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Fighting Back
Tim Layden
September 14, 1998
After a season of frustration and an off-season that was worse, Notre Dame and its beleaguered coach, Bob Davie, regained respectability by whipping Michigan
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September 14, 1998

Fighting Back

After a season of frustration and an off-season that was worse, Notre Dame and its beleaguered coach, Bob Davie, regained respectability by whipping Michigan

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The pain of Notre Dame's longest summer ended with a prayer: sacred words whispered and then shouted, full of thanks and throaty celebration. The Fighting Irish players dropped to a knee on the scruffy blue carpet of their locker room late last Saturday afternoon and bowed their heads, while outside on the grass of Notre Dame Stadium a party raged in the wake of their 36-20 victory over Michigan, "the defending national co-champion of the world," according to the postgame description by Irish senior quarterback Jarious Jackson. The Wolverines had also beaten Notre Dame early last year, pushing the Irish toward a 7-6 record that was followed by the embarrassing off-season revelations unveiled as the result of an age-discrimination suit brought by a fired assistant against coach Bob Davie.

Through sudden silence, the Notre Dame sports chaplain, Father James Riehle, began softly with the words, "Hail Mary, full of grace..." until the players joined him, gradually increasing their volume at the end of the prayer, at which point Riehle, a round-faced man with thinning white hair, unkempt from the mussing of sweaty hands, shouted, "Notre Dame, our mother!" The room full of players bellowed back, much louder and gleefully out of line with the pious sentiment, "Pray for us!"

Davie, who succeeded Lou Holtz in December 1996, stood on a metal stool and asked for quiet. Drenched with sweat and with a voice choked with emotion after his biggest victory, he said, "I'm so proud of you guys, and I'm so proud of this coaching staff. Every one of you showed what can happen when good people work their rear ends off." Then he gave out game balls like Halloween candy. One each went to Notre Dame executive vice president Father William Beauchamp and athletic director Mike Wadsworth for their unwavering support during the July trial in the action brought by 66-year-old axed offensive line coach Joe Moore. Another was given to Mickey Marotti, the first-year strength and conditioning coach who has performed such wonders as the transformation of linebacker Grant Irons from a 225-pound freshman into a 256-pound sophomore who had a crucial sack against the Wolverines. One went to senior running back Autry Denson, who trampled Michigan for 162 yards. One was presented to Jackson. "We said there was going to be an ambush out there," shouted Davie, referring to Jackson, who was making his first start after three years as understudy to Ron Powlus, "and there was an ambush, all right." Jackson threw for two touchdowns and led the 17-point third-quarter blitz that overcame a 13-6 Notre Dame halftime deficit.

Finally, Davie asked his players a question. "The things that happened off the field this summer," he said, alluding not just to the Moore trial but also to an NCAA investigation of gifts to Notre Dame players by a former booster that caused five players to temporarily lose their eligibility, "were they ever an issue with this football team?"

"No!" came the shouted response.

"Then listen up," Davie said, pointing toward the interview room where reporters waited. "A lot of people are going to ask you about that. They're going to ask you 'Was this a crusade? Does this undo all the things that happened?' That's a lot of b.s. None of that has had anything to do with this team on the field. You've done a tremendous job of keeping your focus."

Davie, 43, spoke the truth, but in this case there is a fine line separating motivation from exorcism. Notre Dame's coaches and players never used the humiliating events of the summer to prepare themselves, but the Moore affair stripped the program of its privacy and presented it as a sort of Delta House of college football. (Witnesses described Notre Dame players and coaches drinking together and players peeking in on two cheerleaders having oral sex.) The summer revelations followed a lousy season, and everyone in the program knew that the only way to start forgetting was to start winning.

No one knew better than senior offensive tackle Mike Rosenthal, who was placed in the awkward position of testifying against his current coach. Rosenthal was the only active Notre Dame offensive lineman who deposed for Moore. His deposition was taped last September and played in court nine months later, leading to the surreal circumstance in which Rosenthal was testifying on behalf of Moore while lifting weights preparing to play for Davie.

Through the months preceding the trial, Rosenthal had hoped that somehow the whole matter would simply disappear. "I certainly never imagined it becoming as big an issue as it did," he said last week. It was Rosenthal who served as the plaintiff's star witness to Davie's remarks about Moore's age, and Rosenthal still has affection for Moore. "They asked me questions, and I answered them truthfully; I wasn't a Judas," Rosenthal said, "but I felt empathy for the university through the whole thing."

His teammates left him alone throughout the summer, never mentioning the trial or his role in it. Against Michigan last Saturday he was the leader of an offensive line that thoroughly dominated the Wolverines' defense—and Michigan had nine starters back from the best defense in the country—opening holes for Irish rushers to gain 280 yards on the ground.

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