In more than two decades of coaching Irish head coach Bob Davie has experienced his share of ups and downs,
By KERRY SMITH
It should have been one of the greatest moments in Bob Davie's life.
When football coaches around the country and across the collegiate and professional ranks build "Notre Dame clauses" into their contracts, there should be very few reasons why the head coaching position at Notre Dame would appear unattractive.
But for Davie, assuming the helm of the Irish football program in 1996 and the controversy that surrounded him soon after registered as the worst moment in his entire professional life.
"I think the lowest moment for me in my coaching career was when I first became head coach at Notre Dame and the age-discrimination trial with [former assistant coach] Joe Moore," Davie said. "I had coached 21 or 22 years trying to do things the right way and trying to treat people the right way — not that I'm perfect and not that I haven't made mistakes along the line — but by and large I had worked extremely hard to have a great reputation. And I worked extremely hard to at some point be a head coach. And then to have the enjoyment of that stripped almost immediately was my lowest moment."
Davie's worst moment also ranked as one of the bleakest periods for Notre Dame athletics. Shortly after succeeding Lou Holtz, Davie fired Moore, beginning a series of legal actions against the University when the former assistant coach accused Davie of age discrimination and defamation.
The ensuing trial cost Notre Dame almost half a million dollars in damages but it cost Notre Dame's reputation much more than dollar signs could measure.
A courtroom served as a forum for members of the Irish football program to air their dirty laundry in an all too public arena.
Davie's public questioning of Holtz's stability in the former head coach's final years with the Irish became some of the most damaging information to come out of the trial. Notre Dame faced an uphill battle not only on the football field, but in press rooms, dormitories and dinner tables as its public relations office felt the heat.
Yet despite the controversy surrounding Holtz and Davie's relationship, the fourth-year head coach contends that Holtz is one of his greatest inspirations and role models.
"Lou Holtz is a difference maker," Davie said. "And the opportunity to be here with him and particularly the opportunity to be here with him through some volatile times at the end of his career when he retired here was invaluable."
Davie would need those invaluable lessons as his coaching woes did not end with Holtz's departure or the final ruling in the University's legal battle with Moore.
After sidestepping professional disaster in 1996, Davie once again found himself and Notre Dame embroiled in controversy when the NCAA began investigations into rule infractions under the dome in 1999 and slapped the University with sanctions.
After months of investigations, the NCAA penalized Notre Dame for its infractions in December of that year. The University received a public reprimand and censure and was put on probation for two years. The NCAA also took away two scholarships — allowing Notre Dame only 84 scholarships instead of 85 in 2000 and 2001.
The media attention surrounding the violations proved to hurt Notre Dame more than the NCAA's penalties, because, prior to the violation, Davie had never awarded more than 84 scholarships in one year.
The stigma attached to NCAA violations once again stung more in Notre Dame's public relations department than in the football office.
Add to that a mediocre 7-6 1997 season in his first year directing the Irish and a dismal 5-7 1999 campaign, Davie's tenure as Notre Dame's head coach has been anything but easy. The former Irish defensive coordinator saw a seemingly perfect position spiral downward into a task marred with blemishes.
"I think over the years Coach Davie has taken a lot of the heat for what the team has been doing," said senior defensive end Lance Legree. "Just him being here in the position that he is in causes him to have to take that heat."
Embracing the risks
But despite the hardships and the setbacks, there is nothing Davie would rather be doing than fulfilling what Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White has deemed the most difficult position in the nation.
"The head coaching position at Notre Dame is the most visible and, from that perspective, the most demanding in the country," White said.
Demanding or not, Davie loves his job.
"I think this is the greatest job in the country," Davie said. "It's not like I come in whistling every day, but I like it. I like the high risk and high reward."
It is that high stakes gambling that has hooked Davie on the coaching profession.
"There has to be a downside to everything worth having," Davie said. "To be in a great profession there has to be some bad sides: the risk of being fired, the risk of being embarrassed or the risk of losing. That's what makes it exciting, what makes it rewarding."
Davie has worked hard for the rewards he has reaped in the coaching profession. A senior tight end for a struggling Division II Youngstown State squad in 1976, Davie never envisioned himself as a high-profile college coach. He planned to coach at his hometown high school not even knowing if he would with the football or basketball program.
All that changed with one visit from the Penguins' 24-year-old offensive coordinator, Gene DeFilippo.
"Gene and I visited for an hour or two in my dorm room and at the end of that conversation he said `have you ever thought about going into coaching?'" Davie said. "And he said what I ought to do was become a college coach ... He said I should try to become a graduate assistant and the light bulb just went off right there. It hit a nerve with me and I knew that's what I wanted to do and that's where I wanted to go"
And that is precisely what Davie did.
With a mix of luck and timing, Davie worked his way from a man in his early 20s with aspirations to coach at the high school level to a man in his mid-40s at the helm of one of the most prestigious football programs in the country.
"Coach Davie has improved and it's evident from his coaching record," senior co-captain Grant Irons said. "He has done a great job in leading this team. We, as players, just follow his lead."
Working his way up
Graduating in December of 1977, a young Davie convinced reluctant first-year University of Pittsburgh head coach Jackie Sherrill to allow him to volunteer with the coaching staff. By the time spring drills ended, Davie had earned himself a paid position as a graduate assistant. Working with then-defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson, Davie begin to learn the tools of the trade that landed him a job at the University of Arizona as the youngest full-time coach in the Pac-10 conference.
From there, Davie returned to Pittsburgh for three years before moving on to accept a position as the defensive coordinator at Tulane when he was just 27.
