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Notre Dame Is Back Where It Belongs--No. 1

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The Washington Post

Those faint fright tremors jolting most major-college football offices about the country just now are similar to what hits particular corporate board rooms each time IBM gets inspirational. Notre Dame (Gulp!) is back. Even more unsettling, Coach Lou Holtz is worried.

Holtz is a witty man. After a loss at Arkansas once, he opened his television show by saying: “Welcome to the Lou Holtz Show. Unfortunately, I’m Lou Holtz.” A golfer, the closest he says he has ever come to a hole in one is bogey.

Yet, the most laughter Holtz generated during a press conference the morning Notre Dame officially became national champion was for saying: “I’ll be shocked if we have a good year (next season).”

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When the chuckles stopped, Holtz quickly apologized. He knew us sainted scribes could be fooled about a lot of things; he’d done a fair amount of the slickering himself during this 12-0 season and before drubbing West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.

The sly coach said he understood how paid skeptics could recoil at such apparent folly, that he would be startled if the gifted and experienced Irish did much more next season than get each cleat on the proper foot.

He’d have laughed, too, Holtz admitted. Then he asked his frequent foils to understand his position, which he never bothered to explain because he already had done that a half-hour earlier. Indirectly. By quoting a high-school coach.

Holtz had talked about recruiting a player for Notre Dame. During a visit with the prospect’s coach, Holtz asked why he had enjoyed such uninterrupted success. That nationally obscure high-school coach said: “We don’t get bored watching us run the same play over and over.”

Boredom is the crabgrass of careers -- and Holtz knows it. That’s why he rails at his players, pushes his staff and himself so hard. He also says: “If we’re No. 1, I don’t care who’s No. 2.”

To stay on top, Holtz has got to remain infatuated over the possibilities with a football, even though all you can really do is throw it, catch it, run it, keep from dropping it and make sure the other guys don’t spike it in the end zone too often.

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With regards to that last thing, Holtz wants a kinder, gentler Notre Dame defense than the one nailed for so much unsportsmanlike conduct during the 34-21 rout of West Virginia.

The coach even got a penalty, for dashing onto the field in the final minutes, with victory well in hand. He was not grasping for Irish necks, only for the source of that rare lack of Irish poise.

Holtz said his players were angry over being held, and frustrated that the officials seemed so inattentive. The coach said his players were wrong, but not cheap-shotters. Except for once, when a West Virginia player caught a touchdown pass and the Notre Dame defender tried to shove him into Flagstaff.

“I promise you this,” Holtz said. “You won’t see that again.”

To keep the supply line of pure hearts, massive bodies, swift feet and keen minds moving toward South Bend, Ind., Holts must remember to forget a popular notion: Notre Dame doesn’t recruit so much as it crooks a finger.

If Holtz wants to claim a national title on the field somewhere down the line, he must be a winner in the right living rooms these next several weeks. Every mother’s meal must be a classic; no father’s botched effort at humor can bring anything but merriment from a master storyteller.

Holtz stays lean, he jokes, so he’ll be easier to carry off the field. Actually, he admits, the reason for all those pre-game milkshakes is a problem with low blood sugar. Whatever, he looks hungry and talks as though near starvation about next season.

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“In everything we do,” he said, “we’ve got to raise it a notch.” With that in mind, Holtz phoned prospects not long after the victory that kept Notre Dame atop the polls; he met with quarterback Tony Rice early the next morning and used a sermon he also will preach often to others:

“Now we’ll find out how we all handle success.” The team, and Rice most especially, “won’t be in the background any more.”

The coach has been tough on Rice during practice and severe about him in public. Rice ought to be flattered, in a way, because the coach treats his quarterback in public no less affectionately than the coach does his wife.

Holtz has said: “We were at a beach one summer, and I had a bathing suit on. My wife looked at me and said: ‘Boy, you are skinny, aren’t you?’ I said: ‘Honey, I’d like to remind you that it was minor defects like this that kept me from getting a better wife.’ ”

The team also was a tease, late in the third quarter against West Virginia. Two plays after surrendering a touchdown that had narrowed the lead to 26-13, Rice threw an interception that gave the Mountaineers the ball at the Notre Dame 26.

West Virginia had the ball for three plays. It didn’t get a touchdown; it didn’t get a field goal. What happened was a Mountaineers’ trip backwards that ended with, of all deflating things, a punt followed by an 80-yard Notre Dame burst for another touchdown.

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Holtz had fussed before the game: “We cannot flinch.” Nobody did, and Holtz will have trouble fooling even the dullest minds from now on.

He might try and hide his obsession behind self-deprecating one-liners, but who will believe him? Holtz insists he never dreamed of winning a national title, yet he had a bailout clause in his contract at Minnesota for the job he now has.

Any coach who wants so badly to coach at Notre Dame also wants to join Rockne and Leahy in Notre Dame history. The ordinary-looking fellow with Olympian ambition seems to be saying, as Notre Damers did when they peeked behind those thick glasses and saw genius: let the gains begin.

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