The revelation that five Notre Dame football players tested positive for steroid use was no revelation at all. In fact, the allegation by former Notre Dame lineman Steve Huffman that half of the Irish lettermen took steroids isn't even the most serious charge contained in the first-person story he co-authored for this week's Sports Illustrated.
Steroid use at America's University? The school under the personal watch of Touchdown Jesus? Of course. The teenagers who enroll at Notre Dame as freshmen, football players or not, are not the little angels propagandists like Lou Holtz swear they are. They're normal kids. In the case of football players, they're tempted, like players anywhere, to take steroids. Huffman wrote that he knew players who were dealing steroids, that players kept up to 50 bottles of pills and "injectables" in their rooms. Needles were in the trash cans, he said. If that was the case, it doesn't make Notre Dame a terrible place; it means Notre Dame is up against the same problems confronting any big-time college football program.
"Notre Dame officials will deny all this, of course," Huffman said. And of course, he was right. They denied widespread steroid use, and said five players since 1987 have tested positive. Let's get something straight; just because five players test positive doesn't mean only five payers used the stuff. One reason the original NFL steroid policy had no teeth was that players had plenty of time to train while using steroids in the offseason, then got off them in plenty of time to pass a scheduled drug test. Notre Dame has been one of the leaders in conducting random, year-round testing. Still, some players had to be sophisticated enough to mask usage or evade detection.
Instead of trying to deny Huffman's story or hush it up, Notre Dame officials would do well to check out his allegations further. They also would be well-served by being a little more sensitive to Huffman's story than Holtz allegedly was to injured players.
Ultimately, a coach is not responsible for a guy who makes a conscious decision to juice up on steroids. But he is responsible for demonstrating some compassion when a kid he has recruited and promised to take care of comes into his office and says, "Coach, my shoulder is about to fall off."
Huffman writes about an argument his father had with Holtz back when he was coach of Arkansas and Huffman's brother Mike was a Razorback. Mike Huffman says Holtz would try to throw injured players out of the athletic dorm, lest they "demoralize the other players."
Steve Huffman also says Holtz tried to run him out of South Bend and back to school in Texas after he was injured at Notre Dame, and that Holtz called him a "coward" for not playing through a shoulder injury that had required surgery. Huffman's credibility already has been questioned, partly because current players have not rushed forward to substantiate his claims and also because he was paid (a reported $5,000) to co-author the piece. Still, on this score, Huffman's account rings very true, and it's a story that can be told at campuses all across America.
Holtz unconscionably called Huffman "a quitter" in his best-selling book, "The Fighting Spirit." Huffman, quite appropriately, pointed out that it is Holtz with the history of quitting -- head coaching jobs at William and Mary, North Carolina State, Minnesota (remember the infamous "escape clause") and don't forget the New York Jets, where he lasted through only 13 weeks of a 14-week NFL season. Holtz escaped from Minnesota just before the NCAA came to campus to investigate alleged violations. Now, that's quitting.
Huffman's story wasn't critical of Notre Dame as much as it was critical of Holtz, one of the more irritating men in college athletics. Is he a great college football coach? Without question. He's rebuilt programs everywhere he's been and won a national title.
He's also a world-class whiner. He offended practically anyone with common sense, particularly his coaching colleagues, last year by saying over and over that his team wasn't any good ("We're not No. 1; we may not even be in the top 50") despite the fact that Notre Dame was virtually a consensus choice for No. 1 in the preseason polls.
His teams hardly comported themselves as the gentlemen the school would like us all to believe they are. Remember the fights in the tunnel at Notre Dame stadium against Miami and Southern Cal. Only after three ugly incidents -- there also was unsportsmanlike taunting -- did Holtz accept responsibility for his team's behavior and publicly insist he would resign if it happened again.
Notre Dame is not under indictment here; many schools would be wise to use its overall student-athlete philosophy as a model. But if school officials really believe there were only five players who took steroids the last three seasons; if school officials believe Huffman simply lied to Sports Illustrated about Holtz's insensitivity for a fee, then Notre Dame will continue to have a very serious problem.