The re-arrival of Notre Dame is a most happy event for all those who felt something was missing from college football during that dark period of just a couple of seasons ago. If only you couldn’t hear the Fighting Irish elbows working so busily as they polish up their halos, while the alums rave on and Coach Lou Holtz refers, seriously, to “the Notre Dame spirit.”
The Fighting Irish have to be credited with the unthinkable, raising themselves from a 5-6 team just two years ago to No. 2 in the country currently, one of six unbeaten teams left at 7-0 and turning over in their collective minds the thought of a national championship. On Saturday they meet pitiable Navy (3-4) at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Md., and how quickly they have stepped back into their former persona, the supercilious bullies of college football, the royal family that expects titles and rankings to fall to them in the normal course of a season.
“When someone pays tuition at Notre Dame, that entitles them to a national championship every four years,” Holtz said. “That’s the feeling I get.”
But how perfectly dramatic it would be if they could toss another trophy in their cluttered glass cases after going without one since 1977. Already the Irish have created a couple of miracles that suggest they can, beating Michigan by 19-17 on Reggie Ho’s long distance field goal in the final seconds, and upsetting then No. 1 Miami, 31-30, two weeks ago by batting away Steve Walsh’s failed two-point conversion pass. So now the Irish have just Navy, Southwest Conference poor relation Rice, and much-weakened Penn State on the schedule before traveling to Los Angeles to meet No. 3 Southern California on Nov. 26.
With that forgiving latter half of the schedule, they are now free to entertain thoughts of eventually becoming No. 1, which just two weeks ago Holtz labeled “idle conversation.” Nothing is assured, especially with the Trojans as their last opponents of the season. But the Irish have reached a coasting period, when they can assess their chances and their talent.
“It’s easier to see the target now,” defensive back George Streeter said. “You’re not supposed to look down the road, but with only another month left, you can see a little further. You don’t want to look so much at where you’ve been. It’s like driving.”
They are scoring 33 points a game with their option-oriented attack led by an array of young talent like Tony Brooks, who has rushed for 529 yards, and breathtaking receivers like sophomore flanker Ricky Watters and freshman split end Raghib “Rocket” Ismail. Defensively, they are holding teams to just 15 points a game with guys named ominous things like Mike Stonebreaker. In practice earlier this year, Streeter hit his own teammate, Pat Eilers, so hard that he was knocked out for a full minute. They are a by-the-book team built on a concerted lack of individuality.
“There’s a lot of conformity on this team,” Streeter said.
Clearly this is no fakery, unlike last season when the Irish were ranked fourth in the country before they were ignominiously shut out by Miami, 24-0, and then completely unmasked by Texas A&M; in the Cotton Bowl, 35-10. They have gotten progressively just a little bit better in each of the three years under Holtz, from that first season when they lost five of their games by seven points, to last year’s 8-4 mark.
Holtz at the time seemed unsuited for Notre Dame, a stringy little man with hokey ways he picked up while coaching at Arkansas and Minnesota. In truth, he may have been the ideal choice, a shrewd manipulator of emotions and a master of obfuscation placed at a school that offers great theatrical material. He uses whatever theme serves him well in a given week, weaving illusions until opponents are uncertain exactly which opponent they should prepare for.
Nor does he give away his secrets willingly. If he is to be believed, his philosophy is a strange collection of fact and superstition. “I don’t believe in bad practices,” he says, “it’s bad luck.” Then he will embark on an involved explanation of how he tries to gain a rhythm in workouts throughout the week, building them slowly toward game day. Then he will say worriedly, “Our defensive backs had far too good a practice on Tuesday.”
Only occasionally does Holtz -- or the rest of his team -- offer a glimpse of the real nature of the program, an extremely talented one that has quietly gained depth. Some of the Irish who could come back as fifth-year seniors next year may be discouraged from doing so. No one wants to get injured, because there is no assurance that their starting positions will be there when they return.
Ned Bolcar, a star at linebacker last season and also the team captain, has faded this season to a reserve behind Stonebreaker and Wes Pritchett, and has remarked unhappily on the fact that it is difficult to be a team leader when you are sitting on the bench.
As for all that mystique Holtz likes to dole out, Pritchett observed, “No matter how much history or tradition there is, it doesn’t win games. Players still have to play and coaches still have to coach.”
The Irish have done both. Quarterback Tony Rice was subject to skepticism as the returning starter and completed just five of his first 21 passes for 91 yards and two interceptions. “I don’t know if he had confidence,” Holtz said. “But I didn’t.”
Holtz also joked at one point that Las Vegas ought to post odds every time the Irish threw the ball. Rice has since improved drastically, completing 38 of 63 passes for 629 yards, six touchdowns and only three interceptions over the last five games. When the Irish trailed Pittsburgh late in the fourth quarter before a comeback, Rice turned to Holtz on the sidelines and said, “Gee, this is turning into a great game, isn’t it?”
With close scrapes like that, and with the experiences of the last two disappointing seasons still a vivid memory, the Irish are loath to let their ambitions get ahead of them. That is difficult on a campus where wholesale hysteria reigns and the school paper is still running stories on the Miami game. In the dorm, Streeter’s classmates slap him on the back and tell him what a great season the Irish are having, and then are mystified when he ducks his head.
“People ask me how I can be so laid back, don’t I know we’re on the verge of a great season,” he said. “But we haven’t had it yet. I like to look back on things, you know. Right now there’s too much left to do.”