Had Will Rogers ever met Gerry Faust, he'd have met a man he really liked. Who couldn't like Faust? He welcomes you to his office with a warm, broad smile, an arm around the shoulder, a friendly little jab to the bicep. He has a flawless reputation for decency. He's upbeat, hard-working, deeply religious -- perfect for Notre Dame. But as football coach, he seems to be in the wrong job.
On a magical autumn day beneath golden leaves and the golden dome, the Notre Dame campus is alive with its marching band at practice, healthy-looking young joggers at toil, and assorted others talking football and Faust. Almost everyone talks football in the fall at Notre Dame. But absolutely none of this talk is cheery. The record is 1-3, the team's worst start since 1962. The fear here is that, before it's over, this will be one of the worst football seasons in Notre Dame history. One fan suggests Faust would be great for Notre Dame as a fund-raiser, public speaker -- anything but football coach.
Faust, in the fifth and final year of a contract almost no one expects to be renewed, has just lost his 23rd game, tying him with Joe Kuharich for most losses as a Notre Dame coach. His season records: 5-6, 6-4-1, 7-5, 7-5. Now, Notre Dame is bracing just to survive Saturday against Army, a team the Irish have lost to only once since World War II.
Will Faust be back next year? "I'm not concerned about it," he said. "At the end of the season we'll discuss it." Will he quit before this season is over? "No." Would he like to stick around Notre Dame next year, doing something else? "I never thought about that . . . I've never thought about that stuff right now."
But there are many Notre Dame fans who take their football seriously and wish he would think of those things. A typical remark by an alumnus: "If he loves Notre Dame so much, why won't he step aside?" There's even a theory around campus that Faust has tried to resign, but the administration refused to accept. Faust says that isn't so.
"Like I told the players," he says, smiling still, "we're circling the wagons. That's what we did last year, that's what we're going to do now."
Notre Dame's hard football times have meant an absence from major bowl games (the Liberty and Aloha bowls are the best Faust teams have done) and lower revenues than might have been. There have been signs Notre Dame might be losing luster as a TV attraction: for one, the Notre Dame-Air Force game on ABC trailed the CBS game in the ratings. And in that Notre Dame game, commentators Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles both expressed surprise at Notre Dame's play selection.
Earlier this season, the Indianapolis Star ran a headline, "Boilermakers crush Notre Dumb." The newspaper published an apology and a number of letters criticizing the headline as tasteless, but the incident only served to punctuate for many the depth of Notre Dame's football decline.
Last weekend, more bad news. Some players told the Cincinnati Enquirer they had lost confidence in their team. The paper quoted Notre Dame linebacker Mike Larkin, a graduate of Cincinnati's Moeller High -- where Faust compiled a 174-17-2 (.907) record that earned him the Irish job -- as saying, "I don't think everybody has the winning spirit. It has almost become a habit: go out, don't worry, we'll pick it up next week." This week, Larkin apologized to the team for his remarks.
What's more, writers have even begun pointing to the stellar record (53-16-1) of Faust's predecessor, Dan Devine, a mild-mannered man whom many Notre Dame fans thought lacked the fiery image of a Notre Dame coach, one who may not have awakened the echoes to their satisfaction but who still won a national championship and almost a second. In Faust, Notre Dame got a man who fit the image -- he's got the fire of Rockne, Leahy, and Parseghian -- but hasn't gotten the results. Nothing close to the results of, say, the late '40s when Notre Dame of Leahy did not lose a single game.
"It's a shame," says Roger Valdiserri, Notre Dame associate athletic director/sports information director. "He's really good working with kids. He's great for this place."
It's a sentiment that anyone who knows, or even meets, Faust can share. Allen Pinkett, for one. Pinkett is the 5-foot-9, 181-pound durable senior tailback from Sterling, Va., who needs just 50 yards Saturday to become the leading ground-gainer in Irish history. (That would nudge The Gipper himself to fifth place among school rushers; for 58 years, until 1978, George Gipp remained No. 1 in total yards, the only early player atop any Irish statistical category. A genuine legend.)
Some focus on Pinkett has been lost in the 26-23-1 Faust era, including his long-shot Heisman Trophy hopes. After a class the other day, Pinkett -- an honor student -- expressed disappointment with the season, determination to help make things better, a sympathy for the coach and love for the school. As a Notre Dame representative, he's everything Notre Dame could ask for, too.
