On a late January afternoon in 1999, Notre Dame gave 18-year-old
T.J. Duckett the Golden Dome treatment, a show of shameless
pursuit reserved for the football recruits most coveted by the
Fighting Irish. At one point T.J. and his father, Ted, were
escorted to the press box overlooking Notre Dame Stadium, an
awe-inspiring college football shrine even in the dead of
winter. The seven Heisman Trophies won by Notre Dame players
were laid out in front of the Ducketts, as if to say to the
gifted T.J.: You can win one of these here.
A 6'2", 255-pound Parade All-America, T.J. not only was a
three-year starter at quarterback and linebacker for Loy Norrix
High in Kalamazoo, Mich., but also would run 100 meters in less
than 11 seconds and wind up a three-time state champion in the
shot put. Many recruiting experts regarded him as the best high
school player in the country, and most thought his future was at
linebacker. T.J., however, liked carrying the ball, and Notre
Dame coach Bob Davie had told him in a phone conversation that
the Irish were interested in him only as a running back. "You can
be the next Jerome Bettis," Davie said, invoking the name of the
Bus, a Notre Dame standout from 1990 through '92 and, to players
of T.J.'s generation, the patron saint of big backs. Davie also
told Duckett he could wear Bettis's old number, 6.
Duckett had already visited Florida State, Michigan, Michigan
State and UCLA, but after the Irish began recruiting him late in
1998, he canceled a planned visit to Ohio State and made the
90-minute drive from Kalamazoo to South Bend. "Notre Dame was
never on T.J.'s list," says Ted, "but when Notre Dame contacted
him, [the idea of playing for the Irish] was very enticing." Such
is the power that Notre Dame still wields. Yet the courtship was
a bust, thanks to an incident that took place on the morning of
the Ducketts' arrival in South Bend.
Their first stop had been beneath the Golden Dome itself, at the
office of Dan Saracino, the assistant provost for enrollment--in
effect, the admissions director. No student enrolls at Notre Dame
without Saracino's approval, and the Ducketts' meeting with him
was ugly almost from the start.
April 30, 2000
There are conflicting accounts of T.J.'s high school academic
performance. Ted says T.J.'s average was "three point
something." Late in his junior year, T.J. told recruiting expert
Allen Wallace of SuperPrep Magazine that he had a 3.1 and that
he had scored 18 (one point above the minimum) on the ACT. A
person familiar with T.J.'s transcript says T.J. had a 2.4
average in college prep courses (as opposed to all courses).
According to Ted, at the time of T.J.'s visit to South Bend, he
had already been approved for admission to Florida State,
Michigan, Michigan State and UCLA--all of which routinely admit
recruited athletes who have met the NCAA minimum requirements of
a 2.5 average in 13 core courses and an 820 SAT score or 17 in
the ACT. Notre Dame's standards are more exacting. The Irish
require 16 units of college prep courses and demand that a
prospective student be prepared to take calculus, because all
Notre Dame freshmen, football players included, must take
calculus. Saracino believed that T.J.'s performance in math
courses had not been strong enough, and on this point the
interview turned contentious.
"T.J. didn't have precalculus, but there was still time to take
it [in summer school]," Ted says, recalling the meeting. "The man
assumed that my son wasn't intelligent enough to get through his
school. He told me, 'We don't have basket-weaving at Notre Dame.'
I was livid. My son is a quality individual. He comes from an
educated family. [Ted teaches high school history and physical
education; T.J.'s late mother, Jacqulyn Barham, was a retired
special education teacher.] I believe this man made judgments
about T.J. because T.J. wore a long leather jacket and jeans,
instead of a suit. The bottom line is, this man insulted my kid,
and no matter what else happened that day, there was a bad taste
in our mouths." Ted says that before he stormed out of the
admissions office, he told Saracino, "Plenty of fine universities
aren't making these demands on my son."
Saracino recalls that Ted was "more a broker for his son than
anything else," and he denies having made any reference to
basket-weaving. "What I will say is that it's not my goal to make
the coaches happy," Saracino says. "All our admissions decisions
are made with the best interests of the student in mind, and
we're not going to admit young men who don't have the God-given
ability to succeed here."
