The new Notre Dame football coach leaned over a plank stretched
across two sawhorses in the middle of a construction site that
used to be the Fighting Irish's football offices. Looking more
like Bob Vila's successor than Lou Holtz's, Bob Davie studied a
blueprint and a piece of mahogany before deciding what style of
carved lettering will adorn the sign above the outer door to the
refurbished offices when they are completed later this month.
"And the words NOTRE DAME should be bigger than the word
FOOTBALL," added Davie authoritatively, as if deciding to go for
two in the waning seconds against Michigan.
To a football coach, the word rebuilding doesn't usually involve
drywall and staple guns. In South Bend in the spring of 1997,
the change is so sweeping that it does. New carpeting for the
floors. New furniture for the assistant coaches. New meeting
rooms. A grand, new reception foyer to replace the cluttered
cubbyhole that preceded it. "Everything was small and congested
before; now we want the offices to convey the image of Notre
Dame football," said Davie three weeks ago as he walked down a
whitewashed hall toward his own enclave, the one occupied for
the previous 11 years and 100 victories by Holtz.
After less than six months on the most revered job in college
sports, Davie has retooled what was thought to be the
self-sustaining machinery of Irish football. If change is akin
to blasphemy in the tradition-filled realm of gold helmets,
leprechauns and Touchdown Jesus, then Davie, a 42-year-old
steel-country Pennsylvanian who spent three years as Holtz's
most trusted assistant, would be the devil himself. But the
Fighting Irish sense that change may be the antidote to their
recent mediocrity (by Notre Dame's high standards), and Davie
could be the savior.
As soon as his players returned from a Christmas vacation during
which Notre Dame did not appear in a bowl game for the first
time in 10 years, Davie threw them into a conditioning program
that was both demanding and rollicking. It concluded in March
with a four-day "Olympics," in which players competed in
softball hitting, egg tossing, slam-dunking and a talent show
that produced such sights as 290-pound freshman offensive tackle
Rob Mowl, previously a wallflower, shimmying across the room in
a wild dance. The fun and games were a simple bonding device
(Holtz would sooner have eaten raw eggs than seen them tossed),
and the players responded enthusiastically.
In spring drills, the precursor to August training camp, Davie
streamlined practices into tight, energetic two-hour sessions.
Notre Dame's dull offense was overhauled--"Coach Davie's got me
thinking we're going to be putting it up like BYU," says wideout
Malcolm Johnson, who will be a senior next fall--and the defense
was revamped to be more aggressive, in line with those of other
successful teams around the country. Davie also has charged a
committee of students, faculty and administrators with spicing
up the sacred Friday-night pep rallies, which had become
repetitive and boring. Thus far, there are no plans to paint the
Golden Dome green or rewrite the fight song. But it's still early.
There are reasons for what Davie has done. It isn't that he
doesn't appreciate Notre Dame's tradition. Quite the opposite.
When Texas A&M tried to lure him back as an assistant two years
ago, he wouldn't leave South Bend because he had become taken
with the place and its customs. But tradition alone isn't
sufficient to win games.
"The Notre Dame job is a great one," says Davie, sitting behind
the desk in his unfinished office, "but my nature is not to take
anything for granted. I'm attacking this job like it's any other
[coaching] job. We've been 23-11-1 the last three years. A lot
of teams have been 23-11-1."
Davie looks out his window at progress in the $50 million
renovation that began on Notre Dame Stadium long before he was
hired and will be completed in time for the Fighting Irish's
Sept. 6 season opener against Georgia Tech. "You look out
there," Davie says. "The renovation looks good, but they've kept
the look of the stadium. That's my attitude: Keep the tradition,
but there's a time to say, 'Let's go here!' It all comes down to
this. We need energy around here. We need life. We need to get
some oxygen pumped into the program."
This sermon begs a critical question: Where has the oxygen been
the past few years? More to the point: Was it sucked out of the
air by Holtz? Davie is careful not to compare his plans with his
predecessor's way of operating, punctuating his sentences with
the Seinfeldesque qualifier, "Not that there was anything wrong
with it." Yet, the first evidence that Holtz's Nov. 19
resignation would be a case of addition by subtraction came from
quarterback Ron Powlus, who, during his Dec. 20 press conference
to announce that he was returning for a fifth season, said that
he would not have been coming back if Holtz had stayed around.
"It's a delicate situation," said Powlus recently, "but I want
to be truthful. I'm proud to be able to say that I played for
Coach Holtz. But I think we did everything we could do together
as a coach and quarterback. If he had remained, I would have
moved on. And the truth is, there's a new enthusiasm around here."
Powlus isn't the only one who stayed when he could have left.
Offensive linemen Chris Clevenger, Mike Doughty and Rick
Kaczenski, and defensive end Melvin Dansby all elected to take a
fifth year. "This is the beginning of something around here, and
I wanted to be part of it," says Clevenger.
