The pain of Notre Dame's longest summer ended with a prayer:
sacred words whispered and then shouted, full of thanks and
throaty celebration. The Fighting Irish players dropped to a knee
on the scruffy blue carpet of their locker room late last
Saturday afternoon and bowed their heads, while outside on the
grass of Notre Dame Stadium a party raged in the wake of their
36-20 victory over Michigan, "the defending national co-champion
of the world," according to the postgame description by Irish
senior quarterback Jarious Jackson. The Wolverines had also
beaten Notre Dame early last year, pushing the Irish toward a 7-6
record that was followed by the embarrassing off-season
revelations unveiled as the result of an age-discrimination suit
brought by a fired assistant against coach Bob Davie.
Through sudden silence, the Notre Dame sports chaplain, Father
James Riehle, began softly with the words, "Hail Mary, full of
grace..." until the players joined him, gradually increasing
their volume at the end of the prayer, at which point Riehle, a
round-faced man with thinning white hair, unkempt from the
mussing of sweaty hands, shouted, "Notre Dame, our mother!" The
room full of players bellowed back, much louder and gleefully out
of line with the pious sentiment, "Pray for us!"
Davie, who succeeded Lou Holtz in December 1996, stood on a metal
stool and asked for quiet. Drenched with sweat and with a voice
choked with emotion after his biggest victory, he said, "I'm so
proud of you guys, and I'm so proud of this coaching staff. Every
one of you showed what can happen when good people work their
rear ends off." Then he gave out game balls like Halloween candy.
One each went to Notre Dame executive vice president Father
William Beauchamp and athletic director Mike Wadsworth for their
unwavering support during the July trial in the action brought by
66-year-old axed offensive line coach Joe Moore. Another was
given to Mickey Marotti, the first-year strength and conditioning
coach who has performed such wonders as the transformation of
linebacker Grant Irons from a 225-pound freshman into a 256-pound
sophomore who had a crucial sack against the Wolverines. One went
to senior running back Autry Denson, who trampled Michigan for
162 yards. One was presented to Jackson. "We said there was going
to be an ambush out there," shouted Davie, referring to Jackson,
who was making his first start after three years as understudy to
Ron Powlus, "and there was an ambush, all right." Jackson threw
for two touchdowns and led the 17-point third-quarter blitz that
overcame a 13-6 Notre Dame halftime deficit.
Finally, Davie asked his players a question. "The things that
happened off the field this summer," he said, alluding not just
to the Moore trial but also to an NCAA investigation of gifts to
Notre Dame players by a former booster that caused five players
to temporarily lose their eligibility, "were they ever an issue
with this football team?"
September 13, 1998
"No!" came the shouted response.
"Then listen up," Davie said, pointing toward the interview room
where reporters waited. "A lot of people are going to ask you
about that. They're going to ask you 'Was this a crusade? Does
this undo all the things that happened?' That's a lot of b.s.
None of that has had anything to do with this team on the field.
You've done a tremendous job of keeping your focus."
Davie, 43, spoke the truth, but in this case there is a fine line
separating motivation from exorcism. Notre Dame's coaches and
players never used the humiliating events of the summer to
prepare themselves, but the Moore affair stripped the program of
its privacy and presented it as a sort of Delta House of college
football. (Witnesses described Notre Dame players and coaches
drinking together and players peeking in on two cheerleaders
having oral sex.) The summer revelations followed a lousy season,
and everyone in the program knew that the only way to start
forgetting was to start winning.
No one knew better than senior offensive tackle Mike Rosenthal,
who was placed in the awkward position of testifying against his
current coach. Rosenthal was the only active Notre Dame offensive
lineman who deposed for Moore. His deposition was taped last
September and played in court nine months later, leading to the
surreal circumstance in which Rosenthal was testifying on behalf
of Moore while lifting weights preparing to play for Davie.
Through the months preceding the trial, Rosenthal had hoped that
somehow the whole matter would simply disappear. "I certainly
never imagined it becoming as big an issue as it did," he said
last week. It was Rosenthal who served as the plaintiff's star
witness to Davie's remarks about Moore's age, and Rosenthal still
has affection for Moore. "They asked me questions, and I answered
them truthfully; I wasn't a Judas," Rosenthal said, "but I felt
empathy for the university through the whole thing."