"Timing is important in coaching, but it's also being able to take advantage of the opportunities," Davie said. "That's something I've always been fortunate to do. I've always been able to take advantage of those situations. But to get started, it is a bit of good fortune."
Fortune smiled upon Davie when Sherrill moved to College Station and hired him as the outside linebackers coach in 1885. Davie stayed at A&M for 12 years, becoming the defensive coordinator in 1989 under one of the most important people in Davie's personal life — R.C. Slocum.
"R.C. Slocum is probably my closest friend," Davie said. "He's someone I call all the time ... It's almost
impossible to keep up, especially during the season, but when we talk there's no small talk, we just cut to the chase about issues and things that there are only very few people I can talk to."
Davie and Slocum developed their friendship more than a decade before Davie moved on to take the same position at Notre Dame.
"I tried everything I could to keep him here," Slocum said. "He had some good reasons to leave and I couldn't really argue with him at the time. He was definitely one of my closest friends that I've coached with ... Not only did I like him as a football coach, but also as a person."
While leaving Texas A&M was one of the hardest decisions of Davie's career, his moved paid off, eventually vaulting into him into the highly-coveted position of Irish head coach.
Despite the ups and downs incurred by his very public successes and failures, Davie thrives on the pressure and expectations that come with the job.
For Davie, his former colleague Johnson's return to coaching the Miami Dolphins in 1996 best explains why the profession is so rewarding.
"[Johnson] said `everyone asks me why I got back in,'" Davie said. "He said, `Sure it's the joy — I miss the feel of winning the games and the exhilaration that comes from that but part of it is the feeling that comes from losing and then picking yourself up off the ground and then winning the next game.' The high highs and the low lows."
Back to basics
Davie has experienced his share of those highs and lows. Right now, with a 9-2 turnaround season, a bid to the Bowl Championship Series' Fiesta Bowl and a new contract, Davie is basking in the highest point of his coaching career.
"To be honest, right now is the highest moment in my coaching career," Davie said. "I'm more excited right now than I was the day I received the job at Notre Dame because I have so much confidence in where we're headed and I know I can be myself and be extremely successful. I feel like my highest coaching moment is right now, not because we're going to the Fiesta Bowl, not because I have a new contract, but because I just feel really comfortable and really passionate about doing this and doing this here."
Davie's commitment to getting the Irish back on track this season prompted him to take a more active role on the defensive end.
"We knew that Coach Davie was a great defensive coordinator," junior defensive end Anthony Weaver said. "We were confident in his play calling ability. We were confident in [defensive coordinator] Mattison's ability too ... Instead of having one guy carry all the burden, having the two of them definitely helped us in the long run."
Getting back to what he knew best about coaching, Davie took more control of the signal calling and day-to-day coaching of the defense.
"You see the style on the field, it's been a critical part of this season," senior co-captain Anthony Denman said. "Coach Davie has come in and been more hands on. It's like going back to the old days to be our defensive coordinator and getting down and dirty with us.
Davie's players are not the only one who has noticed the change in coaching style.
Signing Davie through the 2005 season in a deal inked last week, White displayed nothing but confidence and admiration for Davie's work improvement at the helm.
"I've personally spent a great deal of time with Bob over the last nine months, and I've been extremely impressed with the way he has handled the entire football program," White said. "My confidence in him is unqualified and there's no doubt the future of Notre Dame football is bright."
Davie's players are also confident with the new contract.
"It's great for this team," junior tailback Tony Fisher said. "We need to have one coach throughout our whole time here ... Coach Davie did a great job this year and that speaks for itself with his record."
Yet all the accolades that have come from the recent bright spot on Notre Dame's map will not erase Davie's memory of the dark times too. He knows it was not too long ago that cries for his own head echoed louder than support for the Irish.
Coaching in such a visible position has turned Davie into a very private man. The trade off for a very open public persona has become a very closed private life.
"Since I moved here seven years ago, I have gone to the UP Mall once," Davie said. "Only one time. My wife shops for me — I don't do any of those things. You just don't do that."
Cutting his personal life off from his professional one has also meant tuning out the media, fan and critic comments.
"You're going to be in this profession a long time so you can't subject yourself to everybody else's evaluation," Davie said. "We don't even get a local newspaper. I have not read the Blue & Gold or the Irish Sports Report [Notre Dame football news magazines] in over a year. I will not read it. And the fact that we're going to the Fiesta Bowl and are 9-2 won't change anything — I still won't do it. I'm not going to read it and have something in there that makes me feel good because then I put myself in a position to read it and have something in there that makes me feel bad. And when I was a younger coach and even when I became head coach, that wasn't the way it was."
Through ups and downs Davie has learned that the only way to survive in such a demanding profession is to cast a deaf ear to rumor and gossip and a blind eye to public perception.
"He has done a great job not listening to the outside forces and the outside criticism," Irons said. "He's just been focusing on what he and his team could control."
That new style has boded well for the fourth-year head coach. Enjoying the benefits of reaching the highest point of his career, Davie is ready to lead his Irish to even greater heights. But he knows that coaching at a place like Notre Dame, where expectations on and off the field are rigorous, the risk of failure and defeat is never too far off.
"I think that's what's really special about Notre Dame," Davie said. "We have students that care, that love football and love what football brings to this campus. So to have it that way, there have to be some expectations that come with it. That's what you want. So when you go 5-7 at Notre Dame, there's going to be some bad that comes with that. But I don't really want to be coaching here if there's some point when we don't come out and say `that's a negative.' Then the whole standard has been lowered. I don't want the expectation or standard to be lowered here."
All Sports Stories for Tuesday, December 12, 2000