A funny thing happened to Notre Dame's Hugh Devore on his way to work as "interim" coach of the most famous football factory in the U.S. He somehow got the impression that he was Knute Rockne or, at least, one of the Four Horsemen. And last week, after Notre Dame beat UCLA 29-12, thousands of Fighting Irish over the country began to wonder if in Devore there did not indeed walk the reincarnation of a proud old spirit.
The substantial UCLA victory followed the big upset of Southern California (17-14). Although the Irish had lost two games, they had lost them bravely and by close scores. (Powerful Wisconsin beat Notre Dame in their opener, 14-9, and Purdue scored a 7-6 victory when a two-point conversion try failed.) Notre Dame obviously had found a fighting heart and a tough mental attitude—both notably absent for several seasons. The prospects seem splendid that for the remainder of the season it will not be pushed around by anybody. The prospects are equally splendid that Hugh Devore, almost as familiar a relic on the South Bend campus as the Golden Dome, will be hard to demote in favor of a "permanent" coach.
Devore came up from the freshman squad last March to reassume the head coaching job (he had been "interim" coach during World War II when Frank Leahy was in the Navy) after Joe Kuharich resigned under pressure. When Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, Notre Dame's president, announced Devore's appointment, he both surprised and infuriated many Notre Dame alumni ("Either make him the coach or don't make him the coach," said one), and some thought Devore would react to the situation with the indifference so limited a portfolio deserved.
But Hugh Devore had other ideas. He stood a little straighter, walked a little more briskly and his gravel voice grew huskier. "We've got too many French poodles around here," he said to the squad at workout one day. "What we need are some mad dogs."
Always a gentle man, Devore, at 52, suddenly found himself developing the harsher emotions typical of a hard, young coach. If he privately deplored the necessity of acting this way, he nonetheless knew that his only chance for success was to exploit the traditions of the school's past greatness. He threw out Kuharich's system and put in his own, simplifying assignments. He hired three new assistants. He started a Rockne award that goes to the outstanding player after each week's game (a bust of the famous coach that sits above the player's locker for one week, until someone else wins it). And he moved players to other positions like a man with a 10-year contract. Fullback Joe Farrell went to halfback. End Jim Kelly, the fine pass receiver, became a defensive halfback for a while. (Devore also instructed his quarterbacks not to throw so much to Kelly, who caught 41 last year, because he did not want the team to become "Kelly conscious.") "In the end," he said, "the ideas all have to be your own."
Explaining the difference between Devore the varsity coach and Devore the freshman coach, Devore said: "With the freshmen, the approach is fraternalistic because the emphasis is more on pushing the educational side of things, on keeping the kids eligible and stressing football's fundamentals. With the varsity, you have to teach mental toughness. As Wallace Wade [ex-Duke coach] used to say, 'A dying man can always lunge twice.' You have to condition the mind and the body to achieve success."
Whether Notre Dame can achieve enough success this season to keep Devore on the job probably will be decided on his won-lost record. He has a good start. Certainly an 8-2 or 7-3 season would do it. ("In a spot like Hughie's in," says one head coach, "a 5-5 record would be colossal.") Official Notre Dame is still noncommittal. Athletic Director Edward Krause says, "We really haven't thought about it."
Meanwhile, Devore is determined to give the Irish that intangible thing called spirit. "When we get the winning pattern," he says, "maybe I won't have to shout so much or be so hostile. It's not my nature. This team is not far away from being real good. It's got the basic ingredients—courage and tenacity."
They were put there by the "interim" coach.