One Year ago Notre Dame versus Florida State was the Game of the Century. "Greatest day of my life," Pat Leahy said last week. Leahy was part of an Irish offensive line that humbled the Seminoles in that day's 31-24 Notre Dame victory. That the Irish went on to lose to Boston College—and that Florida Stale ultimately claimed the national title—soiled the season for the Irish, but not the memory. "I remember I was never so tired as I was afterward," said Leahy, who is now a senior. "I was just sitting in front of the television in my dorm room, my girlfriend was giving me a back rub, and I said to her, 'Wow, it's been a hell of a day.' The whole thing was so overwhelming, it was almost abstract. It was like one long dream."
As they prepared to meet the Seminoles again last week, this time at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, the Irish had precious few dreams to sustain them, so they chose the dual themes of hope and salvation: hope of putting behind them this season's losses to Michigan, Boston College (again) and Brigham Young; hope of recapturing the magic that struck the previous fall; salvation for a year gone awry. "If we can beat Florida State, that would save the season," said senior linebacker Justin Goheen. Except that in November, when you are 5-3, hope and salvation are just cheap disguises for desperation and reality.
This time Notre Dame-Florida State was not even the Game of the Week, and it ended with Irish sophomore quarterback Ron Powlus, at the conclusion of a long and painful afternoon, throwing a fourth-down incompletion that sealed a 23-16 Seminole victory. Powlus, still feeling the effects of a crushing hit by Florida State's defensive end Peter Boulware on the previous down, then ran a woozy, serpentine path to the locker room, all the while chased by trainer Jim Russ. One year later. Time flies.
Notre Dame does not fail quietly. For all those who revel in the Irish's success, there are legions who ache to celebrate their crash. They send hate E-mail through the Internet to Powlus, and they stop senior defensive end Jeremy Nau on the street in his hometown of Hammond, Ind., after a loss and say to him, "Hey, Jeremy, yesterday was the best: You had a good game, and Notre Dame lost."
Last Saturday, in a charmless game that kept Florida State on the fringes of the national championship race, Notre Dame lost only when the Seminoles drove 68 yards in five plays to score the winning touchdown with 2:53 to play. On the face of it there was much to recommend the Irish performance: determination, youthful exuberance and that narrow final score. But there were also Florida State's 517 total yards to Notre Dame's 221, the fact that the first Irish touchdown was scored on a 57-yard fumble recovery that cornerback Bobby Taylor fairly dribbled into his own hands, and the distinct impression that any satisfaction Notre Dame derived from the game was hollow. "At this point," said Nau, "we aren't looking for any moral victories."
Four days before the game, in Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz's modest office in the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center, a small plume of smoke rose from Holtz's pipe. "We've lost three games," Holtz said. "It's not like I've been charged with murder, although I feel like it sometimes." If you wish to infer self-pity, feel free to snicker; Holtz is accustomed to it.
Those four losses are the most since Notre Dame went 5-6 in 1986, Holtz's first year in South Bend, then 8-4 in '87. But in many respects Holtz's ninth season has played out like all of his others: There has been a touch of controversy, a burning spotlight, weekly inquisitions of him revealing little and, in the end, the conclusion that any success or failure will trace directly to Holtz. Blame this partly on the position he holds. Notre Dame is a place where coaches work under intense scrutiny and where they do not coach forever. Frank Leahy stayed 11 years, Dan Devine six. After 11 seasons Ara Parseghian approached then university vice president the Reverend Edmund P. Joyce in the winter of 1975 and told Joyce he wished to retire. "I didn't try to dissuade him," recalled Joyce, who for 35 years was the Notre Dame executive overseeing athletics.
"We'd have liked Ara to coach another 10 years, but for his own health that wouldn't have been fair to Ara."
Before retiring from his athletic duties in '87, Joyce kept close watch on the life span of the football coach. "There's so much pressure, there tends to be a little burnout after eight or nine years," he says. Holtz, now 57, was hired by Joyce in 1985 and has two years left on his contract. And in Holtz, Joyce thinks he now sees an exception to the longevity rule. "I'm very happy to find a person who can stay longer," he says.
Perhaps, but that is not to say Holtz is unscarred. This season has been marred not only by four losses but also by an unsavory 58-21 win over Navy after which Holtz incurred much criticism for a touchdown pass thrown in the final seconds. Call it the season's requisite tempest. It is a play Holtz now regrets calling. "Like an idiot, I made a bad decision," he said last week. "I've probably spent more sleepless nights over that than any decision I made in a loss." It seems the Midshipmen called timeout twice while Notre Dame tried to run out the clock, and the Irish players pleaded with Holtz to throw. "I let the emotion of the timeout cause me to make a dumb decision," he said. He also said he has written an apology to Navy coach George Chaump.