Notre Dame didn't formally reject T.J., because he never formally
applied. He enrolled at Michigan State and, as a freshman, rushed
for 606 yards and 10 touchdowns and had 10 tackles on defense. He
also helped the Spartans to a 23-13 victory over the Irish in the
same stadium where he had been so lavishly courted.
There were two North American sports dynasties in the 20th
century. You can clog a chat room by pounding away in upper-case
frenzy about the Boston Celtics, the Montreal Canadiens and the
UCLA basketball Bruins, but the New York Yankees and, in
football, Notre Dame were the only teams to achieve success
almost throughout the century and to occupy a place in the bosom
of popular culture. The argument is simple: The Yankees went
from Ruth to DiMaggio to Mantle to Jackson to Jeter, winning 25
World Series from 1923 through '99; Notre Dame went from Rockne
to Leahy to Parseghian to Holtz, winning 11 national
championships from '24 through '88. No other teams performed so
At the turn of the 21st century, the Yankees are thriving, having
won three of the last four World Series. They haven't simply
adapted to the changes in the way baseball business is conducted;
they have exploited those changes. Their legacy is intact. The
same can't be said for Notre Dame, which hasn't contended for the
national championship since 1993 and last year went 5-7, its
worst record in 36 years. There's a feeling that while Notre
Dame's football prestige is still significant, its aura is
fading--as measured in sliding television ratings and mediocre
recruits--and that once that magic is gone, it will be
Notre Dame's reputation was built on three pillars: 1)
recruiting the best players in the country and graduating them
at a high rate, 2) showcasing these players in a national
schedule, and 3) hiring great coaches. Notre Dame was (and still
is) the best-known Catholic university in the U.S., a status
derived in no small part from its football success. That renown
created a pipeline to South Bend from the nation's talent-rich
Catholic high schools. Many of the best players simply wanted to
join the Irish, so Notre Dame could be fairly picky as far as
academic qualification was concerned. "It's not true that I
never left South Bend to recruit a player," says Ara Parseghian,
who won 95 games and two national titles from 1964 through '74.
"It is true that I didn't leave very often."
The schedule in those days may not have been as tough as the
Irish would have had us believe. Parseghian's storied 1966
national championship team played traditional opponents Army,
Navy, Pittsburgh, Purdue, USC and, in that year's Game of the
Century, Michigan State, but it also met "national" names
Northwestern, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Duke. None of those
teams finished with more than six wins. "Look at all of Ara's
schedules," says Gene Corrigan, Notre Dame's athletic director
from 1980 to '87. "For every Michigan State, there was a Rice. It
was a national schedule, but it was a smart schedule."
As for the coaches, was it Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian and Holtz
who made Notre Dame great, or was it the reverse? The answer of
Notre Dame's administration to that question will probably decide
Now a generation of athletes and fans shares the opinion of
6'8", 335-pound senior Max Starks of Orlando Lake Highland High,
whose father, Ross Browner, was a star defensive lineman for the
Irish in the 1970s. "They had their glory back in the old days,"
Starks said last winter, three days after signing with Florida.
Part of the Notre Dame company line in the face of its football
struggles is that the Irish's glorious history is littered with
hard times (see Joe Kuharich's teams, which went 17-23 from 1959
through '62, and Gerry Faust's, 30-26-1 from '80 through '85).
"You'll see down cycles, and then it turns around," says
Parseghian. There's no guarantee of a turnaround anymore.
College football is different from when Notre Dame ruled. Lower
scholarship limits and widespread television coverage have
vastly increased the number of competitive teams, making
possible the sudden emergence of, say, Virginia Tech as a
national championship contender. The schedule the Irish will
play this fall--Texas A&M, Nebraska, Purdue, Michigan State and
Stanford in the first five weeks--is suicide. The acceptance of
black players into the mainstream of college football, which
occurred only in the last 25 years, has shifted the power (and
the recruiting juice) from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. What
Notre Dame once was, Florida State is now.
In January, Notre Dame's president, the Reverend Edward A.
