Gerry Faust was at prayer one evening at Notre Dame when he came across a young woman in tears. Laura Lee was new to the campus in the autumn of 1982, and a long way from her home in Los Angeles.
The then-football coach of the Fighting Irish introduced himself to the sobbing student and began to diagram a play to solve her problems. He asked if one of his California linemen might call upon the homesick freshman, to help ease her transition.
"Coach," Larry Williams said later. "You didn't tell me she's good looking."
"Larry," Faust replied, "I'm not going to fix you up with someone who isn't, am I?"
By the conventional standards of his craft, Gerry Faust was an abject failure at Notre Dame. He won 30 games in five seasons - barely half of expectations - and succeeded in losing four straight to Air Force. He did not wake up the echoes in South Bend. He roused embarrassment.
Yet sometimes we use the wrong scales to weigh a coach's contributions. The lesson of Faust's autobiography, The Golden Dream, is that most of life's victories do not show up on the scoreboard. Larry Williams and Laura Lee were married, and are raising four children. When it comes to relationships, Gerry Faust has a pretty good record.
No permanent damage
Twelve years after the wax melted from his wings, Moeller High's overreaching Icarus has reassessed his career and realized and - or rationalized that he served a positive purpose in South Bend. This self-serving thesis is not Faust's alone, for it is also held by many of those who shared his suffering from 1981 through 1985.
Faust could not last with all that losing, but neither could he do Notre Dame any permanent damage. He almost always led with his heart, and for a while he made the business of big-time football seem a little less ruthless. In a game populated by charlatans and con men, Faust played Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith. Idealistic. Naive. Nice.
"I was the right man, if not the right coach, for Notre Dame," Faust says.
"Football is a tough game," says former Notre Dame Athletic Director Gene Corrigan. "You almost need to be a little cold-blooded. I don't think Gerry is. I don't think it's in his nature."
Faust's nature is aggressive warmth. He is the national champion of backslaps and bearhugs, a guy whose enthusiasm and eccentricities are almost comical in a grown man. This worked wonderfully at Moeller, where Faust's manic energy and masterful organization developed an unsurpassed prep dynasty.
College football was something completely different.
"I had believed the same thing everyone believes: That it's easy to recruit for Notre Dame, easy to win, that mystique makes it a football machine that anyone can run," Faust says. "I was dead wrong."
Vehicles of failure
On the morning of his first game in South Bend, Faust cruised around campus on a golf cart, glad-handing students and indulging drunks. Oblivious to skepticism about his credentials, convinced that his golden dream was beyond tarnish, he soaked up the senses of an autumn Saturday and then watched his players trample LSU.
Charmed by the guileless coach with the powerhouse team, John Feinstein wrote a fawning account of Faust's debut for the Washington Post. When Faust's season subsequently turned sour, Feinstein was awakened one morning by a phone call from Maryland basketball coach Lefty Driesell.
"Your buddy Faust better trade in his golf cart," Driesell said. "He's going to need an armored tank."
He never would get it going in high gear. Faust wonders now if his crucial mistake was in the composition of his first coaching staff. His book - unusually objective for an autobiography - also relates a list of 12 specific criticisms made by Corrigan after Faust declined an invitation to resign following the 1984 season.
Ever the optimist, Faust bought a new house before his last season in South Bend. He tried praying to Knute Rockne. He kept believing he could make it work.
He was Walter Mitty with a whistle. Living a dream.