Davie just never got message

Posted: Tuesday, December 04, 2001

Shaking down the thunder isn't just a line from the fight song.

It's part of the job description at Notre Dame, something Bob Davie never did understand.

''If Notre Dame thinks they can hire someone who can come in here and do a better job of winning games than I can,'' he said Sunday, just minutes after his firing was announced, ''that's certainly their prerogative. I accept that and I wish them well.''

Finding a coach who will win more games than Davie -- 35-25 in five years, including an 0-3 mark in bowl games -- won't be all that difficult.

Davie was a so-so recruiter, a capable defensive coordinator who never grew into the job of head coach. He never figured out how to manage a clock, never installed the pro-style offense the best skill-position players nowadays demand, never quit complaining about having to compete against players he claimed would not have been admitted to Notre Dame.

But those weren't Davie's worst failing.

That would have been his inability to look up from the game plans he so meticulously prepared each week to see what made Notre Dame special in the first place.

He kept waiting for tradition to dump all this talent in his lap without ever learning that the real secret of the place were coaches who weren't afraid to innovate.

''I don't know if anybody is going to come in here and just have the fans jumping up and down each and every week,'' he said just a week ago. ''I don't know if that guy exists.

''If he did,'' Davie added, ''his name was Knute or one of those other statues outside my office.''

It must be daunting to walk into work every day and pass statues erected for your predecessors, coaches named Rockne and Leahy. It must be daunting to play at home in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus. It must be daunting to lead a program that's already won 11 national championships and having to explain to everybody from the priests in charge of the university to the students who pack the cheap seats why the next one is so long coming.

It's job that always demanded a leader and Davie, from the outset, was a follower. It's a job that demanded as much inspiration as perspiration, and for all his hard work, Davie remained a technician.

He got the job in September, 1996, in large part because Notre Dame was tired of dealing with Lou Holtz. Holtz was forced out because he was demanding and difficult, but he understood after one weekend on the job how different the place was from every other place he had ever worked.

It was Sept. 13, 1986, against then-No. 3-ranked Michigan and no one expected much from the team he'd inherited from well-meaning but overmatched Gerry Faust -- except maybe Holtz himself. John Carney missed a makable field goal at the end. The Irish lost by a point. As he walked toward the tunnel, the students rose from their seats and gave him a standing ovation. After a loss.

The next day, the decidedly less sentimental voters in The Associated Press poll moved the previously unranked Irish into the No. 24 spot at 0-1. No other school ever entered the rankings with a loss -- before or since.

Holtz never forgot that lesson. He won his only national championship in his third season -- in 1988, Notre Dame's last -- but he made it seem like the next one was just around the corner.

Instead of running from expectations, Holtz courted them. When he couldn't buy the victories he needed, he learned how to sell himself.

Holtz immersed himself in the lore of the Irish, understanding that a coach who knew how to entertain could buy himself more time and goodwill than he deserved. Most important, perhaps, he learned that winning early in the season, that keeping a team in the hunt for a national title, was almost as important as winning at the end.

Davie was on the defensive almost from the beginning. He started 1-4 in 1997, 1-3 in 1999 and even his most successful regular season mark of 9-2 came after a 2-2 start.

Davie always found himself explaining why the Irish couldn't win instead of changing those things he could. Despite promises, he never opened up the offense, always falling back on conservative schemes and hoping for the best.

Those statues Davie passed on his way to his desk were erected to honor men who took chances. Whether that meant playing any opponent anytime, employing the forward pass before the rest of college football caught on or something as seemingly hokey as changing the color of the jerseys before a big game, boldness was always a Notre Dame trademark.

Whoever follows Davie in the job -- whether it's an NFL coach like Oakland's Jon Gruden, San Francisco's Steve Mariucci, Jacksonville's Tom Coughlin -- or one of the handful of college coaches had better remember that.

Notre Dame's glory has receded deep enough in the memories of today's recruits that the next coach had better remember how to shake down some thunder.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org

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