The day after Gerry Faust’s resignation on the Tuesday before the 1985 season-finale at Miami, Notre Dame Director of Athletics Gene Corrigan introduced Lou Holtz as the 25th head coach in school history.
Coming off a successful two-year stint at Minnesota, Holtz’s contract stipulated that if he led the Gophers to a bowl game, he would be free to leave for one other school – Notre Dame.
And so began an 11-year run that saw Holtz win 100 games, claim the 1988 national championship, put together 23- and 17-game winning streaks, and record a 64-9-1 mark from 1988-93.
Before all the winning, however, came Holtz’s first season, 1986, on the heels of a 5-6 record in Faust’s final season. The Irish duplicated that 5-6 mark in the first year of the Holtz regime, but two 5-6 teams could not have been more disparate. The Irish suddenly were competing with the nation’s best. Five of the six losses were by a combined 14 points; three of the defeats came at the hands of top 5-ranked teams.
Holtz’s arrival provided new life for senior quarterback Steve Beuerlein, who had battled a shoulder injury throughout most of his sophomore season and all of his junior year following a late-spring surgery.
When the Irish limped home from Miami in the wake of an embarrassing 58-7 loss in Faust’s last game with Notre Dame, Beuerlein did not know which way his football career was headed. In fact, at that point, he figured the 1986 season would be his last in a football uniform.
A strong-willed senior class, combined with the inimitable Holtz and his new staff , changed the losing environment that had permeated the Faust era.
TIM PRISTER: Where were you with your shoulder as the 1985 season came to a close?
STEVE BEUERLEIN: It wasn’t ailing. The pain was gone. I just had no strength. I never got to fully rehab it.
If you’re a thrower, you need to throw to stay in shape. If a quarterback or a pitcher takes a month off and then goes back out there and throws hard, you’re going to have problems. You’ve got to build your way back up. Even if you’re healthy and take a month off, you’ve got to build your way slowly back into it, otherwise you’re setting yourself up to be injured. You’re just not ready to go out there and throw full-go.
Prior to the ’85 season, I never got a chance to get my shoulder back in shape. After the Aloha Bowl (a 27-20 loss to SMU) my sophomore year, I didn’t do anything from Christmas until April when I had the surgery, and then I didn’t do anything from the surgery in April to August. I basically had gone eight months without throwing a football and any kind of working out.
I went into the ’85 season in an impossible situation, and as a result, it almost ended my career.
Lou knew I was coming off the shoulder, and he said, ‘We’re going to let you heal and get it treated.’ That was all I was allowed to do, but that was all I needed to hear. The rest of it took care of itself.
I lost 15 pounds. I was able to get myself back into playing shape, mentally and physically. I was out there for the first play of spring practice.
TP: You have one year with Lou Holtz. Besides your improved health, what changed in your game/approach?
SB: There are so many great stories that started from the very first day I met him. He still tells these stories in the talks that he gives. I’ve heard all of his ‘Beuerlein stories.’
I was his quarterback in the spring and he never wavered. He says it to this day: he knew I was going to play at the next level. He could tell. He could see the way I threw the ball, the way I carried myself. He said he saw things that surprised the heck out of him.
He was like, ‘How in the world did this guy have a season like he did last year?’ (Note: Lacking the proper rehab time following his April 1985 surgery, Beuerlein completed 50 percent of his passes, down from 60.3 as a sophomore in ’84, with 13 interceptions and three touchdown passes.)
The more he studied it, the more he realized it was a product of my environment and my health.
TP: What do you remember about that first meeting as a team with Holtz?
Chuck Lanza said he had his feet up on the platform in front of him and Holtz took him to task.
SB: He wasn’t the only one, but he was in the front row. We all had baseball caps on and were all kind of slouching. You have to remember that this took place shortly after the Miami game. We were all completely depressed. We were still feeling the effects of Gerry’s resignation, the terrible loss, the tough travel home…
Now we have to meet the new head coach and everybody was kind of kicking back. He woke us up pretty quickly. Everything you heard about that first meeting was true.
TP: What do you recall about the winter ‘pukefest’ you guys endured when Holtz arrived?
SB: When he laid out what was going to be expected of us that first off-season with the 5 a.m. workouts, we were like, ‘Do you realize we’re in South Bend, Indiana? You want us to do what in January and February?’
