Today is the third 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.
Gerry Faust's "senior year" in 1984 had the typical inconsistency that earmarked his five-year regime.
No. 9: Gerry Faust (1984)
Final AP Ranking: None
This was the year Notre Dame head coach Gerry Faust had been pointing toward.
“They’re all mine,” said Faust in one preseason publication of his 1984 team, his fourth at Notre Dame.
By that he meant that all four classes on the roster — seniors through freshmen — had been recruited and handpicked by Faust and his staff. Long before Brian Kelly’s cause celebre “my guys” comment in his second season that pointed at differences between his recruits and those of his predecessor, Faust had made his own demarcation of why it might have taken him longer to build momentum in his program.
His first year in 1981 elicited immediate skepticism. With a great majority of starters back from predecessor Dan Devine’s team that played national champ Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, the Irish were projected as a top-5 team. Instead they finished 5-6, the program’s first losing season in 18 years.
The second year (6-4-1) showed improvement, highlighted by victories versus Michigan, Miami and then No. 1-ranked Pitt. Thus, that prompted a preseason No. 1 ranking from the Sporting News in 1983, Faust’s third season and the traditional “Judgment Year” for Notre Dame head coaches.
Despite a favorable schedule, Notre Dame collapsed with three straight losses to end the regular season 6-5. It was then that Notre Dame athletics director Gene Corrigan knew Faust was not going to turn it around, and he approached school president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C., about making a change. Hesburgh reminded Corrigan that Faust signed a five-year deal and that the agreement would be honored (unless any NCAA violations occur).
Notre Dame also received criticism for accepting a bid to play 9-2 Boston College in the Liberty Bowl, and a couple of weeks prior to the game the Chicago Sun-Times printed a scathing article in which Faust's past and present Irish players ripped his methods.
So what happens? Naturally, the Fighting Irish upset Boston College, 19-18.
And that, in a nutshell, epitomized the Faust era. Every time Notre Dame appeared to implode, it would rise like a phoenix. And every time you thought it just might be turning the corner, reality returned. Never was it more evident than in Faust’s “senior year” in 1984.
Faust vowed that the win over BC was “the beginning of something great.” And why not? Heisman Trophy candidate Allen Pinkett returned at running back, sophomore quarterback Steve Beuerlein had served his apprenticeship, the line returned four starters and the receiving corps was stacked, including incoming freshman Tim Brown. Almost everyone was back defensively, too, headlined by a line that included future pros such as Mike Gann, Mike Golic, Eric Dorsey and Wally Kleine.
Faust and Co. had assembled three straight top-3 recruiting classes from 1981-83, and now would be the payoff. That’s why the AP ranked Notre Dame No. 8 in the preseason, even though the Irish were only 7-5 a year earlier and just 18-15-1 overall under Faust. Plus, the opener would be against hapless Purdue, a 52-6 loser at home to Notre Dame the previous year and minus graduated star quarterback Scott Campbell.
You guessed it: When you least expected it, the Boilermakers stunned the Irish, 23-21, with Brown fumbling away the opening kickoff. The following week Notre Dame fell behind 17-0 at Michigan State, and appeared to be falling apart.
You guessed it: Notre Dame rebounded with a 24-20 win at MSU en route to three straight victories, notably surviving a 16-14 scare at Missouri. It had learned how to win the close games, and now had three straight at home.
You guessed it: The Irish lost three in a row at home for the first time since the 2-8 campaign in 1956, with setbacks against Miami (31-13), Air Force for an amazing third straight year (21-7) and South Carolina (36-32). Each time, the team was booed as it exited the field amidst rain.
Now at 3-4 it had to face the killer portion of its schedule with a game at SEC champ LSU, Navy, Penn State and at Pac 10 champ USC, where Notre Dame had not won since 1966.
“You could finish 4-7,” noted ABC-TV announcer Keith Jackson in a pregame interview with Faust prior to the game at “Death Valley.”
“Or 7-4,” replied the eternally optimistic Faust.
You guessed it: Notre Dame swept all four with an extremely impressive win at LSU (30-22), surviving against Navy (18-17), obliterating Penn State (44-7) to snap a three-game losing streak to the Nittany Lions, and then ending 18 years of frustration in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with a 19-7 conquest of the Trojans while playing in a monsoon.
The dramatic late-season surge put Notre Dame at No. 17 in the final AP regular season rankings and merited an invitation to play 9-2 and No. 10 SMU in the Aloha Bowl held in Honolulu, Hawaii.
You guessed it: Just when it looked like Notre Dame would continue its momentum, the Mustangs defeated the Irish, 27-20, keeping them out of the final rankings a fourth straight year.
Faust was granted all five seasons at Notre Dame, but it ended in 1985 the way it started in 1981 — a 5-6 record.
Just like in 1982 and 1983, there were glimmers of evidence during the season that maybe, just maybe, the Faust regime was on the threshold of a breakthrough. Each time it would be squelched.
His 1984 senior year perhaps manifested it the best.