Malloy, forced athletic director Mike Wadsworth to resign,
effective in June, and removed vice president William Beauchamp
from his role as athletic overseer. Malloy essentially took on
that role himself. In March, Malloy hired Kevin White from
Arizona State to replace Wadsworth. This sweeping reorganization
came, in part, as a response to the NCAA's ruling in December
that Notre Dame was guilty of major violations, including lack
of institutional control, after several players were found to
have received illegal benefits from a school booster. The
shake-up has left Malloy in charge of Notre Dame's football
future, a subject on which he evinces ambivalence.
On the one hand Malloy invokes the philosophy that was preached
by his two most recent predecessors, the Reverend Theodore
Hesburgh and the Reverend Edmund Joyce. "We aspire to excellence
in everything we do, and that includes football," says Malloy.
"We try to provide the wherewithal for people to achieve that
goal." Yet he also seems to understand the modern dilemmas.
"Certainly the circumstances under which college football is
played have changed," he says. "It's a plausible argument that
we're affected by those changes, but I'm not convinced it
prevents us from having a successful program."
Malloy stops short of defining successful. He also makes clear
which way he will lean in a crisis. "Given a choice, Notre Dame
people would rather do things the right way than achieve total
success." Pause. "We try to do both."
It's a goal that any college would consider admirable, but is it
feasible? Consider the condition of the three pillars.
RECRUITING AND ADMISSIONS
When former Purdue coach Jim Colletto was hired to be Davie's
offensive coordinator in 1997, he couldn't wait to get to the
practice field and begin coaching the immense talent that had
been beating his Boilermakers teams like kettledrums.
(Colletto's Purdue teams from '91 through '96 went 0-6 against
Notre Dame and only once came within a touchdown of beating the
Irish.) He was shocked by the lack of talent on the Notre Dame
"I walked out on the field, looked around and thought, Where are
the guys I've been playing against?" says Colletto, who stayed in
South Bend only two seasons and is now an assistant with the
Baltimore Ravens. "Where are the Bryant Youngs, the Jerome
Bettises? This wasn't nearly the Notre Dame I'd been coaching
against. It had solid players, nothing more."
Early in his tenure as coach, Davie would tell colleagues that
the Irish didn't have a player who could have started for the
best of the Texas A&M Wrecking Crew defenses that he'd
coordinated in the early 1990s. Independent talent evaluators
agree. "Notre Dame is getting perfectly good recruiting classes,"
says Chicago-based recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. "What they're
not getting are difference-makers."
"The talent level at Notre Dame has dropped off considerably,"
says Buffalo Bills scout Dwight Adams. "That's obvious to anybody
in the business."
Talent is a function of recruiting, and recruiting is a function
of admissions standards. At Notre Dame the admissions policy has
become a more critical and contentious issue than at any other
Division I-A program with national championship aspirations. "The
admissions process at Notre Dame eliminates a whole bunch of
people who you could really use," says another former Irish
assistant coach who is now in the NFL.
In 1999 Duckett wasn't the only high-profile recruit snubbed by
the admissions office. Jarrett Payton, son of the late Walter
Payton and a standout option quarterback at St. Viator High in
the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, Ill., wanted badly to
play for the Irish, and Davie wanted him badly. Notre Dame
defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, one of the most respected
and tireless recruiters in the country, pursued Payton
relentlessly. "He was in my office so often that we ran out of
things to talk about," says St. Viator coach Kevin Kelly.
Shortly after Payton told Kelly that he had chosen the Irish
(over Indiana, Miami, Penn State and Wisconsin), Kelly had to
tell Payton that Notre Dame had pulled its scholarship offer. As
with Duckett, Saracino doubted that Payton could survive
calculus. "I pulled Jarrett into my office to tell him during his
lunch hour," says Kelly. "I couldn't believe it had happened, and
it hurt this kid badly during a very sensitive time in his life,
with his father's illness. When he picked Notre Dame, he told all
his friends that it was like a weight had been lifted off his
shoulders. When I told him the bad news, he dropped his head and
walked out of my office."
