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A TOUGH LESSON : Brooks and Watters, Suspended by Holtz, Have Returned to the Fold

December 31, 1988|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

TEMPE, Ariz. — The last time Tony Brooks and Ricky Watters were holed up together, in isolation at the Newport Beach Marriott the night before the USC game, the two Notre Dame stars were eating the condemned men's last meal. About $150 worth of room service, as Brooks recalls. "I know I ate the shrimp cocktails," he said. "Three of them."

This, after all, was a death row of sorts. The next day, per Lou Holtz's decree, they were scheduled for an early-morning flight to South Bend, Ind., hours before the team's season-ending game in the Coliseum. And this, for two sophomores about to play the biggest game of their young lives, was worse than death.

But they had been late for a team dinner, one in a series of misadventures with the simplest of team rules, and, according to the Notre Dame coach, "had suspended themselves." Rules were rules and the partners in time had broken this one far too often.

Back on the roster for Monday's national championship game against West Virginia, and now roommates, the two can laugh about the incident, sort of. They can even agree with how Holtz handled it, sort of. But they still remember their disbelief and humiliation from the event, two BMOC watching the Notre Dame-USC game in Chicago O'Hare Airport.

All the shrimp cocktails in the world, it was still too much to stomach.

You know how it goes. You're doing a little Christmas shopping and you know how big that is. You lose track of time. You get a little disoriented. "We started to leave," Watters said, "And I say, I don't remember this tree being here ." You wander the mall and finally locate the parking lot. You can't find your car.

Somewhere Lou Holtz is getting ready to close the door to the dining room.

"And not one of us thinks to get a cab," said Brooks, shaking his head, at least one lesson learned.

College football players do lots worse things these days, but according to Holtz, few have done this particular thing as often as Brooks and Watters. The two had blown Thanksgiving dinner the day before and had finally been issued the ultimatum. "I was late 6 minutes," Watters said, a little defensively. " He was late 40."

"Not really," said Brooks, puzzled. "Not back to back anyway."

It was the biggest suspension since the Golden Gate Bridge. At the time, Brooks was the leading ground-gainer with 667 yards and Watters was (and still is) the leading receiver with 15 catches for 286 yards and 2 touchdowns. In addition, Watters was the punt returner, having brought two back for touchdowns, including the score that got the Irish's 11-0 season rolling against Michigan.

To send two stars packing before the year's biggest game was, in ordinary ways of thinking, a coach's way of saying he has better employment lined up. The news is filled with failed schemes for playing people who shouldn't be on the field, one way or another. On the day of the USC game, most coaches would wink at anything shy of mass murder. But both Notre Dame and Lou Holtz do things a little differently.

Holtz, after all, was already famous for having suspended three of his stars before Arkansas' Cotton Bowl game with Oklahoma. A supposedly undermanned Arkansas team--the game was off the boards--registered the season's biggest shock.

After Notre Dame pasted USC, 27-10, which was not quite the same shock, cynics noted that Holtz may have been doing more motivating than disciplining. It worked at Arkansas, right? But afterward players were split on that angle. For some it was unifying. For others it was divisive.

Holtz remembers that after he suspended those players at Arkansas, for far more serious offenses: "We were as divisive a team as you've ever seen. I made a vow in '78 never to go through that again." Because Holtz learned that there wasn't anything real motivating about that kind of discipline.

"If you think that rallies a football team together, you're badly mistaken. You could suspend that witch in Snow White, and some players would line up with the witch."

But discipline, Lou Holtz's, is what has turned a moribund program back into a winner. "In a nutshell, dictatorship is the difference," senior free safety Corny Southall told the New York Times. Gerry Faust had been a popular leader, but nobody confused him with Patton. And in a militaristic game such as football, stern generals are required. Holtz, for all his one-liners, is more likely to link up with MacArthur than Carson.

But Brooks and Watters were about to run into a different kind of discipline, the off-field kind. They had phoned ahead from the mall to say they'd be late and they hoped that would be a mitigating circumstance. Still, they were not entirely naive. "I thought he'd have a lot of bad things to say," Brooks said. "Maybe scream."

Watters was more realistic: "I didn't think anything good was going to happen."

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