But we really didn’t question anything. Our senior class was so hungry to figure it out. All of a sudden, we started seeing this was what it was like to be involved in a real college football program.
As a football player, you know you’ve got to work hard to win. When he told us what we had to do, we were like, ‘Holy moly, it’s going to be a pain in the butt!’ But we all embraced it. Our attitude was, ‘Whatever you say, we’re going to do it. We want to figure this crap out. We’re sick of this stuff.’
We all went into it blindly and man, we learned quickly that he was going to try to make a statement that if you want to be great, you’re going to have to pay a price. We all got that message loud and clear. It brought us closer together. We had to help each other get through that. We had to grind and pick each other up.
It was a pukefest. We went in there the first day and there were trashcans all over the place. We were like, ‘What are all these trashcans for?’ About a half-hour, 45 minutes later, we knew exactly why they were there.
TP: Most people remember Holtz’s offense to be rather basic with a heavy emphasis on the running game. Compared to what you had been running under the previous coaching staff, what did you find to be the truth about Holtz’s offense?
SB: When we were under Gerry, we used to joke about our offense. We called it the Four P offense – Pinkett, Pinkett, Pass, Punt. We were only throwing it pretty much when we had to throw it. We were running it on first and second down, and thank God Allen was so good. He gave us a chance to be competitive.
But it was a very predictable, very frustrating situation because we were in 3rd-and-long a lot. You’re concerned about interceptions. Obviously my health was a big part of it, not being able to make a lot of the throws. But a lot of it was we were throwing only in obvious throwing situations, which makes it difficult to be successful unless you’re running a version of the option where you can create big plays within the scheme.
TP: What do you recall about your first one-on-one meeting with Holtz?
SB: The first meeting I had with him is an important part of this whole thing because I realized I was going to be given a chance, which is all I wanted. I fully expected him to say, ‘Thank you for all you’ve done. I hear you’re a great leader. I know you’ve competed. I know you’ve had this injury situation. But I’ve got to build for the future and I’ve got to go with the younger quarterback. You’re not very mobile and I like mobile quarterbacks.’
I thought he would use me if he needed me, but he was going to move toward the future.
So I go to his office and he came running over to me and said, ‘Steve Beuerlein, I’m very excited to see you! I’ve been waiting to meet you! Have a seat!’
He looks me right in the eye and says, ‘You’re going to be my quarterback at the University of Notre Dame.’ And I said, ‘Really!?! And he said, ‘Yup, and I’ll tell you why. We’ve got a young man by the name of Tim Brown. I don’t know how he has not been utilized in the proper way, but that kid’s pretty good and you’re the only guy that can get the football to him.’
He said, ‘You’re going to get a chance to throw the football and we’re going to throw it more than I want to because that’s what you do and we’ve got that guy out there. But I’ll tell you something else: You will not throw more than six interceptions this year.’
So I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This is great! I’m going to play, we’re going to throw the ball and I’m not going to be throwing interceptions!’
I said, ‘This is great, coach, but how do you know I’m not going to throw more than six interceptions?’
He said, ‘Trust me, Beuerlein, you don’t have to worry about that stuff. I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry about.’
I said, ‘Coach, I’ve got to know. Is it the plays? Is it the scheme? How do you know I’m not going to throw more than six interceptions?’
And he said, ‘If you need to know, Beuerlein, as soon as you throw interception No. 6, your ass is on the bench behind me. You’re not going to play anymore.’
So I got the message very clear that day that he was going to give me the chance and he had confidence in me that I could get it done. But if I didn’t produce, he wasn’t going to waste his time with me.
As he got to know me better and watched me get back into shape, he started seeing what we could do. Even though I wasn’t very fast, I was a four-sport athlete in high school and I could run a little bit of the option, which we did. He started putting Tim Brown in the backfield out of the Wishbone and we started to do some really creative things. We’d motion him out of there and we’d find different ways to get him the football.
We had Alvin Miller, Milt Jackson, Mark Green and some other very talented guys. (Holtz) was trying to find ways to use their strengths. Immediately, I was like, ‘Wow, this is some cool stuff. We’re finding some really creative ways to get our playmakers involved.’ I knew we were going to be running from the Wishbone, from traditional formations and spreading the field -- different things that we hadn’t seen or done before.
Even at that point, you’re still wondering how it’s all going to come together because as a whole, we didn’t have a lot of confidence after what we’d been through.
TP: You open with Michigan and you give them all they can handle but fall by a point, 24-23.
