We plan to attend this year’s Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl in Nashville for the second year in a row. Great, fun-loving city! Can’t wait to go back! This year, Notre Dame (7-5) will face off against LSU (8-4). However, it will not be the first time we’ve seen these two play one another. In my book, Tales from the Tailgate: From the fan who’s seen ’em all!, I reminisce in a chapter about the first time I’d seen LSU play (Team #16) and my first time I attended a Notre Dame game when they played one another in South Bend. The circumstances were quite different in 1981 when that it was not the last game of the season for each, but an early season game for both with much anticipation for success. Below, I provide you with the chapter about the experience 33 years ago. If you enjoy the story, there’s plenty more where that came from in the book which can be ordered on Amazon.com. Please click to check purchase the book and read more about it on the amazon website. Enjoy!
Guinea Pigs at The Bold Experiment!
(16) Louisiana State at Notre Dame
September 12, 1981
South Bend, Indiana – Tony Lagratta transferred to Juniata College my senior year to become one of eight rooming together in 201 Flory in the dorm complex know as East Houses. We all got along together fabulously as we all shared common interestsdrinking beer, playing sports, watching sports, partying, and harassing one another. Thats all it took. Oh, we went to classes and studied once in a while, too.
Tony was a die-hard Notre Dame fan. Before my graduation in 79, we made an agreement to plan for a big tailgate party when the Irish were scheduled to play Navy at The Meadowlands in the fall of 1980. With about 60 other Notre Dame fans that came to tailgate in Lot 17B of the Meadowlands on November 1, 1980, Tony brought along his contingent of Notre Dame die-hards. They came to Jersey to join the festivities and stayed at my familys house in Boonton, NJ, the same town where two years earlier future Notre Dame Coach Charlie Weis started his football coaching career.
Missing from among Tonys entourage that day was one Dane Taylor. Tonys old classmate from Cumberland, Maryland actually followed his dream to not only matriculate at Notre Dame, but to also serve the program he loved by becoming lead student equipment manager for the Irish during his senior year. In 1977, Tony had the opportunity to attend the Notre Dame-USC game as Danes guest when Dan Devine sparked the Irish faithful by suddenly replacing traditional blue home jerseys with new, green, game jerseys before the Irish took the field. The Fighting Irish stomped the hated Trojans, 49-19, on their way to the national championship. Tony particularly cherished a photo of himself grinning in a picture posed among the visiting USC Song Girls before the game.
It was not until 1981 that I paid my first visit to the hallowed grounds of the Four Horsemen, Knute Rockne, and Touchdown Jesus at the invitation of Tony and Dane. Several of us met at Tonys house in Lansdale, Pennsylvania to board our mobile home-away-from-home, and picked up some more guys on the way to South Bend. By mid-morning Friday, we parked in an RV lot on the Notre Dame campus, ready to experience the historical culture of a Notre Dame, football weekend. For our contingent, this Notre Dame game presented the opportunity to witness a much anticipated historical event in the annals of Fighting Irish football. We were in South Bend to help usher in the Bold Experiment, the first game ever under new head coach Gerry Faust. Faust, the highly acclaimed high school football coach from Cincinnatis nationally-known, powerhouse oft times referred to as the Moeller Steamroller, came on board to keep the loyal sons marching onward to victory. In his 18 years at the helm of Moeller, his Crusader teams won 174 games and lost only 17. How could such a coaching juggernaut be stopped? He would do no wrong, so it seemed. Despite no collegiate coaching experience, the Notre Dame administration and faithful followers expected Faust to produce the same magical results at the highest level of NCAA football. He was undoubtedly their man, so it seemed.
We visited Notre Dame Stadium, the school library featuring Touchdown Jesus, the Golden Dome, the campus bookstore, The Convocation Center, the Chapel, and even some of the dorms where players lived. We walked all over the place. We all looked forward to the traditional Notre Dame pep rally that evening. During one of our forays across the green, well-groomed campus, our group literally crossed paths with none other than the man who would definitely lead Irish football to new heights. Smiling, happy, affable Gerry Faust led his freshman players to some event across campus, but he stopped, shook all our hands and chatted for several minutes. One of the die-hards declared later that it was like meeting the Pope!
