Mixing national championships and milkshakes

When it comes to understanding a college football championship, it's probably best to ask a man who owns one and has cleareyed perspective on it, legendary Dan Devine. It was 21 seasons ago that he coached Notre Dame to No. 1.

"What I didn't realize,'' says Devine, "is how few opportunities you have to win something like that."

So the truth is that fans who are roaming the Valley of the Sun these days wearing the garish orange of Tennessee or the washed-out maroon of Florida State are entitled to dress goofy and exhibit matching behavior because these halcyon days may not pass their way again, ever.

As the two schools compete for the national title tonight in the Fiesta Bowl in nearby Tempe, both understand the elusive nature of the quest: Each has won it just once, Tennessee in 1951 and Florida State in 1993.

But tonight's combatants are too close to the fray to have perspective; Devine isn't and does. That's why, before he can settle down and talk football and No. 1, he needs to go feed the doves out back and then mix up blueberry milkshakes. Who's to say both aren't more important activities than talking about national championships?

OK, coach Devine, so what has that national title meant to you?

He sits pensively, lost in thought, and finally says, "Did I put too many blueberries in these shakes?" Perspective.

About the national title? "The other day, there were 42 doves out there." Perspective.

Devine, happily ensconced out here on the desert's edge with his pool close and howling coyotes at bay, may be football's most unappreciated legend. He has far more detractors than a legend should have to endure, especially in Green Bay where Packer fans expressed their displeasure with his stewardship by shooting his dog. Sometimes folks around Notre Dame, where he coached from 1975 to 1980, were equally insufferable, although gratefully not armed.

But detractors don't want to talk about Devine's numbers. In 22 years as a head college coach, Devine had one losing year. He built Arizona State from an unknown desert nobody into an undefeated team and set the Sun Devils on a course of excellence. He took downtrodden Missouri and taught the Tigers how to win over 13 years, having them on the brink of No. 1 in 1960 before being upset in late season. He propped up the struggling Packers and made them better than they had any right to be; a division championship is proof. He only made Notre Dame brilliant; his six-year record was 53-16-1.

"This No. 1 thing kind of captures the imagination of people,'' he says. "I hear about it almost every time I go out. It was my claim to fame. More milkshake? I could have made it with bananas, you know."

Indeed, he wishes he could have won more than one national crown "but I'm glad it wasn't zero. A lot of good coaches can't say that."

The road to No. 1 in 1977 seemingly was blocked when the Irish were dumped by nowheresville Mississippi in the season's second game. Devine willed Notre Dame back on track.

"My expectations are always very high,'' says the former World War II bombardier. "After losing to Mississippi, it just became more of a challenge. That's all."

Still, he thinks the game is focused too much on winning. "How about the guy who cheats to win?" Devine says. "We don't consider how people are as human beings. Best is winning without tarnishing the ring." He twists the No. 1 ring on his finger.

The losing coach in the Fiesta Bowl, Devine suggests, should "get his kids together and look at the season in perspective. You don't want the losing players to go around the rest of their lives sulking about losing this game."

Devine sees the game of football rather oddly juxtaposed within the culture. The populace rails, he says, against violence in movies and life, yet embraces a "financially sound sport based on violence." He sees Americans liking the Spartan attitude that celebrates the idea, "If your left leg is broken, play on your right. It's about toughness and discipline. It's kind of the backbone of America."

Fans also have strong "emotional ties" to their teams, to which they cling in order to feel vicarious success. After all, says Devine, it allows a few moments away from credit-card bills and marital problems and too-often mundane jobs. So if they want to act foolish along the streets of Phoenix and Tempe for a few days, heck, no harm, no foul.

He chuckles at the memories, basks in the recollections of the good times and of being No. 1, and then turns serious: "I am the best milkshake maker in America, right?"

•Send comments to looneyd@csps.com

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