Kelly called Saracino and pleaded for Jarrett's admission. Walter
Payton called. None of it helped. According to a source familiar
with Jarrett's case, the Notre Dame admissions office was
intimately familiar with St. Viator, many of whose students it
evaluates each year, and had seen freshmen from the school who
had much higher grades than Jarrett's struggle. As a freshman
running back at Miami last fall Jarrett carried the ball 53 times
for 262 yards and one touchdown and caught six passes for 48
During the 1998 recruiting season, two prospective college stars
didn't get as far as Duckett or Payton would the next year.
Carson Palmer, a 6'4", 205-pound quarterback at Santa Margarita
High in Southern California, had attended the Irish football
camp in the summer of '97. "I fell in love with the whole Notre
Dame thing," says Palmer. "I told the coaches right then that I
wanted to go there." Palmer would have been a terrific catch for
the Irish. Ron Powlus had just exhausted his eligibility.
Jarious Jackson would most likely start the next two years, but
Palmer might have pushed him. However, the admissions office
rejected Palmer, who says he had a 2.6 average and a 970 SAT
score. (A source familiar with Palmer's transcript says that his
class rank was very low and that his average in college prep
courses was lower than 2.6.) At least one Notre Dame assistant
coach told Palmer to take the SAT again and reapply, but Palmer
refused. Plenty of other schools were interested in a big,
strong quarterback with an NFL arm and quick feet, no matter
what his academic shortcomings. "I figured, if they can't get me
in, how many other guys can't they get in?" says Palmer. "I'm
not a big fan of school, but I'm not going to flunk out on you.
Notre Dame has to find a way to get football players in there,
or it has no chance to win."
Palmer started five games at USC as a freshman, then broke his
collarbone and missed the next season. He is projected as the
Trojans' starter this fall. Notre Dame, meanwhile, is expected to
start the season with either untested junior Arnaz Battle or one
of three freshmen at the most important position on the field.
Palmer had hoped to attend Notre Dame with David Terrell, a
willowy 6'3", 198-pound wide receiver from Richmond who had also
attended the Notre Dame camp. But Terrell ran into an academic
wall, too. The admissions office told him that he would be
admitted to Notre Dame only if he maintained a B average in four
college prep courses in the fall of his senior year. Terrell
never applied to Notre Dame and instead signed with Michigan. As
a sophomore last year he developed into one of the best wideouts
in the country and also a lockdown cornerback, a potent two-way
player in the Charles Woodson mold. He looms as a first-team
All-America at two positions at which Notre Dame has been
Other topflight players were turned away in the most recent
recruiting class. Tab Perry, a 6'3", 205-pound wide receiver from
Milpitas, Calif., was scheduled to visit Notre Dame on the first
weekend in January. On the eve of the visit Davie called and told
him not to come--the admissions office had rejected him. "My
father had bought a $600 TWA ticket to come with me, because he
was so hyped about me going there," says Perry. As for his
academic status, he says, "Let's just say I was eligible [in the
eyes of the NCAA]." In February, Perry signed with UCLA.
Bobby Williams, a 6'6", 245-pound defensive lineman from New
Smyrna Beach, Fla., visited Notre Dame in December but was
rejected by admissions while on campus. "They said I wouldn't be
able to pass calculus," says Williams. "I was shocked. No other
school even brought it up." Williams will play at Florida.
At times the jousting between the football staff and the
admissions office can even cost the Irish a player who gets
accepted. Carlos Perez, a 6'1", 200-pound defensive back and wide
receiver from Hoboken, N.J., was told last fall that he would not
be admitted. "They killed me about my academics," says Perez, who
says he had a 2.9 GPA and an 820 on the SAT. In January, after
many appeals from the football staff, the admissions office
suddenly told Perez he could come after all, but by then he had
taken all five of his campus visits. Perez, too, selected
What's most frustrating to Notre Dame and its fans is that the
Irish's most recent run of success, under Holtz from 1988 through
'93, was the result of sensational recruiting. From '86 through
'90, Holtz and recruiting coordinator Vinny Cerrato brought in
some of the best classes in the nation. As a result, in the six
seasons from '88 through '93, Notre Dame won 64 games and had 23
players selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. Only
eight Irish players have been taken in the top three rounds since
then, including just two first-rounders. "[Holtz and Cerrato] had
a phenomenal relationship," says Lou's son, Skip, who works under
his father at South Carolina. (Lou declined to be interviewed for
this story.) "Vinny had the authority to recruit the country, and
he did a super job of identifying players and bringing them in."