SB: That was when we knew we had a chance to be something special. We didn’t punt that whole game. We’re playing Michigan, Bo Schembechler and Jim Harbaugh, and they’re a top 5 team in the country.
Quite honestly, we beat the crap out of them. We should have won that game. I threw to Joel Williams and they ruled him out of the back of the end zone. We all still think it was a touchdown. If he hadn’t jumped for the pass, they would have called it a touchdown, and we would have won that game.
John Carney was our kicker and he went on to have a great pro career. He missed an extra point that day and he missed a 35- or 40-yard field goal. We had three turnovers inside the 10-yard line – one interception and two fumbles.
So when we came off the field, even though we lost that game, the stadium was electric and everybody could see we were a different team. Most importantly, we knew we were a different team, and just because of Coach Holtz, we knew we could play with anybody.
The rest of the year kind of went that way. We had some good days and some bad days, but we were always competitive.
TP: The 1985 and 1986 teams both went 5-6, but there couldn’t have been a greater disparity between teams with the same record than those two. Other than the Alabama game, you lost five games by a total of 14 points.
SB: In all those games, we didn’t play great, but we played good enough to put ourselves in a position to win against some really good football teams.
In the LSU game (a 21-19 loss), Carney hit a field goal to give us the win, but there was a dead-ball call -- I think it was a neutral-zone infraction -- and the play didn’t count. Carney made it to take the lead, but it was ruled a dead ball before the snap. They moved the ball up five yards and he missed it.
That’s the way the year went. Except for Alabama, we either beat the teams we should have beaten or we lost a close one.
I remember Coach Holtz saying after the USC game, ‘We may be 5-6, but there are not six better football teams in the country than we are now.’
TP: Does the name Cornelius Bennett mean anything to you?
SB: (Laughing) Yeah, it does. Thank God I don’t remember much of it.
TP: Bennett drilled you pretty good in the first half of the Alabama game in Birmingham (a 28-10 loss), and you never returned to the game.
SB: Go to YouTube and type in ‘The Sack,’ and it pops up. That’s how Alabama refers to it. There’s a picture of the hit on the wall at the Bear Bryant museum in Tuscaloosa. There’s a life-sized mural of that hit.
I think that happened in the middle of the second quarter. Tom Freeman, our guard, gets a lot of grief for that play. But it was a naked bootleg. Nobody was supposed to block Cornelius Bennett. I was supposed to come outside and there wasn’t supposed to be anybody there.
The problem was they went to a defensive look we hadn’t prepared for. Bennett was lined up too far wide and I should have gotten out of the play. Lou told me the next day…well, not the next day, but the next day I could actually remember anything that we should have gotten out of that play.
I remember everything before that hit. I don’t remember that hit and I don’t remember anything after that hit. In those days, concussion protocol was different. I came over to the sideline after that play. They checked me out and I went back in for another series.
After the next series, Lou came up to me – Lou tells this story – and a lot of other guys remember it. He said I came over to the sideline and he told me he was taking me out. I said, ‘I’m fine. Just let me get the cobwebs out.’
And he said, ‘You may think you’re fine, son, but you’re calling plays from your high school playbook and nobody knows the plays from your high school playbook. So you’re done for the day.’
The next thing I remember was the next day when I woke up in the Notre Dame infirmary. I don’t remember anything about the trip home. I had a pretty significant concussion. That was the one game we really got beat in ’86.
TP: You played the next week against Pittsburgh.
SB: I did, but I probably shouldn’t have. Today, I wouldn’t have passed the protocol.
TP: It was a season of near misses, but you guys were a very different team from the previous year.
SB: We’re proud of that year because we beat the teams we were supposed to, which we weren’t doing under Gerry, and we were competitive every week.
Lou said in one of our meetings very early on because we had lost Air Force each of the previous four years, ‘I promise you, we will not lose to Air Force ever again,’ and he didn’t until his last year at Notre Dame.
TP: What other games stand out from ’86?
SB: We lost to Penn State by five (24-19) and they went on to win the national championship that year. We played a great game that day.
We got the ball back late and had to go 75 or 80 yards. We drove the length of the field and got down to the five- or six-yard line. Lou sent in a play -- a sweep to the left side -- but we didn’t get our second tight end in there. Milt Jackson, who was a wide receiver, was looking at me funny. I tried to run the play with Milt lined up at tight end and he got run over. We got hit for about a five-yard loss.
