Once again, the truth is that the Irish are loaded. Holtz has a chance to forge college football's first genuine dynasty since Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma teams of the mid-'50s. How did Holtz and his staff wake up the echoes so quickly? First, they realized that Notre Dame does not have a divine right to the country's best athletes. As a state-of-the-art recruiting coordinator, Cerrato is one of Notre Dame's concessions to big-time NCAA football in the latter part of the 20th century. He is 30, sharply dressed and, as a recent Notre Dame graduate says, "the only guy in South Bend with a tan in February."
Says Holtz, "Vinny is well organized, and communicates exceptionally well with young people"—which means he knows something about rap music, and is familiar with a broad array of handshakes and hand slaps.
The NCAA forbids anyone but a team's nine full-time coaches from going on the road to recruit. Even though Cerrato only coaches kickers—and very little, at that—Holtz made him a full-time coach. Holtz brought Cerrato with him from Minnesota, and Cerrato has attracted to Notre Dame the top-ranked crop in the country in each of the three recruiting years since then, according to most of the scouting publications.
The names of 250 prospects, on yellow tags, are affixed to a board behind Cerrato in his office. That number has been reduced from more than 1,000 by the unsmiling gatekeepers over at the admissions office and by the coaches' scrutiny of game videos. Over the course of this fall's prep season, Cerrato will view more tapes of most of the 250—"if they play on a Saturday, we can usually get video by the following Tuesday." he says—enabling him to pare that number to a workable 80 or so. For five months, beginning Nov. 1, Cerrato hits the road—from California to Florida.
Over the past 25 years, Notre Dame has graduated more than 98% of its football players. Coaches are up-front with recruits about what kind of grind the place can be, and do not go after athletes they think won't be able to hack it. "They definitely don't try to fool you," says Eric Simien, a freshman defensive end from Gardena, Calif. "They don't wine you and dine you. They promise you a lot of hard work. It's like, 'This is Notre Dame, take it or leave it.' "
By signing with the Irish, was Simien fulfilling a lifelong dream? "Actually, I didn't even know where this place was," he says. "My mother wanted me to go to Notre Dame, but all mothers want their sons to go to Notre Dame. Then I came here for my visit, and it was like magic."
The difference between a recruiting visit to Notre Dame and one to another school is that recruits generally remember their stays in South Bend. Rather than getting a beer-drenched, whistle-stop tour of every party in town, they meet with academic counselors, tutors, professors and coaches. "The first thing they do is sit you down with an academic advisor," says another freshman, Rick Mirer, considered by many to be the best prep quarterback in the country last season. "That's your introduction to Notre Dame."
Though he was raised in Goshen, Ind., only 25 miles from South Bend, Mirer was not automatically sold on Notre Dame. Mirer's parents are from Michigan, and he says, "I was raised on Wolverine football." He also visited UCLA and Indiana. "Those places had more to offer socially," says Mirer, who will probably major in business. "But you can do a lot of things with a degree from this place."
Cerrato recruits according to need. Two years ago he brought in a class top-heavy with linemen, linebackers and running backs. Last year's crop is renowned for its speed; it included two receivers who started as freshmen, wideout Raghib (Rocket) Ismail and tight end Derek Brown. This year's bunch of 25 was again laden with some of the country's finest linebackers and linemen, in addition to Mirer, who is expected to pilot the Irish into the '90s. For next year, Cerrato is concentrating on defensive backs.
Notre Dame has also moved to the cutting edge in strength and conditioning. When Holtz arrived in South Bend, weight workouts were held in cramped quarters in the Athletic and Convocation Center and consisted of "90 guys falling all over each other," as new strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt puts it. Schmidt now presides over structured weight-training sessions in the gleaming $6.3 million Loftus Sports Center, which was opened in September 1987.