In Irish country, clouds vanishing; Notre Dame: With punishment stemming from NCAA violations unlikely and Lou Holtz's image fading, the football program breaks the huddle on the season with renewed focus.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- He had been gone more than two years, a wisp of a man who spent 11 seasons here and, like many of the legendary coaches preceding him, became larger than life at Notre Dame. But when Lou Holtz returned to the campus one day last spring, it was as if he had never left.

Holtz had come to give a motivational speech for 200 people at the business school. It turned into an impromptu pep rally for more than 500, including a horde of students that was barely out of grade school when Holtz led the Fighting Irish to their last national championship in 1988.

"His talk was very focused, but he's a celebrity and there's no doubt that he's still very popular with people here," recalled Bob Bretz, the chairman of the department of management who invited Holtz.

Bob Davie was out of town, but had he been around that April day it's doubtful that he would have gone to hear or see his former boss. It's tough enough being in Holtz's shadow, even one that has been clouded over by a messy court trial involving a former booster and the subsequent NCAA case that is still pending.

Maybe it's the afternoon sun shining through his office windows, but Davie said he doesn't see Holtz's shadow lurking on this historic Midwestern campus.

"I really don't feel like I'm in that situation," Davie, 44, said one day last month. "I really feel comfortable. I understand all the pressure of having to live up to past expectations. I understand that Lou Holtz was a very successful coach here. I don't have a big enough ego that it bothers me."

Much of the lingering controversy has subsided as another season has begun.

Kim Dunbar, whom the NCAA deemed a representative of Notre Dame for paying $25 to join the school's now-defunct Touchdown Club, is serving out the final six weeks of a one-year jail sentence after being found guilty of stealing more than $1 million from the company at which she worked. The NCAA also alleged that Dunbar showered several former football players with gifts, meals and trips.

After initial fears that the NCAA would hand the football program its first probation in history, published reports indicate that Notre Dame will get little more than a slap on the wrist when an announcement finally comes.

The university has taken steps to ensure that this kind of debacle won't happen again, and Davie has done his best to distance himself from Holtz in the way the program now operates.

Just how close Notre Dame is to getting back into the spotlight could start to become clear today when the 16th-ranked Fighting Irish play No. 7 Michigan in Ann Arbor. Since losing four of its first five games under Davie two years ago, Notre Dame has won 16 of its past 21, including a 48-13 victory over Kansas last week.

Said fifth-year senior quarterback Jarious Jackson, around whom many of this year's hopes are based: "Our goal is to be No. 1 and play in the kind of high-intensity atmosphere that teams in the past have played."

Despite the success, the atmosphere surrounding the team is much more subdued under Davie than it ever was under Holtz, who revives his own career today as he leads South Carolina against North Carolina State.

"It may not be as glamorous or glitzy," said Davie, who is as tanned as Holtz was pale and whose well-coiffed good looks tend to allow some to discount him as another in a growing number of CEO-type coaches. "I don't believe Notre Dame is about that. What Notre Dame is about is not what people outside the program might think. It is in some ways a blue-collar atmosphere."

Those are Davie's roots, growing up near the Pittsburgh steel mills in Moon, Pa. And that is what Notre Dame athletic director Mike Wadsworth saw when he promoted Davie from defensive coordinator after Holtz departed at the end of the 1996 season. Wadsworth won't say he was looking for the anti-Lou, but that's what he found.

Wadsworth compares Davie's personality to that of another Notre Dame coaching legend, Ara Parseghian.

"Bob's openness and honesty, intensity and focus on the game and the program, his ability to work with [athletic department] staff and assistants, these are the kind of parallels to Ara," said Wadsworth, who played on Parseghian's first team as a junior in 1964.

Davie is diplomatic when talking about Holtz -- "He is the reason I'm at Notre Dame," said Davie, who came here from Texas A&M; after the 1993 season -- and is careful not to be drawn into making any comparisons.

Wadsworth is also tactful, saying: "It is unfair to compare anybody with Lou Holtz. He was a larger-than-life figure."

It is doubtful that Davie will accomplish what Holtz did at Notre Dame, at least not as quickly. In fact, Holtz's record of 100-30-2 more closely matches legendary Knute Rockne's 105-12-5 than any other coach's in school history. Nor does it seem likely that Davie will win a national championship as fast as the four Irish coaches who have -- each in his third year.

Frank Leahy, who brought the T-formation to South Bend, was the first to do it in 1943. Then Parseghian, three years after coming from Miami of Ohio. Dan Devine did, too, halfway through his pressure-packed six-year tenure. The last two titles came in 11-year intervals, beginning in 1977.

Maybe the expectations were lowered in Davie's first season. His start at Notre Dame rivaled that of Gerry Faust, Holtz's predecessor. The Fighting Irish won their opening game under Davie, squeaking by Georgia Tech at home, then lost the next four. It was the longest losing streak during a single season since 1963.

"The reason that I got hired was that the administration thought I had a long-range plan to get the program back to where everyone expects it to be," Davie said. "Basically we were in a rebuilding mode. It becomes a bit contrived even to say that word, but that's the reality."

The university apparently is pleased with the progress, rewarding him last month with a contract extension running through the 2003 season. Buoyed by two strong recruiting classes, the level of talent is again approaching what it was under Holtz.

This year's freshman class includes three Parade All-Americans: offensive lineman Ryan Gillis (Bowie), defensive back Gerome Sapp and place-kicker Nick Setta.

"When I was at Texas A&M;, we played Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl in '92 and '93," Davie said. "I saw a star-studded team loaded with first-round draft choices playing with a swagger. They were physically intimidating. We're on the road to get there. But in 1999, it does take a little longer to put that kind of team together."

The atmosphere off the field has changed dramatically, too, as a result of the highly publicized situation with Dunbar. She had relationships with several former players, including Jarvis Edison, the father of her child.

For one thing, the university implemented a "life skills" program that is mandatory for all Notre Dame athletes.

But this is still Notre Dame, where the statute known as Touchdown Jesus still glistens near the stadium, where the Subway Alumni are scattered and fewer in number but still waiting for the team's return to national prominence. Notre Dame officials are eager for that day.

"When we are a good enough football team and start winning some big games, the glitz and glamour of Notre Dame will come back, whether it's with Bob Davie or Lou Holtz," said Wadsworth.

Davie, sitting in his office for nearly an hour, is getting fidgety, eager to prepare for a practice session. You can't see the shadows on this sunny August day, but they are there. Even a wisp of a man can be larger-than-life, especially at a place like Notre Dame.

Pub Date: 9/04/99

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