He’s Only Upholding Tradition

Did you know there were two Notre Dames on the national football scene?

Don’t take my word for it, go out and buy two books. The first is “Notre Dame’s Greatest Coaches,” by the late Moose Krause, Notre Dame’s legendary longtime athletic director. In its pages is the Notre Dame of story and song, the Notre Dame of Rockne and the Four Horsemen, Win One for the Gipper, One-Play O’Brien.

It’s the Hollywood Notre Dame. The Notre Dame where Ronald Reagan played George Gipp, and Pat O’Brien played Knute Rockne. The Notre Dame of “Shake down the thunder from the sky,” lyrics from the greatest victory march in college football, the Notre Dame of the Golden Dome, where the first-string line and the coach go to Mass every morning and Communion the day of the game.

That Notre Dame.


Then, there’s that other Notre Dame, the one in Doug Looney and Don Yaeger’s book, “Under the Tarnished Dome.”

This is the Mr. Hyde Notre Dame. There’s not a part in here Ronald Reagan could have played, to say nothing of Pat O’Brien. This is a Notre Dame of steroid use, admissions flimflams, the Notre Dame where incoming athletes not only need academic tests but drug tests. At this Notre Dame, the first-string line doesn’t go to Mass, it goes to night court. This Notre Dame looks more like a branch of the Mafia than the priesthood.

If the first book is a paean of praise to the Notre Dame myth mentors of the past--Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian--the second is a savage assault on the current Notre Dame coach, Louis Leo Holtz.

Lou Holtz comes across as a combination of Jack the Ripper and the man who shot Jesse James.


Let’s see, he grabbed a player by the facemask to force a point, is believed to have spat on a player, tackled his quarterback to get his attention, turned the other way when rumors of steroid abuse arose, tongue-lashed his players abusively, recruited players he knew weren’t going to become priests, cheated with the best of them when it came to smuggling hooligans past the good fathers in the admissions system.

Sounds like a football coach to me. What was he going to do--field seminarians and then presume to play Miami on a level field?

The authors feel Holtz has defaulted on a shining promise, compromised a university that had maintained its awesome hegemony in college football with untainted recruiting practices.

I’m not so sure. Rockne became a folk hero because he did what folk heroes always have to do--die young. But there is some evidence the sainted Rock may have pioneered the modern methods of recruiting for football prowess.


Look at Gipp. He was a high school dropout. Football wasn’t his game, cards and pool were. He never lived on campus. He lived in a hotel room, where he wouldn’t have to play his poker games in the dark or by flashlight. He disappeared from school as soon as the football season ended. He played pro baseball under an assumed name.

Rockne needed him. There is no record of his ever having been suspended, not even for openly betting on games, or even being reprimanded. He planted the Notre Dame legend. Without him, there doubtless would have been no Four Horsemen, no “Fighting Irish.” Without him, Rockne would probably have gone back to teaching chemistry.

Rockne had other renegades. The great fullback, Joe Savoldi, got married, which someone pointed out was against the school’s rules, then got divorced, which was against the school’s religion. Only then did Rockne cut him loose. He became a professional wrestler, which gives you an idea of what a scholar he was.

Rockne himself was a broken-nosed baldheaded old geezer who looked 40 when he was 20 and 60 when he was 40. He got football players the same way the James Gang got train robbers--from the dregs of society. Others he rescued from coal mines and cornfields. He had every priest in the country on the lookout for guys who ran the 40 in 4.3 or bench-pressed the backs of plows.


Holtz’s problem is, he looks like Woody Allen but acts like Woody Hayes. And Notre Dame is at once the beneficiary and the victim of its image. It couldn’t let go of its football identification, even if it wanted to.

There is a baleful quality to Lou Holtz that can make 280-pound tackles quail. He is so small and wafer-thin that if you put a stamp on him you could mail him anywhere in the country overnight. But watching him trudge endlessly up and down a sideline like a caged cougar on game day, it’s possible to feel for the pressures being a Notre Dame coach must bring. He looks like he’s trying to get away.

There are more than half a million kids playing football somewhere every year, but there are probably fewer than 500 who are any good. The coaches know who they are and what it takes to get them. The problem is to get them and keep them in line till they can put you in the Orange Bowl and you can put them with the Green Bay Packers.

Doug Looney is a crack journalist, one of our best, but he and his co-author don’t even give Holtz credit for one of the most audacious coaching maneuvers on principle ever observed. When he was at Arkansas in 1977, he suspended three of his star players on the eve of the Orange Bowl when they were accused of rape.


The authors don’t even accord Holtz high marks for that. He may have acted in haste and with malice, they argue. They base their accusations on an interview with one of the players suspended--and interviews with the defense lawyer. His clients were innocent, he says. Which should come as a great surprise, I guess.

Show me the coach who is eager to go into a bowl game without his best players and I’ll show you an ex-coach.

In 1988, on the eve of a game in the Coliseum in which Notre Dame, undefeated and 10-0 and ranked No. 1 was playing USC, 10-0 and ranked No. 2, Holtz kicked off the team his two best players, Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks. For coming late to a team meal. They were put on a plane back to South Bend. Notre Dame won without them.

I think, however grudgingly, you have to respect Holtz for that action. My friend, Doug Looney, somehow, even finds that self-serving.


Notre Dame calls the book a “hatchet job.” But that implies an injurious condemnation of an innocent person. Looney and Yaeger document many of their differences with Holtz’s tutelage.

Notre Dame is no Joan of Arc. It does not suffer in silence. It dispatched its athletic director, Dick Rosenthal, out here to apply some damage control. The university’s graduation rate is above 85% and nearly 100% for African-American athletes, he tells you.

I don’t know which book’s view of Notre Dame is correct. Probably both. Probably neither. A solution would be for Notre Dame to join the Ivy League. Does anybody seriously want that?

Is Holtz a monster defiling the purity of Notre Dame’s image? Nah! He’s a football coach! He’s probably doing the same things in his day Rockne did in his. The names may change from George Gipp to Rocket Ismail, but the issue is the same: win, but don’t tell me how you did it.


Notre Dame is stuck with him and it. I always like the anecdote that Holtz likes to tell of how the university ended up where it is in the first place. A band of priests, he says, were on their way from Baltimore to San Diego, where they intended to establish Notre Dame. They were held up by a terrible storm in South Bend and decided, “Let’s just put up our tents here till the weather gets better.”

The weather isn’t going to get any better for the football program either. You get a Lou Holtz--or you get a 1-11 record. Then you get someone worse than Holtz.