Marquee names, and egos, are gone, and Notre Dame may be better for it

September 04, 1991|By Joseph Tybor | Joseph Tybor,Chicago Tribune

NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- A friend of Lou Holtz once said the Irish coach operates on a simple two-step philosophy.

"No. 1: If it doesn't fit, force it. No. 2: If you don't have a crisis, create one."

Holtz didn't manufacture the latest thunderbolt that struck the nTC Irish last week with the arrest of two of their most important players on charges of public intoxication and disorderly conduct. But the friend's portrait describes how Holtz thrives on turning adversity into opportunity.

You can bet Holtz will try to use the youthful misfor-tune of quarterback Rick Mirer and linebacker Demetrius DuBose to narrow their focus from the frolics of life to the fury of football and to ratchet this team's attitude one notch higher toward achieving excellence on the field.

Behind all the naysaying and the dreadful looks of concern, that is the uncompromising goal of a perfectionist like Holtz.

When you hear Holtz decry the loss of 12 starters from last year, BEWARE. Much has been made about the departures of Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, and three other All-Americas and the entire front seven from last year's defense.

Yes, the marquee names are gone, but so are the egos, the cockiness and an attitude they could turn it off-and-on at will.

There is a feeling among this year's group of no-names that the attitude of last year's team didn't reflect the selflessness of Holtz-coached teams in the past.

"There was a lot of dissension at the end of the year," DuBose said a few months ago in reflecting on a disappointing 9-3 season. "There was a lot people didn't see. A lot of players were envious. There were guys who wondered why they weren't in the spotlight."

One of them was Ricky Watters, who by the end of the season was blaming Holtz in front of the national media at the Orange Bowl for his own failure in living up to his potential. The fact Watters was a team captain reflected its fractured spirit.

"There were a lot of prima donnas last year," said fifth-year running back Tony Brooks, who includes himself among the lot. "There were a lot of projected professionals who didn't do what it took to get there [to the national championship]. A lot of guys knew they were going to the pros."

Holtz never criticizes his players in public but he allowed, "I don't think we always reflected the emotions and the togetherness you like to have your team reflect."

No one will question the heart of a leader like Chris Zorich or the play of Michael Stonebreaker, but their mammoth media presence dwarfed the desire and drive of lesser-knowns on the team.

"There was so much attention and publicity toward Chris and Stonebreaker up front, so much of the game plan up front was geared toward them, it got to a point where you'd say, 'Fine, let them make all the plays,' " DuBose said.

What this year's team lacks in stars, it makes up in hunger, enthusiasm and talent. Don't forget the talent.

The upperclassmen on this squad represent the best recruiting classes in the country for 1988, 1989 and 1990.

Former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, now NBC commentator for Irish games, said if he could work with the existing talent on the Irish squad for three years, he could make them into an 8-8 team in the NFL.

This team represents a new beginning. For the first time in three years, the Irish don't have to carry the burden of a No. 1 preseason billing. Ranked No. 7 going into Saturday's opener against Indiana, they have a chance to sneak up on the pollsters.

It's like 1988, the Irish say, when players of whom little was expected sucked in their guts, gritted their teeth and slew dragons on their way to the national title.

"There's a sense of urgency this year," said Brooks.

"There's no segregation on this year's defense," said DuBose. "It has a one-for-all and all-for-one attitude and wants to collectively be the best defense in the country and, at the end of the year, the national champions."

Holtz honestly likes this team, its attitude, its energy and its work ethic.

Despite his reputation for low-balling his talent, he feels this year's team "has a chance to be a good one."

Mirer can be a Heisman Trophy candidate. DuBose has emerged as the emotional leader of a defense that returns only two starters, Rod Smith and Greg Davis in the secondary.

Holtz would like to pretend the ballyhoo around the arrests of Mirer and DuBose is a distraction of near-devastating proportions, upsetting the balanced chemistry this team seems to have developed.

Don't be fooled. He will turn it into opportunity. He is like legendary firefighter Red Adair; he is in his element choking out the flames.

In announcing within 48 hours of their arrest that he would not suspend either player, Holtz was bouncier than he has been all preseason.

When Holtz met the media after practice on Sunday, there was a leer in his eye and the lyrical one-liners were back on his lips as he told how he was arrested three times in his younger days, including once for throwing corn in a city fountain in East Liverpool, Ohio.

In team meetings, he will use the episode to breed an us-against-them, up-against-the-wall mentality.

"The higher you go up on the flag pole, the more people just look at a certain part of your anatomy," he said Sunday in responding to a question about living in the glass house that is the Golden Dome. "That's just a fact of life."

So, too, that the Irish vie again for No. 1.

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