He apparently had more than that. According to several sources
familiar with Notre Dame's recruiting during Holtz's heyday, the
admissions office loosened its restrictions enough to let
Cerrato and Holtz build a championship program. Notre Dame
accepted at least a half-dozen players who had vital roles in
winning the 1988 national title and in nearly winning the '89
and '93 championships but who probably would not be admitted
today, according to one of those sources. Among them was
quarterback Tony Rice, one of only two football players admitted
to Notre Dame as a partial qualifier under the NCAA's old Prop
48 standards, which were even less rigorous than today's modest
standards. Also included were two defensive linemen, a
cornerback, at least one running back and an all-purpose back
who had--or continue to have--productive NFL careers. "There was
a guy with a 2.0 GPA and a 700 SAT and another guy who took the
ACT at least six times," says one assistant from the Holtz era.
"They let in a few guys for us," says Jay Hayes, an assistant
from 1989 through '91. "It wasn't easy, but Cerrato worked hard."
Kevin Rooney, who was the admissions director throughout Holtz's
tenure, denies that standards were lowered. "Nothing was
changed," he says. "There was never a meeting where people got
together and said, 'Let's help the football program.' It's my
recollection that the Holtz recruits looked pretty much like the
Certainly Holtz's staff tried to cultivate strong ties to the
admissions office. Holtz told Cerrato to get close to Rooney, so
Cerrato jogged with Rooney at lunchtime. In December 1990,
however, the relationship between Holtz's staff and the
admissions office was fractured when Cerrato and Holtz brought in
roughly 30 recruits for a crucial December weekend visit, and
Rooney denied admission to nearly half of them. Notre Dame
assistants from that era are convinced that most of the rejected
recruits were as qualified academically as recruits in previous
classes. "We were winning too much," says Hayes. "Admissions had
to put Lou and Vinny in their places."
Rooney firmly disagrees. "It's pure and simple: The football
staff brought in a bunch of players who were poor academically,"
he says. "There was always a segment of the recruiting class that
was marginal, but this was very bad."
Notre Dame coaches have been losing admissions battles ever
since. Saracino, who took over for Rooney in 1997, argues that
he's not only protecting poor students from failure but also
guarding the integrity of a university that has lately moved
into the ranks of the national academic elite. "The profile of
our freshman class is much stronger than it was 10 years ago,"
he says. In its 2000 rankings of U.S. colleges and universities,
U.S. News and World Report rated Notre Dame 19th, in front of
Cal, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Michigan. Among schools with
serious football programs, only Stanford (No. 6) ranks ahead of
Notre Dame, and it is silly to argue that the pressure for the
Cardinal to succeed in football matches that of the Irish.
(Stanford, which demands 16 college prep courses and has a math
requirement similar to Notre Dame's, has beaten the Irish two of
the last three seasons.) Saracino also says that few of the 18
freshmen admitted in Notre Dame's most recent recruiting class
would have been accepted had they not been football players.
Given the range of first-rate football programs to choose from,
there are plenty of other reasons for a football player not to
attend Notre Dame, even if he's qualified. The northern Indiana
landscape is bleak, and the weather is horrible. The Irish's
football facilities are only average. Also, the Notre Dame
student population is just 3% African-American. "If you're a
minority player looking for a social life, there's not a lot
here," says Jarious Jackson, a black player from Mississippi who
spent five years in South Bend. "There are no frats, no
sororities and not many minority students. But that's not why
you come here."
An athlete comes to Notre Dame for the tradition that appealed
to Carson Palmer and for the postgraduate networking
opportunities that alumni eagerly provide. It's the value of the
Notre Dame education and the unique experience of playing at a
shrine to football that the coaching staff sells. There's a
certain nobility in this approach, and it can still work.
