One Year ago Notre Dame versus Florida State was the Game of the Century. "Greatest day of my life," Pat Leahy said last week. Leahy was part of an Irish offensive line that humbled the Seminoles in that day's 31-24 Notre Dame victory. That the Irish went on to lose to Boston College—and that Florida Stale ultimately claimed the national title—soiled the season for the Irish, but not the memory. "I remember I was never so tired as I was afterward," said Leahy, who is now a senior. "I was just sitting in front of the television in my dorm room, my girlfriend was giving me a back rub, and I said to her, 'Wow, it's been a hell of a day.' The whole thing was so overwhelming, it was almost abstract. It was like one long dream."
As they prepared to meet the Seminoles again last week, this time at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, the Irish had precious few dreams to sustain them, so they chose the dual themes of hope and salvation: hope of putting behind them this season's losses to Michigan, Boston College (again) and Brigham Young; hope of recapturing the magic that struck the previous fall; salvation for a year gone awry. "If we can beat Florida State, that would save the season," said senior linebacker Justin Goheen. Except that in November, when you are 5-3, hope and salvation are just cheap disguises for desperation and reality.
This time Notre Dame-Florida State was not even the Game of the Week, and it ended with Irish sophomore quarterback Ron Powlus, at the conclusion of a long and painful afternoon, throwing a fourth-down incompletion that sealed a 23-16 Seminole victory. Powlus, still feeling the effects of a crushing hit by Florida State's defensive end Peter Boulware on the previous down, then ran a woozy, serpentine path to the locker room, all the while chased by trainer Jim Russ. One year later. Time flies.
Notre Dame does not fail quietly. For all those who revel in the Irish's success, there are legions who ache to celebrate their crash. They send hate E-mail through the Internet to Powlus, and they stop senior defensive end Jeremy Nau on the street in his hometown of Hammond, Ind., after a loss and say to him, "Hey, Jeremy, yesterday was the best: You had a good game, and Notre Dame lost."
Last Saturday, in a charmless game that kept Florida State on the fringes of the national championship race, Notre Dame lost only when the Seminoles drove 68 yards in five plays to score the winning touchdown with 2:53 to play. On the face of it there was much to recommend the Irish performance: determination, youthful exuberance and that narrow final score. But there were also Florida State's 517 total yards to Notre Dame's 221, the fact that the first Irish touchdown was scored on a 57-yard fumble recovery that cornerback Bobby Taylor fairly dribbled into his own hands, and the distinct impression that any satisfaction Notre Dame derived from the game was hollow. "At this point," said Nau, "we aren't looking for any moral victories."
Four days before the game, in Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz's modest office in the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center, a small plume of smoke rose from Holtz's pipe. "We've lost three games," Holtz said. "It's not like I've been charged with murder, although I feel like it sometimes." If you wish to infer self-pity, feel free to snicker; Holtz is accustomed to it.
Those four losses are the most since Notre Dame went 5-6 in 1986, Holtz's first year in South Bend, then 8-4 in '87. But in many respects Holtz's ninth season has played out like all of his others: There has been a touch of controversy, a burning spotlight, weekly inquisitions of him revealing little and, in the end, the conclusion that any success or failure will trace directly to Holtz. Blame this partly on the position he holds. Notre Dame is a place where coaches work under intense scrutiny and where they do not coach forever. Frank Leahy stayed 11 years, Dan Devine six. After 11 seasons Ara Parseghian approached then university vice president the Reverend Edmund P. Joyce in the winter of 1975 and told Joyce he wished to retire. "I didn't try to dissuade him," recalled Joyce, who for 35 years was the Notre Dame executive overseeing athletics.
"We'd have liked Ara to coach another 10 years, but for his own health that wouldn't have been fair to Ara."
Before retiring from his athletic duties in '87, Joyce kept close watch on the life span of the football coach. "There's so much pressure, there tends to be a little burnout after eight or nine years," he says. Holtz, now 57, was hired by Joyce in 1985 and has two years left on his contract. And in Holtz, Joyce thinks he now sees an exception to the longevity rule. "I'm very happy to find a person who can stay longer," he says.
Perhaps, but that is not to say Holtz is unscarred. This season has been marred not only by four losses but also by an unsavory 58-21 win over Navy after which Holtz incurred much criticism for a touchdown pass thrown in the final seconds. Call it the season's requisite tempest. It is a play Holtz now regrets calling. "Like an idiot, I made a bad decision," he said last week. "I've probably spent more sleepless nights over that than any decision I made in a loss." It seems the Midshipmen called timeout twice while Notre Dame tried to run out the clock, and the Irish players pleaded with Holtz to throw. "I let the emotion of the timeout cause me to make a dumb decision," he said. He also said he has written an apology to Navy coach George Chaump.
