Thursday, October 13, 2005

Bye Week Flashback | by Jay

(Our good buddy Dan was a walk-on wide receiver under Holtz and Davie. Here, Dan regales us with some stories from '93 about the bye week preparations leading up to the eventual upset of #1 Florida State.)

The historical success of the University of Notre Dame football team after having a bye week is impressive: our post-bye week record currently stands at 59-13-2 (.811) since 1900. But that success is not merely a result of an extra week of rest, or an extra week of film study, or an extra week to heal injuries... although all of these components certainly provide an advantage. Rather, post-bye week success is a direct result of how the head coach, and his football team, are able to effectively balance the myriad psychological benefits of having an additional seven days to prepare... and there was no better psychological manipulator than former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz.

As a walk-on, I had the opportunity to witness firsthand a master craftsman who balanced history and hype with strategy and execution to carve out another moment in the storied tradition of Notre Dame football. This is an inside account of what transpired the two weeks leading up to “The Game of the Century” in 1993 - #1 Florida St. vs. #2 Notre Dame.

After having just defeated Navy for the 30th consecutive year, we had two weeks to prep for the showdown with the top ranked Florida State Seminoles. The personality of our football team could not have been more different than that of Florida State. We were an extremely gifted team, with future NFL greats such as Bryant Young, Jeff Burris, Bobby Taylor, Aaron Taylor, Tim Ruddy, and Derrick Mayes, as well as exceptional leaders such as Greg Lane, Anthony Peterson, Brian Hamilton, Shawn Wooden, Kevin McDougal and Lake Dawson...but we were still a team with a modest, blue-collar approach to the game. On the other end of the spectrum was Florida State: Charlie Ward, Warrick Dunn, Tamarick Vanover and Peter Boulware – a team with swagger that intimidated opponents with speed, strength and showmanship. The press thoroughly enjoyed this clash of personalities and played to the differences in style. And the more we thought about the differences, the more we agreed with the comparison – and this turned out to be the main building block for how Coach Holtz intended to deliver a “W” on game day. Holtz believed that it was our approach that made us better -– a focus on fundamentals and toughness, rather than speed and swagger -- and it ultimately would lead to our success.

The beginning of the bye week was different than most weeks during the season, in that the game plan was not yet finalized. As such, we did not practice on Mondays. Rather, we spent the afternoon in film sessions, getting treatment and working on conditioning. In total, it was a rather light day – this set the tone for the rest of the week. Although we returned to a normal practice schedule on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we were working more on fundamentals of the game, footwork, balance, positioning, and accurate reads, rather than focusing on our upcoming opponent. If it wasn’t for the media (and a few of our teammates) there would have been no mention of Florida State.

In hindsight, this was one of the most powerful tactics that Coach Holtz, and the rest of the coaching staff, employed to prepare us for the game – it was a matter of pacing ourselves for the emotion that would undoubtedly build in week two. In week one, there was no hype – it was back to basics, Football 101.

However, as the bye week came to a close his strategy began to unfold. Coach Holtz normally played to the media, giving them the sob story of how every team has a legitimate chance at beating us each week; in internal discussions, however, he was always adamantly clear that we would win without a shadow of a doubt. Strangely, as the game with Florida State approached, the message to the media and the team was fairly similar – Florida State was faster and more athletic than we were. We wondered why he felt the need to remind us of this fact so frequently. But as we continued through our daily practice schedule it slowly became clear that it was Florida State’s speed and athleticism that would eventually be their downfall. The new offensive schemes for FSU were based on misdirection and cutbacks – “let their whole team swarm to the ball and over pursue, then we’ll go the other way.” Our offensive linemen had dark visors added to their helmets to give them an advantage on eyeing angles and gaps without being noticed – even the slightest advantage would equate to a magnitude of success. Slowly we began to see the total picture of the plan – and we now believed we could win.

As week two began the media circus and the buzz on campus was at full swing. Local and national media wanted any angle they could get, even to the point where they interviewed walk-ons, like me. (I had never been asked my opinion before, and come to think of it, have never been asked my opinion since.) Dorms were holding their own pep rallies and the parking lots were already filled with campers and RVs. Tickets were in high demand and everyone on the team had lots of new "friends" calling them. The hype was at a fever pitch. Inside the walls we continued to focus on execution of the script – angles, cutbacks, misdirection – and trying to keep our emotions in check. Until Wednesday, that is...

Coach Holtz often repeated the phrase “games are won on Monday through Friday, not on Saturday.” He was an avid believer that "you practice like you play." He demanded focus and perfection every day, on every play. Unfortunately, the Wednesday before the Florida State game was a practice that, if translated into game execution, would have resulted in an embarrassing loss to the Seminoles. For some reason our timing was off – the execution of the new strategy was simply not there. Coaches were frustrated and the confidence that we were beginning to build was turning into doubt.