His teammates left him alone throughout the summer, never
mentioning the trial or his role in it. Against Michigan last
Saturday he was the leader of an offensive line that thoroughly
dominated the Wolverines' defense--and Michigan had nine starters
back from the best defense in the country--opening holes for Irish
rushers to gain 280 yards on the ground.
The Moore trial may have been disconcerting for Rosenthal, but it
has been at the center of Davie's life for the last 18 months,
since that day in December 1996, two weeks after he succeeded
Holtz, when he drove to Moore's house and fired him. Moore's
immediate reaction was vehement, and he filed his suit on Feb. 1.
"People started following this in July [of '98]," Davie said last
week. "It's been a part of my life since I took the job." From
the beginning Davie was incredulous that he was being punished
for firing an assistant coach, which is common in sports after a
new coach takes over. The trial, in which Moore was awarded
$86,000 in damages plus unspecified attorneys' fees, not only
robbed Davie of some of his dignity but also of precious time
with his wife and two children during the summer.
Perhaps the only positive note to emerge from this difficult time
is that Davie says, "I can handle almost anything now." He is
trying to build a winning team with less talented players than
the ones who play for many of the Irish's foes, thanks to the
school's insistence on playing a national schedule. A year ago
Davie and offensive coordinator Jim Colletto reconstructed the
offense, scrapping the power-running attack for a pro-style
passing game to suit Powlus. The job was too complex, however,
and in the end, the makeover was ill-suited to the personnel
For 1998 Davie and Colletto have returned to the smash-mouth
style that Holtz loved. The Irish have put in some plays for
Jackson to run the option but not nearly as many as some people
thought they might. Last week Davie kept practice closed and let
the media, the public and Michigan presume that the Irish would
run little more than a variation of the old Texas wishbone. But
in private, four days before playing Michigan, Davie said, "We're
gonna mix it up. A little option, some I [formation], some
rollouts. I'll tell you this: It's all on the quarterback.
Everything. We win or lose with him on Saturday."
A native of Tupelo, Miss., Jackson isn't one to shrink from
challenges. His college choice came down to Notre Dame or
Tennessee, where he would be attempting to supplant either Powlus
or Peyton Manning. Yet two years ago, at the start of his second
season in South Bend, Jackson became convinced that he would
never get a shot at Powlus's job, and he made plans to transfer,
either to Tennessee (glutton for punishment) or Mississippi. His
mother, Karen, a schoolteacher who works nights as a clerk at
Sears in Tupelo and who raised Jarious as a single parent after a
divorce when Jarious was eight, wouldn't allow it. "I told him,
'No, it's just not your time yet,'" recalled Karen. "I said,
'Don't rock the boat. Respect Ron. And if you start a
controversy, the only person who's going to look bad is
Jarious and Karen share a deep trust, and he followed her advice.
When Jarious was in ninth grade, he asked Karen not to date
because her dating made him uncomfortable. Karen agreed--but only
on the condition that Jarious bring home good grades. He did, and
she didn't. Just lately Jarious has said, "Mom, it's time you
Jackson's talent comes from his 43-year-old father, also named
Jarious, who was a star running back in high school in Fayette,
Miss., and who chased his football dream from Jackson State
(where he roomed for one week with Walter Payton) to Alcorn State
but played only as a reserve. When Jarious, the son, was a child,
his father showed him the golden helmet he'd won as a high school
MVP, and young Jarious asked to see it again and again. "I think
he decided he wanted a golden helmet of his own," said the
father, and of course now, as Notre Dame's quarterback, he has
the most famous golden helmet of all. In the win against
Michigan, Jackson completed 4 of 10 passes for 96 yards and
rushed for 62 more, throwing his 6-foot, 230-pound body around as
if the game might be the last he would play. On one snap in the
third quarter, he stumbled four steps backward before righting
himself and throwing a 35-yard TD to junior flanker Raki Nelson,
giving Notre Dame a 23-13 lead. "I think I taught him that move,"
said the father with a snaggletoothed smile that matches his
Jarious isn't finished. He stood on the stool in front of his
teammates after getting his game ball and fixed them with a
glare. "I've got one request," he said. "That we carry this for
the rest of the season."
It is a large order for a program on the mend, but for Notre Dame
it's sweeter to look ahead than to look back.
"We said there was going to be an ambush," said Davie, "and
there was an ambush."
For 1998 the Fighting Irish have returned to the smash-mouth
style that Holtz loved.