Many Notre Dame players are fearful of publicly criticizing
Holtz. They were recruited by him. They played for him. Most of
them genuinely like him. They also know that Holtz remains a
popular figure because of his quirky genius, those 100 wins and
a national championship in 1988. Says one Irish upperclassman:
"So many people out there love Lou Holtz that you can't say
anything bad about him, because no matter how much reason you
have behind you, you'll get ripped by those people."
However, several Notre Dame players, speaking on the condition
of anonymity, say that Holtz was no longer effective and that
the program had become lethargic. They add that Holtz seemed to
feel the pressure of his job more in recent years, which caused
his relentless pessimism to become a burden for the players in
the form of unpredictably long practices and meetings. The
Fighting Irish were dragged into a depression with him. "Things
got stale around here the last couple of years," says one
player. "It was hard to be enthusiastic about playing football.
We dreaded going to practice, we dreaded going to meetings,
because there was no energy and no enthusiasm. We were going out
there every day only because we received scholarships. The
difference now is that people are on the practice field because
they're excited about playing football."
Speaking of the difference between the two coaches, punter
Hunter Smith says, "Coach Davie is interested in winning, in
seeing us do good every day, instead of worrying about us maybe
Notre Dame athletic director Mike Wadsworth says that Holtz
resigned of his own will, without any push from the university.
"He kept telling us, 'It's in the best interests of the
program,'" says Wadsworth. "I can't speculate on what that means."
When Holtz, who remains in self-imposed exile from coaching at
his home in Orlando, was told that several players suggested his
performance had slipped in recent years, he said, "To a certain
degree that makes sense to me, that they would say that." Holtz
also said he expects a terrific year from his former team: "I
believe the players will react very favorably to Bob. Bob is
young, he's enthusiastic, he's a player's coach, and I think
that's what Notre Dame needs right now. I'm more of a
disciplinarian, and that's not what they need anymore."
It is apparently not what the Irish have needed for some time.
Since its epic 31-24 upset of No. 1-ranked Florida State in
1993, Notre Dame has gone 24-12-1, including home losses to
Boston College, Northwestern, BYU and Air Force, and last year
the Irish fell to USC for the first time since 1982. Until
defensive end Renaldo Wynn was taken 21st in this year's NFL
Draft, no Notre Dame player had been taken in the first round
since 1994, a reflection of the falloff in recruiting. Over the
same three-year period Ohio State had eight players drafted in
the first round, Florida State seven and Florida four.
On the field the Holtz-to-Davie transition will be most apparent
in the modernizing of the offense, which will look like 1997
instead of '65. There was a certain charm in Holtz's reliance on
the ground game, with the option mixed in, and in his
curmudgeonly disdain for any sophistication in the air. But his
approach was effective only when his personnel (like the '93
offensive line, which included Aaron Taylor and Tim Ruddy, now
both NFL starters) were dominant. Often, Notre Dame was left
with a weak arsenal to fight increasingly ambitious defenses.
"In the past," says Powlus, "we had a tight end, two receivers
and two running backs. If coach Holtz didn't want a tight end on
the line of scrimmage, he'd split the tight end out a few yards
instead of bringing in another wide receiver. Now, ['96 tight
end] Pete Chryplewicz is a great receiver, but he's not going to
run a 16-yard curl and lose Shawn Springs. It's a matter of
packaging players and plays to match."
The new offense, designed primarily by former Purdue coach Jim
Colletto, Davie's offensive coordinator, is full of three- and
five-step drops. Unlike Holtz's "Blarney" passing offense of a
year ago, the new package is a concept, not just an assortment
of gimmicks. The running game will still be the Irish's strong
suit (Florida's Fun 'n' Gun wouldn't fly in a South Bend
snowstorm), but diversification will be evident.
The player most affected by this is Powlus, the former Can't
Miss Kid from Berwick, Pa., whose failure to win multiple
Heisman Trophies often has been laid at the feet of Holtz and an
offense unsuited to Powlus's skills. Powlus will graduate on May
18, be married on June 21 in Berwick to his longtime girlfriend,
Sara Ivanina, and will turn 23 on July 16. He is mature and
scarred, yet this spring he seems younger and fresher. It could
be the 12 pounds he has lost since the end of last season, which
dropped him to 214 pounds and restored some of the quickness he
brought to South Bend four years ago. It could also be that
Powlus feels freed by fresh opportunity. In early March, when
Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning announced that he, too,
would return for his final season, Powlus called him. The two
have been casual friends since Powlus hosted Manning's
recruiting visit to Notre Dame in 1993. "You could hear the
excitement in his voice," says Manning. Says Powlus, "Everybody
who is back here from last year is rejuvenated."
At dusk on a spring evening, Davie is driving home across the
flat, faceless subdivisions to the north of South Bend. He was
an assistant coach for 20 years, stockpiling memories that
spring to life now that he's been handed the keys to college
football heaven. "My first job, grad assistant at Pitt in 1977,"
he says. "I'm fresh out of college, no idea what I'm doing, and
Jackie Sherrill sends me to Boston to recruit players. I didn't
know which schools to hit. I went to schools where they hadn't
seen a recruiter in 10 years, and they looked at me like I was
Early the following year Sherrill sent him to Los Angeles with
Jimmy Johnson (yep, that Jimmy Johnson), who was already a
legend as a recruiter and good ol' boy. "As soon as we hit the
ground," says Davie, "Jimmy says, 'You like Mexican food?' I had
maybe eaten one taco in my life, but what could I say? Jimmy
takes me to this restaurant and orders a mountain of food. I
take one bite and it's so hot and there's all this food on the
table.... " Davie stops and shakes his head. Twenty years and
now this. Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Devine, Holtz...Davie.
