Preparing his team for last Saturday's game with Alabama was just another ho-hum week for Notre Dame Coach Dan Devine. Which is to say, it was miserable. But then he has grown accustomed to misery. During his six years as Irish coach, Devine has endured countless rumors that he would be fired if he didn't win on a given Saturday; he always won on a given Saturday. O.K., so he'd be fired if he didn't have a good season; he always had a good season. Nevertheless, before this one began, Devine himself let it be known that he would be leaving at the end of 1980, win, lose or lynched.
But even by Devine's standards, last week was the pits. He was trying to rally his depressed team, which had lost 3-3 the week before to lowly Georgia Tech, after seven straight wins. Now there are purists who would say 3-3 isn't a loss. Not Notre Dame Defensive End Scott Zettek. As he succinctly put it, "If you don't win, you lose." This debacle cost Notre Dame its No. 1 ranking—after only one week at the top—and the team was dropped to No. 6 in the AP poll. The 3-3 tie created another problem for Devine; how to get freshman Quarterback Blair Kiel propped back up emotionally after the confidence-shattering treatment he was accorded by Tech.
Moreover, the disheartened Irish were about to go on the road for the fourth week in a row, this time into Bear Bryant's den in Birmingham, and there were the injuries, of course. And finally, there was yet another upsetting rumor, this one published as fact in the Chicago Tribune, which said Devine would return as coach next year and that this would be announced after the Alabama game. There was no announcement.
For all that, it was a sanguine Devine who methodically prepared his team for the big game with Alabama. At home last Thursday night, he was musing about his squad. "I've yelled at some of these guys so much that I don't know why they even listen to me, much less do what I tell them," he said. "But they're great kids. Aw, what the heck. I'm not much good as a coach, but I'm great at cooking steaks."
Sure enough. Standing out back of his South Bend home wearing his Notre Dame Fighting Irish jacket, he hovered over the steaks on the charcoal grill like a mother hen. He fretted about the coals—too cool, oops, too hot. Devine frets about everything. But he did ultimately prove that if he gives up football, he can always make it as a chef.
Two days later at Legion Field, he proved he also knows a bit about coaching. Notre Dame was gloriously prepared for Alabama, a team that had been No. 1 itself for seven weeks. Despite a 6-3 loss to Mississippi State, it was still very much a challenger in the confusing chase for the national title. Said Ben Cook, editor of the SEC Sports Journal, "After two national championships in a row, Alabama fans now feel it's their birthright."
So what did Devine's Irish up and do? They stemmed the Tide by a score of 7-0 right there in Bear's turf, leaving Bryant 0-4 against Notre Dame lifetime. Three months ago the Irish had looked like a team that would go 7-4 and then play in a bowl that would leave their New Year's Day calendar clear. They were up against the ninth toughest set of opponents in the country. Alabama had the 62nd toughest on its schedule, but how do you factor in an aroused Notre Dame? As Zettek was saying before the game, "I feel sorry for the team that's on the field when we put it all together." At which time, 'Bama showed up.
It was only the second time Bryant had seen one of his teams get shut out at home in his 23 years at Alabama. Two of his earlier losses to Notre Dame cost him national titles. The first time was in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, when Alabama was ranked No. 1, Notre Dame No. 3, and both were unbeaten. The Irish scored a dramatic 24-23 victory, featuring a desperation end-zone pass by Tom Clements. The next year unbeaten Alabama, No. 2-ranked and with designs on No. 1, played twice-whipped Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. This time the Irish won 13-11, thanks to an interception late in the game when Alabama might have kicked a field goal to win.
Asked how he felt after Saturday's defeat, Bryant said, "Well, I went out there and wasted my afternoon." But the game wasn't a waste for the fans. It was a hard-knocking, tense struggle before 78,873 spectators and a national TV audience. When it was over, the Irish had an invitation to the Sugar Bowl, where they will play Georgia in what could be a battle for the national championship. In defeat, Alabama agreed to go to the Cotton Bowl and play Baylor for the money. Asked if Notre Dame could perform any better than it did Saturday, Devine said softly, "I don't think so."
As it developed, the outcome was decided in a wild flurry that started with 9:37 to play in the second quarter, when 'Bama had the ball with a third-and-four on its own 12. Quarterback Don Jacobs attempted to hand off to his fullback, Billy Jackson, but the ball hit Jackson's hip, hit the ground, and Irish Defensive End John Hankerd jumped on it. "I didn't hit anybody but I'll take credit for the fumble," he said. "Some Alabama guy grabbed it, too, but I had it more than he did."