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FOOTBALL: Guest coaches relish chance

Eric Retter | Tuesday, April 26, 2005

It was a case study in the contrast of quarterback behavior on Saturday – not so much on the field, where sophomore starter Brady Quinn was the star of the day – but in the press room, where Notre Dame football legends reacted to crowds of a different type.

Joe Montana, known throughout his playing days for his success under pressure, seemed to somewhat shy away from the cameras and questions, while Joe Theismann, longtime TV commentator recently inducted into the college football Hall of Fame, appeared to thrive under the Saturday afternoon spotlight.

The signal-calling tandem represented just half of the Irish gridiron greats present, as former defensive tackle Chris Zorich and Heisman Award-winning receiver Tim Brown also serving as honorary coaches for the 76th annual Blue-Gold Game, which Montana and Zorich’s Blue team won 28-6.

Facing Quinn on the opposing sideline – as well as the rest of the first team offense and the first-team defense – Theismann and Brown’s Gold Team faced an uphill battle. After initially and jestingly describing the split as “cheating,” Theismann admitted that it was the right move for the team.

“The way Charlie [Weis] explained it, I thought it was a very good idea. You want to try and maintain as much continuity as you can when you’re putting in a new system and everything is new for these guys,” he said.

“The worst thing you can do is take them all through practice and bring them in to a game situation and then all of a sudden say ‘OK, half of the offense goes over here, the other half goes over here.’ You almost defeat the purpose of why you practice so much.”

While supporting Theismann’s reasoning, Montana, who was acquainted with Weis as a student, defended his inheritance of the Blue team.

“It helps when you know him from school,” Montana said. “He was a suitemate of a couple guys I knew.”

Before the game, each coach spoke to the team, with Montana, Theismann and Zorich speaking at Friday’s team meeting and Brown giving the pre-game speech on Saturday. Much of what they said revolved around the direction of the football program.

“When I talked to them today, I tried to let them know, ‘Hey, I’ve been right where you are.’ In 1986 when Lou [Holtz] came in, he was talking about all these great things that we were going to do, but we had to believe in him. It started that year, and a couple years later, they won the championship,” Brown said. “The same thing here, these guys have to do the same thing. They have to believe in what’s happening, and I think if they do, they’d bring it back.”

Yet, much of what the four coaches told the team transcended the playing field.

“We’re trying to let these guys know that this experience, these are going to be the best four years of their life. After this, you’re going to start paying mortgages, you’re going to start paying car notes, having families and stuff like that, and all of a sudden, it goes a bit faster than it does in college,” Zorich said. “I just want to express to them to enjoy their four years here.”

With regards to the football field, the four seemed to be in agreement that Weis was the man to lead Notre Dame to where those close to the team or the school want it to be.

“Any time you bring in a guy like Charlie Weis, with all his experience, you know that you’re headed in the right direction,” Brown said. “What I tried to instill on the kids today is, ‘Hey look, you have to pay attention to this guy, you have to listen to him, and you have to believe in what he’s saying, because he can take you to where you want to go.'”

However, Weis’ greatest success thus far in his short tenure as head coach may prove to be rallying a community that was fragmented by the Tyrone Willingham firing around his team and his players.

“I think it’s no secret I was [angry] with the way the University handled Coach Willingham, I was a huge fan of Coach Willingham’s,” Zorich said. “Saying that, I got a phone call about a month ago from Coach Weis, and we spent maybe a half hour, forty-five minutes on the phone, and he reminded me so much of what Holtz talked about as far as bringing back an attitude, bringing back that winning desire.”

“All of a sudden you have a coach telling you that he needs nasty, mean players. Well, I kinda got excited. So when he asked me to coach, I was like ‘Coach? I’m ready to suit up.'”

Without a doubt, the presence of the four coaches proved to be a memorable opportunity for the current Irish players.

“We talked about a lot of technique and football stuff, lots of life stuff too. It was great having [Zorich] here. He’s like a mentor to me, so it was great to be able to talk to him,” defensive MVP Trevor Laws said.

Wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, who played on the Gold team, echoed Laws’ sentiments.

“Any time you can get advice from a great legend like that, you gotta take it all the time,” he said. “If you can get some insight on how to play the receiver position better from Tim Brown, its something you want to listen to.”

Ultimately, though, it may have been those who played here years ago who benefited most from the experience.

“This is probably one of the bigger thrills I’ve had in a long time. I had a ball. It almost makes me think about coaching … I never thought that I would enjoy being on the sidelines like that,” Brown said. “It was a blast for me, and that’s the one thing you want these guys to understand.”

Despite early speculation to the contrary, Brown will not serve the team in any official capacity next season. Nonetheless, he, along with the other honorary coaches, expressed a willingness to give back to the institution.

“If we’re given the opportunity to help in some way shape or form, I think every one of us would want to do anything we could to help the University of Notre Dame and help the young men here,” Theismann said.

In the end, Montana may have best summarized what it all meant, not only for the 78 players who participated on Saturday but for the roughly 8,400 current students and the thousands of alumni spread across the country.

“Notre Dame, whether you play sports or not, can be a tremendous experience, and one that you’ll always look back on,” he said. “I still wish I was here.”