By BOB HARIG
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000
Even for those who love to hate Notre Dame, there can be little joy in seeing the Irish sink so low. The fun is in beating them at their best, knocking them off their perch -- not kicking the beaten bully when it is down.
And that is the case for the once-mighty Irish.
For the first time in 15 years, they are not in the Associated Press' preseason poll. A four-game losing streak to end the 1999 season and a 5-7 record is not the stuff of legendary programs. That didn't help the cause this year.
Probably more of a concern, however, is the five-game stretch to start this season: Texas A&M (Sept. 2), Nebraska (Sept. 9), Purdue (Sept. 16), at Michigan State (Sept. 23) and Stanford (Oct. 7). Those five teams were 46-16 a year ago and each played in a bowl game.
It would be a difficult stretch for the most formidable of Notre Dame teams, which this one certainly is not.
"We're not saying very much, because we don't have very much to talk about," Notre Dame coach Bob Davie said. "With this type of schedule, we have as much opportunity as we have anything else, and we have a group of players and coaches committed to making the most of it."
The vultures already are circling over Davie, waiting for him to slip. A poor start -- which almost seems inevitable -- will have them buzzing even more. Various speculation has Davie needing to win seven or eight games to keep his job, even though he has four years remaining on a five-year contract.
Say what you want about Davie (no college head coaching experience before getting the job, his offensive philosophy, etc.), but he inherited a program that was slipping under previous coach Lou Holtz.
Notre Dame hasn't had a first-team All-American since it last seriously contended for a national title in 1993. It has produced just two first-round NFL draft picks since 1995. This season, just one player was drafted.
And Davies doesn't make the schedule, which makes it extremely difficult to be in the national championship hunt year after year.
"Let's be honest about it," he said. "I mean, it would help right now if we would have played some directional schools, as I call them, with some Easterns or Westerns in front of their name."
Make no mistake, the Irish will have a good team this year, with many players others would love to have on their roster. It's just not what you would come to expect from storied Notre Dame.
No longer do the Irish just waltz in and recruit whomever they want. Stricter academic requirements make that problematic. And so does the fact that other programs have become just as prominent, with blanket television coverage giving young football players the chance to see myriad opportunities.
Another thing that doesn't help Davie is the option offense, which might be difficult to defense but is even harder to sell to recruits who want to see a wide-opening passing attack while looking toward the NFL. If you want future NFL-caliber talent, you need to attract them with the same style of play.
Davie, 45, is reluctant to discuss his future. But he is working for a new athletic director, Kevin White, who did not hire him nor give him the contract extension under which he is now working.
And no matter the situation, there is always pressure at Notre Dame. Whether the Irish are coming off a 5-7 season or defending a national championship, the expectations are sky high.
"Talk is cheap," Davie said. "It's the first time since I've been at Notre Dame that there is more talk about what we can't do than what we can do. Our challenge is pretty clear. Is it possible Notre Dame could be a surprise?"
If so, it would be more fun for those who take glee in disliking the Irish. Right now, there's no point.