It is a Lou Holtz tradition to assemble his Notre Dame team at season’s beginning and inform it that at least three calamities await. Holtz has delivered the same speech for years, but never has he been this right, this often. It is a completion record he could do without: three for three . . . and counting.
“A bit of an unusual season,” Holtz said dryly. “Many firsts for me.”
Holtz isn’t the only one on a first-name basis with adversity. His Orange Bowl counterpart, Colorado’s Bill McCartney, found himself coaching-shorts deep in controversy this year--some his own doing, some not.
And while Colorado enters Monday night’s game against the Irish with an 11-0 record, the Buffaloes do so with a less-than-pristine image. As Holtz before him, McCartney has discovered that success exacts its own particular price.
“But that’s how you get stronger, when you go through affliction,” McCartney said. “When you’ve been under fire, there’s a way in which you come through it better. I think that’s been true for us. We’ve made a lot of mistakes around here and (the media) have documented them in their entirety over and over. There’s a way in which that makes you stronger, draws you closer and helps you in the long run.”
Or as Holtz is fond of saying, “It’s not what you achieve, but it’s what you had to overcome to achieve it.”
In Notre Dame’s case, calamity arrived in August and hasn’t budged since. Where to start . . .
--All-American linebacker Michael Stonebreaker, whose on-campus driving privileges were suspended after a February drunken driving violation, was later deemed unfit by the university’s Office of Student Affairs to represent the school after he moved a friend’s car from a no-parking zone. There was no appeal.
--Tony Brooks, the Irish’s second-leading rusher of a season ago, left the scene of an automobile accident and was promptly suspended from spring practice. For a variety of reasons--none of them fully explained--Brooks left school, returned in the summer and was declined admission in the fall.
--Defensive tackle George Williams, who helped Notre Dame win a national championship in 1988, was declared academically ineligible.
--Linebacker Arnold Ale transferred to UCLA.
--Notre Dame players exchanged punches with USC players in a pregame brawl.
--Miami ended a 23-game Irish winning streak.
--Holtz’s name was mentioned prominently at the trial of a University of Minnesota employee who intimated that the former head coach knew of illegal payoffs made to Gopher players. The employee, Luther Darville, later was found guilty of stealing university funds. Meanwhile, no link ever was established between Holtz and the payoffs.
--Notre Dame assistant coaches, with Holtz’s blessings, interviewed for head coaching positions. Backfield coach Jim Strong accepted an offer from Nevada Las Vegas.
--Rumors persisted (and still do) that Holtz’s days at Notre Dame were in single-digit numbers, that he would be replaced by, of all people, McCartney or UCLA’s Terry Donahue.
--And late last week, Holtz had to dislodge himself from a delicate situation when pre-practice comments made to his team about Colorado were filmed and televised by a Denver TV crew.
So much for calamity quotas.
“There are many days when I feel like the guy down in Texas who had the big, beautiful ranch,” Holtz said. “He invited a group of (people) out to show them how the better half lives and he didn’t want any of them to swim in the swimming pool. So he filled it up with alligators and he now told them, ‘If any of you have the courage to dive in the pool and swim through the alligators, I’ll give you any three wishes: my daughter’s hand in marriage, the deed to this ranch, a million dollars in cash.’ Still, he didn’t think anyone had the courage to do it.
“No sooner had he turned his back when he heard this splash. For 22 minutes this guy fought the alligators and emerged victoriously. The man from the ranch ran up and said, ‘Boy, that was a great display of courage. I didn’t think anybody would do that. To show you I’m a man of my word, I’ll give you my daughter’s hand, the deed to this ranch and a million dollars in cash. So what’s your wish?’
“The guy said, ‘I want to know who pushed me in that pool.’ ”
There’s only one rub to the story: No one nudged Holtz into the Notre Dame pool. He jumped in head-first. It is the one coaching job he truly wanted and the one job he fights to keep.
“It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me in my coaching career,” he said. “I would like to stay at Notre Dame for a long, long time.”
In four seasons’ time, Holtz has compiled an enviable 35-11 record and led the Irish to their first national championship since 1977. No one questions his ability to recruit, motivate or coach. But there are those who question his staying power.
“I had no idea of what the magnitude of the job was,” Holtz said. “The job today is far different from the one I took over four years ago. But I was warned about it.”
