Jan. 9, 2017
By John Heisler
According to shipping records, the FedEx box arrived a minute before noon on a late December Wednesday at the suburban Cincinnati home of former University of Notre Dame all-star linebacker Bob Crable.
Crable wasn’t there, so his wife Lisa was left to deal with the package.
“My wife gets the box, and it’s addressed to me. So she figures, ‘Do I open it or not open it? OK I’ll open it.’
“Like any wonderful wife would.”
The box contained a commemorative “game ball” printed to congratulate Crable on being selected as a member of the latest College Football Hall of Fame class. The National Football Foundation previously simply called new inductees with the news via telephone but began the tradition of sending footballs in 2007.
“She gets it, my son Matt (a redshirt freshman quarterback at Grand Valley State in 2016) was there, too–and she took a picture of the football and sent it to me,” says Crable.
“I looked at it, I blew it up and I read it–but I’ve got just enough buddies who would pull something crazy like that on me.
“So I actually sent her a text and said, ‘What does this mean?’
“She calls me back right away and says, ‘What do you mean what does this mean? Are you an idiot? Can’t you read it?’
“So we had a little fun with that. What a great way to announce to someone that they’ve been inducted. It was really neat.”
And, with that, Crable became the 46th Notre Dame player to join the NFF’s College Hall of Fame.
Crable remains far and away the most productive player in Notre Dame history when it comes to making tackles. His single-game (26 against Clemson in 1979), single-season (187 in 1979) and career (521) tackle records are not likely to be broken–ever.
The NCAA did not begin recognizing tackle statistics until 2000, yet since then only three times has Crable’s game high of 26 been matched. No Football Bowl Subdivision player in 2016 had more than 24 tackles in a game. The only reason Crable’s 26-tackle game didn’t register more with Irish fans is that it came in a disappointing home loss to Clemson. Plus, Crable’s numbers came in seasons that featured only 11 regular-season games–in those days bowl games were not included in any official NCAA statistics.
During his senior season in 1981 Crable racked up double-figure tackles in every game. A dozen tackles amounted to a slow day at the office for him considering six times that year he finished with at least 15. By comparison, in 2016, only three times all season did Irish defensive players record a dozen or more stops (and no one did that more than once).
“Back then teams ran the ball 50-60 times a game and now they’re throwing the ball 50-60 times a game,” says Crable. “I thought people were much more connected with defending the run.
“People ask me today if anyone’s going to break my record, and I don’t see how they can, based on how the game is played now. When Manti (Te’o) had his one great year, people asked me if I thought he could break the record, but he had a ways to go. It’s not because I’m any better than he is – it’s about the system and the schemes being run today.”
As consistently excellent as Crable’s play was for the Irish, the singular play Notre Dame fans in particular recall didn’t involve a tackle. Instead, it featured his 1979 field-goal block with six seconds remaining in Ann Arbor to preserve Notre Dame’s 12-10 triumph over Michigan. The game resonated enough to make the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week.
“Your whole life you wonder what you’re going to do if you’re placed in the position of having to take care of a last-second field goal by your opponent to win the game,” says Crable.
“On that play Kurt Becker, who was one of the Michigan guards, leans over to the center who was (Mike) Trgovac (later to become a Notre Dame assistant coach under Lou Holtz) and says, ‘You keep your ass down, we’ll take of everything over the top.’
“So, at that point, I thought, ‘Here we go.’ If the center’s going to stay down my solution became going over the top.
“When the ball was snapped I stepped on the center because he stayed down. It would have been a good field goal because I was right over the middle. He kicked it and it hit me in the thigh.
“The worst part about the play was the landing. Going up was great–the ball hit me and I could have done back flips at the time. But I came to the realization-oh crap-I’ve got to land. I landed right on my head and I was fortunate I didn’t hurt myself. The adrenaline is so strong that you run off the field and life is great. It became a special moment in my life.
“Gene Smith (now athletics director at Ohio State) was our special teams coach at the time and we started practicing where I would jump on one of our own linemen to go over the top, even for extra points. (The NCAA football rules committee within a year passed a rule making that illegal.)
“I didn’t have the heart to tell him I wasn’t going to break my neck for an extra point. I’ll break my neck for a game-winning field goal, but . . . . holy smokes, you see the landing and I really could have hurt myself.
“It (the 1979 Michigan game) comes up pretty frequently. If there is a play that sort of put the stamp on my career at Notre Dame that would be the one people remember, in part because it’s on YouTube so people see it. I still get football cards sent to me to sign.
“I came down right on my head.
