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SPORTS EXTRA / COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Irish Still Stewing

Analysis: A rejected recruit comes back to haunt Notre Dame and Gruden rumors refuse to go away.

November 04, 2001|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — These are troubling days under Notre Dame's golden dome, and with each ensuing setback similar to Tennessee's 28-18 win here Saturday, football tradition turns to football turmoil.

For Domers, it is a season of tarnish.

Fighting Irish are becoming Frustrated Irish. A storied program is becoming a disjointed tale. Saturday, there was no blue-gray sky serving as a backdrop for Four Horsemen, and even if the sky had cooperated, rather than turning up bright and cloudless, there certainly weren't Four Horsemen. Not even one.

These days, whether the odds be great or small, old Notre Dame will lose overall.

The odds to win for the seventh-ranked Volunteers were 71/2 points, so both the victory and the size of it were expected. That line was only significant in that teams coming into Notre Dame Stadium, even facing an Irish team with a 3-4 record, don't usually get that large a spread. Apparently, even the guys with sharp pencils in Las Vegas are paying attention to the smell.

Notre Dame Coach Bob Davie called the game a microcosm of his team's season, meaning that the Irish had played well for most of the game and then squandered chances and lost. But there was another sort of microcosm, a symbolic one. It occurred in the final minute of the game and played itself out a few minutes later as the teams left the field.

Tennessee had the ball, fourth down on Notre Dame's one-yard line. It also had a 21-18 lead and a decision to make. A field goal would force Notre Dame to make a long drive for a touchdown and kick an extra point to win, but a Tennessee touchdown would clinch the victory.

At quarterback was sophomore Casey Clausen. He had already thrown a touchdown pass and completed 17 of 29 for 228 yards. But during the timeout on the sideline, Clausen told Coach Phillip Fulmer that he wanted the ball, that he wanted to make the play, even if it meant running it in himself.

There was more going on than an eager athlete trying to be a hero or take on the responsibility for his team. Clausen wanted to send a message, something he eagerly admitted to afterward.

As a high school quarterback at Alemany in Mission Hills, and as member of a Catholic family, he lived and breathed Notre Dame football. And as a high school All-American, he had some expectations of getting a shot with the Irish. As a youngster, one of his highlights was the family trip back here to a USC-Notre Dame game. In addition to that trip, Clausen made four other trips back here to various quarterback camps.

But in the end, Notre Dame--specifically offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers--rejected him. The message the Clausen family got, according to both Casey and his father, Jim, was that Casey was not good enough to play under the Golden Dome.

And so, with 35 seconds left and a message to deliver, the 19-year-old rolled right as 80,765 fans either screamed or held their breath. He had the option to throw but didn't seem interested in that. There was a contingent of Irish players at the goal line and Clausen met them head-on, leaped and cartwheeled into the end zone. When he landed, an official stood over him with hands held high.

Message delivered.

Minutes later, after Notre Dame's last thrusts were ended by Tennessee and the clock, Clausen found his way to his parents in the stands near the exit tunnel and pointed to his father. "We got him, Dad," he said. Then he pointed toward the press box, from where Rogers worked the game.

"This was personal," Casey Clausen said afterward. "I wanted the ball on that last play. People here felt that I couldn't play here. I wanted to show them I could."

Jim Clausen said that he remained a big Notre Dame fan and said that Davie had treated him and his son beautifully. But he also said that Casey's success at Tennessee was "a tribute to every kid who can't quite run a 4.4" in the 40-yard dash and isn't the ultimate sort of athlete Rogers apparently is looking for at Notre Dame.

"Yes, this was personal," Jim Clausen said. "This was a message about looking at a kid's heart and desire to win, as much as the other stuff."

Rogers denied he ever told the Clausens their son couldn't play on Notre Dame's level.

"I think he is a very good fit for the Tennessee program," Rogers said, "and he was treated here with respect and dignity."

Such is the state of affairs at Notre Dame these days. Storied programs don't need to talk about recruits they rejected because storied programs don't lose games to them. But these days, Notre Dame does.

And these days, despite signing a new five-year contract last December and despite the 160th consecutive sellout in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, the man responsible for carrying the torch of Rockne and Leahy and Parseghian and Holtz is a man under fire.

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