The strange story of Notre Dame's 1980 football season took yet another twist today just 24 hours before the Irish face their biggest test of the season, a nationally televised game (WJLA-TV-7, 3:50 p.m.) here Saturday against fifth-ranked Alabama.
Hours before Notre Dame left South Bend today, The Chicago Tribune reported that Irish Coach Dan Devine had reconsidered his decision to resign at season's end. The story said Devine had successfully "pleaded" with the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, the man who controls the school's athletic department, to get his job back in a meeting with Joyce Tuesday night.
Both men vehemently denied the report today.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," Devine said just prior to putting his team through a brisk one-hour workout at Legion Field. "My reasons for retiring are the same now as they were during the summer. I think that story was probably written to take our kids' minds off of the game tomorrow."
"There is absolutely no truth to that story and no truth to any report that Dan asked for his job back," Joyce said. "I think the report was vicious and it was extremely unfair to do something like this to as fine a man as Dan Devine."
Asked how the story might have come about, Joyce said, "I am completely mystified by that. There is absolutely no way Dan will return as our coach next season."
The two men did meet Tuesday but both said it was to discuss a number of topics, including the bowl situation. Bids are scheduled to go out Saturday evening. "The subject of my resignation never came up," Devine said.
Devine, 55, has coached the Irish to a 51-14-1 record going into Saturday's game and won a national championship in 1977. But Notre Dame would not give him a new contract when the initial five-year deal he signed ran out after last season and, in August, he announced his resignation. Even with Devine a lame duck, the Irish won their first seven games to go from nowhere to No. 1 in the polls before last week's embarrassing 3-3 tie with Georgia Tech. The Irish come into Saturday's game ranked sixth nationally.
The story and the denials set an eerie tone for the final prelude to this game, one which vault the winner into a possible shot at the national title in the Sugar Bowl New Year's Day. The loser probably will be looking for consolation in either the Cotton, Orange or Gator bowls.
Adding to the mystery was the uncertain quarterbacking situation on both sides. Alabama's two veterans, Don Jacobs and Ken Coley, are both injured although Jacobs, who has a sprained ankle, practiced Thursday. Alabama Coach Bear Bryant is leaning toward starting freshman Walter Lewis, who has thrown two varsity passes in his career. If Lewis starts, he will be the first freshman quarterback Bryant has started in 36 years as a coach.
Devine didn't name his quarterback today, either, although Notre Dame sources indicated he was leaning toward senior Mike Courey. Freshman Blair Kiel had been the starter through the Georgia Tech game, when Courey ran the team most of the second half.
Courey is Notre Dame's best passer and Lewis is Alabama's best. Both coaches may be inclined to go with their best thrower since both have had weak passing attacks this season. Both teams also have outstanding defenses against the run.
The game also matches the two men with the best winning records among active college coaches. Bryant has 305 victories and Devine 171.
Today, Devine was in high spirits and willing to joke about the difference between his status and Bryant's. "I still remember when I was just a rinky-dink assistant coach at Michigan State 25 years ago. Coach Bryant, Jim Tatum and Bud Wilkinson came up for a coaching clinic and I drove them to a restaurant. I was in awe of them. But Coach Bryant treated me like an equal the whole time. I was amazed."
As he finished his story, a young woman approached to ask Devine for an autograph. He signed, then said, "Get yourself 100 of those and you can trade it for one Bear Bryant."
Both coaches are keenly aware that Devine is 2-0 against Bryant, the '68 Gator Bowl and the 1976 game between these teams, a 21-18 Notre Dame win. More important, Bryant is 0-3 against Notre Dame, the first two losses in bowls with a national title at stake. Bryant went so far earlier this week to say that as athletic director he might fire himself as coach if he didn't have the team ready for this one.
Rain is expected by game time, which Bryant claims gives Notre Dame the advantage because it has bigger people. . . A new song by the group, "Blondie," has already become a sensation in Alabama, even though it isn't on sale in record stores yet. The song has a lyric, "The tide is high and you're my number one." It has nothing to do with Alabama football but that doesn't seem to bother 'Bama fans. . . Notre Dame wide receiver Tony Hunter and tight end Dean Masztak, both out last week, should be able to play.