On the Griddle
The man most despised by Notre Dame football fans used to be an opposing coach: John McKay of USC a generation ago, Jimmy Johnson of Miami a decade ago. Today that man wears the Fighting Irish's blue and gold. Asked if he has taken a lot of abuse, second-year Notre Dame offensive coordinator Jim Colletto laughs and says, "That's putting it mildly."
Colletto, who resigned as Purdue's coach in November 1996 after five losing seasons out of six but was soon hired by new Irish coach Bob Davie, got blamed for every disaster last fall short of Kevin Costner's The Postman. What set off Notre Dame fans was Purdue's 28-17 upset of the Irish in the second game of the season. Judging from Web sites manned by Notre Dame faithful and by letters to a fan publication, they haven't let up.
Yet Colletto was back on the Notre Dame Stadium sideline last Saturday, calling plays for new quarterback Jarious Jackson and his backups in the Blue-Gold game. "If Jim was the problem, I'd fix the problem," Davie says. "Don't get caught up in the hype and perception. Look at the reality."
The reality is, the Irish's 7-6 record last season was the result of numerous shortcomings on the roster. The offense had three fifth-year seniors, but none of them was good enough to be selected in the recent NFL draft. After quarterback Ron Powlus—one of those seniors—decided, in the spring of 1997, to return to school rather than turn pro, Notre Dame announced with fanfare that it would become a passing team. That turned out to be a stunning miscalculation by Davie. With a lack of speed the Irish couldn't throw effectively. After a 1-4 start they reverted to a ground-oriented attack and eventually finished the regular season with five consecutive wins before losing to LSU in the Independence Bowl.
The winning streak did little to assuage Colletto's critics. Neither did Colletto, who has no speed bumps between his brain and his mouth. After a 20-17 loss to USC dropped Notre Dame to 2-5 last fall, Colletto told a couple of reporters that he hardly watches the game while in the press box. In the ensuing uproar he explained that there's no time for a coordinator to analyze; he's too busy thinking about what the next play should be. But that's not how it came out.
"I was head coach of a team that beat Michigan two years ago," Colletto says now. "It's not like, 'Gee, I can't coach anymore.' You know the whole situation of your team, and it's not always visible to the public. When you're not physically superior, you're not going to roll out there and score 45, 50 points. Sometimes that's a shock to people."
Davie stripped some responsibility from Colletto, at the latter's request. Rather than call plays and coach the offensive line, Colletto will share the line duties with new assistant Dave Borbely. Another change: Colletto thinned out the play-book. Jackson says that if the Irish practiced 20 plays leading up to a game, they only used 11. Now, they won't waste the practice time.
Most important, the thinner playbook includes a lot of option plays. Somewhere a lisping former Irish coach is smiling. Davie refused to show the option in last Saturday's spring game for fear of tipping off Michigan, against which Notre Dame opens its schedule on Sept. 5. But Jackson, a fourth-year junior from Tupelo, Miss., says he has been playing it since seventh grade.
Colletto, whose Purdue offense was pass-oriented, once coached the veer, so he knows the option. In fact, in 31 seasons he has coached just about everything. "I've been on the top of the heap and the bottom of the heap and everywhere in between," he says. "I have been called names by little kids, moms, grandmothers. I'm secure in where I am and what I've done."