Davie's recruiting classes of 1998 and '99 were considered to be
of top 10 quality by most recruiting analysts, and some of the
best players in the '99 class haven't played yet. The class Davie
signed in February is regarded as slightly less potent, although
the Irish did beat out Nebraska for 6'2", 190-pound quarterback
Carlyle Holiday of San Antonio and signed five good wide
receivers, including 6'4", 205-pound Jovan Witherspoon of Fort
Wayne, Ind., whom many experts regard as one of the best players
in the country.
They also signed Mike Goolsby, a 6'4", 225-pound linebacker from
Joliet, Ill., who was a first-team Parade All-America with a 2.8
average in college prep courses and a high 24 on his ACT. "I
realize it's gotten uncool to like Notre Dame," says Goolsby,
"but I grew up liking it. My parents always loved the place;
they bought me Notre Dame sweatshirts when I was little. I
believe it's a great place." Goolsby will spend a chunk of his
summer working out with fellow Irish recruit Greg Pauly, a 6'6",
275-pound defensive lineman from Waukesha, Wis. They view
themselves as the future. "We'll be good," Goolsby says. "Trust
me. We will be good."
Good would be an improvement, but it's great that's expected.
There's honor in recruiting selectively and in trying to maintain
the dignity of the student-athlete, but does it makes sense to
shrink the talent pool and also open the season with five
opponents who should challenge for conference championships and
berths in major bowls? The Irish will start with consecutive home
games against Texas A&M, which went 8-4 last season but has had
one of the best programs in the country for more than a decade;
Nebraska, which will be shooting for its fourth national
championship in six years; and Purdue, which, with quarterback
Drew Brees returning for his senior year, will contend in the Big
Ten race. After that, Notre Dame travels to Michigan State, which
has gone to bowl games in four of the last five seasons, before
returning home to play Stanford, the defending Pac-10 champion.
The Irish could be very good and still start 2-3.
The rest of the schedule is easier, including games at West
Virginia, Rutgers and USC, home dates with Air Force and Boston
College, and a game against Navy in Orlando. (Combined 1999
record of those teams: 30-39.) "The opponents aren't quite as
strong near the end," says Davie, "but there's a cumulative
effect on your team when you play so many tough games early."
The other teams know that. Before meeting Notre Dame, Nebraska
tunes up with San Jose State and then has a week off. Purdue
gets ready for the Irish with Central Michigan and Bowling
Green. The week after playing Notre Dame, Texas A&M meets
Wyoming. Nobody strings together strong opponents the way Notre
Dame does. The Irish's 2001 schedule is just as hard, starting
with Nebraska and Purdue on the road and then Michigan State at
home. Notre Dame will meet Tennessee at home on the first
weekend in November. Michigan and Florida State are back on the
schedule in 2002.
Lame duck Wadsworth passes the buck on the schedule. "When I
walked in the door [in 1996], the schedules were complete through
2005," he says. Fine. What did Wadsworth do after he took charge?
How about the '06 schedule, which includes Georgia Tech, Alabama,
Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Stanford, UCLA, North Carolina
and USC? The '07 schedule is nearly identical.
Notre Dame plays a national schedule because it always has, and
because it has fans in all parts of the country. When Gene
Corrigan took over as athletic director in 1980, the schedule
frightened him. "I tried to soften it up," he says. "When I was
looking for a game in the South, I'd try to get Vanderbilt
instead of Tennessee. I'm not saying Notre Dame should play the
bottom of every conference, but it shouldn't always play the top,
As an independent, Notre Dame has to schedule aggressively and
more than 10 years in advance. Conference teams have the
advantage of playing against the weakest teams in their league.
Florida State merits props for playing nonconference rivals Miami
and Florida every year, but the Seminoles also get breathers
against Duke, Maryland and whatever other ACC programs are down
in a given year. Notre Dame was given a chance to join the Big
Ten in 1998 but turned it down because the Irish would have lost
their lucrative television contract.
NBC, which in 2000 begins its third five-year arrangement to
broadcast all Notre Dame home games, loves the schedule. It
allows the network to promote games against attractive opponents.