That chance meeting left me with a memory more enduring than Fausts eventual, five-year career at Notre Dame. While some of the guys hobnobbed with the new mentor of the Fighting Irish football program, I eyeballed his group of freshman Irishmen. My thought: which, if any of these guys would go on to eventual stardom? It happens in every program. Some guys rise to the top and others will eventually wash-out quickly, never to be associated with football lore again. I noted the one freshman closest to me. This roly-poly kid, who looked like he never picked up a razor blade before, had this big, quiet, goofy, just happy-to-be-here smile across his face. He didnt strike me as athletic, but he was a big kid, definitely a lineman. I thought let me find out who this guy is and see if he ever makes anything of himself, or if he just becomes a footnote in the annals of Notre Dame, football history. When I bought the Notre Dame vs. LSU Official Game Program the next day, I perused pictures of the Notre Dame roster to identify him for future reference. Found his picture82 Mark Bavaro TE/DLFreshman. I made a mental note of it. Could I pick out football talent or what? Not only did Mark Bavaro achieve All-American honors his junior and senior seasons at Notre Dame, he became an All-Pro TE twice with the New York Giants during a 9-year NFL career.
That evening, we stood in the middle of the renowned Notre Dame pep rally with a clear view to the speakers on the stage. For Gerry Faust and me, it was our first. As he spoke, the crowd continuously cheered. I couldnt hear a word he said, and I doubt anyone else did, or even cared. The Irish fans were pumped up! Whatever Gerry said didnt matter. He was going to do everything right for Notre Dame. No team could stop the Fighting Irish now, not with Faust! He coached the Gold and Blue and proved his prowess based on a lifetime, high school record of 174-17. Irish eyes envisioned national championship after national championship. Irish eyes have seen Leprechauns with pots of gold at the ends of rainbows, too!
The game against Louisiana State reinforced Irish hopes. An LSU fumble on its first series resulted in a 7-yard Notre Dame TD pass from Blair Kiel to Larry Moriarity. Phil Carter and Tony Hunter followed with one-yard TD runs in the first and second quarters for a 20-0 ND lead at halftime. Tim Koegel threw a six-yarder in the third to Dave Condemi. Both players played for Faust at Moeller. Faust shuffled in 65 players during the course of the game. LSU eventually put up the final six points with 23 seconds remaining. A two-point conversion failed. Despite the late TD by LSU to make the final 27-9, the ND crowd turned up its chants of Gerry!Gerry!Gerry!
The partisan crowd cheered the Irish and their 1-0 coach. They believed they had witnessed the beginning of what they anticipated. Fans were thrilled. Players were thrilled. Gerry Faust was thrilled, but not seemingly concerned about 100+ yards in penalties, or numerous turnovers on offense, especially two INTs among Blair Kiels six passes. The new coach overlooked these nuances and focused only on the success of his final score over a now 0-2 opponent. Gerry Stovalls Tigers would end the season 3-7-1. With No. 1 Michigans 21-14 upset loss at the hands of Wisconsin that day, all was right for the Irish. They vaulted to No. 1 in all the polls the following Monday. The cheering didnt last long though.
Extra point: After witnessing the initial success of the Bold Experiment, our excited but weary band of tailgaters headed home in our rented, mobile home from that memorable, historic weekend. Along Route 80 before we even left Indiana, a loud, deafening roar started from beneath the vehicle followed by a loud explosion! We pulled over to find that a rubber retread let loose from one of the tires. Luckily, we had double axles and four tires on each. Another exploded and let loose in Ohio. It happened again in Pennsylvania. We left remnants of rubber retreads in each state on our way back. Luckily, we made it through our ordeal in one piece. The same could not be said for a formerly, successful, high school coach applying his skill at one of the greatest, traditional powers in college football. Faust and the Fighting Irish lost the very next week to Michigan, and it got worse after that. The Irish finished the season at 5-6. Oust Faust! eventually became the cry in South Bend over the next few years, but the administration lived up to its five-year commitment to the beleaguered head coach who was eventually fired in 1985. In retrospect, we were the first witnesses to the Bold Experimental Failure. A 30-26-1 record, two minor bowl games, and no national championships were not the intentions Notre Dame bargained for when Gerry Faust signed up. After his teams win over LSU, the wheels on our bus never came off. The same couldnt be said for Gerry Fausts career at Notre Dame.
With apologies to LSU fans, theres not much to dwell on here from the Tigers perspective, but I did make it down to Baton Rouge in 2008 for their 34-24 win over Mississippi State. I found the tailgating there is what its all cracked up to be. Special thanks to Mike and Carol Barish for inviting me to tailgate with their friends and family at the mobile home called the G&G Express, also affectionately known as Stinky.I met some fantastic fans at the LSU -Mississippi state game at “Old stinky”.