The player most affected by this is Powlus, the former Can't Miss Kid from Berwick, Pa., whose failure to win multiple Heisman Trophies often has been laid at the feet of Holtz and an offense unsuited to Powlus's skills. Powlus will graduate on May 18, be married on June 21 in Berwick to his longtime girlfriend, Sara Ivanina, and will turn 23 on July 16. He is mature and scarred, yet this spring he seems younger and fresher. It could be the 12 pounds he has lost since the end of last season, which dropped him to 214 pounds and restored some of the quickness he brought to South Bend four years ago. It could also be that Powlus feels freed by fresh opportunity. In early March, when Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning announced that he, too, would return for his final season, Powlus called him. The two have been casual friends since Powlus hosted Manning's recruiting visit to Notre Dame in 1993. "You could hear the excitement in his voice," says Manning. Says Powlus, "Everybody who is back here from last year is rejuvenated."
At dusk on a spring evening, Davie is driving home across the flat, faceless subdivisions to the north of South Bend. He was an assistant coach for 20 years, stockpiling memories that spring to life now that he's been handed the keys to college football heaven. "My first job, grad assistant at Pitt in 1977," he says. "I'm fresh out of college, no idea what I'm doing, and Jackie Sherrill sends me to Boston to recruit players. I didn't know which schools to hit. I went to schools where they hadn't seen a recruiter in 10 years, and they looked at me like I was crazy."
Early the following year Sherrill sent him to Los Angeles with Jimmy Johnson (yep, that Jimmy Johnson), who was already a legend as a recruiter and good ol' boy. "As soon as we hit the ground," says Davie, "Jimmy says, 'You like Mexican food?' I had maybe eaten one taco in my life, but what could I say? Jimmy takes me to this restaurant and orders a mountain of food. I take one bite and it's so hot and there's all this food on the table...." Davie stops and shakes his head. Twenty years and now this. Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Devine, Holtz...Davie.
In the fading light he turns into the driveway of the same comfortable four-bedroom house in which he has lived with Joanne, his wife of 19 years, and their children, Audra, 13, and Clay, 9, for three years. There are no plans to upgrade, no plans, in fact, for Bob to avail himself of all the lucrative ancillary opportunities available to the coach at Notre Dame. (He will, for example, do the standard coach's TV show, but he won't do commercials or travel the lecture circuit.) This is partly because of philosophy, partly because of genetics.
Davie was raised in Moon Township, one of the many steel towns in the Ohio River valley northwest of Pittsburgh. His father, Bob Sr., and mother, June, still live there in retirement. June was a server in a school cafeteria, and Bob Sr. worked for 35 years as a crane man for Armco Steel. When he wasn't working in the steel mill, Bob Sr. was delivering appliances and furniture for K&N Sales, a store that his brother Nick owned; he often logged 70-hour weeks. During his high school years, Bob Jr. played baseball, basketball and football, keeping him in action 12 months a year (one of his summer league basketball teammates was John Calipari, now coach of the New Jersey Nets). Yet his father seldom saw a game. "That's just the way it was, no questions asked," says Davie.
As a junior in high school young Bob summoned the courage to ask Joanne Fratangelo, a popular majorette a year ahead of him, to a movie ("A total long shot," he says). They would date for seven years and be married in 1978. Bob earned a football scholarship to Arizona but came back in two weeks, desperately homesick, just in time to enroll at Youngstown State, where he spent three seasons as a starting tight end.
His coaching career has taken him and his family from Pittsburgh to Arizona, back to Pittsburgh, to Tulane, to Texas A&M, where he worked for nine years and built a defense, and a reputation, that were among the best in the country. In the winter of 1994, having grown comfortable at A&M, Davie turned down Holtz's offer to become Notre Dame's defensive coordinator. He turned down a second overture two hours after the first. Joanne then confronted him in the kitchen of their College Station house and said, "We're making a mistake. This is Notre Dame, it's too much of an opportunity."
Persuaded by his wife's argument, Davie allied Holtz that night and accepted the job. And during the tumultuous week last November when Holtz resigned, Purdue and Maryland each offered Davie its head job before Notre Dame offered the one he wanted. He had turned down Purdue, but the Maryland offer was still on the table when Wadsworth summoned him on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 22. Davie won the job cleanly and unanimously, Wadsworth said, beating out Northwestern coach Gary Barnett (despite Barnett's circumlocutions to the contrary), former Irish quarterback Tom Clements and a fourth, unidentified candidate. And he won it without strong support from Holtz. "Lou said publicly that we never asked him for his opinion," says Wadsworth. "That's not true. I asked him for his opinion when he first told me of his desire to resign. He named several head coaches, then said, 'Bob Davie, of course, is a very good assistant, but Notre Dame has never hired an assistant coach.' " (Actually the Fighting Irish did in 1954 when they hired Terry Brennan, but that's ancient history.) Although Holtz and Davie were close during their three years together, they have talked only once since December: briefly, on the phone, in early April.
It doesn't matter. Davie is on his own. He is a genial man given to forthright speech whose every word will now be scrutinized. Joanne warned him recently, "The job makes you a celebrity." Davie was reminded of the toll the job can take when Gerry Faust accepted an invitation to address the team before a spring practice. It was the first time Faust had talked to an Irish team since his infamous five-year, 30-26-1 run ended in December 1985. Tears rolled down Faust's cheeks as he began his speech: "I want you to know that I failed here." That moment touched Davie. He vows to make the game fun for his players, to help them win without their feeling the pressure to do so.
Davie is taking his daily run through the campus. He pounds along the grassy mall that leads to the Administration Building, whose golden dome caused the hair on Parseghian's neck to stand when he drove onto the campus for the first time as the Irish coach. Davie crests a small hill and accelerates down past the grotto, where Faust would pray each morning. Flushed and sweating, he finishes on a corner adjacent to the stadium, where nearly six months ago he walked quietly away while Holtz addressed a worshipful crowd after Notre Dame's last home game. "I'm comfortable with who and what I am," Davie says. "I'm a football coach, period. I will not take myself too seriously."