The August sun is falling over a small bass pond in an Indiana cornfield. Notre Dame football coach Dan Devine casts from the bank, serenely unconcerned that he is being outsmarted by the fish, far more at peace with himself than anyone in his line of work has any right to be at this time of year. Finally he reels in his red-and-silver spinner, shakes the water from it, winds the leader around the rod. Then he turns to his wife, Jo, and says, “Guess that’s the last fishing trip of the summer, huh, Hon?”
The fight song says nothing about old Notre Dame doing its best or showing good sportsmanship. It promises to win, “what though the odds be great or small,” and the evangelical tone of that hymn is a reflection of just how seriously the college takes its football. Notre Dame is, after all, the home of Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian, of the Four Horsemen, of Angelo Bertelli, Johnny Lujack and Paul Hornung. It is a small school (enrollment 8,830) whose 59,000-seat stadium has been filled to capacity every home game for 14 years, save one that was rescheduled at the last minute. Notre Dame is the epitome of everything that’s good, and some of the things that are bad, about college football.
So with only three weeks left before the 1978 opener against Missouri—Devine’s old team—and with even the subway alumni, who couldn’t find South Bend on a map, tensed for the opening kickoff and worrying about the starting lineup, why has Dan Devine gone fishing?
For one thing, there’s nothing that soothes a coach like winning the national championship, as Devine’s team did last season, his third at Notre Dame. For another, Dan has mellowed since his often turbulent coaching days at Arizona State, Missouri and the pro Green Bay Packers (during which he developed ulcers). “I’ve just realized I’m getting old,” he says. “I’m 53, and in tennis I’ve been missing shots I was confident I could get. It dawned on me that this is what eventually happens to a pro player.”
A year ago Devine was less secure; in fact, his job seemed in jeopardy. Cars on the Notre Dame campus carried “Dump Devine” bumper stickers. On his space in the faculty lot, his name was painted out and “5 minute parking” painted in.
In his first two seasons at South Bend, his teams won 17 games and lost only six, but by Notre Dame standards that amounted to a slump. The Fighting Irish (so labeled by the Methodists from Northwestern in 1889) not only are accustomed to winning—their record since 1887 is 591 victories, 157 losses and 38 ties—they much prefer to win by 64-0, 69-13 or, as they did against American Medical in 1905, 142-0. When a mediocre Mississippi team beat them in last season’s second game, it was enough to shake down the thunder from the sky. Devine was constantly being compared with Rockne (105-12-5), Leahy (87-11-9) and, most painfully, his friend and predecessor Parseghian (95-17-4), who, according to a story Devine does not deny, got the job partly on Devine’s recommendation.
During his first two seasons at Notre Dame, Devine became so impatient with the invidious comparisons to Parseghian that he began to save clippings that favorably described his own overall record as a coach. He developed (and still sometimes uses) a set line: “If you’re going after a great job, you’re going to have to follow a legend.”
In 1977 Devine managed to pump iron into his players, not least through a stratagem as corny and transparent as Pat O’Brien asking the team to win this one for the Gipper. For the game against the consistently powerful University of Southern California, Devine secretly ordered a set of green-and-gold jerseys—the traditional Fighting Irish colors last worn by the team in 1963. The day of the game, Coach Devine had the jerseys hanging in the players’ lockers when they came back from the pregame warm-up. “It’s when you get two teams that are equal,” he explains with a smile, “that you have to use finesse.” It worked, of course. Rick Slager, a graduate coaching assistant, recalls, “The guys went crazy. You just knew we’d already won the game.” The score was Notre Dame 49, USC 19.
The Irish were unbeaten for the rest of the season and went into the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2, 1978 ranked fifth in the country, but decided underdogs to Texas. Two things happened. At an early practice session in Texas, Devine uncharacteristically bawled his team out for being complacent. “Fiery?” says Slager. “He gave the guys a talk like I’ve never heard before.” Devine shrugs it off. “I just told them it wasn’t going to be as simple as they had been thinking,” he says.
Then, at the Cotton Bowl banquet two days before the game, the Notre Dame players found themselves scattered, some consigned to seats in the balcony, while the Texas team was conspicuously ushered to the best tables below. Devine immediately protested and his team wound up on the dais—right? Not a peep. High school coach Jim Hastings, an old Devine pal who knows his tactics well, laughs and explains, “Dan Devine wouldn’t let the kids be treated like second-class citizens—unless there was a reason for it.” The Irish might have won anyway, but the edge of resentment didn’t hurt—they embarrassed Texas 38-10, and in the season’s final polls were ranked national champions. This year they are no better than fifth in the AP preseason poll.
