Nov. 1, 2000
By Dan Devine with Michael R. Steele
Excerpts from Dan Devine’s Book titled “Simply Devine” Reprinted with permission from Sagamore Publishing.
Before the 1976 season began, we told the players that if we received a bid to a bowl game, we were going to accept it. They didn’t really care about the monetary implications for the school, but I explained that the money we would get from a bowl game would help provide more money for scholarships for minority students, and we were not going to be in a position to turn the bid down. They understood the reasons now.
The bid we received was to the Gator Bowl, where we played Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions. We played a solid game and won 20-9. Afterward, Paterno looked at the list of players we had returning, plus knowing Joe Montana would be back from injury, and predicted we would be the national champions. I suppose I should have thanked him for that comment, but all it really meant for me was more pressure from the media and fans.
It’s easy for a coach to look as if he is doing a terrific job when he is surrounded by great players. On our team in 1977 were some great players, led by Joe Montana.
Joe was still having difficulty coming back from his shoulder separation the year before, and the trainer was not pleased with his progress as we got ready to open the season. Our trainer, Gene Paszkiet, and the team doctor didn’t think he was ready to start the first game. As a coach, you can’t risk playing guys who are not completely healthy, especially in the first game of the season, or you are running the risk they are going to get hurt worse and be out for a lot longer period of time.
With that in mind, we made the decision to go with Rusty Lisch at quarterback against defending national champion Pittsburgh. Lisch played well and we won a tough game, 19-9.
A week later, on September 17, we had an afternoon game against Ol’ Miss in Jackson, Miss. Our dressing room had no air conditioning and was hot! I vividly recall that during the pre-game warm-up, the stadium’s public address announcer gave the temperature and humidity ? and the crowd’s reaction was fantastic. You don’t normally get that kind of crowd reaction over the announcement of the temperature. I should have somehow prepared our team better for the weather conditions.
We lost a tough game, 20-13, but Ol’ Miss deserved to win. They played better than we did, and when you prepare your team for the season, you’ve got to prepare for everything. That’s why I’ve always been an advocate of the running game — you are going to need to rely on it more times during the season than you will a passing game. But you need both.
All through my career, the coaches on my staff and my players told me that I was always the same on Monday night, whether we had enjoyed a big victory or a heartbreaking loss on Saturday. This was not an easy thing for me. I might add that there were a number of necessary things in coaching that weren’t easy for me.
Losses affected me greatly, but I tried not to take them in the house when I got home. As much as I tried not to show my feelings to the family, I am sure that they sensed what my emotions were.
When we had our meeting with the squad the day after the loss to Ol’ Miss, they knew me well enough to know how I would be. But by Monday, when we hit the practice field, I’m proud to say I was able to accomplish this leveling off and start preparing for the next game. A coach simply can’t replay Saturday’s game on Tuesday and still get ready for the next game. If you have a Tuesday night TV show, you have to wing it, and not get your emotions up again. Perhaps no one took losses harder than I did, and no one got over them sooner than I did. That helped contribute to my winning seasons, realizing that if I lingered too long over one loss, it would affect our preparations for the next week, and then I would be moping about two losses.
In a “normal” week, the players and coaches would all gather on Sunday and I would review the game and talk about what we did well and what we could improve on. We would watch the film of the special teams, then would break up into offensive and defensive meetings. The respective coordinators ran those meetings, but I tried to spend time with each unit. I tried to concentrate on the offense, particularly working with the quarterbacks. Those meetings were, of course, supplemented with one-on-one meetings with a lot of the players during the week, and I’ve always been proud when my players thought they could come in and talk with me about anything that was on their minds, whether it had anything to do with football or not.
We were 1-1 for the season, but in my mind we were struggling. Watching the game film early on Sunday morning, I noticed that three of our best players had played their worst game. A number of our very good players had played a very average game. I made a gamble.
Instead of having each unit watch only its portion of the game film, I decided to have the entire squad watch all three films. I wasn’t trying to embarrass any of the players, but I thought it was an occasion when maybe seeing themselves making mistakes — and knowing all of their teammates saw it as well — would prompt them to concentrate better and work harder in trying to make certain they didn’t make the same mistakes again.
When we hit the practice field, I knew we would bounce back and have a great season. This was the biggest deviation from my normal postgame time with the players, and it was all over by Sunday afternoon. If that disappointment lingered, it wasn’t a bad motivational technique — to dislike losing so much to not let yourself be part of defeat. It also showed that we had a class group of athletes. I emphasized that we were too good a football team to be playing poorly like that and that we could still be national contenders. Pat’s Pub in South Bend had glasses and bumper stickers printed with “1977 National Champions” the next week, after the loss to Mississippi.
Pat had faith in us. We had a great up-hill climb. You have to play games one at a time and good things can happen.
Rusty Lisch was not playing poorly, but I really believed we needed to have Joe Montana playing quarterback if we were going to be as good a team as we could be. Ron Toman, our quarterback coach, Joe, a center and our wide receivers stayed after practice on Monday night for extra work. The center snapped to Joe, and he threw to all the wide receivers. He threw all types of patterns. Joe threw the out pattern like a clothesline, although in the pro reports, they thought that he couldn’t throw the out pattern. But he could throw the ball anywhere, any distance that he had to throw. It’s like the timing of the backs, anybody knows that a 4.3 back is most desirable. But there are hundreds in college and hundreds in the pros who don’t run 4.3
I went to our trainer before going to the training table for dinner and told him I thought Joe Montana was ready to play that week against Purdue. Gene gave him his clearance, and I told Joe to be ready to play. I didn’t say, “You might play,” I said, “You’re going to play.”
Against Purdue, with a capacity crowd again, 68,000 people, we found ourselves behind 24-14, and the defense was playing poorly. We had relieved Rusty Lisch with Gary Forystek, who was injured shortly thereafter — an injury that really ended his football career. We brought Rusty back during the third quarter, and then put Joe in early in the fourth quarter so he could have the wind at this back, but we were in poor field position. When Joe entered the game, he threw one touchdown pass, David Mitchell scored on an Emil Sitko-type blast, and we got a field goal and won 31-24.
Joe’s performance against Purdue was absolutely amazing for a lot of reasons, Purdue had a nice cushion at home and Purdue had always been a nemesis of the Fighting Irish, but most of all, Joe hadn’t played in more than a year and was coming off a separated shoulder and a broken finger. At the press conference after the game, I told them that he would be the starting quarterback the next week.
Coaching is not a popularity contest. I have to give Joe an A+ for leadership, and his maturation was obvious. The team reacted positively to his, and Joe started the remaining 21 games of his career.
We won our next two games, Michigan State and Army, but I still didn’t think we were playing like a championship team. After the Army game, we were ranked 11th in the country, and I couldn’t disagree with that very much.
Earlier in the season, I had made arrangements to buy an extra set of uniform jerseys — green jerseys with gold numbers. Almost no one knew about it, My captains were told in the middle of the week, before the USC game that we were going to wear those jerseys on Saturday. They all did a good job of keeping the secret. The decision to wear the green jerseys for the USC game was an important one, probably deciding whether we would be a contender for the national championship or not.
Before the game, we warmed up in our home blue jerseys while the equipment men were setting out the green jerseys at each player’s locker. After we returned to the locker room just before kickoff, we had a very good idea that the team was excited ? particularly when we saw Bob Golic looking at his green jersey in a mirror. Joe had a tremendous game, running for two touchdowns and passing for two more, as he was named the offensive MVP of the game by ABC.