The Kid at the Gate
As a kid in South Bend, Ind. some 30 years ago, Joe Kuharich, the son of an immigrant lathe operator, nursed a William Steig Dream of Glory. It was the vision of himself as head coach at Notre Dame. At every Saturday game Joe and his raffish and penniless schoolmates would be hanging around the stadium gate hoping for a chance to sneak past the eagle-eyed guards. As often as not, remembers Joe, "when the Notre Dame team came running through, the players would grab us and hustle us in with them. It was the thrill of our lives to have Christy Flanagan or Red Hearndon rushing us past those guards."
One night last December at the ring of a telephone in Washington, the boyhood dream of Joe Kuharich became reality. "Would you," an important voice from South Bend asked the then head coach of the professional Redskins, "be available if the top job at Notre Dame were offered to you?" Subsequent announcements on sports pages all over the nation indicated that Joe's answer was yes.
It had been a long road for the scrawny kid who used to hang around the stadium hoping for a chance to see his heroes, but it had led with remarkable directness to the goal he had dreamed of then. Weighing a mere 145 pounds when he entered Notre Dame on scholarship in 1934, he managed to add enough lean beef to his frame to play guard on the varsity for three years. After graduation in 1938 and a few seasons as a high school coach and pro footballer, Joe, like many another physically fit young man, found himself in the wartime Navy. The tough discipline he learned and practiced in his rise from plain gob to two-stripe lieutenant in the years that followed was soon to leave its mark on football when Joe returned to his first love after the war.
"Speak well, dress well, and you can always get a job at Washington" was a standard sneer in pro football circles when Joe Kuharich took over the Redskins in the mid-'50s. The Redskins themselves still remember that ill-famed "Sadistic Sunday"—the first official press day at the practice field when all the news photographers were on hand to watch Joe put his boys through their paces and only five players were still on their feet when the session was done.
Now a large, massive man of 220 pounds displacement and a terse, direct manner, Joe is already showing the strain of the tight ship he plans to run at Notre Dame. Since taking over in January, he has flown more than
60,000 miles delivering speeches to alumni groups, presided over countless screening sessions during which he and his staff of seven assistants (three of them from the Redskins) have sifted some 600 reels of films showing promising young high school footballers. Besides combing the high schools for future talent, Joe keeps his staff endlessly busy sifting every inch of film from Notre Dame's own games of the last season. "I can't get football off my mind," he says. "Even at night when I'm sitting trying to talk to my wife Madelyn I'm still mulling over plays and trying to analyze how my opponents will react to this formation or that."
Despite this single-mindedness, however, Joe Kuharich deeply resents the insinuation that he is too professional. "Some people," he says, "think the pros play just for money. Well, let me tell you that without a real love for the game, nobody can be great. The toil and effort are too much. Money can't pay for them. At Notre Dame I want only the best of the best to be my football players."
Before practice began this week, Joe told the players themselves: "I want your conduct both on and off the field to be impeccable. The work is going to be hard; you'll spend long and grueling hours on Cartier Field. That is the price you must pay to be a Notre Dame player. It is the greatest challenge any of you has ever faced."
It seemed evident that the kid who once dreamed of becoming head coach at Notre Dame had no intention of letting them flub that challenge.
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