However, both the Irish and NBC deny that the network has even
subtly influenced scheduling. The denials make some sense: Games
on the current schedule were made in the early 1990s, when Notre
Dame was rolling and any game was marketable.
As a television show, however, the Irish are slipping. Once the
surest thing in college sports, Notre Dame telecasts in 1999 were
consistently beaten in the ratings by games on ABC and CBS. On
Oct. 2, when Notre Dame rallied for a 35-31 victory over Oklahoma
on NBC, the game had a 3.2 Nielson rating, lower than both ABC's
regional telecasts (3.9, including Michigan-Purdue) and the CBS
broadcast of Florida-Tennessee (3.5).
"If you look at the schedule for the next few years, you'd say,
What idiot put that together?" says Malloy. "We know now that the
schedule is a variable. You don't want to play a schedule that no
other team in the country could survive, but the problem is that
it's done 10 years in advance." Before the schedule issue is
resolved, Davie will be fired or sainted, the Notre Dame legend
brought back to life or dead.
In the end, could it be simply that the coach isn't any good? If
the Irish had hired Gary Barnett or Mack Brown in '96, would
things be different? "It's high-risk, high-reward," Malloy says
of the job. Maybe it isn't meant for a coach who is merely good.
Maybe it takes a Rockne, a Leahy, a Parseghian.
Is Davie a good coach? "I don't think he's worth a s---," says
one NFL personnel man. There is no shortage of people who
will--anonymously--blame Davie for Notre Dame's slide; there are
few targets as large as a struggling coach of the Irish. The
truth, however, is that the jury is still out.
Notre Dame's December 1996 hiring of Davie, a 20-year college
assistant, including three as Holtz's defensive coordinator,
broke an unwritten rule. "Everybody who has succeeded in that
job has been there and done that before," says Corrigan. "I'm
not saying Bob Davie isn't a good coach, but the people who have
done well there have had head-coaching experience."
Davie's three-year record is 21-16. Among Notre Dame's 12 coaches
since Rockne took over in 1918, only Kuharich (12-18) and Faust
(18-15-1) had poorer three-year records. (Before they were hired
neither Kuharich nor Faust had been a college head coach.)
Davie's first year was clouded by an age-discrimination suit
filed and ultimately won by Joe Moore, an offensive line coach
whom Davie had fired. Davie's second and third years were marred
by the booster scandal that dated back to Holtz's regime and led
to NCAA probation, and by a minor albeit embarrassing incident
involving a player who scalped tickets.
On the plus side of Davie's ledger, Notre Dame went 9-3 in 1998,
his second season, and had it not been for an injury to Jackson
in the 10th game, the Irish probably would have beaten USC, gone
10-1 and played in a Bowl Championship Series game. After that
season Davie was given a two-year extension on his five-year
contract, which now runs through the 2003 season. His recruits
are just becoming major contributors. "Coach Davie has brought
enthusiasm and a good attitude to the program," says wide
receiver Malcolm Johnson of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who played
two years under Holtz and two under Davie. "Believe me, [the
Irish are] going to be back. Give them time."
Last season didn't offer such promise. After drubbing Kansas,
Notre Dame suffered tough losses to Michigan and Purdue, in part
because of sloppy execution near the end of the games--a
shortcoming that must land at the coach's feet. "Little
mistakes, here and there, people not on the same page," says
Jackson. (Davie patrols the sideline wearing a headset, but he
leaves the play-calling mostly to his coordinators.) Next, the
Irish lost to Michigan State on an 80-yard pass-and-run in the
fourth quarter. Then Notre Dame won four consecutive games and
went to Tennessee with a 5-3 record, only to get outclassed,
38-14. That loss deflated the Irish, who ended the season with
three defeats, to Pittsburgh, Boston College and Stanford. "It
was a tough finish," says sophomore defensive tackle Anthony
Weaver. "Morale got pretty low. A lot of us wondered if we were
causing Notre Dame to lose its luster."
Those last three losses put Davie back on the bubble. "I hope
they give Bob the last two years on his original contract," says
Wadsworth. What about the extension? "Those years can be bought
out," he said. "It happens all the time."