Notre Dame's more significant difficulties this season—those of manpower and morale—are not so easily resolved. Ten starters from a year ago were drafted by NFL teams; in all, 15 players were signed. Those losses, plus injuries, have left the Irish green on the offensive line and at quarterback, running back and kicker.
Holtz could not have anticipated that four offensive linemen would miss time with injuries or that starting running backs Lee Becton and Ray Zellars would sit out seven games between them, returning at less than full strength for Florida State. But it's clear Holtz put too much faith in Powlus, whose potential blinded Holtz to his inexperience. So when senior Paul Failla, who clearly had soured on Holtz, signed a professional baseball contract, Notre Dame was left without any experienced quarterbacks. Powlus will be good someday, but thus far he has often looked like the rookie he is. "I've learned some things about football this fall," he says. "Like, it's harder than you think it is." At running back, though, Holtz has enough recruiting power that, even with injuries, he should never be caught short, and the same is true of kickers.
Moreover, this team has never become a unified bunch. "I'm not going to say there's no cohesion," says Goheen. "But I've been on teams where there was more." To make matters worse, on the Monday before the Florida State loss, senior flanker Michael Miller, a sometime starter, left school; three days later he was charged in connection with a check-forging scam. Miller, once touted as the second coming of Rocket Ismail, was troubled through much of his career: He left school for a semester in his freshman year and was suspended last spring when stolen property was found in his apartment (charges were never filed, and he was reinstated to the team).
"I can give you a million excuses, but no reasons [for the team's mediocrity]," Holtz said. "Some seasons things just don't fit."
The loss to Florida State was like a condensed version of this ill-fitting season. Despite the return of Becton and Zellars, Notre Dame rushed for only 138 yards, a statistic in which FSU defenders took great pride. "Last year they manhandled us," said Seminole linebacker Derrick Brooks. "Guys like [tackle] Aaron Taylor and [center] Tim Ruddy treated us like little kids." Powlus was pressured heavily, completed just nine of 22 passes for 83 yards and often reverted to his worst habit, trying to force balls into coverage. Even when Powlus threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Mayes to tie the game at 16-16 with 5:17 left, freshman Scott Cengia clanged his PAT off the left upright.
(The score was tied only because, when Florida State had gone ahead 15-10 at the end of the third quarter, Bobby Bowden inexplicably decided to kick the extra point and not go for two. His explanation: "I knew they were going to miss their extra point." Bowden's explanation II: "Six is better than five." Hard to argue.)
When it was over, the Irish were 5-4, which even Holtz had foreseen. "If somebody's going to pound us, they better do it now," he had said earlier in the week. "They see we're down, so they'd better jump on us. I think we aren't going to be down very long."
To that end Holtz has hired Bob Chmiel from Michigan as recruiting coordinator, replacing Tony Yelovich. And Holtz has an oral commitment from a prized kicking prospect, Kevin Kopka of Hollywood Hills, Fla. Before next fall arrives, there is one potential embarrassment ahead. With games on Saturday at home against dangerous Air Force and on Nov. 26 at USC, Notre Dame could lose again and finish at 6-5. As a member of the bowl coalition, the Irish are guaranteed a spot in the Orange, Sugar, Cotton or Fiesta Bowl if they go 7-4. At 6-5 Notre Dame can participate in one of those four bowls only by mutual agreement of the bowl and Notre Dame. But, given the scarcity of available coalition teams that can attract a respectable live gate or TV audience—Virginia? USC? Virginia Tech? Duke?—it is virtually certain that at 6-5, the Irish will be invited to a major bowl.
It is also likely that Notre Dame will accept, not only for coalition-alliance brotherhood but also for the $3 million or so that would come with it. (The Irish might decline if they finish with a bad loss at USC; if they go 5-6, they're ineligible for any bowl.) Still, it's not a pretty picture: Notre Dame at 6-5 versus Florida in the Sugar Bowl, or versus Colorado in the Fiesta. "We'll definitely go," says Goheen. "But it would be tough to go somewhere 6-5, because to go at 6-5 is not to go as Notre Dame. If we go under those circumstances, we're just going for the money and so the bowl can have good TV ratings. That's not the way I want to go out."
It's not the way any of the Irish want to go out, sliding downhill into the winter. "There have been so many low points this year," said Nau in the week leading to the Florida State loss. "Every time we hit one of them, you say to yourself, This is not what it's supposed to be like. At Notre Dame they always tell you, 'Expect a miracle.' Well, I expect to find out that this is a dream, and we'll wake up and be 8-1 or 9-0 and have a shot at the national title."
In fact, this Irish team is the start of the next team's dream, the point of reference for future success. These players are at the bottom, very much awake.