With their defeat of USC on Nov. 24, the University of Notre Dame football team finished the regular season undefeated for the first time since 1988.
This has garnered the team even more attention than usual, bringing to mind past Fighting Irish records and coaches. Gerry Faust is one former coach who has many stories to tell from his days at Notre Dame. After an extraordinarily successful career at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati, he was catapulted directly into the head coaching job at Notre Dame in 1981.
Faust learned from his football experiences at Notre Dame in large part because of his devotion to the Blessed Mother. He spoke with the Register prior to 12-0 Notre Dame’s Jan. 7 game with the University of Alabama (12-1) for the national title. At press time, the game had not been played.
What do you think of this year’s squad at Notre Dame?
What’s not to like? They’ve played very hard and have done very well. It’s been a tremendous season, and they’re looking to continue that success on Jan. 7 against Alabama. Everyone would like to be undefeated the whole way through a season and win a bowl game, but it doesn’t happen all that often.
A good number of your teams at Archbishop Moeller High School in the 1960s and ’70s were undefeated. What made them so successful?
We had a great coaching staff, great kids, great parents and an outstanding school. The staff was interested in the kids, the kids were dedicated to their schoolwork and play, and the parents oftentimes sacrificed to keep their kids in a Catholic school. The principals and administration at Moeller were also great. The main thing underlying all of that was the Catholic identity of the school. We were Catholics first, and everything else grew out of that.
You coached U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner in the late 1960s at Moeller. What do you remember about him?
John came from an outstanding family with 11 brothers and sisters. It was one of those large Catholic families that you don’t see as often today. It was a great family, and they had an influence on John, because he was an excellent person and football player. He was an unselfish player as a linebacker and long-snapper. He was into the good of the team, which isn’t surprising when you have a large "team" at home.
I enjoyed coaching John in the late ’60s and remember him well. We’ve kept in touch over the years, as I’ve done with many of my players. I’m very pleased to say I know John, not because he’s speaker of the House, but because he’s a good Catholic man. He still has the team-centered mentality in which ego is sacrificed for the good of others. He’s a family man, someone dedicated to the dignity of human life in all its stages, and someone who wants to see our country do better.
Most high-school coaches don’t go directly to head coaching positions in college. How were you selected as head coach of Notre Dame in 1981?
Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, I wanted to attend Notre Dame more than any other school. As it turned out, I wasn’t quite good enough to make their football team, so I attended the University of Dayton and loved it. I started at quarterback in my junior and senior years, but Notre Dame never left the back of my mind. In fact, my coach at Dayton was a former Notre Dame coach.
After graduating, I taught and coached at Chaminade High School in Dayton for two years. Then I was offered the job as head football coach of a new Catholic high school in Cincinnati, Archbishop Moeller. Over the years, 26 of our Moeller kids would end up playing for Notre Dame. That’s an amazing number of players to come from one high school.
In 1977, I actually wrote a letter to Father Edmund Joyce, executive vice president of Notre Dame, telling him that if he ever needed a head coach, I’d be happy to help him out. Father replied that they weren’t in need of a new coach then, but he did thank me for sending so many great young men to Notre Dame. Notice he said they were not just great players, but great young men.
I went to the Notre Dame spring game in 1980 with my wife, Marlene, and our three kids. Before the game, we went to the Grotto, which was very crowded. When enough room opened up, we knelt down at the railing and prayed to the Blessed Mother. Then I got up and lit eight candles — seven for my family and also one for me, that I would get to coach one day at Notre Dame. I promised that if I became head coach there, I would visit the Grotto every day.
Head coach Dan Devine stepped aside after the 1980 season, and I was offered the job. I was told it would be the toughest job in America, but I said it would be the greatest job in America. I was thankful to be there, and every day I was at Notre Dame I went to the Grotto to pray to the Blessed Mother, just as I had promised. Even to this day, every time I go to South Bend, Ind., I stop at the Grotto to thank the Blessed Mother for interceding on my behalf with Christ, her Son.
People sometimes wonder why we ask for Mary’s prayers. It’s similar to what happened to me as a child. I would ask my dad for something, and he would say, "No." Then I asked my mom, who in turn asked my dad, who then say, "Yes." Sometimes mothers have a way of getting things for their children that they otherwise would not have gotten. Our imperfections are overlooked when our intentions are presented to Christ by his immaculate Mother.
You had a good but not spectacular record at Notre Dame (30-26-1). There’s pressure at Notre Dame to be spectacular, though.
There is pressure. I knew that going in, and our teams experienced that. They wanted to win so much for Notre Dame, which added more pressure, and that hurt them at times. About 17 of the losses in my years at Notre Dame were by eight points or less, so sometimes it was mental mistakes at key times rather than just being outplayed.
After beating LSU twice in the previous four years, including when they were ranked No. 6, we played them at home at the end of the 1985 season. It was a close game, and we were about to go ahead in the fourth quarter. Our QB, Steve Beuerlein, threw a pass to Tim Brown, who had his hands on the ball, but looked to see the opening for the end zone. The ball tipped off his hands, and then LSU intercepted it, eventually winning the game 10-7.
After the game, I was told Tim was in the locker room crying. He blamed himself for the loss. When I got to Timmy, he was very upset. He told me that if he made that catch, we would have won. I told him the loss was my fault, that if I had made a few better calls during the game, he wouldn’t have been in that tight position at the end of the game. I decided to step down as head coach, and, shortly after that, I went to Father Joyce. He was very much into the good of Notre Dame football, but also felt badly for me. When I resigned, he thanked me and actually hugged me. We both had tears in our eyes.
What was your favorite moment at Notre Dame?
When people ask this question, they usually want to know if it was running through the tunnel for my first game. My favorite football memory was in fact not from any of the games. It happened on the very first day of spring practice in 1981. We opened the practice to anyone who wanted to watch, and 5,000 people showed up. It was such a large crowd that we had to get the police in there just so we could get onto the field and practice.
Even though it was cold, cloudy and rainy that first day, I was just thrilled to be there. The team would usually run onto the field together, and I was with the kickers at the south end. I ran out in front of them and pointed to the sky in gratitude. I said, "Dear Lord, dear Lady, I can’t thank you enough for this opportunity."
This might sound overly dramatic, but just then the clouds parted enough for the sun to shine on the famous golden dome of the Main Building on campus. Atop of the dome is a very large statue of the Blessed Mother. You could see her from the practice field, and there she was, brightly greeting us at practice. My prayers had been answered.
Sometimes I wondered why I would be allowed to get my dream job at Notre Dame but then not do so well there. Also, being fired later on at the University of Akron wasn’t what I had planned on either. I prayed about it, and I think the reason these things happened was so that people will relate to me better. When I speak at men’s groups and other events, they can understand my situation, the ups and downs of life. That gives me more credibility, because they know I’m a real human being.
I have also learned that adversity doesn’t have to get the upper hand on you. As long as you have faith, family and friends, you can get through anything. Faith is the most important thing, then family, then friends — or even just one friend. You don’t have to be the most popular; you just have to have one friend, someone to share things with. You can be a friend to anyone, regardless of how they might respond to you. You always have the ability to give. …
This brings to mind my early days back at Archbishop Moeller High School. I would pray before the statue of the Blessed Mother and Christ Child for three things: one, that the Moeller football teams would win games; two, that I would meet a great Catholic woman to marry; and, three, that I would be the head coach at Notre Dame. All three things happened — due to the Blessed Mother interceding on my behalf with her Son.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.