Lou Holtz, the hunch neck of Notre Dame, has spent much of this football season observing from high above with his spine bent out of shape, like some quasi-Quasimodo.
He has seen his team lose to Northwestern and nearly lose to Army, the kind of hallucinations that probably caused Holtz to ask his doctor about the side-effects of certain drugs.
Yet even major surgery could not prevent Holtz from attending Notre Dame's games and having the victories and defeats count on his official record, as his school honored the ancient athletic adage: No Holtz barred.
Meanwhile, at a great campus way out West, where devoted fans have seen Heisman Trophies come and go, including in the middle of the night, the football coach has felt considerably better than Holtz has this season.
Oh, John Robinson, his coaching contemporary from the university known in no fewer than 49 states as "Southern Cal," did experience his own sort of discomfort this autumn, even with an undefeated squad.
Robinson has had to co-habitate with the specter of NCAA penalties and possible forfeiture of victories, should it be proved that one or more of his key players did something in violation of the NCAA's endless list of naughty-naughties. I think this time All-American receiver Keyshawn Johnson was accused of illegally buying a quarter pounder without cheese, or something.
Last I heard, some slippery agent also had gotten his meat hooks on an athlete or two, leading Robinson to compare such sleazoids to "drug dealers" who worm their way into the worlds of the innocent or naive, preying on their temptations and then sidestepping accountability. Robinson began this season thinking about ending it against Penn State, but found himself dealing with men who belong in state pens.
This storm seems to have passed, thankfully, and so USC's potential 12-0 season does not seem in any real danger of turning into 0-12, once the NCAA police are through looking into it.
In fact, the only crisis Robinson and the Trojans might eventually confront is the possibility of being defeated in the Rose Bowl by a bunch of brainy nerds from Northwestern, which is like, you know, Fresno State, only smarter.
First, though, Notre Dame.
USC has lost to the Fighting Irish in every season since, let's see, let me look this up here . . . yes, the Civil War, that's what I thought. Abraham Lincoln flew a private jet over from his summer home in Illinois to conduct the opening coin toss, and sat there the whole game with his face painted, wearing one of those funny caps with the Styrofoam cups and the straws.
OK, OK, so it hasn't been that long. But I'll tell you how long it has been . The last time the Trojans defeated Notre Dame, their coach was John Robinson . . . and they've gone through two other coaches since. I think back then they wore leather helmets. This might have been pre-Gatorade. It might have been pre-gators.
Robinson wants this one.
He needs it more than Holtz does. The vow to restore Trojan football to its former greatness is almost fulfilled for Robinson now. All that remains is that conquest of Notre Dame that was guaranteed on billboards all over town, when USC changed coaches. Robinson has talked the talk and chalked the chalk. Now he has to walk the walk.
I think he will. My gut instinct is that this is the week that USC finally nails the Fighting Irish . . . and I don't mean in the tunnel, before the game.
For starters, this kid Keyshawn Johnson is some kind of pass-catcher. I believe he could catch a down-and-out on the San Diego Freeway at rush hour. He could catch fish with his bare hands, this kid. I bet if you threw rice at Keyshawn's wedding, none of it would hit the ground.
When I went to the Cotton Bowl last Jan. 2, I saw one of the greatest performances I've seen by any individual from the University of Southern California since Ron Howard played Opie.
Keyshawn nabbed eight balls for 222 yards and three touchdowns. Texas Tech couldn't have followed him with a private detective. This was the day Tech's fans threw flour tortillas at USC's players from the stands. I'm pretty sure Keyshawn grabbed one in midair on his way to the end zone and made a burrito by the time he got there.
This kid has fun. At a junior college game once, Keyshawn caught a touchdown pass, kept running and went right up to a concession stand, where he grabbed a Coke and drank it.
I hope Keyshawn runs for several long touchdowns against Notre Dame, but I hope he also takes pity. This could really hurt Lou Holtz's poor neck, watching him.
* SUSPENSION INCREASED
USC's Errick Herrin loses two more games, and Israel Ifeanyi seeks a temporary restraining order to play Saturday. C5
* INJURY LINGERS
UCLA linebacker Donnie Edwards will miss another game, which could cause more problems with NCAA officials. C5