The 1977 title represented the sort of triumph against odds that Devine has specialized in ever since he was a frail, 135-pound boy who risked—and doggedly endured—an occasional battering to make the Proctor, Minn, high school football team. At the Green Bay Packers, Devine’s immediate predecessor as coach was Phil Bengston, but the act he really had to follow was the winning-is-the-only-thing legacy of Vince Lombardi. Though Lombardi had personally chosen Bengston as his successor, Bengston resigned after three years of finishing no higher than third in the Central Division. By the time he left, the great Packer teams of the ’60s were only a humiliating memory. Devine arrived in the NFL after 16 years in college coaching at Arizona State and Missouri—all winning seasons but one. He gave up, among other things, a $500,000 life insurance policy from Missouri alumni that would have had a $250,000 cash value in nine years. In his second season at Green Bay, Devine led the team to its only Central Division championship since 1967. But Packer fans had been spoiled by the Lombardi era, and when the team did poorly the next season, they took their frustrations out on the hapless coach.
Nasty banners in the stadium and critical sportswriters were unpleasant enough. Then his daughter Jill was spat upon by a classmate on the school bus. Somebody shot the Devines’ pet dog and left its body on their lawn. And when Jo Devine began showing the first symptoms of what turned out to be multiple sclerosis, rumors spread around town that she was an alcoholic. (Her condition appears to be stable now.)
By the time she reached Green Bay, Jo thought she had become inured to the consequences of life with a career athlete. On their first date, after a University of Minnesota (Duluth) basketball game, Dan was the last player to leave the locker room, while she cooled her heels; and then he kept her out past curfew to buy an early edition of the paper and read about himself as high point man. Still, she was not prepared for the venomous treatment in Green Bay. Now she says simply, “I’ve been a coach’s wife 30 years, and I’ve never been anyplace where they thought we were perfect, even when we were.” He resigned with a year left on his Packers contract and went to Notre Dame.
To this day Devine discusses Green Bay with reluctance. “Why doesn’t anyone want to know the positive things, like the great friends we still have there?” he asks. “I’ve never been happier for a team than I was when the 72 Packers won that championship.” He can’t always hide his bitterness, though, saying, “The team I inherited was not only old but untalented.” Despite the galling memories, Devine admits that he would like to return to pro coaching someday. “If I ever did go back into the National Football League,” he has said, “I’d be a lot smarter.”
Daniel John Devine has always made a virtue of flexibility. His father, an odd-jobsman in Wisconsin, was having financial problems, and his mother had just borne the fourth of her nine children when Dan was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Proctor, Minn. Dan helped support himself with a paper route—a demanding job in the 10-foot winter snowdrifts—and later worked on the railroad, steaming the frozen ore cars so they could be unloaded. When he realized he was too light to be a good football player in high school, he systematically put on weight—finally reaching 175 pounds on his 5’8″ frame. As a coach he suits his style to his team—unlike such doctrinaires as Woody Hayes, whose Ohio State teams do or die, and usually do, with their running game, or Bear Bryant, whose Alabama teams depend on a skillful passer at quarterback.
After serving his coaching apprenticeship at East Jordan, Mich. High and at Michigan State, under Biggie Munn, Devine used both a T-formation and the hoary single wing at Arizona State and Missouri and now uses the “I” at Notre Dame. He has even modified his team rules. “I’ve relaxed my attitude somewhat concerning the length of hair and that sort of thing, because I found that probably I was at fault for not recognizing earlier that a kid could be just as dedicated and loyal a team member no matter how he is groomed,” he told a College & Pro Football Newsweekly interviewer.
Dan and Jo Devine have seven children, and it is a comment on the dedication—or monomania—of football coaches that not one of the family was conceived during the football season. Shortly before daughter Jill was born in the fall of 1960, Jo said to her husband, “Just think: It’s less than a month.” Preoccupied, Devine replied, “Yes, and we’ve already lost two regulars through injuries.”
Dan Jr., now a businessman, was a respectable wide receiver at Milton College in Milton, Wis., yet his dad saw him play for only 45 seconds in his entire scholastic career.
Devine does not apologize for his emotional involvement with his team. “At one point in my career, I’d have been embarrassed to say that I love my players,” he said recently, standing on the Notre Dame practice field. “I don’t think it does a 19-year-old any good to be told his coach loves him. But the thing I’m proudest of is that I remember them more than the games.” He gestured toward center Dave Huffman. “It’s a tough, hard, nonglory kind of job,” Devine said, “where no one ever gives you the credit unless you’ve made a mistake.” He didn’t mean to, but nobody has ever defined the football coach better.