The 1981 Notre Dame football team came into the season brimming with optimism. The program had won national titles as recently as 1973 and 1977. The 1980 Irish contended for #1 deep into the season. Even a coaching change didn’t dim the good feeling. In fact, the hiring of uber-optimistic Gerry Faust only enhanced it. Faust’s love for the school, his devout Catholicism and his hiring straight out of the high school ranks, where he was a record-setting coach in Ohio, seemed like a storybook tale come true. But this storybook tale went terribly wrong and 1981 was the harbinger of a tough five-year stretch in South Bend.
It wasn’t for lack of personnel. Notre Dame had a nice running back combination of Phil Carter and Greg Bell, the latter headed for a nice pro career. Senior linebacker Bob Crable was an All-American and would become a first-round NFL draft choice the following spring. The secondary had talented future pros in Dave Duerson and Stacey Toran.
Throwing the football was a problem. While Tony Hunter was a versatile tight end and freshman receiver Joe Howard a deep threat, the Irish did not get consistent play at quarterback. Blair Kiel and Tim Koegel spent the season shuttling back and forth and nothing really clicked. Notre Dame ended the season ranked 66th in the country in points scored.
None of it seemed to matter early on. The Irish were ranked #3 in the preseason polls. When heavyweights Michigan and Alabama suffered early upset losses and Notre Dame crushed lowly LSU 27-9, Faust’s team was elevated to #1.
The road trip to Ann Arbor a week later was an unmitigated disaster. Even though this Michigan team wasn’t anything vintage and ended up losing three games, the Irish never had a chance. They started their first twelve possessions backed up behind their own 25-yard line and lost the game 25-7. Pollsters responded by dropping Notre Dame all the way to #13.
Another rankings hit came after a heartbreaking loss at mediocre Purdue. The Irish had taken a 14-7 lead late in the game. The Boilermakers drove 80 yards, but faced 4th-and-goal from the nine-yard line in the final minute. No matter. Notre Dame gave up the touchdown, the two-point conversion, lost 15-14 and fell out of the national polls.
What was then a traditional Big Ten trifecta of Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State on the early season schedule came to an end when an average Spartan team came to South Bend. Notre Dame got back on track with a 20-7 win. They were headed into a key schedule stretch against ranked teams from Florida State and USC with both games at home and a chance to get back in the major bowl picture.
More difficult losses awaited. ND led FSU 13-12 midway through the fourth quarter before giving up the go-ahead touchdown and losing 19-13. The loss to the fifth-ranked Trojans was by a 14-7 count.
At 2-4, there was no way the season could be considered a success by Notre Dame standards. But for all the problems Faust encountered, one thing remains true—neither he nor his players ever quit. They hosted a good Navy team and delivered a 38-0 rout. Consecutive blowouts of bad teams from Georgia Tech and Air Force got the record up to 5-4.
The final two road games, at Penn State and Miami, represented a chance to at least go into the offseason with some positive momentum. Instead, there was more heartbreak.
Notre Dame went into State College, led 21-17 in the fourth quarter and were driving for a lockup touchdown. Kiel threw a red-zone interception. The Lions drove the distance and took a 24-21 lead. The Irish reached the PSU 39-yard line on their last gasp before a fourth down pass to Howard fell incomplete. Penn State accepted a bid to the Fiesta Bowl where they beat USC and ended up third in the nation.
The season ended with a thud on Black Friday. Notre Dame was never in the game and lost to Miami 37-15. The Hurricanes completed a 9-2 season and sent a message to the college football world that they were coming.
Even after the bleak 5-6 campaign there was still hope that Faust would turn it all around. Notre Dame did get better and had winning seasons each of the next three years. But they never made a major bowl game under Faust and his tenure was bookended with another 5-6 season in 1985 that also ended with a blowout loss at Miami. 1981 was the warning that the bright optimism of Faust’s hiring would go unfulfilled.