“But, would you do that again? For a game-winner? Absolutely.”
Crable stays in touch with a handful of his former Irish teammates-roommate and walk-on punter Don Pawelski and fellow linebackers Mark Zavagnin, Tony Belden and Mike Whittington. He also has worked the Notre Dame fantasy camp multiple years.
“Spring ball always comes to mind when I think back to those years-the guys you were there with, just the stories and the crazy things that happened in practice,” Crable says.
“I remember (in 1980) when we played Alabama in Birmingham, we got back and rode the city buses back to campus and people are climbing on the buses. The excitement you can create for the school, for the University–those things are memorable.”
Crable recognizes how all the athletic support services have been upsized since his college career.
“Off-season workouts? The program today is light years compared to what it was when I was there.
“Training table? I’d come in every year at 220 or 225 pounds and by the end of the season I’m 215. If I have to take on one of the guards from USC, I better get my (ass) down because I’m lighter and I’m gonna need a whole lot more leverage. Lifting during the season now is revolutionary compared to what we were doing.
“And nutrition? There were plenty of days when a bunch of us just headed for Burger King after practice.”
Crable loves thinking back to that 1980 season when the Irish won their first seven games, rose to number one in the polls and went 23 consecutive quarters without allowing a touchdown (allowing only nine combined points over a five-game midseason stretch). Notre Dame punctuated the year with that signature shutout road victory over fifth-ranked Alabama to cement a Sugar Bowl invitation.
“The 1980 team was a pretty special group on defense because we played so well. I often think of Scott Zettek, Donnie Kidd, Joe Gramke–God rest his soul–John Hankerd,” Crable says.
“Zettek was really a significant part of it all–a lot of credit for my success goes to Zettek (a first-team Associated Press All-American at defensive end who made 17 tackles for loss that year) because he was able to draw blocks. So we kind of played off each other. Are they gonna block him with two guys or me with two guys? I think we both made plays because they had to worry about both of us.”
Crable also stays connected any time he comes to South Bend by stopping to visit former Irish assistant football coach Brian Boulac who recruited him. Crable originally had been projected as a probable Michigan signee-in part because he played baseball on a summer team sponsored by a Wolverine alumnus. Boulac had plenty to do with changing that direction.
“It was one of those things where we just kept going after him,” says Boulac.
“Even now he still comes over to see me any time he’s in town–we have a relationship that goes far beyond me having been a coach.”
Crable never liked to talk about it when he was in South Bend, but he fueled his intense approach by putting pictures of opposing players on the wall in his dormitory room.
“I put (USC tailback) Charlie White’s picture up and the day of the (1979) game as I was leaving I hit the wall and put a hole in it. Now I’m worried about security deposits and things like that.
“Back then you’d go back to your room after pregame meal, and I would blast the music and try not to talk to anyone and just get myself ready to play. That’s what I’d done all through high school, too. I had teachers that I found out after the fact would try to call on me and ask questions early in the week because but they knew Fridays I did not want to talk to anyone. That was just my way of getting ready.”
USC won that game in 1979 despite 18 tackles by the Irish linebacker in the number 43 green jersey.
Irish coaches and teammates quickly came to understand that Crable on game days amounted to a raging volcano just waiting to erupt.
Yet Crable came to realize that not everyone played with his passion.
“One of the reasons I found out I was not a great coach was intensity. I’d never dealt with kids as a coach who couldn’t or didn’t understand what it took to get ready for a game. Some of them wanted to screw around, and I didn’t always think they took it seriously enough.
“As a player, all I had to worry about was me. There was always a focus for me on what was going on in that football game that week.
“But, as a coach, well, I had very little patience with that.”
While Notre Dame has more players nominated for the Hall of Fame than any other school, recent policy changes now limit individual institutions to three players on the final ballot each year. This year marked the sixth time that Crable had advanced to the list of finalists (also in 2007-10-13-15-16), yet the Irish standout admits he has been careful not to get his hopes up.
“After the last few years I guess I tried to insulate myself from any of the disappointment. So in my mind I wasn’t even thinking I was going to make it,” he says.
“Just the finalists on the list are some high-powered people, some people who are going to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame or are already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So I’m absolutely humbled and honored to be involved in this thing. I look at some of these names and think, ‘What am I doing in this class?’
“When I went back and looked at the list of the guys who made it the last two years, I thought, ‘How in the world can I complain that I didn’t make it?’ Everyone on the list is deserving, without a doubt.
“So I’m very honored.”
Notre Dame senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been writing about Irish football since 1978-which just happened to be Bob Crable’s freshman season.