Monday, July 5, 2010

Irish Football 101: The Faust Mistake

Irish Football 101 continues this week with a look at one of the darkest times in Notre Dame history, the Gerry Faust Era.

Q: Dan Devine out after the 1980 season, Gerry Faust in. How was this transition perceived within the Notre Dame fan base?

A: The entire Notre Dame Nation came down with a severe case of Faust Fever. Gerry Faust was personable, energetic, and charismatic; he was an easy figure to embrace following six seasons with Devine, a coach people always had a hard time accepting in the shadow of Ara Parseghian.

Faust had droves of Notre Dame fans in his corner before he'd ever coached a game, all swept up by his magnetic personality that generated unparalleled excitement and anticipation. The spring after he took the job, a Sports Illustrated article by Ray Kennedy proclaimed: "If enthusiasm is what it takes to shake down the thunder, then Faust is Thor himself."

Q: You'd previously said that Faust's only experience was as a high school head coach. How did that qualify him to take on the biggest job in college football? Isn't that like electing the mayor of a podunk town with no other experience President of the United States?

A: People right off the bat acknowledged how risky a hire it was, but if there was ever going to be a coach that could make the leap it was Gerry Faust. He was the head coach at Moeller High School in Cincinnati, OH, starting the program in 1960 and overseeing its rise to national power through the 1970's. Over the course of his time at Moeller he ran up a 173-17-2 record, nine undefeated season, five state championships, and at one point pieced together a 53-game win streak.

His offense was described as more complicated and expansive than some NFL teams' offenses. He was ahead of his time when it came to year-long lifting programs and flexibility training. The final ingredient that made people believe he could succeed was that he was a natural recruiter who understood the process well thanks to watching dozens of college coaches court his players at Moeller.

Combine all that with the fact that he was a devout Catholic (his Moeller squad was described as "the prayingest team in football") and it was enough for the powers-that-be in South Bend to roll the dice. If you want to get a feel for just how smitten Notre Dame fans were with Faust and get a feel for the excitement and optimism he generated upon his arrival, its worth reading the Ray Kennedy article in SI from the spring of '81.

Q: How long did the honeymoon last?

A: About two weeks into his first season. The Irish opened the 1981 season with a convincing 27-9 victory over LSU and were voted #1 in the country going into their week two showdown with Michigan. Unfortunately it was all downhill from there. Michigan thumped Notre Dame 25-7 and the Irish spiraled to a 5-6 record, the first losing season since the year before Parseghian arrived ('63).

Q: Did he rebound from the disappointing first year or was it just a disaster from start to finish?

A: By Notre Dame standards it was a catastrophe. He never won more than seven games and posted a winning percentage of .535. By Northwestern standards that would've been good enough to get their football stadium renamed Faust Field.

Q: Were there any noteworthy highlights?

A: Faust had a couple good victories that roped people in to thinking maybe the Irish were about to turn a corner under his command. In 1982 the Irish beat Michigan and then knocked off #1 Pitt--a team led by Dan Marino--on the road. He also beat Southern Cal three straight times, twice busting out the green jerseys at home ('83 and '85) to thump the Trojans (27-6 and 37-3).

On the players' side, the highlight was running back Allen Pinkett setting the all-time rushing record with 4,131 yards (which would stand for 13 years). He was the first player in school history to rush for over 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

Q: So how long did Faust last?

A: He finished out his five year contract. It was obvious from day one that he was just in over his head. His vaunted "NFL-esque" offense flamed out, his player recruiting and development was suspect, and his "rah, rah" positive attitude didn't resonate with kids when the roof was caving in. Half of Faust's 26 losses came when Notre Dame was tied or leading in the second half. He came from behind to win in the second half exactly once in his entire career.

Games where the Irish simply beat themselves with sloppy football and ill-timed mistakes became the norm. Perhaps the most fitting example of the calamity of errors came in his final season, when the Irish were called for a penalty against Navy for having SIXTEEN players on the field. When you read quotes from players that year it's evident that they'd lost all faith and respect in their leader.

