SOUTH BEND, IND. -- Lou Holtz has been taking meticulous notes for more than 20 years now, and has saved every scrap of paper. The pack rat of college football has a file cabinet full of scrawled options from Arkansas, faded sweeps from North Carolina State and chicken scratch reverses from Minnesota, most of which are now compiled in Notre Dame's new 400-page playbook.
A heavyweight item with its own index, the Fighting Irish version of the Russian novel may be mistaken for a variety of things, including a doorstop, an anvil or the Oxford English Dictionary. But the real testament to its versatility is the success of the No. 9 Fighting Irish, who have delved into the playbook's pages to come up with a whole new potent offense in midseason -- of all things, an option.
But it's not really an option, either. Sometimes it's sort of a wishbone, every so often it's an I-formation, and then, there are single or split backs. Couple that with Heisman Trophy candidate Tim Brown, the wingback who lines up either at flanker or in the backfield depending on Holtz's mood. The result is that no one knows quite what the Irish run, except that it works, even if Holtz himself stammers in describing it.
"We're very multiple," he said.
Notre Dame's transformation from a passing team to an option while in the middle of what is rated the toughest schedule in the country is just one instance of Holtz's impact since taking over a season ago, after a mediocre five years under Gerry Faust. Last year's 5-6 record turns out to be just a preface to an entirely new era under Holtz, who has the Irish courted by bowl games despite adverse circumstances.
The Irish, who host Navy Saturday at noon, lost their only game of the season to Pitt two weeks ago, 30-22, when starting quarterback Terry Andrysiak suffered a broken collarbone in the first half. A junior who was the classic drop-back passer, Andrysiak's loss might have ended Notre Dame's chances of staying in the rankings, particularly since the two remaining quarterbacks were untried, option-oriented sophomore Tony Rice and freshman Kent Graham.
Holtz settled Rice in at quarterback, flipped to the option portion of the playbook, and the Irish reeled off two big-scoring victories, 35-15 over Air Force and 26-15 over USC. In the last two games, they have rushed for 706 yards, which almost equals their total of 710 for the previous four games. That makes Notre Dame one of the wiliest teams in the country, and one that can seemingly adapt to any situation.
"The thing you've got to keep in mind is that this isn't a football team that can be negligent in any one area or another," Holtz said. "We aren't going to overpower people or overwhelm them. So you've got to do what gives you the chance to win right now."
The Irish suffered another setback when Rice suffered a concussion and required 14 stitches in his chin against USC, which means that they may go with their third quarterback in as many games against Navy. Graham is more of a passer in the classic style, so Notre Dame may change again. No problem, say the Irish, they'll just turn to another chapter of Anna Karenina.
"We haven't even used half of it," offensive lineman Tom Rehder said. "We practice it and practice it, and when the time is right we use it. We've got lots of other stuff. We can run single back, I, split, whatever we want. We'll never get shut down because we don't have anything left in the repertoire."
The ease with which the Fighting Irish have adopted their new style is not surprising to those who know the 50-year-old Holtz, a slight and slightly comical man who was at Minnesota when he was chosen to replace Faust. He has turned out to be an inspiration, a graying but fit man who walks on the balls of his feet, likes to play intramural basketball and has put the argument back in the Fighting Irish.
Holtz brought with him experience from a variety of programs, working as an assistant coach at schools ranging from Connecticut to South Carolina to Iowa. His 17 years worth of head coaching jobs include William and Mary, North Carolina State, Arkansas and Minnesota, and one season as head coach of the New York Jets in 1976. He is a scavenger of the game who has learned something at each stop.
"He sees something he likes, and he throws it in there," said longtime friend Bobby Bowden of Florida State. "He's given my team fits with his cleverness."
Holtz has a copy of every game plan he ever used, and some that others have used. As a young assistant coach at Connecticut he once spent his own money to go see the legendary Darrell Royal at Texas, taking a list of 80 questions, all of which Royal answered, and all of which Holtz wrote down.
"I still have them in a box somewhere," he said. "When you move as much as I do, you don't always unpack all the boxes."
With his latest move, Holtz took over a program that had fallen into disorganization as Faust went 30-26-1. The Irish were sulky and out of condition when Holtz met them, and in his first appearance before the team he marched into the auditorium with a blaze of energy and saw players slumped in their seats or milling about.
"Get your feet off the chairs and sit up straight," he snapped.
Holtz's first move as head coach was to institute 5 a.m. jogs, despite the fact that it was the offseason. Few players could believe that their supposedly amiable new coach was doing this to them, but the new regime had its effect.
"He was a lot tougher on us than anyone had been before," Brown said. "When you're working that hard, you want to get something out of it."
First-year Navy Coach Elliot Uzelac speaks of the Irish from a wealth of experience, having spent five seasons at Michigan as offensive line coach from 1982 to 1986. What he sees is the same talent the Irish have always acquired, but without the laxity of the Faust era.
"Notre Dame is Notre Dame and they're always going to be good because they're always going to get players," he said. "What I think he's done that's been extremely good is he's reorganized the program. He's got discipline back into the program."
The result was that Notre Dame lost five games by a total of just 14 points last season. When they upset USC, 38-37, in the last game of the season, the Irish knew that they would be one of the better secrets in the country this year.
Notre Dame's transformation into a contender is also a simple matter of growing familiarity with Holtz's overall scheme, and an increasing ability to keep up with him. His favorite phrase is that he would like to get everyone "on the same page," and he means it literally as well as figuratively. The Irish are not yet a powerhouse, so Holtz has opted for a wiley approach: the philosophy is that there isn't one, that the Irish simply change from moment to moment depending on what they need.
"If you're on the outside, it seems complex," he said. "If you're inside, it's simple. It doesn't seem to confuse our people."