"I don't think Air Force was meant to be," he said, wistfully. "All four years." All four of his years Notre Dame lost to Air Force, a development about as startling as if Gipp's ghost actually were found to reside in that old stone building on campus, as one more piece of Notre Dame lore has it.
Pinkett could understand how Larkin and other teammates feel. "They were discouraged by the fact we were 1-3. It's kind of hard having high expectations and those expectations not being met. There's discouragement and frustration . . . We should be 4-0. We have the talent to be 4-0."
Notre Dame has had a week off now, which has helped, Pinkett said. "It's like the formation of a new season, a seven-game season. It's like one of redemption -- we want to show everybody we have a good football team. I've got only a few more times to wear the gold helmet. It's time to go 150 percent."
Of Faust, he said: "The man is incredibly strong to go through what he has. No one in this country wants to win more than he does. No one tries harder than he does . . . I have seen him age somewhat.
"Even when you're winning, so much pressure is put on the Notre Dame coach. Going back in history, Ara Parseghian -- he was winning, he had to resign. The pressure was too much to hack.
"This is the second toughest occupation in the country."
Faust yawns as he sinks into an easy chair. He rubs his eyes. "Watching so much film. It makes your eyes water."
But he looks well despite his embattled season, not at all like Parseghian, exhausted near the end, his face chalky and lined. By comparison, Faust looks as though he's been on vacation -- rosy cheeks, a bit of gray at the temples, robust-looking.
He's talking about how there aren't any easy opponents -- "There's parity" -- but that "I'd rather play this schedule. One thing, it gives us the opportunity to redeem ourselves as a team."
Reviewing the season must hurt, but he doesn't show it as he recalls the bitter defeats. First, Michigan, a long-awaited opener that shattered hopes for many. "We played well enough to win against Michigan . . . Purdue, we played terrible." There are "different brands of hurt," said Valdiserri, but he suspects the Purdue loss hurt Faust most -- Notre Dame had so many chances to win. So many things went wrong, including even, Faust said, "a whistle in the stands" that might have caused a Notre Dame receiver to slow down and miss a possible touchdown.
And then came Air Force. The Air Force game merely capsulized Notre Dame's plight: Leading, 15-13, with first down at the Air Force two-yard line, the Irish, instead of getting the clinching touchdown, went into reverse until on fourth down they attempted a field goal, had it blocked and had the ball picked up by an Air Force player, who ran 77 yards the other way for a winning touchdown. Another Notre Dame loss. Ever in search of light in thickening gloom, Faust said, "We improved a lot last week against the Air Force."
With no game last Saturday, Faust ordered up "some scrimmaging" with hopes his team can eliminate a notable inability to get across the goal line.
The way the season has gone, Faust has been besieged with questions about his future. University officials won't discuss it. "So much has been written on that it takes away from the purpose of the game," Faust says. "It's been a broken record. Maybe I ought to be like Bo . . . " This, a reference to Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler, who Faust thinks wouldn't entertain the questions he does.
"I think that my coaching wasn't questioned when we won four straight at the end of last year. It's how it's rolling. I think if you have a strong start and have a couple bad games" criticism isn't so harsh. Criticism disturbs him, naturally -- "You have pride" -- but he says it doesn't bother him as much "as if it happened in the second or third year."
"As long as I can look in the mirror. If you're honest, work hard . . . "
Recently, Faust, 50, had a home built in South Bend; he is married and has three children. "It's the neatest home we've ever lived in," he says, and speaks of its cathedral ceilings. Not as well known as his football record are his corporal works, visits in recent weeks to religious houses with elderly nuns and priests, and a hospital.
He's a man for Notre Dame, all right, but the football season hasn't turned out as he had thought before it began, when he said, "It's been a little frustrating to both the players and the coaches not to finish with a better record the last four years. But I've always had a philosophy that there's a reason for everything. As many times as the ball has bounced against us, our turn will come when it'll bounce our way . . . We're just that close to being where we want to be -- and I think all of us can see it coming."
But it hasn't, leaving Notre Dame, in these brilliant autumn days, with its football mystique intact but its precious magic missing.