Gerry Faust's first game as coach at Notre Dame was against LSU in 1981. The Irish won 27-9. "People said then, in some seriousness," recalls Notre Dame athletic director Gene Corrigan, "that we might never lose again." A week later the Irish were taken apart by Michigan, and winning on into infinity hasn't been seen as much of a problem since.
Last Saturday, Notre Dame faced LSU again. This time LSU was unbeaten and ranked 10th by SI, and the game was played in Baton Rouge's Death Valley before 78,033 Tiger fans drooling over the feast. The Irish, 11-point underdogs, were 3-4 and had lost their last three games, all of them in South Bend. They hadn't lost three straight at home since 1956. The Irish were rushing for but 119 yards a game, their worst output since 1941. They were big and slow and were going to fall down and faint in the sultry 84� heat. The Tigers were swift and lean and had a block-long air conditioner behind their bench. Down the schedule, Navy, Penn State and USC waited to pick over the Notre Dame carcass. Faust was asked by ABC's Keith Jackson if he'd ever win again.
Jackson: "You have the definite possibility of a 4-7 season."
Faust: "Yeah, but also one of 7-4."
That exchange defines the man. "Wouldn't it be something," he had said earlier in the week, "wouldn't it be ironical if it was a game with my first opponent that turned the thing around?"
Ironical and euphoric, too. Turning points can only be seen for sure from a more distant vantage than this, but Notre Dame went out and shoved Bill Arnsparger's Tigers into their cooling ducts by a score of 30-22. Sophomore quarterback Steve Beuerlein completed 16 of 23 passes for 168 yards, and junior tailback Allen Pinkett, a charmer of a cannonball, carried 40 times for 162 yards and two touchdowns behind his immense offensive line. "We're stronger, they're quicker," said Pinkett. "So we had to wear them down."
Afterward, the ecstasy on Faust's face was transcendent, a beautiful light after a long, dark passage. "I'll tell you what," he said, standing before the press, wet-eyed, the mud from hugging every player on the roster making him a glorious mess. "Our boys would have quit a long time before the first quarter if they'd believed everything that had been said about 'em. But they were strong. And I'll tell you what else. I'm a strong guy, too. I'm gonna make it."
By contrast, Faust had emerged from each of Notre Dame's four losing locker rooms this year pale and forced. His raspy, George C. Scott voice was no more than a croak, his reflexive acceptance of challenge—"We want to play a tough schedule. You get your respectability back playing tough teams"—seeming, as the losses mounted, ever more detached from the hard facts. But on Sundays, alone in the predawn, this man of 49, who almost literally had been preserved from defeat until he was elevated to the head position at Notre Dame four years ago, absorbed the defeats. Then his native optimism, necessary for the sake of team and press, left him for a while, and the details of the ordeal returned. The injuries, the freak plays that sent games spinning out of reach, the bad calls, the inexplicable fourth-quarter collapses—all replayed themselves in grisly irreversibility.
As he sensed the limits of his ability to bear this train of reversal, Faust always gave himself to prayer. The words came unbidden. He had uttered them thousands of times. "Most holy apostle, Saint Jude, faithful servant and friend of Jesus," Faust began, "the Church honors and invokes thee universally as the patron of hopeless cases—of things despaired of. Pray for me who am so miserable. Make use, I implore thee, of that particular privilege accorded to thee, to bring visible and speedy help where help is almost despaired of...."
Gently, as he prayed, Faust's nature began to assert itself. His instinct for life, his embrace of this troubled job for the best of reasons ("It's simply and purely because I love the kids"), his rejection of self-pity ("No one is going to be sorry for me, so I shouldn't be sorry for myself"), all joined to nudge him back.