When Gerry Faust entered his third season in 1983, he was on the cusp of a breakthrough.
Gerry Faust salvaged a disappointing third season with a 19-18 victory over Boston College in the Liberty Bowl.
• He had assembled three No. 1- or 2-ranked recruiting classes from 1981-83.
• He displayed improvement in his second year after a horrid 5-6 debut in 1981. In 1982, his Irish pulled off upsets against Michigan, Miami and No. 1 Pitt. Plus, the Irish were robbed in the season finale at USC on the “Phantom Fumble” that led to the Trojans’ 17-13 victory, so Notre Dame finished 6-4-1 instead of 7-3-1.
• The 1983 schedule appeared favorable — only one of the 11 regular season opponents would be ranked at the time of the game.
Thus, Sporting News made Notre Dame its preseason No. 1, noting that it was Faust’s third year, the same seasons when Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine all either finished unbeaten and/or won national titles. The AP poll started Notre Dame at No. 5 despite 5-6 and 6-4-1 records in Faust’s first two seasons.
The lofty perch appeared fitting when the Irish opened with a blistering 52-6 victory at Purdue. Offensively, Notre Dame featured a veteran quarterback in senior Blair Kiel and he had targets such as tight end Mark Bavaro, speedster and future pro Joe “Small Wonder” Howard, and 1982 Parade Player of the Year Alvin Miller. At running back you had future first-round pick Greg Bell (four TDs at Purdue), record-setting runner Allen Pinkett (15 carries for 115 yards at Purdue) and freshman phenom Hiawatha Francisco (nine carries for 81 yards at Purdue).
Defensively, Mike Gann and Mike Golic were among the leaders up front – and young backups included future pros such as Eric Dorsey, Robert Banks and Wally Kleine. Linebacker Tony Furjanic was a rising star and the Irish boasted a seasoned secondary led by Stacey Toran.
Alas, Notre Dame returned home the next week and was upset by 16-point underdog Michigan State and its rookie head coach George Perles (28-23). Notre Dame’s campus student newspaper, The Observer, went so far as to say the ensuing game at Miami would be the most important of the Faust era — because it would dictate whether he was truly the right man for the job.
Not only did the Irish lose 20-0 to the Hurricanes, but it also became an ugly scene. Miami players mocked and intimidated the Notre Dame team to the point where injured/sidelined linebacker Mike Larkin noted “it took away our manhood.”
Freshman quarterback Steve Beuerlein was inserted as the starter the next week and helped trigger an impressive five-game winning streak against Colorado, No. 7 South Carolina, Army, USC and Navy in which the Irish outscored their foes 154-27.
But just when you thought Faust had the program humming again, the Irish ended the season with three consecutive losses: at home to Pitt (21-16), at Penn State (34-30) and at home to Air Force (23-22). It was the second straight year the Irish were upset by the Falcons, and Faust’s record in his final three games of the season fell to 1-8.
When the 6-5 Irish accepted a bid to the Liberty Bowl to play 9-2 Boston College and its highly publicized QB, Doug Flutie, it was viewed as a sign the school was selling out. It used to reject bids to bowls with 8-2 (1971), 8-3 (1975) and 7-4 (1979) records – and now it was going at 6-5?
Notre Dame athletics director Gene Corrigan had doubts about Faust’s future, and the Chicago Sun-Times printed an extensive feature on past and present players of Faust ripping the head coach.
Amidst all this turmoil, the Notre Dame team galvanized and toppled Boston College in Memphis’s frigid conditions, 19-18. That victory in the Liberty Bowl is what lifted Faust to No. 7 in this survey, even though the season itself was an overall disappointment.
“This is the beginning of something great,” Faust commented after the Liberty Bowl.
How Did It Happen?
From 1964-80, Notre Dame was 148-33-5 (.809), won three consensus national titles and finished in the Top 10 a dozen times in 17 seasons. But in Faust’s first year, when the Irish were a preseason favorite for the national title, Notre Dame fell to 5-6.
Despite his engaging, enthusiastic, shake-down-the-thunder personality, Faust dug himself a coaching hole with his inauspicious debut. It prompted immediate skepticism about whether an esteemed high school coach can make the adjustment to the major college game. Once doubt like that seeps in, it’s difficult to overcome.
There also was a notable fracture between predecessor Devine’s recruits and Faust, and how he needed “my own players” before getting the program on track.
Finally, there appeared to be disarray on his staff. When Faust took the job, he inexplicably did not retain defensive line coach Joe Yonto, an icon under both Parseghian and Devine. Another Parseghian and Devine assistant, Brian Boulac, opted to join the administrative ranks at the end of 1982, and by the end of Faust’s third season, future NFL assistants such as Jim Johnson and Greg Blache departed as well.
Faust was given the benefit of the doubt by many fans because he was a strong recruiter who had a passion for Notre Dame. But the doubts and issues inside the team locker room continued to fester.
Ramifications of Year 3
Extremely disappointed with the third-year results, Corrigan privately expressed reservations about keeping Faust on, but university president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C. made it clear to him that the school would honor the original five-year deal.
“I always felt that there were some key games that Gerry needed to win to keep the kids on his side,” said Corrigan in the 1997 book “The Golden Dream” authored by Faust and Steve Lowe. “Basically, when you don’t win, they stop listening to you. I don’t care who you are.”
By the end of the season, rumors were rampant that Faust would be forced to step down, and they gained momentum after Chicago Sun-Times writer Phil Hersh wrote an in-depth account of the program’s woes. Former star players and team captains such as Dave Duerson and Mark Zavagnin, both of whom played two seasons apiece for Devine and Faust, spoke unflatteringly of Faust’s lack of leadership and coaching acumen.
Even more damaging were cutting comments by current players such as Kiel, Howard and Bavaro. Once you lose so many of your players like that, the chances of ever recovering are virtually zero.
How Does It Relate to Brian Kelly?
Faust inherited a program that for nearly two decades joined Alabama, USC, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Ohio State as the nation’s top six outfits. So when Notre Dame dropped to 5-6 in his first year, immediately there was ridicule and doubt about his ability.
Conversely, Kelly inherited a program that was reeling with inconsistency for about 15 years, so he had or has the benefit of followers perhaps having greater patience to rebuild the infrastructure, especially because of his track record of previous success at the collegiate level.
One similarity that must cease is apologists stating “we’re X number of players away from being 10-2 instead of 7-5 or 6-6 … or whatever.” That is one of the great red flags of a regime. Year after year that was said about Faust’s teams. It ignores 1) the games usually shouldn’t have had to come down to those plays and 2) there is a reason why you keep losing the close games. It’s not just “bad breaks.”
But for a few plays, Faust could have been 9-2 his first year, 8-2-1 his second and even 10-1 in his third … but he wasn’t. There is a reason for such negative patterns. You are what you are.
But for about a half-dozen plays, Kelly could have been 21-3 his first two regular seasons instead of 15-9 … but he wasn’t. That must get reversed.