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Throwback Thursday: Preparation in Practice Leads to Success on Game Day

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Or ... avoiding the wrath of coach!

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

When I interview former football players, of course the stories of the big game, or the big win, are of great interest. But the daily activities, such as practice, can also contain interesting stories as well. Today I’ll share with you two Notre Dame Fighting Irish football practice stories. One from former Notre Dame outside linebacker Rich Thomann (who played under Ara Parseghian), and one from former Notre Dame defensive walk-on Stephen Pope (who played under Lou Holtz).

Rich shared this story with me just this week.

“On one hot summer day in pre-season 1970, the defense practiced against the scouts on one field, and the offense practiced against the scouts on another field that backed up to the first one, with Ara’s coaching tower in between so that he had an end zone look at both fields. He mostly watched the offense, but on one play we (the defense) were going live tackling, and I failed to come up and make the tackle on a screen pass. I knew I should have made the play and I quickly got myself back to our defensive huddle hoping Ara was looking the other way. But when I looked up ... he had smoke coming out of his ears as he climbed down off the tower. There I was, just hoping he’d walk the other way, but he didn’t.”

“We all froze in the huddle. He walked over and stood directly behind me and I could feel his heated breath exhaling down my neck. I was shaking! He whispered in my ear that the same play would go again and this time I was going to make the tackle or his size nine shoe would fit nicely between the cheeks of my rear end, and as I looked down his leg was cocked up ready to deliver! Captain Tim Kelly broke the huddle, and I’m positive that every guy in that huddle was glad it wasn’t them, and we ran that play again. This time I defeated several blocks and made the tackle like I should have done the first time and returned to the huddle where Coach was waiting. All he said was, ‘That’s more like it.’”

“The cool thing was no-one overheard what he said to me, which meant he didn’t embarrass me in front of the entire team, and then he promptly climbed back up the tower. I remembered that lesson, and it was seared in my memory. In that season’s last game vs. USC (in the LA Coliseum) their All-American Offensive Lineman, Ron Yary (I believe), had pulled out and detached from the rest of the offensive line in the flat area on my side, with the Southern Cal running back receiving the screen pass. It was do or die, on National TV, and I’m outweighed by 60 pounds, and yet somehow I have to make the tackle. It was as if Ara’s shoe was ready to deliver if I didn’t! So I charged at the huge 6’5” 260 pound lineman full speed, (I weighed about 200 soaking wet), and cut his legs right out from under him. Somehow, because it was raining and the footing was poor, the running back fell over him. Years later listening to a replay of the game someone sent me, the color guy was Bud Wilkinson, (the famed Oklahoma Coach), and he said that my play was the finest he’d seen a linebacker make all year. If he only knew all I was a trying to do was avoid getting my butt kicked by Ara!”

Former Notre Dame football player, Stephen Pope, talks about what it was like to be a walk-on playing for Coach Holtz. (Excerpt taken from Chapter 3 of “Triumphs From Notre Dame.”)

“During spring ball my sophomore year, we were already looking ahead to fall ball and preparing for the first game of the season. As a defensive player on the scout team, we were tasked with running a particular team’s offense, and on this particular day we were running Northwestern’s defense, as they were the first game of the season. This particular practice was a half speed practice. Basically, you were walking through the plays on the field. After walking through a couple of plays, we moved to running plays at full speed with the caveat that nobody hits the ground. Well f-ck, man. I know exactly what they’re going to run. And to be honest, the guys on offense were getting kind of lazy, so I come in and hit the running back. I don’t knock him down, just hit him squarely, but apparently that was too much. Then I hear the coaches yell, ‘Pope, what are you doing?! That’s not your assignment. Run the defense g-d d-mnit.’ And I reply, ‘But coach, he did such and such, and so that’s why I did this.’ It was the first time I had ever talked back to a coach. Coach Holtz looks directly at me and says, ‘Run the g-d d-mn defense or get out of here.’ Yep, that was the gist of it. Then Skip Holtz comes over and starts berating the running back, and after that goes back over to speak with Coach Holtz. At least someone recognized that I wasn’t being a jerk, I was merely trying to help the offense get better.”

A team is made up of players with not only diverse talent levels, but diverse personalities as well. This can be good, as it helps each player to grow based on their teammates pushing them on; it can be challenging as well. The Notre Dame Value Stream knows exactly what to do to take this diversity and turn it into something incredible.

“Ricky Watters, Tony Brooks, Andre Jones and Todd Lyght were the rock stars of Notre Dame when I came in as a freshman. They were seniors that year, and had just won the national championship the year before. I was lined up across from Ricky my freshman year, and I was pretty uneducated when it came to Notre Dame Football. Yes, they had won the national title the year before, but I didn’t follow Notre Dame Football. They weren’t my squad, I followed west coast teams. As a result of my not knowing who the ‘star players’ were, Ricky thought I had disrespected him. And so as a result of him thinking I had disrespected him, in my mind it was his goal every practice to knock me out. I thought he had this personal vendetta against me.”

“This one day at practice, we’re having this scout team moment where coach is getting on us. He is screaming at the defense to run the play because he’s trying to get his rock stars to actually practice. Meanwhile, Ricky Watters and Todd Lyght and Andre Jones are telling us, ‘we’re seniors. We won a national championship. We’re not getting hurt, we’re going pro. We are not going to practice hard.’ And they let it be known. And Coach Holtz says to them, ‘yeah, you won in ’88, but guess what? This isn’t ’88, and if you actually practice, you have the chance to win it again.’ So I am lined up across from Ricky. It’s a full speed; nobody goes to the ground practice. I’m playing free safety. When we run the play I wrap Ricky up, and he f-cking throws an elbow to my chin and knocks me down, and runs all the way down the field. I’m thinking to myself, ‘what the f-ck was that? I’m being the dude, and coming in, and helping you out.’ We’re doing repetition drills, and so we line back up to run it again, and what do I do? I don’t just wrap him up or knock him down, but I f-cking rock him, and drive him back six yards, and now he’s hot. He immediately comes after me, ‘who the f-ck are you? How dare you?’ and I just say, ‘dude, whatever,’ and walk away. I knew I was a good athlete, and a smart guy; I also knew I could play at Notre Dame if given the chance. As a walk-on, you had to prove yourself every day.”

I love hearing the every day stories of how coaches like Parseghian and Holtz ran their practices, and prepared their players for what they would see on game day. Rarely would there be a situation on game day that they hadn’t seen in practice, and I believe this level of preparation made the teams that played under these two men so successful.

So what are you doing this weekend with no Notre Dame game to watch?

Cheers & GO IRISH!