Gerry Faust was entering the final year of his contract as the 1985 Notre Dame football team gathered to begin the season. The embattled head coach came to South Bend in 1981 after being the winningest head coach in Ohio high school football history.
Faust’s enthusiasm, his devout Catholicism and his record of winning seemed to make him a dream choice for Notre Dame. But the first four years hadn’t gone well—no major bowl appearances—and 1985 was his last chance to make it work.
There was talent on hand—Faust’s virtues had always made him an effective recruiter. The defense was anchored by senior tackle Eric Dorsey, who would become a first-round draft pick of the New York Giants, where the coaching duo of head coach Bill Parcells and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, were putting together a unit on the cusp of winning the Super Bowl.
The linebacking corps was steady, if unspectacular and led by Tony Furjanic, the leading tackler and including talented sophomore Cedric Figaro. Both would be late-round NFL draft picks themselves.
Offensively, the 1985 Notre Dame football team was built around running back Allan Pinkett. He was coming off two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and his senior year of 1985 would be the third straight.
The quarterback was Steve Beurlein. While Beurlein would have some good days ahead of him—notably stepping in for an injured Troy Aikman and leading the Dallas Cowboys to their first playoff berth under Jimmy Johnson in 1991, Beurlein’s 1985 college season was marred by 18 interceptions. Tim Brown was a sophomore receiver who would win the Heisman Trophy in two years, but at this stage Brown was still mostly a kick returner.
Notre Dame traveled to Ann Arbor for the traditional season-opener with Michigan. The Wolverines were coming off one of their worst seasons under Bo Schembecler when they went 6-5. Consequently, Michigan was unranked while Notre Dame sat at #14 in the polls.
But the Wolverines won 20-12, setting the stage for a year when they would finish #2 in the nation, losing only an epic battle with Iowa. Notre Dame fell out of the rankings and Faust’s last chance was off to a tough start.
Faust got the team back on track with a win over Michigan State, but then lost consecutive road games to Purdue and Air Force. At 1-3, the wolves were howling at the door, but to the credit of both the team and the coach they didn’t mail it in.
Notre Dame beat 19th-ranked Army, and then smashed USC at home 37-3. The Trojans were going through what the Irish were at this point in their program’s history—a struggle to get past mediocrity and reclaim former glory. Faust would finish his tenure in South Bend with a winning record against USC.
Consecutive wins over Navy and Ole Miss by a combined score of 78-31 got Notre Dame to 5-3, and with the meat of their November schedule ahead, there was still an opportunity to make something of the season and perhaps even rescue their coach’s job. Notre Dame would travel to top-ranked Penn State, host LSU and then visit Miami, also ranked in the top five and chasing a national title.
Any hope of a miracle ended quickly on the trip to Happy Valley. Notre Dame was crushed 36-6, a game that all but spelled the end for Faust. Then they lost the LSU game 10-7 when Brown committed a key fumble.
Prior to the Miami game Faust announced he was resign. Loyal to Notre Dame to the end, he wouldn’t put the school in the position of having to fire him. The Saturday after Thanksgiving in South Beach would be his final game, with Lou Holtz anointed as the successor by kickoff.
There would be no grand farewell for Faust. Miami was too good and too fast, and they needed to not only win, but impress the pollsters. The final was 58-7, with Johnson catching a lot of heat over his team blocking a punt at the end of the game.
In this regard, Johnson gets a bad rap—he had called for a return and defensive end Bill Hawkins was simply left unblocked by Notre Dame. Hawkins would have had to work harder to avoid blocking the kick then not to, and that would have only made the Irish look worse. Faust himself, in his biography The Golden Dream, said he bore no ill will toward Johnson for how the rout unfolded.
The Gerry Faust era didn’t go the way anyone hoped and the ending certainly was a rough one. But there are some things that need to pointed out in fairness. It’s obvious now—and should have been at the time—that asking a high school coach to jump all the way to Notre Dame is too much. Of course Faust is going to take the opportunity, but Notre Dame should have known better. Had Faust gone to, say a MAC or low-level Big Ten school, built up credibility and confidence, his college career might have been different.
It also has to be remembered that Faust took over Notre Dame at a time when parity was hitting college football. 1981 was the year of the great populist rebellion, when new schools began to win and traditional powers in general began having a tougher time. Notre Dame was not alone, and unlike the other power programs, the Irish did not allow redshirting.
Finally, Faust still went to three bowl games in his tenure and never finished worse than 5-6. While that is clearly below Notre Dame standards and not an argument for staying on, it is not a demonstrably worse performance than other ND coaches in future years—from Bob Davie to Charlie Weis to Ty Willingham put forward. Those coaches had bigger highs, but also—notably Weis—had some pretty bad lows.
I bring this up because Faust is widely seen as one of the worst failures at Notre Dame, with the consolation being that he was a good man. The latter is definitely true—I had the chance to interact with him and he’s a genuinely gracious and charitable human being. And even when it comes to coaching, I ask that we keep the failure in context—no, the job did not get done, as Faust bluntly says in The Golden Dream. But the unique circumstances of his hiring at a time of change in college football all worked against him, and he still chipped away and won more than he lost.
The end of the 1985 Notre Dame football season was time for Faust to move on, but his five years were not the universal disaster they are often portrayed as.