SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz had to leave town last weekend.
At least it was on his own terms.
"I was watching Skip's team play in their homecoming game against Rhode Island," said Holtz, who visited Storrs, Conn., with his wife and other relatives to watch his son coach the University of Connecticut. "I was there as a father and grandfather.
"It was great to get away, to have some fun, but I'm not ready to leave South Bend forever," said Holtz, laughing. "Three losses won't make me leave town yet."
But there is a quiet storm brewing on the Notre Dame campus. For the first time since Holtz's first season in 1986, when the Irish were 5-6, America's most storied football program has an ordinary team.
With consecutive losses to Boston College and Brigham Young before last week's open date, Notre Dame has dropped from the Top 25 for the first time since 1986. Now, with a 4-3 record, the Fighting Irish, who play host to Navy tomorrow, find their chances of playing in a major bowl on Jan. 2 in jeopardy.
"There are doubts about us, about the coach, about the direction the program is heading," said senior linebacker Jeremy Sample. "Our goal is to win the rest of the games, go to a bowl and end some of the unrest on campus."
Many students still wear Notre Dame shirts or caps, and a few have on sweat shirts commemorating one of the Irish's eight national titles.
Small, white signs with "We are ND" in blue and green hang in residence hall windows, and a larger, fading, cloth sign with the same message hangs on the wall outside Cavanaugh Hall, a dormitory.
But Lynn LaPlante, a graduate student, said she is having a hard time unloading her extra season tickets.
"After last weekend, people told me I'd have to pay them [to take them]," she said.
And around campus, they still have one question, the same one posed throughout the country: What's wrong with Notre Dame?
"I don't think anybody knows what's wrong," junior William Lajoie said. "If I figure it out, I'll drop Lou a line."
Holtz already knows.
He says injuries to both starting running backs and several offensive linemen have hurt the rushing attack, which still is averaging 216.6 yards. An inexperienced quarterback is getting
harassed behind a young offensive line. The Irish can't score inside the 20-yard line (17 touchdowns in 31 tries), and they don't have a decent place-kicker (four of eight on tries from 30 to 39 yards).
The Irish also have had problems signing top recruits. Yes, recruiting.
"I've got 1 million reasons, but no excuses," said Holtz. "I haven't experienced anything like this in a long time."
It has Holtz concerned. His desk is full of medicines, from aspirin to Rolaids. Some irate fans called the athletic department office last week, with one asking officials to fire Holtz and hire Jimmy Johnson.
"The true alumni understand and are supportive. I'm harder on myself than any of my critics," Holtz said. "To be honest, I haven't slept much lately."
Only his team has seemed to snooze in losses to Boston College (30-11) and Brigham Young (21-14). Defeats to such lesser-talented teams suggest Holtz has more than recruiting problems.
There's a belief that some of his players have let down since losing to BC and getting knocked out of the national title picture.
Holtz met with players individually on the Monday after the BYU loss.
"We have no more problems here than are normal of other teams when they're losing," Holtz said. "There are certain obligations that people have when they are at Notre Dame, and if they don't want to do the things that Notre Dame is all about, I am telling them, 'I will be happy to help you transfer.'
"True, there's a lot of pressure being here at Notre Dame, an independent where one loss knocks you out of the title picture, but for the most part, the players have done everything I've asked."
Holtz is evasive about the recruiting problem, but the present senior class was rated No. 16 by several recruiting analysts five years ago. During the past five seasons, 46 Notre Dame players have been drafted by the NFL, a huge void to fill.
But because of its stature, Notre Dame should have stellar classes every year. What went wrong?
"For one, the 85-scholarship rule balances out the power," said Holtz. "Secondly, we haven't done as well as we should have with the signing. I won't go into details, 'cause it's not the proper thing to do."
To improve the offense, Holtz recently hired Bob Chmiel from Michigan to work extensively with offensive coordinator Dave Roberts.
There's little Holtz can do about the injuries.
Starting center Will Lyell is out for the season after late-August back surgery. Possible starting offensive tackle Chris Clevenger fractured his foot on the first day of practice and has been out for six weeks. Captain and starting offensive guard Ryan Leahy has missed four games with knee problems. In seven games, the Irish have had five different starting lineups on the offensive line.
Also, in the past two games, starting fullback Ray Zellars (ankle sprain) has been out and tailback Lee Becton (groin) played just a minor role off the bench against BYU.
"We're working on consistency," said Ron Powlus, Notre Dame's sophomore quarterback. "We're confident on the field in most situations, but at crucial times, we're not where we're supposed to be. That has to do with experience."
Powlus took a beating against BYU, absorbing four sacks and missing the final series with a mild concussion while Notre Dame went scoreless in the second half.
Holtz promises the Irish soon will be on top again, and he has gotten a vote of confidence from athletic director Dick Rosenthal, who calls him the best college coach in America.
"This has happened to Woody Hayes and Joe Paterno, so I know it's going to happen to me," said Holtz. "Everything has to fit right for that golden season. But don't have any pity for us, we'll be back soon enough."
NOTRE DAME'S DIP
Notre Dame, which was ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press' preseason poll, has dropped out of the Top 25. The Irish's results and ranking after each week:
Opponent ... ... ... ... Result ... ... ... Rank
at N'western ... ... ... W, 42-15 .. .. ... 3
Michigan ... ... ... ... L, 26-24 .. .. ... 8
at Michigan St. .. .. .. W, 21-20 .. .. ... 9
Purdue ... ... ... .. .. W, 39-21 .. .. ... 8
Stanford .. .. ... .. .. W, 34-15 .. .. ... 8
at Boston Col. ... .. .. L, 30-11 .. .. ... 17
BYU ... ... ... .. .. .. L, 21-14 .. .. ... --
LUCK OF THE IRISH?
According to the Bowl Coalition contract, Notre Dame with a 6-5 record could be selected to a major game "by mutual 'D agreement" of Notre Dame and the bowl.
With their large national following the Fighting Irish would be tempting to any bowl committee with almost any record.
There are 22 teams with fewer losses than Notre Dame within the coalition conferences.