Opposing coaches thought Notre Dame was better than a 5-7 team
but clearly not an elite team. "I thought they had more talent
than all but maybe three of the teams that we played," says one
coach. "They had some athletes but didn't always play hard.
Something was missing."
"They were physical and competed hard," says another coach. "They
didn't have a lot of speed, and that was a factor."
"No way they can claim that they don't have talent," says a third
coach. "On a national level, I'd put them maybe right below a
Kansas State in terms of talent."
The NFL wasn't impressed. Only two Irish seniors, Jackson and
defensive end Lamont Bryant, were invited to the league's
scouting combine, and only Jackson was drafted, by the Denver
Broncos in the seventh round. "In the last three or four years,
I've not graded one player from Notre Dame and gone, 'Oooo--wow!'"
says an NFC personnel man.
Joe Ferrer, a linebacker who played three seasons for Davie
before transferring to Massachusetts in February (he reportedly
didn't like the atmosphere on campus), says the Irish lack
personality. "Notre Dame is so concerned about its
image--Catholic school, all-American boys and all that--that it
doesn't let football players be individuals. There's no attitude
in the program."
There's attitude, but it's best expressed by polite, humble
players such as junior Grant Irons, a 270-pound defensive end who
speaks in a deferential whisper and plays with the same
trepidation. Sophomore running back Julius Jones, a terrific
talent whose brother, Thomas, was a star at Virginia, is the same
way. Most of the players are models of decorum, which makes the
Notre Dame administration happy. But on the field, athleticism,
aggressiveness and swagger are as essential as good citizenship.
The job has changed Davie. Three years ago, as he prepared for
his first spring practice, he spent a long March night talking to
undergraduates, preaching the gospel--his gospel--of Notre Dame
football. Afterward he stood under a streetlight outside Notre
Dame Stadium and promised to stay open and upbeat. Now he
describes himself as a "hermit" who spends all his free time with
his family and doesn't read newspapers or watch television during
the season. "He's more serious and more cautious," says his wife,
Joanne, "but he's grown."
The three men who hired Davie were Beauchamp, Wadsworth and
associate athletic director George Kelly. Beauchamp no longer
supervises athletics, Wadsworth has been pushed out, and Kelly
has only recently returned to his position after a long illness.
Davie is operating without a net. Newspapers have begun floating
names of possible replacements. (The most popular is Jacksonville
Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin, who has denied interest in the job.)
Perhaps Davie needs to suck up to the admissions office. Perhaps
he and his staff need to work harder to find more quality
athletes who fit the Golden Dome image and meet the admissions
standards (although Colletto claims he has never worked harder in
his life than he did in South Bend). Perhaps Davie is just
keeping the office warm for the next guy, this time a big-name
coach who will come in when Notre Dame is desperate for success.
"I believe in this place," Davie said one recent afternoon in his
office across the street from the House that Rockne Built. "I
believe in the question Notre Dame is asking: Can it be done the
That same day he jogged on the second level of the Joyce Center,
Notre Dame's basketball arena. Each revolution of the balcony
took him past a montage of Notre Dame history, Heismans blurring
in his peripheral vision, old uniforms reflecting in the glass
of countless trophy cases, sneakers slapping against a concrete
floor. A coach running in circles.
"IT'S NOT MY GOAL TO MAKE THE COACHES HAPPY," SAYS SARACINO,
NOTRE DAME'S ADMISSIONS DIRECTOR
DUCKETT HELPED THE SPARTANS BEAT THE IRISH IN THE SAME STADIUM
WHERE HE'D BEEN SO LAVISHLY COURTED
WAS IT ROCKNE, LEAHY, PARSEGHIAN AND HOLTZ WHO MADE NOTRE DAME
GREAT, OR WAS IT THE REVERSE?
DURING HOLTZ'S HEYDAY, THE ADMISSIONS OFFICE LOOSENED
RESTRICTIONS TO LET HIM BUILD A CHAMPIONSHIP PROGRAM
"I BELIEVE IN THIS PLACE," SAYS DAVIE. "I BELIEVE IN THE
QUESTION NOTRE DAME IS ASKING: CAN IT BE DONE RIGHT?"