Q: What was the low point?

A: Things bottomed out in his final game as Notre Dame coach. The losses and pressure mounted to a point where Faust had no other choice but to step down for the good of the program he so dearly loved. He announced he would resign at the end of the season after a 10-7 loss to LSU dropped the Irish to 5-5 on the season.

His final game as a lame duck head coach would come on national television against the vaunted Miami Hurricanes, led by their brash head coach Jimmy Johnson. The contest highlighted just how far the Irish had fallen from the nation's elite. When the final fun mercifully sounded the Hurricanes had humiliated Notre Dame 58-7, one of the worst defeats in school history.

Despite the fact that the game's outcome had been determined, Johnson continued to run up the score in an attempt to embarrass the Irish. He continued to pass late in the game to pad quarterback Vinny Testaverde's stats and even went so far as to call for a fake punt in the fourth quarter when they were leading 44-7. The Hurricane players danced and taunted the Irish as they piled on the points. This game is what truly planted the seeds for the venomous Catholics vs Convicts showdowns that would take place in the late 80's.

Ironically, legendary Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian was the color commentator for the game. As Jimmy Johnson kept his foot on the gas late in the game Ara became so enraged that he simply stopped talking. Jim Nantz was doing the play-by-play and before the final whistle attempted to get Ara's take on the events they were watching unfold. "Ara," he said somberly, "I think this may be the end of Notre Dame football...I just don't think they can recover from this." When he finally broke his silence, Parseghian offered this prophetic line:

"From these ashes Notre Dame will rise."

Q: Do people resent Faust when they reflect on his time at ND since the Irish fell so far?

A: Well the Gerry Faust Era is one everyone would like to forget, but Gerry Faust the person is remembered fondly. He absolutely loved Notre Dame with every fiber of his being and gave his best efforts to make things work. He used to interact with students, send them pizzas, and to this day gets emotional when talking about the campus and the people.

Unfortunately the job was just a bit more than he could handle and on the football field he was an abject failure. He was a hardworking and optimistic guy with a great heart, but that wasn't even remotely enough to guarantee any sort of success on the most elite level of college football.

Q: Wow, so who did Notre Dame tap to replace Faust and pick up the pieces?

A: A 5-10 firecracker by the name of Lou Holtz.

Q: Was he able to raise the Irish from the ashes?

A: Let's just say the Mount Rushmore of Notre Dame coaches was about to get a little more crowded...


This week's CliffNotes:

* Everyone was excited when Faust was hired even though everyone agreed it was risky. The main reason was he was incredibly upbeat, optimistic, and enthusiastic while Dan Devine was depicted by most people to be an impersonal curmudgeon.
* Faust had built a juggernaut from the ground up at Moeller High in Cincinnati and was widely regarded to be the best high school coach in the country.
* People had said that Faust's offense was more complex and diverse than some NFL offenses. These people were morons.
* Notre Dame ascended to #1 in the polls just two weeks into Faust's career. Unfortunately, that brief one week stay at the top was the high water mark for his tenure.
* Sports writers quipped that Notre Dame rarely gave teams the opportunity to beat them--they usually beat themselves before the opponent had a chance.
* The highlights were knocking off #1 Pitt and beating Southern Cal three times in a row.
* Allen Pinkett set the school rushing record with 4,131 yards during Faust's tenure. His record stood for 13 seasons.
* The low-point came in the final game of Faust's career. Miami humiliated the Irish on national television, running up the score long after the outcome had been decided.
* Jimmy Johnson is an arrogant jackass that can burn in hell. It's fitting that 25 years later he's hawking ExtenZe (says Jimmy: "Go long with ExtenZe. I do." Gross.) and his hair has the texture of a baseball helmet thanks to years of hairspray abuse.
* Gerry Faust was a great man, just not a good coach. At all. It was an experiment that was doomed from the start--he was unqualified and overwhelmed. ND fans don't hate him, they just acknowledge he was a terrible coach and move on.

No comments:

Post a Comment