The Port Arthur News
PORT ARTHUR —
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following column from the Best of West collection was originally published in the Port Arthur News on Oct. 12, 1988.
Much as he’d like to play down the sideshow surrounding No. 1 ranked Miami’s trip to Notre Dame Saturday, Jimmy Johnson is fighting one of his few losing battles. He’s become the target in a Holy War that’s aroused unprecedented hostility toward a head coach.
This isn’t just Notre Dame vs. Miami, it’s Satan comes to South Bend. Guess who the lunatic fringe has labeled as Satan? Hate mail, obscene phone calls, inflammatory T-shirts, you name it and the fanatical faithful have enlisted it as part of their crusade.
It’s those anti-Johnson feelings that separates this from other big games, that has CBS officials gleefully rubbing their hands together over an anticipated ratings bonanza. Big games happen every year. How often do you get one where so much venom is being spewed in the opposing coach’s direction?
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” says the Port Arthur native. “This thing has really snowballed. Let me give you some advice. When you get up there, don’t be walking around telling everybody you’re the sports editor from Jimmy Johnson’s hometown newspaper.”
The advice was followed by laughter. It sounded forced.
A few weeks ago the phone rang in Johnson’s office. It was late in the afternoon and his secretary had left for the day. Johnson answered. On the other end was a high-sounding voice that identified itself as a freshman at Notre Dame.
“Is this Jimmy Johnson?” the voice asked. “Yes it is,” Johnson replied. “I’m beating the rush,” said the voice. “I hate you now.”
Not long after, the Notre Dame student newspaper printed a classified ad giving Johnson’s office phone number and address. “Beat the rush,” encouraged the ad. “Send Jimmy Johnson hate mail now.”
The response has been a steady stream of letters, all of which Johnson opens and reads.
“Some of them are cute. Some of them are irritating. A lot of them I wouldn’t let my mother read,” Johnson says.
Come on, Jimmy, elaborate.
“I’d rather not. Sometimes the more you talk about things, the more it motivates people to do more. There’s Notre Dame fans everywhere. I’m sure there’s some in Port Arthur.”
By now, some of you must be wondering what Johnson did to inspire such a vitriolic assault from Notre Dame fandom. Did he knock the pope? Did he ridicule Irish tradition? Did he suggest Knute Rockne was overrated as a coach?
The answers are no, no and no. Shoot, he didn’t even point out Digger Phelps can’t win big games.
Jimmy Johnson’s sin is beating Notre Dame too often and too badly. He’s 3-0 against them, by a combined score of 113-20. The game Irish faithful will never forget nor forgive is a 58-7 pounding three years ago.
Instead of accepting the fact Gerry Faust’s last team literally quit when the score started mounting, they choose to assail Johnson for running up the score. You can hardly blame them since CBS’ impartial analyst on the game, former Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian, took it upon himself to berate Johnson.
You’ve heard the saying about the pot calling the kettle black? Parseghian accusing Johnson of running of scores fits the description. During his days as Notre Dame coach, Ara beat six teams by 50 points or more.
His No. 1 ranked Irish blasted Duke 64-0 in 1966, then tramped Southern Cal 51-0 later that same season. A No. 8 rated team whipped Army 62-3 in 1973. Pitt fell to No. 4 Notre Dame 69-13 in 1965. Iowa was crushed 56-6 in 1967. Illinois was steamrolled 58-8 in 1968.
Apparently it was okay to post big numbers when Parseghian and Notre Dame were on the long end. Or maybe it’s just been so long since Notre Dame was dominant, Ara and Irish fans have forgotten how they used to pound hapless teams into submission. They once beat Miami, 44-0, incidentally.
In this case, Johnson knows the score and knows it well.
“In some ways, I realize they would not have such feelings of hostility had we not been successful against them,” he says. “We’ve won the last four. A couple of them were big wins. We shut them out last year.”
Ah, yes, last year. Notre Dame showed up for the regular season finale at the Orange Bowl with an 8-2 record and a No. 10 ranking. Revenge talk was in the air. Notre Dame’s seniors were going to pay Johnson back for that 58-7 number.
The final this time was only 24-0 in Miami’s favor.
So the Fighting Irish get another chance Saturday. Count on them coming at Johnson and his Hurricanes with every available weapon, including the Leprechaun mascot.
Actually, it may have been the Leprechaun who started bad blood flowing between Notre Dame and Miami. When Johnson’s first team visited South Bend in 1984, they violated a tradition with the way they entered the playing field.
So incensed was the Leprechaun, he charged Johnson and waved his shillelagh in the Miami coach’s face. The incident made Johnson furious at the time, but it’s since become a standing joke among Hurricane players and coaches.
They kid that Johnson spends Notre Dame week lifting weights, so he’s prepared to go one-on-one with the Leprechaun.
“I’m ready for him,” Johnson says.
This time the laugh is not forced.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.