Powlus isn't the only one who stayed when he could have left. Offensive linemen Chris Clevenger, Mike Doughty and Rick Kaczenski, and defensive end Melvin Dansby all elected to take a fifth year. "This is the beginning of something around here, and I wanted to be part of it," says Clevenger.
Many Notre Dame players are fearful of publicly criticizing Holtz. They were recruited by him. They played for him. Most of them genuinely like him. They also know that Holtz remains a popular figure because of his quirky genius, those 100 wins and a national championship in 1988. Says one Irish upperclassman: "So many people out there love Lou Holtz that you can't say anything bad about him, because no matter how much reason you have behind you, you'll get ripped by those people."
However, several Notre Dame players, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say that Holtz was no longer effective and that the program had become lethargic. They add that Holtz seemed to feel the pressure of his job more in recent years, which caused his relentless pessimism to become a burden for the players in the form of unpredictably long practices and meetings. The Fighting Irish were dragged into a depression with him. "Things got stale around here the last couple of years," says one player. "It was hard to be enthusiastic about playing football. We dreaded going to practice, we dreaded going to meetings, because there was no energy and no enthusiasm. We were going out there every day only because we received scholarships. The difference now is that people are on the practice field because they're excited about playing football."
Speaking of the difference between the two coaches, punter Hunter Smith says, "Coach Davie is interested in winning, in seeing us do good every day, instead of worrying about us maybe doing bad."
Notre Dame athletic director Mike Wadsworth says that Holtz resigned of his own will, without any push from the university. "He kept telling us, it's in the best interests of the program,' " says Wadsworth. "I can't speculate on what that means."
When Holtz, who remains in self-imposed exile from coaching at his home in Orlando, was told that several players suggested his performance had slipped in recent years, he said, "To a certain degree that makes sense to me, that they would say that." Holtz also said he expects a terrific year from his former team: "I believe the players will react very favorably to Bob. Bob is young, he's enthusiastic, he's a player's coach, and I think that's what Notre Dame needs right now. I'm more of a disciplinarian, and that's not what they need anymore."
It is apparently not what the Irish have needed for some time. Since its epic 31-24 upset of No. 1-ranked Florida State in 1993, Notre Dame has gone 24-12-1, including home losses to Boston College, Northwestern, BYU and Air Force, and last year the Irish fell to USC for the first time since 1982. Until defensive end Renaldo Wynn was taken 21st in this year's NFL Draft, no Notre Dame player had been taken in the first round since 1994, a reflection of the falloff in recruiting. Over the same three-year period Ohio State had eight players drafted in the first round, Florida State seven and Florida four.
On the field the Holtz-to-Davie transition will be most apparent in the modernizing of the offense, which will look like 1997 instead of '65. There was a certain charm in Holtz's reliance on the ground game, with the option mixed in, and in his curmudgeonly disdain for any sophistication in the air. But his approach was effective only when his personnel (like the '93 offensive line, which included Aaron Taylor and Tim Ruddy, now both NFL starters) were dominant. Often, Notre Dame was left with a weak arsenal to fight increasingly ambitious defenses.
"In the past," says Powlus, "we had a tight end, two receivers and two running backs. If coach Holtz didn't want a tight end on the line of scrimmage, he'd split the tight end out a few yards instead of bringing in another wide receiver. Now, ['96 tight end] Pete Chryplewicz is a great receiver, but he's not going to run a 16-yard curl and lose Shawn Springs. It's a matter of packaging players and plays to match."
The new offense, designed primarily by former Purdue coach Jim Colletto, Davie's offensive coordinator, is full of three-and five-step drops. Unlike Holtz's "Blarney" passing offense of a year ago, the new package is a concept, not just an assortment of gimmicks. The running game will still be the Irish's strong suit (Florida's Fun 'n' Gun wouldn't fly in a South Bend snowstorm), but diversification will be evident.