The 25th head coach in the history of Notre Dame football is on all fours in the middle of his office, peering out the open door of an imaginary airplane. "The wind is howling, and you've got to reach
out and grab a strut, and put your right foot on this little platform," says Lou Holtz, who is reenacting a parachute jump he took from an airplane this summer. "Then you pull yourself up and out, and you're looking straight down, 10 thousand feet. Calmly, you ask yourself. What in the world am I doing?"
Back in 1966, Holtz sat down and compiled a list of 107 "things to do before I die." Skydiving was one, as was landing the head coaching job at Notre Dame. Also on the list was winning a national championship, a feat he accomplished last season, only three years after arriving in South Bend. "I don't do these things to get attention," says Holtz. "I do them because it's my philosophy to get involved with life. Once you do something like that, you can relive the experience a thousand times in your mind."
Notre Dame's subway alumni will relive last season's glory in their minds at least that many times—and will settle for reliving it on the field, say, four or five more times before Holtz retires. So decisively has Holtz banished the woeful legacy of Gerry Faust (30-26-1 from 1981-85), so swiftly did he deliver Notre Dame its first national title in 11 years, that expectations, like nose-tackle Chris Zorich's bench press, are off the charts.
Yet Holtz devotes much of his energy to lancing those expectations. Take the day last season before his No. 1-ranked team made pudding of Rice, 54-11. Said Holtz, earnestly, "I'm scared to death of Rice." Minutes after unbeaten Notre Dame stuffed West Virginia 34-21 in the Fiesta Bowl to win the national title—the Irish started 15 nonseniors in the game—Holtz said, "I would be shocked if we had a good team next year."
Typical Holtz. Then August arrived, and a spate of ill luck did indeed befall the Irish. Inside linebacker Michael Stonebreaker, who had his license suspended after pleading guilty to a drunken driving charge last March, was booted off the team for driving a car on campus; he had moved the car for a friend to avoid a parking infraction. Starting tailback Tony Brooks withdrew from school after a series of academic and disciplinary problems. Defensive tackle George Williams became an academic casualty, and starting defensive end Arnold Ale, a Californian who had been known to don mittens, scarf and hat when the mercury dipped below 50�, last month signed with UCLA. Backup fullback Braxston Banks, who had knee surgery, and linebacker John Foley, who suffered nerve damage in his right arm, have not recovered from their injuries.
"Had I known the problems I would be confronted with," says Holtz, back behind his desk after reliving the leap, "I might have removed my chute before jumping."
Violinists, this is your cue. While Holtz dwells on the cloud, let us examine the silver lining. In each of the last three years, Notre Dame has plundered the high school ranks for the bluest of the nation's blue-chip prospects. This year, with the national championship in hand, the Irish were turning All-Americas away at the door.
"It's frustrating, because you know those guys have a chance to come back and hurt you," says recruiting coordinator Vinny Cerrato. "Last year we had 60 recruits visit the campus, and only five told us they didn't want to come here."
Stonebreaker will not be easy to replace, but tailback Rodney Culver and defensive tackle Bob Dahl could erase memories of Brooks and Williams. The defense is fast, experienced and—forgive them. Lord—nasty. Nine starters are back on offense, including senior quarterback Tony Rice. Yet Holtz is still laying it on thick. "I thought this might be a great football team, but now we won't be," he says. Even Holtz's staff is secretly amused by his relentless pessimism. "We only found out we wouldn't be forfeiting the season last Tuesday," deadpanned one official in the athletic department late last month.
Every once in a while Holtz slips and the truth leaks out. In his recently released book. The Fighting Spirit, we learn that in a speech to the team shortly before the '88 season began, Holtz decreed, "Nobody will beat us this year. Nobody. There isn't any reason for it." He then spent five minutes supporting that contention.