In the fading light he turns into the driveway of the same
comfortable four-bedroom house in which he has lived with
Joanne, his wife of 19 years, and their children, Audra, 13, and
Clay, 9, for three years. There are no plans to upgrade, no
plans, in fact, for Bob to avail himself of all the lucrative
ancillary opportunities available to the coach at Notre Dame.
(He will, for example, do the standard coach's TV show, but he
won't do commercials or travel the lecture circuit.) This is
partly because of philosophy, partly because of genetics.
Davie was raised in Moon Township, one of the many steel towns
in the Ohio River valley northwest of Pittsburgh. His father,
Bob Sr., and mother, June, still live there in retirement. June
was a server in a school cafeteria, and Bob Sr. worked for 35
years as a crane man for Armco Steel. When he wasn't working in
the steel mill, Bob Sr. was delivering appliances and furniture
for K&N Sales, a store that his brother Nick owned; he often
logged 70-hour weeks. During his high school years, Bob Jr.
played baseball, basketball and football, keeping him in action
12 months a year (one of his summer league basketball teammates
was John Calipari, now coach of the New Jersey Nets). Yet his
father seldom saw a game. "That's just the way it was, no
questions asked," says Davie.
As a junior in high school young Bob summoned the courage to ask
Joanne Fratangelo, a popular majorette a year ahead of him, to a
movie ("A total long shot," he says). They would date for seven
years and be married in 1978. Bob earned a football scholarship
to Arizona but came back in two weeks, desperately homesick,
just in time to enroll at Youngstown State, where he spent three
seasons as a starting tight end.
His coaching career has taken him and his family from Pittsburgh
to Arizona, back to Pittsburgh, to Tulane, to Texas A&M, where
he worked for nine years and built a defense, and a reputation,
that were among the best in the country. In the winter of 1994,
having grown comfortable at A&M, Davie turned down Holtz's offer
to become Notre Dame's defensive coordinator. He turned down a
second overture two hours after the first. Joanne then
confronted him in the kitchen of their College Station house and
said, "We're making a mistake. This is Notre Dame, it's too much
of an opportunity."
Persuaded by his wife's argument, Davie called Holtz that night
and accepted the job. And during the tumultuous week last
November when Holtz resigned, Purdue and Maryland each offered
Davie its head job before Notre Dame offered the one he wanted.
He had turned down Purdue, but the Maryland offer was still on
the table when Wadsworth summoned him on the afternoon of
Friday, Nov. 22. Davie won the job cleanly and unanimously,
Wadsworth said, beating out Northwestern coach Gary Barnett
(despite Barnett's circumlocutions to the contrary), former
Irish quarterback Tom Clements and a fourth, unidentified
candidate. And he won it without strong support from Holtz. "Lou
said publicly that we never asked him for his opinion," says
Wadsworth. "That's not true. I asked him for his opinion when he
first told me of his desire to resign. He named several head
coaches, then said, 'Bob Davie, of course, is a very good
assistant, but Notre Dame has never hired an assistant coach.'"
(Actually the Fighting Irish did in 1954 when they hired Terry
Brennan, but that's ancient history.) Although Holtz and Davie
were close during their three years together, they have talked
only once since December: briefly, on the phone, in early April.
It doesn't matter. Davie is on his own. He is a genial man given
to forthright speech whose every word will now be scrutinized.
Joanne warned him recently, "The job makes you a celebrity."
Davie was reminded of the toll the job can take when Gerry Faust
accepted an invitation to address the team before a spring
practice. It was the first time Faust had talked to an Irish
team since his infamous five-year, 30-26-1 run ended in December
1985. Tears rolled down Faust's cheeks as he began his speech:
"I want you to know that I failed here." That moment touched
Davie. He vows to make the game fun for his players, to help
them win without their feeling the pressure to do so.
Davie is taking his daily run through the campus. He pounds
along the grassy mall that leads to the Administration Building,
whose golden dome caused the hair on Parseghian's neck to stand
when he drove onto the campus for the first time as the Irish
coach. Davie crests a small hill and accelerates down past the
grotto, where Faust would pray each morning. Flushed and
sweating, he finishes on a corner adjacent to the stadium, where
nearly six months ago he walked quietly away while Holtz
addressed a worshipful crowd after Notre Dame's last home game.
"I'm comfortable with who and what I am," Davie says. "I'm a
football coach, period. I will not take myself too seriously."
This is how it is at the beginning: a promise, a plan, a blank
canvas, opportunity. No losses yet. On scaffolding high above
Davie's head an army of masons add aged, pale-yellow bricks to
fresh mortar, making the stadium new, yet keeping it old.