So we took a timeout. We go to the sideline and call a play. They had a defensive tackle by the name of Bob White. He was pretty good. He shot the gap and tackled me before I even got out of my drop.
So we took another timeout and it was now third down at about the 12- or 13-yard line. We call a play that’s designed to get the ball to Tim Brown. In the huddle, Joel Williams tells me, ‘Dude, look at me. You haven’t looked at me all day. They can’t cover me.’
Joel was a great athlete. He’s lined up on the backside as the tight end and there’s no other wide receiver out there. I get under center and I realize that they’ve completely rotated their coverage over to Tim Brown. The backside safety was defending Joel Williams, but he was lined up three or four yards outside of Joel. Joel runs a post down the middle of the field. There’s no way they can cover him. I’m like, ‘Holy cow, Joel’s going to be my best option.’
So I drop back and Joel runs a great route. He’s wide open in the back of the end zone. I hit him in the chest. There’s nobody near him, and the ball bounces right off his numbers. We didn’t come through on fourth down and we lost the game. But we should have beaten Penn State. That’s just the way we lost those games that year.
TP: The (38-37) comeback victory over USC in the Coliseum was the end of the line for you at Notre Dame. But I’ve always looked at that game as kind of a demarcation between the struggle under Faust and the rise of Notre Dame under Holtz. Tim Brown’s spectacular performance, your touchdown passes to Milt Jackson and Braxton Banks in the fourth quarter, Carney’s game-winner as time expired, Skip Holtz’s contribution…
SB: The night before that game, Lou came into my room and gave me a great pep talk. He told me how proud of me he was for the year I’d had and that he had no doubt I’d play in the NFL. He said the USC game would be our bowl game. We felt like we were good enough to play in a bowl game, but obviously we weren’t going to. But it was a real feel-good talk.
As he’s leaving the room, he said, ‘One more thing, Beuerlein. Do you remember the first conversation we ever had?’ I said, ‘I do, coach.’
He said, ‘Do you remember what I told you about the number of interceptions you would throw this year?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I do, coach. I remember that.’
And he said, ‘How many did I say?’ I said, ‘Well, you told me I wouldn’t throw more than six.’
So he goes, ‘Exactly. How many have you thrown this year, Beuerlein?’ I said, ‘Six, coach.’
And he goes, ‘So you’re saying you’re on borrowed time.’ And I said (laughing), ‘I guess you could say that.’
So he goes, ‘I just want you to know that if you do throw an interception tomorrow, I’m taking your butt out.’
I said, ‘Coach, you can’t tell me that the night before the game!’ And he said, ‘Of course I can! I just did! I can tell you whatever I want to tell you!’
So I said, ‘You’re telling me if I throw an interception you’re taking me out?’ And he said, ‘That’s exactly what I’m telling you.’
Well, in the second quarter, Lou Brock Jr. jumped a quick-out that I threw to the left side and took it back for a touchdown. And just like he said, Lou pulled me out of that game in the second quarter.
I thought I was done at home in front of all my family. He let Terry (Andrysiak) play the rest of the first half and I was hoping I would get to play in the second half, but he started Terry. I thought I was done.
After the first series of the second half, he came up to me and we had a great exchange. Basically, he said, ‘Do you want to get out there and play again? I said, ‘Coach, I would do anything to get back out there. If you put me back in, you will not regret it.’
We were down 17 in the fourth quarter and we came back and won that game.
We scored three touchdowns, a two-point conversion and a field goal in the second half, and we ended up winning the game.
TP: You said prior to the 1986 season that you didn’t think you would play in the NFL with all that you had gone through under Gerry Faust and with your two-year battle with a shoulder injury. Holtz gave you the confidence you were going to play in the NFL?
SB: I was given the opportunity to vindicate myself, for lack of a better term. Being healthy again and having a coach that saw something in me helped tremendously. He was hard on me. He was very hard on me. I could give you all kind of examples. But he loved me. He beat me up in practice, but I always knew he had my back and I always knew he believed in me and was pushing me to see what I could get out of myself.
So to have my college career end that way made it all worth it. To walk off that field with our fourth straight win over USC, the way it happened…I would have a hard time saying any game that I was a part of compared to that last one at USC in terms of the impact on me personally.
(Look for Part III of the Beuerlein interview detailing his 17-year run in the NFL.)