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Under the Tarnished Dome.

The last time I was on the Notre Dame campus was 1983 when I was invited to attend a conference of and about lay Catholics, presumably because I was a former religion writer rather than a current sports columnist or former Catholic.

It was midweek. The football presence on campus was not overwhelming, as it can be closer to game time. A business-suit kind of modern nun from the Deep South who, as I recall, was a practicing psychiatrist, was making her first visit to Notre Dame. She'd sent a message to Gerry Faust, coach of the Fighting Irish, that it was her lifelong ambition just to get to the stadium.

Faust sent a message back: Sister was welcome to watch practice. As long as she was in uniform. She had to rummage deep down in her suitcase and eagerly don her habit before she bustled over to the stadium.

Well, I thoughgt, there you have it, the ultimate blending of religious faith and sporting fanaticism, the home office of American Catholicism and American football. Only it turns out that Faust relied too much on urgent sideline prayers and too little on recruiting the biggest, baddest boys in the land. Everybody loved Faust, but he was not a good coach, and Notre Dame fans were relieved when he was not rehired after the 1985 season. His record was 30 victories, 26 losses and one tie, which at Notre Dame is abysmal.

In his place, Notre Dame hired a wispy, lispy coach named Lou Holtz, who proceeded to bring Notre Dame back to its rightful place. Never mind this Top 10 stuff. Notre Dame expects to be in the Top Five, if not the Top Three, or even the Top One.

But there was a price. Notre Dame has forfeited its right to brag that its program is special. It has become much like Oklahoma, Alabama, Colorado and even despised Miami, only with a mural of Touchdown Jesus raising his arms to signal six points at the end of the stadium.

Much of this material is familiar to anybody who writes for or reads the sports pages. We all know how Notre Dame secretively cut its own television deal with NBC for $37.5 million from 1991-95, leaving its fellow universities in the lurch. We all know how Holtz brought the odor of scandal from his previous job at Minnesota. And football fans are aware that Holtz put a bear hug on an official who had made a call that displeased Holtz, which leads to the penultimate chapter called "Is Holtz Losing It?" and suggests he might be.

What he may not have realized is the depth of division and cynicism among former Notre Dame players. This is the valuable contribution of Don Yaeger, who has written two other books on big-time college sports, and Douglas S. Looney, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. They talked to more than 100 former Notre Dame players who dscribed the culture shock from the sincere Gerry Faust to the wily Lou Holtz.

Former Holtz players describe the widespread use of illegal steroids under Holtz. They claim the university had vastly underreported the scope of the confidential positive tests for drugs. If a player was caught a time or two with naughty things floating about his system, Holtz would call him into his office and slap him on the wrist. Literally. Enough players tell this tale that I tend to believe it, although I cannot discount the possibility of mass hysteria in such a heightened atmosphere as Notre Dame.

But there was a worse sin than getting caught taking steroids. That sin was getting injured. Players describe the state of limbo into which they fell because they made the mistake of having their knees crushed by some flying dock-walloper from another institution of higher learning. If they were hurt, Coach Holtz would stare right through them. They attained invisibility. Or if he did see them, Holtz would order them to hobble out there and win one for the Gipper.

Now I really don't believe the Gipper deathbed speech, do you? Remember, that was a Ronald Reagan movie. There's a movie going around about a practice player at Notre Dame who was allowed into one game as a senior, but apparently that movie gets all the subtleties wrong, makes it sound like the players staged some kind of revolt to get their buddy in the game. Who needs more half-truths about Notre Dame?

But I think the book is real, as far as it goes. Its style is 'gee whiz' in places, oral history in other places, official court documents in others. But I really believe the authors talked to these players and this is what they said, even if you factor in revenge, hatred, sadness, denial, fear, nostalgia, pain - all the feelings endemic to college football.

Of course a lot of them admit they were not exactly angels when they were at Notre Dame, so it:s hard to know just how much they remember through the haze of drugs, alcohol, coaching terror, mass adulation and official looking-the-other-way. But the weight of their testimony is impressive. I wish only that the authors or publishers had seen fit to include an index so we could keep these people straight.

My problem is I'm not surprised at any of this. I've been covering college football too long to be surprised by anything. The players point out that some of them - it's usually somebody else - gained 40 pounds in one summer, and not from mom's home cooking, either. They felt used, hundreds of high school All-Americans being shoehorned into one electrically charged campus.

But the same thing happens at other places. That's football, son. It is it sport where sappy fans (like you) and sappy sportswriters (like me) gawk at the hippy-dippy guys running with the ball, and meanwhile burly clodhoppers are belting the whey out of each other at the line of scrimmage. Punching, holding, biting, gouging, spitting, kneeing. Whatever it takes.

"Mankind survives on bestial acts," Kurt Weil once wrote in a song. He was thinking of other things, but you could apply it to football. The thing was, Notre Dame used to have a claim on a certain type of young man: relatively high grades, relatively high muscle content, relatively high character. But Faust could not win with them. The decision to lower standards seems to have come from the top, after the wordly Fr. Theodore Hesburgh retired as president in 1987 and was replaced by Fr. Edward A. Malloy, a former Notre Dame basketball player.

"An axiom on college football is that speed in the football field and speed in the classroom are almost always in an inverse relationship," the authors write.

Holtz and his one-liners have provided us all with some yuks, but the authors suggest that he wears out his welcomes. He always seems to be describing how his father listened to the games of the university that now employs him. Apparently even the current regime at Notre Dame is tiring of his antics. Plus, he hasn't won a national championship since all the way back to January 1989. They might be happy to see him leave. Unless, of course, he were to win the national championship this year.

George Vecsey, sports columnist for The New York Times, covered religion for the Times in 1976-80, including the first trips of Pope John Paul II to the United States and Mexico.
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Author:Vecsey, George
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 5, 1993
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