This season, more than the previous three, seems to have troubled Holtz the most. There are the external pressures of the job--public relations, recruiting, academic integrity--and the internal demands--mainly, don’t lose games.
“Dad once said that the pressure at Notre Dame was something that came from within,” said Skip Holtz, an assistant coach at Colorado State. “As a head coach (at Notre Dame) you look at the wall there and see Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Devine. It’s an interesting dilemma. You don’t want to be the one to spoil the tradition at Notre Dame.”
The pressure takes its toll. Skip Holtz conceded that his father’s physical appearance has suffered since he became Notre Dame’s coach. “Yeah, he’ll probably hang me up by my toes for that,” he said. “But as far as his personality is concerned, I think he’s more comfortable, more relaxed.”
Maybe so, but when Skip asked for his father’s blessings to pursue a coaching career, Holtz declined.
“No way, I forbid it,” he said.
Skip persisted and finally convinced his father otherwise.
“OK,” Holtz said, “but before you go tell your mother, you make sure she’s unarmed.”
It wasn’t the first time Holtz has been asked to provide coaching advice. at Minnesota, Holtz received a call from McCartney, who was quietly retooling the Colorado program. Among other topics, McCartney was interested in Holtz’s techniques for turning a team around.
These days, the two coaches could discuss the less pleasurable demands of their positions. At Colorado, that would include the lingering accusations of racism on the Boulder campus, the numerous arrests of CU players, the cancer-related death of quarterback Sal Aunese and the legacies Aunese left behind: a winning, competitive spirit--and an infant son born to McCartney’s daughter.
Aunese was certainly no saint. He was sentenced to two weeks in jail in 1988 after pleading guilty to charges of misdemeanor menacing, assault and trespassing. A racial slur was what prompted Aunese’s outburst.
And in September, two days after Aunese’s death, McCartney confirmed what everyone at CU suspected or already knew: that McCartney’s grandson, Timothy, had been fathered by Aunese.
Despite his indiscretions, Aunese’s impact on the CU team is incalculable. It was Aunese, said McCartney, who taught the Buffaloes the importance of playing as one. And it was Aunese who inspired CU to do things it thought improbable.
Members of The Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald editorial board didn’t think so. Earlier this season, an editorial accused McCartney and his coaches of “exploiting the Aunese tragedy.”
In addition, it said there was an “unseemly effort to hype his death into a sort of ‘12th-man’ presence on the Colorado team.”
McCartney calmly denies the charges.
“First of all, I don’t begrudge anybody on the outside who finds fault or takes exception to what appears to be going on here,” he said. “But it’s really been quite authentic. It’s been very genuine and it’s just happened spontaneously. It isn’t anything that’s been orchestrated or planned.
“We don’t have to try to explain it to somebody on the outside. It’s not necessary. It’s very real, it’s bona fide and it continues to prevail.”
Asked what he would tell his grandson about Aunese, McCartney didn’t hesitate.
“I’ll tell him his dad was a team guy,” he said. “Unselfish. Hard worker. Not afraid of hard work. Very loyal. Very wholehearted. Big shoes to fill.”
As for his team’s difficulties with the Boulder and CU campus police, McCartney said the issue is nothing more than “old news.” According to McCartney, the problem has been addressed and the results have been encouraging.
For all his good intentions, McCartney has been at a loss to entirely alleviate the occasional bouts of racism to which his players refer. But rather than dismiss the incidents as minor, McCartney has instructed his players to be forthright about the situation.
Not long ago, CU tailback J.J. Flannigan escorted a recruit around campus. The recruit asked if the reports of racisms were true.
“I told him, ‘I’d be lying to you if I told you it’s not that bad and don’t worry about it,’ ” Flannigan said. “It gets bad, but I also told him, ‘No matter where you go, it’s going to be the same way. And to tell you the truth, if you’re going to get it, you might as well get it now.’
“But racism is not going to end overnight with a winning season and a win at the Orange Bowl.”
Still, McCartney wouldn’t mind hoisting a national championship trophy above his head in triumph. Nor would Holtz turn down the opportunity to win a second consecutive title.
But a victory here Monday won’t erase the stress and turmoil of their 1989 seasons. However, in its own peculiar way, a win could convince both Holtz and McCartney to jump back into that pool again.