Dear Gerry

A fond reflection on decades of correspondence and conversation with Notre Dame’s faithful and effusive former football coach.

Author: Paul Coppola ’78

Coppola And Faust The author and the coach during his tenure at Akron. Photos provided

My friendship with Gerry Faust has been a beautiful story. I met him briefly when he first became the Notre Dame football coach, saying hello and patting him on the back as he headed to a summer practice. Later, as Gerry began to receive a lot of criticism because he was not winning enough, I started sending him letters of support. At the time I was a high school science teacher and coach, and I could really identify with him. Every time I sent him a letter, he would respond personally — addressing something that I mentioned in my letter. I kept sending him letters during his years at Notre Dame, and have kept the 11 letters he wrote me. When he announced his resignation before his last game, I wrote him again — one of 4,000 letters wishing him well.

The criticism was especially heavy prior to the Liberty Bowl in December 1983. Notre Dame was to play Doug Flutie’s Boston College team. I was living in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, at the time and came across a T-shirt that had a Boston College Eagle grabbing the butt of a Notre Dame leprechaun. I bought it and sent it to Gerry. He wrote back, saying he would wear it at practice to get the team fired up. The game was played on a very cold day in Memphis. Gerry had gotten tickets for a group of Dominican nuns. They were all at the game bundled up, praying for Notre Dame. Notre Dame ended up winning the game by one point. The Irish players carried Gerry off the field on their shoulders.

I continued my correspondence with Gerry after he left Notre Dame. He had other offers but accepted a job at University of Akron for the sake of his wife, Marlene, staying in Ohio near family. Gerry told me Akron officials informed him that the current coach had wanted to move to an assistant AD position. This was not true; the current coach was moved against his will. If Gerry had known this, he said, he never would have accepted the job.

In his eight seasons at Akron, the team moved from Division I-AA to Division I-A and joined the Mid America Conference (MAC). Akron’s stadium is the site where Moeller High School, with Gerry as its coach, had won five state championships.

In July 1988, I was driving back from a stay in Valparaiso, Indiana, and I arranged to pass through Akron and say hello to Gerry. He and his son, Steve, were attending the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game in nearby Canton, Ohio. They left at halftime so they could meet me in his office. He greeted me very warmly. He showed me the whole depth chart and talked about his team; his knowledge of each player was encyclopedic. As I was leaving, he wanted to give me some snacks and drinks to take with me. I declined but he threw a box of Cheez-It crackers into my car and gave me other snacks and drinks for the road.

Over the years I sent many letters to Gerry and he always responded to each one. I have received more than 50 letters and notes from him since he left Notre Dame. I also received several family Christmas letters from Gerry over the years.

In his 2010 handwritten family Christmas letter, Gerry wrote:

“The family is always together at Christmas. A few years ago, for the reason to have everyone realize the true meaning of Christmas, Marlene and I started a family tradition with our grandchildren. We have a crib scene in the front yard; each year on Christmas Eve, before opening the gifts for everyone, the grandchildren carry baby Jesus to the crib and one of the children place baby Jesus in the crib, while all are singing Happy Birthday to Jesus.”

I used to send a birthday greeting to Gerry each year on May 21. Now I call him on his birthday. He has the same birthday as Ara Parseghian who, coincidentally, was born in Akron, Ohio.

I have many things in common with Gerry and his family. Gerry’s father is from Buffalo, my hometown. My middle name is Gerard, which is Gerry’s first name. My mother’s father came from a small town near Palermo in Sicily. Marlene’s family is from Palermo, Sicily. In fact, Gerry told me that Marlene’s mother was born on the boat as it traveled from Sicily to the United States. Marlene’s mother is named Angela, the same as my mother.

Coppola Faust 2021
Faust and Coppola in 2021

Gerry grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and went to Chaminade High School where his father, Gerry, Sr., was the football coach for 49 years. Gerry played football under his father, becoming an all-state quarterback. Gerry often mentioned how tough his father was on him. But Gerry said it was good for him. He played quarterback at the University of Dayton, then became an assistant coach for his father and assumed he would eventually take over for him there.

Someone from the Marianist religious order that runs Chaminade told him that the order was starting a high school in Cincinnati called Moeller and asked him to be the football coach. Starting from scratch, Gerry turned Moeller into a football powerhouse, at one point winning 95 games in a row (the streak broken when a potential game-winning field goal bounced off the goal post). Gerry sent a lot of his great players to Notre Dame. That is how Father Ned Joyce knew about him.

Gerry told me that when he was hired at Notre Dame, he was asked what salary he wanted. He said $40,000 because that was what he was making at Moeller — so that and a little more was his beginning salary at Notre Dame.

Father Hesburgh and Father Joyce would come to Gerry’s house every other week during the coach’s tenure — and Marlene would make dinner for them. They loved it, loved coming over for dinner at Gerry’s house in South Bend on Sunday nights.

Gerry always loved being on the Notre Dame campus. After he coached, he visited the campus often and went to many games over the years. Gerry said he had only 26 bad days at Notre Dame — you can guess which days were the bad ones from his 30-26-1 coaching record.

