At 3-5, Irish struggles turn up heat on Davie Navy is next as coach tries to salvage season

October 31, 1997|By ALAN GOLDSTEIN | ALAN GOLDSTEIN,SUN STAFF

On the eve of the Notre Dame-Boston College game in South Bend last week, first-year Irish coach Bob Davie invited former President Gerald Ford to deliver a pep talk to his struggling team, which had lost four of its first six games.

Recalled Davie: "President Ford had a bunch of Secret Service men accompany him. When they came into my office, I thought they'd ask me questions about securing the campus. Instead, one of the guys whispered in my ear, 'Who's going to start at quarterback tomorrow, [Ron] Powlus or [Jarious] Jackson?'"

Such is the chaotic state of Notre Dame football. The Irish, who play Navy at home tomorrow, helped relieve some of the pressure surrounding Davie and Powlus, their embattled fifth-year senior, by routing Boston College, 52-20.

"That was a big, big win for us," said Davie, an assistant coach for 20 years who apprenticed the previous three seasons under Lou Holtz. "We're starting to get some rewards for our attitude and work ethic. You find out a whole lot more about people from the way they handle adversity."

The Irish (3-5) have had plenty of practice in overcoming obstacles in a season that started with high expectations.

They had an upbeat new head coach who knew the system, an experienced offense and five fifth-year seniors. There was even heady talk by Powlus of competing for a national title after the Irish went 8-3 last season and rejected a chance to participate in a minor bowl.

But all those lofty goals died quickly. After squeaking past Georgia Tech in the season opener, Notre Dame dropped its next four games -- against Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan and Stanford.

"When you expect something to happen, and something different happens, it surprises you," said linebacker Jimmy Friday. "Sometimes, it's hard to find answers. Sometimes, you never find them."

Added Powlus, who was booed lustily by Notre Dame fans after a loss to Southern California two weeks ago: "Losing is terrible. You feel embarrassed walking off the field. You don't feel like talking.

"I hate to tell my teachers this, but I even hated going to class. I want to practice all the time and watch game films. I want to get things right."

Coaching at a school synonymous with college football success, Davie, 42, knows anything short of perfection will draw criticism from Notre Dame's national fan base. It comes with the territory.

"You don't change; Notre Dame changes you," said Davie, knowing he will be compared with such coaching legends as Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Holtz, who ultimately wilted under the intense pressure.

After losing to Purdue, fans were already yelling for Davie's head.

"Most of my mail has been positive, but I've got a great secretary who weeds out all the negative ones," he said with a laugh.

Davie felt considerable pressure and public scrutiny even before starting preseason practice.

An Arizona columnist dug through his coaching past and rekindled a 1978 incident in which Davie and five other University of Arizona assistants were charged with filing false expense reports. The charges were dropped, but Davie, out of principle, repaid the university $1,285.

And last February, Irish offensive line coach Joe Moore, who was not retained by Davie, sued the new head coach and Notre Dame for age discrimination and defamation. An Indiana judge cleared Davie of the defamation charge. The age-discrimination case is still pending.

"Everywhere I coached, I was always the clean-cut, reliable guy," said Davie. "Then, all of a sudden, I had to defend myself. I was disappointed, but not shocked. I realize the magnitude of this job."

It is the same feeling of near-impossible demands that Powlus has faced after electing to return for a fifth year when Davie replaced the flinty Holtz, with whom he had a tenuous relationship.

No college quarterback in memory faced a bigger burden than Powlus. Before throwing his first pass for the Irish, football guru Beano Cook predicted he would win two Heisman trophies before graduating and be the greatest quarterback in Notre Dame history, eclipsing the likes of Joe Montana, Joe Theismann, Angelo Bertelli and Terry Hanratty.

Although he ranks No. 1 in career yards (7,123), completions (529) and touchdown passes (50), he has failed to lead Notre Dame to a national title, and thus has become a favorite scapegoat of Irish loyalists. As a starter, he has a 25-15-1 record, modest by Notre Dame standards.

But Powlus, who cried openly following the USC loss, refuses to second-guess his decision to return to school instead of opting for the pros.

As he told the Los Angeles Times: "Of course, I want to be remembered in a good light. But I'm not going out to play for records to make people stop saying bad things about me. It's not my goal to be remembered as the 'golden boy.' I just want to help win games.

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