about what it didn't do to get back to the top: no athletic dorms, no training table, no breaks from professors for athletes, no gut courses, no taking five years to get your degree, no anabolic steroids (they swear), and almost no social life during the season. "We do not alter the philosophy of the university for athletics," says executive vice-president Rev. William Beauchamp. "Everything we do must be a reflection of our primary mission, which is preparing our students to serve society and the church."
Cornerback Pat Terrell briefly forgot his mission at practice that very evening. Well after the whistle, Terrell got his hand inside a ballcarrier's face mask and pushed his head into the turf. Terrell had merely been exacting vengeance. Earlier, during a passing drill, the victim of Terrell's aggression had been overthrown. He walked back to the huddle, without retrieving the ball.
His Omniscience pounced on the young man. "Son, this is not a star system," screamed Holtz. "You do not have a caddie." Holtz had the entire team encircle the offender, then go through a grueling calisthenic called "up-downs."
"These are for you," Holtz shouted at the transgressor as the up-downs began. Later, he admitted they had been for everyone. He had sensed that practice was getting sloppy, and cracked a whip. Yet Holtz is just as quick to put his arm around a player who is down on himself. He is uncannily attuned to his charges, to whether they are fresh or tired, underconfident or cocky. He knows when to speak harshly and when to soothe. Excruciatingly organized, he nonetheless does not hesitate to improvise during practice. "I generally listen to my heart," he says.
The day before the up-downs, the team had run "gassers"—sideline-to-sideline sprints—after morning practice. The day was muggy, the air full of the sound of hard breathing. After 10 gassers, Holtz made an announcement. "I have instructed the coaches to have you out of your meetings by 9:30 tonight, so that you may observe the lunar eclipse. There will not be another one until 1992."
The team smiled through its discomfort. Holtz smiled back—and had them run 10 more gassers. "This sure is fun, men," he said as the interior linemen huffed past on number 16. "Yes, I think we're going to have a pretty good team this year."
He will change his tune in public. He will take on a hangdog look, and say such things as, "I thought this might be a great team, but now we'll have to fight and struggle just to compete."
Of course, Holtz wouldn't think of going into a season saying anything else. That would be like jumping from an airplane without a parachute.