SOUTH BEND, Ind.—Sports teams don’t let the media get as close these days.
But watching Notre Dame in the aftermath of yet another wrenching meltdown on Saturday, a 34-31 loss to Virginia after the Irish had led 24-7, I couldn’t help but think of 1985.
The final insult came that season on Nov. 30, a 58-7 rout at Miami in which the Notre Dame chaplain was reduced to cursing on the sideline while Jimmy Johnson had Vinny Testaverde passing in the fourth quarter because—well, the Hurricanes were a passing team.
Heading upstairs to write after doing locker-room interviews, I happened to be on an elevator with Johnson as he went upstairs to visit with Hurricanes supporters. Yeah, it was different back then.
``Ask them about the Japan Bowl,’’ Johnson said defensively to someone in his entourage, referring to a 1979 game in which Notre Dame had taken apart Miami 40-15 in Tokyo.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
This was all denouement, anyway. Irish coach Gerry Faust had been fired on the previous Monday. I had heard about it at the Dolphins practice facility, where I was talking to Dan Marino, who had roomed with Bears tackle Jimbo Covert at Pitt. I was advancing the celebrated Bears-Dolphins Monday night game—and Covert, a guy you could have a beer with, had given me all kinds of fun stuff to engage Marino with. That story still lurks on the internet. And it's still pretty fun.
The Miami writers, shocked to see Marino so animated when I sat with him on a veranda, were impressed. The secret was, we talked about hot wings and pinball—and not a lot about football.
That Monday-night game, the Bears' only loss in their only Super Bowl winning season, came two days after the Irish were drubbed in Faust's last game. Not a great weekend for Chicago football fans at the Orange Bowl, which was like a Wrigley Field for football.
But I digress.
Even though everyone knew Faust was gone long before the official announcement, we felt sympathy. He was an enthusiastic and good guy. It wasn’t his fault Notre Dame thought a high-school coach—he came right from Cincinnati Moeller to South Bend in those simpler times—could make that giant leap.
The real point of no return had come for Faust two weeks earlier, when the Irish lost 36-6 at then-No. 1 Penn State on Nov. 16, a miserable frozen-rain kind of day that still ranks among the worst for a game I’ve been at.
The Irish had entered the game with a 5-3 record and a four-game winning streak. At 5-4, and with No. 17 LSU and No. 4 Miami left on the schedule, it was clear that Faust was not going to have the miracle finish that would save his job.
After the post-game coach’s press conference, we went into the cramped visitors’ locker room, literally climbing over and standing on the players’ immense equipment bags to do our interviews.
As coaches did in those days, Faust moved around in the room, talking to players and media.
Sometimes we just chatted. Sometimes we asked follow-up questions that we’d either neglected, or hadn’t wanted to give away in the formal post-game presser.
On this day, it was like a wake. An awkward wake. Even those media people who wanted to see Notre Dame move on from Faust had to feel the somberness and sadness of the occasion.
True to his persona, Gerry was above the fray, asking us how we were doing, and about our travel plans in this miserable weather.
Even if you were a critic of his coaching regime, you had to feel sympathy for what he was going through.
For all its great recruits, and all its enlightened coaches, Notre Dame, mighty Notre Dame, was experiencing the depths of a rocky losing season.
I kind of felt that way at Notre Dame on Saturday. Brian Kelly kept going out of his way to compliment his players. He tried hard to remain calm while explaining why the officials had their heads up their butts for not protecting his quarterback, DeShone Kizer, from dubious helmet-to-helmet contact.
You could see the red, moist eyes of the players who entered the interview room—even though, unlike the days when media went into the locker room, a great deal of time had passed since the game had ended.
Everybody said all the right things about the Irish going out to USC to finish strong in a season that includes seven losses by a mere 32 points—and four home losses for only the third time in Notre Dame’s proud history.
At this point, beating the Trojans would be momentous. Merely playing a solid, competitive game that doesn’t leave everyone with a knot in their gut wouldn’t be the worst thing, though.
Despite the denials, it has to be difficult for a team that has given up 17 unanswered points five times, not including being outscored 27-7 in the loss to Virginia Tech, to muster the confidence it will need against USC.
If the Trojans are who we think they are, don't rule out another one of those tough days like the one ND endured in the 1985 finale at Miami. These Irish have been through so much emotionally that it's difficult to say how much they have left in the tank.[/membership]