Today is the fifth part of our countdown from 11 to 1 of the best fourth seasons by a Notre Dame head coach, beginning with Knute Rockne’s tenure that started in 1918. Not included are Hunk Anderson (1931-33) and Tyrone Willingham (2002-04), who were axed after their third seasons.
Bob Davie’s 2000 staff included Urban Meyer (left) and Greg Mattison (right).
A 5-7 record in his third year, with four straight losses to end it, put him on the hottest seat in America in 2000, his “senior year” as the Fighting Irish head coach.
Four other Notre Dame head coaches in year three either had a losing season or did not live up to expectations — Hunk Anderson (3-5-1 in 1933), Terry Brennan (2-8 in 1956), Joe Kuharich (5-5 in 1961) and Gerry Faust (7-5 in 1983 despite starting the year at No. 5) — and none made it past a fifth season.
Davie had pointed to 2001, his fifth season, as the year his program would return to prominence, thanks primarily to back-to-back top-three recruiting classes in 1998 and 1999. The 1998 haul would feature 12 future NFL players — notably second-round pick Anthony Weaver along the defensive line and wideout David Givens — while the 1999 group would produce 10 more, led by first-round pick Jeff Faine at center and second-round choices Julius Jones (running back) and Courtney Watson (linebacker). That didn’t even include walk-on cornerback Shane Walton, a future consensus All-American.
The 2000 campaign began with an impressive 24-10 victory over No. 23 Texas A&M, followed by an even more inspiring 27-24 overtime defeat at home to No. 1 Nebraska in which Irish starting QB Arnaz Battle and defensive end/captain Grant Irons suffered season-ending injuries. Still, Notre Dame responded with an 11th-hour 23-21 victory over that year’s Big Ten champ Purdue, with former (and future) tight end Gary Godsey completing more passes than Boilermakers star Drew Brees.
Alas, a similar last-minute loss the next week at Michigan State left Notre Dame at 2-2 and with another new quarterback, this time true freshman Matt LoVecchio.
Despite finishing 76th nationally in total offense, the Fighting Irish ran the table the remainder of the regular season with seven straight wins for a 9-2 finish and a BCS berth to play Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl. How did they do it?
• Even though a freshman was at the throttle, Notre Dame committed only eight turnovers — a single-season NCAA record for an 11-game campaign that still stands.
• The best special teams in the country gave Notre Dame an X-factor edge. Nick Setta’s field goal kicking and Joey Hildbold’s punting helped change games, but especially impressive were seven blocked or tipped punts by the Irish that year that swayed momentum. The season also was saved when safety Glenn Earl blocked a 28-yard field goal attempt to prevent an Air Force victory. The Irish scored two touchdowns off fake field goals that season, while Joey Getherall and Jones ranked among the top return men in the country in punts and kicks, respectively, adding three more scores.
• A favorable schedule in which none of the final seven opponents was ranked. The Irish capped the regular season with a 38-21 trouncing of USC that left the Trojans 5-7 and led to the firing of head coach Paul Hackett.
With its 9-2 record, Notre Dame moved up to No. 10 in the Associated Press poll, Davie was a finalist for Coach of the Year honors, and first-year Irish athletics director Kevin White rewarded the head coach with a five-year contract extension through 2005.
Said White: “Bob clearly has grown and learned a great deal during his four years in the job and he has demonstrated to me not only that he is a very good football coach, but also has the respect and confidence of his players and staff. My confidence in him is unqualified and there’s not doubt the future of Notre Dame football is bright.”
One of Davie’s assistants, receivers coach Urban Meyer, was hired as head coach at Bowling Green State University, and he echoed White’s statement.
“I ran into [former NFL coach] Marty Schottenheimer in the Coliseum after the USC game and he said, ‘That is the best coached team I’ve seen this year,’” Meyer noted. “… When everybody else was panicking, [Davie] kept a level head. It’s easy in times like last year to point fingers and blame everybody for all that is going wrong. Bob Davie never did that, and that’s a tribute to what a strong leader he is.”
It wasn’t quite like December 2012, but the joy that enveloped Notre Dame’s football program in December 2000 was palpable.
Unfortunately, just like with the 2012 team, Notre Dame was obliterated in the BCS contest. In a span of seven minutes and 10 seconds during the third quarter, the Oregon State Beavers scored four touchdowns and 29 points en route to a 41-3 lead in their 41-9 flogging of the Irish.
The next season, Notre Dame began 0-3 for the first time ever and finished 5-6. On Dec. 2, less than one year after the five-year extension, White fired Davie, who finished his career with a 35-25 ledger.
The moral of the story is common: Consistency over a stretch of years — not just one — is crucial in the hallmark of excellence. Current head coach Brian Kelly refers to it as “unconscious competence.”
The 2012 campaign cannot afford to be a one-hit wonder for Kelly and the Notre Dame program.