Internet message boards are buzzing. Sports radio shows are talking. Blogs are blogging.
San Diego State fans are angry at Chuck Long for the Aztecs’ season-opening loss to Cal Poly.
But I wonder if it’s true that the times have changed in sports and we really do live in harsher times? Or are the snap judgments simply more instantaneous and available to public debate?
Let me take you back to 1977 on Notre Dame’s campus. History tells that Notre Dame won the national championship under Dan Devine that season with a 38-10 upset of then-No. 1-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
But the weekend Notre Dame was scheduled to play Michigan State was just two weeks after the Irish had lost to Mississippi. That defeat turned out to be the only loss of the year, but it came in the second week of the season — after Devine’s first two teams finished 8-3 and 9-3.
Remember, this is back in the day when a three-loss record at Notre Dame was considered a losing season. Devine had fewer backers then than Charlie Weis does now, after coaching the Irish to a 3-9 record last year.
Also, know that Devine had arrived at Notre Dame after being run out of Green Bay as the Packers’ head coach. Legend has it that a Packers fan shot and killed the family dog, although the veracity of that story has been disputed.
Consider this, though: Today, even Internet posters and sports talk radio hosts would say it’s unbelievable. But back then, since the rumor continued to spread, people must have nodded their heads and agreed, “Yeah, that’s possible.”
Anyway, back to the Oct. 1 Michigan State-Notre Dame game, which I remember like it was yesterday. I never saw anything like then or since. I was a student at Michigan State, writing for my college newspaper, when a friend who attended Notre Dame showed me around campus.
When we passed the basketball arena, I noticed that painted on the curb, designating parking spots, were the names of the football coaches.
Dan Devine’s name was crossed out with bold black paint.
That night we went to the pep rally at the old basketball field house. The band was playing the Notre Dame Victory March, and student-thrown streamers flew back and forth. The atmosphere was electric.
Then Ross Browner, Notre Dame’s All-American defensive end, stood up on stage to speak.
“We know we’re going to win tomorrow because we have the best fans!” he said to roars from the students.
“We know we’re going to win because have the best offense!” Louder roars.
“We know we’re going to win because we have the best defense!” Still louder roars.
“We know we’re going to win because have the best coaches!”
I was about to burst out laughing until I saw all the serious looks on the faces surrounding me. In an instant, the mood went from joyous to hostile.
To the students’ credit, they didn’t boo as Browner stammered on stage before generating excitement again. This lack of boos, maybe, is the one difference between then and now.
The next day, the game was close until Devine pulled quarterback Rusty Lisch and sent in some backup named Joe Montana. A buzz came over the press box, not to mention the stadium crowd. Montana trotted into the huddle and led the Irish to a 16-6 win.
Two weeks later, No. 5-ranked USC traveled to No. 11 Notre Dame. That’s when Devine worked some magic, changing his legacy from reviled to worshiped.
He had his players warm up in traditional blue jerseys, only to return to the locker room to find green jerseys. When they emerged from the tunnel dressed in green, the place went nuts. Notre Dame won 49-19.
In today’s climate, former Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham didn’t survive after three years. Weis may not see a fourth season if he doesn’t turn around last year’s record.
We know that Joe Montana and green jerseys helped Devine earn a fourth year at Notre Dame and a place in Irish lore.
But what if he’d had to contend with the Internet and sports talk radio and the snap judgments that fuel criticism and spread like wildfire?
— TOM SHANAHAN