Gerry said that whenever he came back to campus, it was like a love fest with everyone saying hello to him and him slapping everyone on the back. He was very honored when he was voted to be a member of the Monogram Club.

When Gerry returns to campus, the first place he goes is always the Grotto. Then he visits the graves of Fathers Joyce and Hesburgh. He attended both their funerals. More than once he has told me that he liked the campus better the way it was when he was there in the 1980s. It was more intimate. I feel the same way. I graduated in 1978.

When Gerry and his future wife were courting, one of the things that impressed her was how well Gerry treated his parents. Gerry told me that two things he always wanted in life were to marry a good Catholic girl and to coach at Notre Dame. He was able to receive both those things.

Gerry’s wife Marlene has noted that he has never said a critical word about anyone. I noticed the same thing when I talked with him. For example, even after the University of Miami piled on the points at the end of Gerry’s last game as Notre Dame coach, Gerry refused to say anything negative about its coach, Jimmy Johnson. Gerry lived by the rule: If you can’t say anything good about someone, don’t say anything at all.

Gerry was a speaker for the Men’s Catholic Conference in March 1998 in Baltimore, which I attended. He talked about his life and his faith. He is a great speaker. He said his marriage started out rotten — because he did not come home on time for dinner. He and Marlene have now been married for 59 years. In his talk at the conference, he mentioned that one time he was making his confession and the priest said, “Settle down, coach!” After the conference, I drove Gerry to the airport. He said he would be home in time for dinner. He gave me a hug when we said goodbye.

Gerry had always told me that if I ever needed anything, to just let him know. I only called on him twice for favors. Once, I had a friend who was working full time and going to law school. He was having a hard time and wanted to quit law school. There was a famous story of Gerry talking a player out of quitting. So I asked Gerry if he could call Mick and persuade him not to quit. Mick, who noted that Gerry had a commanding voice, finished his law degree. His graduation was an awesome event.

Another time I asked Gerry to help a priest friend feel more at home in Akron. Gerry invited him to lunch. He said he was a great priest.

When I visited Gerry this year, he told me that Father Hesburgh offered Gerry an additional year after the fifth season of his contract, but Gerry declined. He said he was not getting the job done.

Gerry had good relationships with all the coaches who came after him, especially Lou Holtz. Gerry visited practice when Bob Davie was coach, and Davie asked him if he would like to speak to the team. This was very emotional for Gerry because he had not spoken to the Notre Dame team since he was coach. He ended with tears streaming down his cheeks telling the players he gave his best when he was here but did not get the job done. He implored the players to give their best and to get the job done while they were here.

Gerry had a knee replacement in July 2000 and had a very good outcome. I remember when he first injured it. He was coaching Notre Dame against USC in South Bend when a USC player crashed into him. When I asked Gerry how he was doing after the knee replacement surgery, he said he was doing very well because a Notre Dame man did the surgery.

I learned much of this when I met with Gerry for Mass and breakfast when I was on my way to Valparaiso, Indiana, in May 2021. Gerry could still drive at the time. He was 86 years old, still going to 7 a.m. Mass every morning at St. Hilary parish in Fairlawn, Ohio. Gerry has gone to daily Mass his whole adult life, including while he was at Notre Dame, usually in the crypt at Sacred Heart.

Gerry told me they were going to have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament the morning we met for Mass. He said we could go to breakfast after he said his rosaries. After Mass, the priest placed the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance on the altar, and Gerry prayed his rosaries while on his knees for half an hour before the Blessed Sacrament. You could see his lips moving as he intently prayed his rosaries as he looked at the host in the monstrance.

When he finished, we went to Wally’s Waffles. We had a great time together, having a wonderful conversation. He said that he and Marlene went to Wally’s Waffles every Sunday morning after Mass. At the church and every place Gerry went, people would wave to him or come up to him to say hello. Gerry would say “hello” and “God bless you” to everyone.

This year, at the beginning of June, I was on my way to my 45th reunion at Notre Dame and again stayed overnight at a hotel near St. Hilary. Gerry is 88 now. He is no longer able to drive. Someone brings him to the 7 a.m. Mass. He had slowed down a lot since the last time I saw him in May 2021. His hearing is not good. He had told me the last time I met with him that he hated to wear his hearing aids — a common complaint for those who wear them. He always sits in the same place at church.

When he arrived at the church, he went around the back of the church saying prayers as he stood before the various statues and images. Then he came to his place. He invited me to sit next to him. As people came to say hello to him before the Mass, he would point out that I was a Notre Dame man. He smiled and laughed and hit me on the shoulder. He was happy to have me there next to him.

Once again, lots of people were saying hello to Gerry in the church. The same thing happened once we got to Wally’s Waffles.

Paul Coppola is a retired federal worker, an adjunct chemistry professor and a freelance writer who has published two books. He begins his chemistry lectures with an Our Father — just as the legendary Emil T. Hofman did. Paul lived in Cavanaugh Hall as a student.