Suddenly, the legendary offensive line coach, Joe Moore -- as old-school and rugged a football coach as there ever was -- lost his cool. He had had enough of misdirection and cutbacks – he was tired of the thought of playing Florida State football in order to beat Florida State. Yes, there would be the time and place to employ this strategy in order to keep them off-balance, but he believed that the best way to beat Florida State football was to play Notre Dame football. In the middle of practice Coach Moore huddled with Coach Holtz...and then exploded. “Get me the managers! Get these f*cking visors off these f*cking helmets! We don’t need this bullsh*t! We’re going to look them right in the eye, tell them where we’re running the ball, and kick their f*cking asses all over the f*cking field!”

We beat Florida State on that Wednesday – the rest was just for show!

The hype kept building as over 25,000 people tried to attend the Friday night pep rally at the JACC (capacity 11,500). I nearly missed the pep rally due to the fact that security locked the doors and I couldn’t convince them that I actually was on the team. Had it not been for one of the coaches randomly walking past the door, I would have missed the pep rally and most likely not been allowed to dress for the game for violating team rules (that would have been a terrible end to the story!) This pep rally was like no other: it was deafening inside and the enthusiasm was electric.

The team went through the usual post-rally schedule: returning to the Loftus Center for a team meeting and then into our relaxation routine. Our team meetings on Friday night were more administrative than anything, covering logistics for the weekend and so forth. Additionally, we would always watch a short film comprised of highlights from the previous week’s game and highlights from the previous year’s game vs. the upcoming opponent. However, with no game over the bye week and having not played Florida State in several years, there really wasn't anything to show. At least that’s what we thought.

Instead of a game film, Coach Holtz had arranged to show highlights of the 1988 Miami game. As music pumped through the speakers and highlights of Zorich, Stonebreaker, Rice and Rocket filled the screen, we began cheering for the players whose performance influenced us to join ND in the first place. We started to think about the magnitude of the event at hand. We began to realize that we were about to write another chapter in the history books. Then, the music stopped, the screen went blank, and a picture of the 1988 National Championship Ring went up... and the team went crazy! The sounds of the pep rally were silent compared to the uproar that filled the meeting room at Loftus – it was literally an out-of-body experience.

On Saturday morning it was all business. We attended the team mass at 7:00 AM and then proceeded to the team breakfast at the North Dining Hall. After breakfast we all walked to the stadium. Despite the chaos, the thousands of fans that formed a human tunnel from the Basilica to the Dining Hall and from the Dining Hall to the stadium, there were very few words said amongst the players. Occasionally you would hear a whisper or two, but mostly it was quiet. The team went through normal pre-game activities, stretching, position drills, and the like, and it remained all-business.

But then the Seminoles ran out the tunnel -- and right through our warm-up drills. It was a sign of disrespect – only adding fuel to the emotional fire and dramatically breaking the silence of every man on the team. Returning to the locker room we were in a rage. Nobody disrespects us on our own field – nobody - and the coaches struggled to contain our emotion. Coach Holtz tried to keep the team in check. He patiently waited to give his pre-game talk and awaited word that Florida State had taken the field. Unfortunately, the Seminoles refused to leave their locker room until after we took the field, forcing us, by rule, to take the field so as to not delay the start of the game. Holtz was in a fury about this second show of disrespect as he began his pre-game speech.

As was designed, the game would be about execution, Holtz said. Florida State could not win if we executed the game plan. It was simple: hit them in the mouth and get them on their heels, then we’ll work misdirection, and they will be lost. Holtz then talked about what the media believes, what the critics believe -- and how none of that matters. Inside these walls and inside your hearts was a belief that victory was imminent. Then he said: “Let there be no doubt... this sucker doesn’t have to be close!” And with that, we stormed out of the locker room.

The third and final sign of disrespect was Florida State’s decision to meet us in our own tunnel, rather than wait in their locker room. I had the fortunate (or unfortunate) experience of being in the front lines of the ensuing melee. Had it not been for the Indiana State Police and some very courageous assistant coaches, the game would have never been played.

Well, we all know what happened on that unseasonably warm November Saturday. It was a great game against two pretty evenly-matched, albeit very different teams. This “Game of the Century” definitely delivered on the hype. The game, though, was not won simply on Saturday. The foundation had been laid by Coach Holtz over the previous two weeks: a skillful balance of gameplanning and emotional management that made us believe we could beat the #1 team in the country. Notre Dame catapulted to the top of the college football world on that Saturday, but the game had been won long before kickoff.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.