For him, the Notre Dame job was a Faustian bargain
The voice is raspy but the enthusiasm unflinching.
Gerry Faust is fully engaged.
The former Notre Dame coach, famously plucked from the high school coaching ranks to lead the most storied program in college football, may have crashed and burned on the job more than two decades ago, the Fighting Irish tumbling into a five-season run of mediocrity under his guidance, but what an experience!
“Wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” Faust, 73, fairly bellows from his home in Fairlawn, Ohio, a suburb of Akron. “If I had the opportunity to do it again and knew the results would be the same, I’d do it again in a minute.
“I love Notre Dame and I loved coaching there.”
Never mind that his teams’ 30-26-1 record from 1981 to ’85 included only one bowl victory -- in the 1983 Liberty Bowl -- or that none of his teams won more than seven games, lost fewer than four or appeared in a January bowl game.
The Irish won a national championship under Dan Devine four years before Faust arrived and another under Lou Holtz three years after he departed, but they never finished a season ranked among the top 20 under Faust.
Still, “I had only 26 miserable days at Notre Dame; that’s when we lost,” Faust says. “Other than that, I was the happiest guy in the world. I loved walking on the campus, loved being there, loved being a part of Notre Dame.”
Loves it still, in fact.
Faust, 43-53-3 in nine seasons at Akron after leaving Notre Dame, has regularly attended Irish home games in the 14 years since he left coaching.
Until a few seasons ago, when a confrontation with a heckler prompted a move to the press box, he even sat in the stands at Notre Dame Stadium.
“A guy was yelling at the quarterback,” Faust says, “and I turned around and said, ‘If you can do any better, you get down there. Keep your mouth shut.’
“At halftime, I went up and apologized to the guy. He’s a Notre Dame fan, and I was wrong.”
Mention to Faust that Notre Dame’s 28-20 record under its current coach is not much better than its 26-21-1 record after the same number of games under Faust and the former coach says: “I think Charlie Weis is doing a real good job. He’s a very bright coach, and I think he has recruited well. I think you give him time.”
Faust says he knew his time was up after five seasons.
“I probably would have been let go,” says Faust, who spared the university the trouble of firing him by announcing his resignation before his final game, a crushing 58-7 loss at Miami, “and I thought it was time. So I went in and told them that we needed a new coach, a new beginning, a new direction.”
It was the end of “The Bold Experiment,” as Faust’s eyebrow-raising hiring out of Cincinnati Archbishop Moeller High was dubbed four years earlier.
His resume was impeccable -- 178-23-2 record and seven unbeaten seasons at Moeller, where he built the program from scratch and won five state championships -- but Notre Dame also was impressed by his character.
The Irish vaulted to No. 1 after the greenhorn coach’s first game, a 27-9 victory over Louisiana State, but then lost four of their next five, establishing a pattern of inconsistency that would be the hallmark of Faust’s tenure.
Notre Dame was 5-6 under Faust in 1981, its first losing season in 18 years. In later seasons, the Irish won big over Penn State and upset Pittsburgh when the Dan Marino-led Panthers were ranked No. 1. In 1984, they ended a nine-game Coliseum winless streak against USC. But they couldn’t sustain momentum.
Faust was 3-2 against USC but 1-4 against Air Force.
“I wasn’t as tough on the kids at Notre Dame as I was on the kids at Moeller High School,” Faust says, offering an explanation for his teams’ struggles. “I felt they would be more mature, better athletes. If I would have gone the same route and been as tough and demanding as I was at Moeller High School, it could have been a different story. We lost 16 games by seven points or less.”
Faust, though, spends little time looking back.
When he’s not doting on his six grandchildren -- “My grandchildren are the greatest hobby I ever had,” he says -- Faust travels extensively throughout the Midwest as a motivational speaker, mostly working without pay.
“I don’t even charge gas mileage,” says the devout Catholic, estimating that he collects a fee for fewer than 10% of his 120 annual talks, many to church and charity groups. “I feel that’s a way I can give back to the Good Lord.”
He also is active in his church, St. Hilary, where he regularly checks in on the numerous youth football teams, offering advice and counsel.
And, 23 years after he left, he still supports Notre Dame.
“Maybe some people would have been jaded by his experience,” says John Heisler, senior associate athletic director at the school, “but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Gerry. His feelings about the university, his sincerity in his love for this place aren’t any different than they were the day he showed up here.
“We all would have liked to have seen him win more football games when he was here, but it is what it is, and he’s lived to tell about it.
“He isn’t going to let it ruin his life.”
Not at all.
“I’ve been very lucky,” Faust says.