On Labor Day evening, when the legendary Notre Dame Fighting Irish played their first football game ever in Kentucky, Frankfort Independent Schools Superintendent Houston Barber was at University of Louisville’s Cardinal Stadium with 10 tickets.

A valedictorian of Frankfort High School’s Class of 1994 and a state champion track and cross-country runner and now Hall of Fame recipient, Barber had the opportunity to go to Notre Dame on scholarship. Instead, he chose another Catholic college, Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where his sister, Carrie, was enrolled.

Notre Dame and Marquette are huge rivals in basketball and other sports. But Marquette doesn’t have a football program so Notre Dame has always been Barber’s favorite football team. He has fond memories of watching Notre Dame football games on TV with his late grandmother, Alethaire Barber, a devout Catholic, at her large farmhouse in Washington County.

“I was about seven when I started watching Notre Dame games with her and other family members,” he said. “We liked Louisville and Kentucky, too, but growing up Catholic, Notre Dame was the team we loved the most.”

Houston Barber’s wife, Darra, and their three older (of four) children, McLain, Preston and Kenzie, and his dad, Alex Barber, and others joined him at Cardinal Stadium when the No. 9 Irish defeated Louisville 35-17 in Scott Satterfield’s first game as the Cardinals’ head coach.

The first time Barber attended a Notre Dame football game was when he was a student-athlete at Marquette.

“We had a cross-country meet at Notre Dame and one of my great friends from Frankfort High, Mike Stany, went to Notre Dame and was a pole vaulter for the track team. He had tickets for the ND-Texas game and I went with him. It was an amazing experience with all the tradition — the band playing and sitting in the stadium.”

In the early 2000s, Barber started going frequently to Notre Dame games in South Bend, Indiana, “and I go to three or four games every year now.”

Frankfort’s Greg Miklavcic, a CPA with Charles T. Mitchell, is a 1994 Notre Dame graduate and was at the 1993 ND Florida State game in South Bend, billed the Game of the Century. Both teams were undefeated and the Seminoles were ranked No. 1 and the Irish No. 2 in the polls. It was a nail-biting finish down to the last play and Notre Dame held on to win 31-24.

“We stormed the field as soon as it ended and if you watch the replay, we’re on TV with a sign saying ‘In Lou We Trust,’” referring to Irish Coach Lou Holtz.

Miklavcic said dorm life was incredible. “I enjoyed every minute of it. I worked in food sales my sophomore and junior years and made pizzas and nachos. I knew everybody in the dorm and everybody knew me. All the football players lived amongst the other students and I got to meet Jerome Bettus and Lake Dawson,” both of whom went on to play in the NFL after college. Bettus played for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they won the 2006 Super Bowl.

“We had so much fun at Notre Dame we rarely went off campus. The food was great. I had classes with football and basketball players, and I never had an easy class until I was a senior. Philosophy, theology, they were all hard classes for me. I would stay up until 2 a.m., hanging out and studying, and had 8 a.m. classes every year.”

While in college, Miklavcic met his future wife, Jen Dodds, from Connecticut. She went to St. Mary’s College, across the street from University of Notre Dame.

Greg’s father, Frank Miklavcic, a retired chemistry and physics teacher at Frankfort High School, and sister, Laura Miklavcic Tomlin, now living in Cincinnati, are also Notre Dame graduates. Laura worked three years in the ND football office while Holtz was coaching.

“She said it was great working for Coach Holtz,” Greg said. “She would go out and get him chicken soup and drive him to the airport.”

Greg Miklavcic went to the Notre Dame game in Louisville this year and had tickets for the Southern Cal game at Notre Dame in October.

My mystical visit to ND

My first memory of feeling a divine presence was at the University of Notre Dame. It was an early Saturday morning in July 1967. I was 18. A friend, Carl Crews, and I had been up all night driving in heavy rain through Michigan on our way back to Lebanon, Kentucky, our hometown. The rain had stopped when we arrived in South Bend but we had a two-hour wait before the bookstore opened to get Notre Dame football t-shirts.

So, we walked past the Golden Dome administration building, to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, by the twin lakes, inside Sacred Heart Church, by Theodore Hesburgh Library with the Touchdown Jesus mosaic mural. We pretty much had the campus to ourselves. I felt a calm inner peace and was thankful we had survived the night before when we had to change a flat tire on a busy highway in a pouring rain.

We walked around the locked football stadium and I wondered what it would be like to sit in the stadium and watch huge players in their glistening gold helmets and blue and gold uniforms running from the tunnel onto the field. I never dreamed it would happen. But it did three years later.

While going to Western Kentucky University, I met Karen Lanz on spring break at Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1970. She was a student at Eastern Kentucky University. What I remember most about our first conversations was that her parents had four season tickets to Notre Dame football games.

Six months later I was invited to go with them to a game. Notre Dame crushed Army 51-10, finished 10-1 and defeated No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1971. Twenty-nine days later, Karen and I married in St. James Catholic Church in Elizabethtown.

We are no longer married but for decades we saw the Fighting Irish win many football games in South Bend. Our four children — Charlsie, Kevin, Kennedy and Kathryn – and most grandchildren are Notre Dame fans, too.

Gerry Faust fan for life

During those years, there was a five-year span when the Irish record was mediocre (30-26-1) by ND standards. Ironically, the Coach Gerry Faust Era from 1981 through 1985 became my all-time favorite and most-miserable years at the same time.

Even today at age 71 — going beyond Notre Dame and taking into consideration all football coaches I’ve ever known, watched or read about — Gerry Faust is still my favorite.

I became a Faust fan after reading a Sports Illustrated article on him before his first season at ND. He had taken one giant step from coaching a high school football team to what I thought was the College Football Capital.

His 18-year-record at Cincinnati Moeller, an all-boys Catholic high school, was unbelievable: 174-17-2. There were five state championships and four mythical national titles following unbeaten seasons.

College football scholarships went to approximately 250 Moeller players while Faust was there, and 20 players moved on to play at Notre Dame.

But Gerry Faust, the person, was what impressed me most about the Sports Illustrated story.

Under Faust, the creed for the Moeller player was: “No matter how great you are, you better never curse; you better never play dirty football; and if you burp, you better say excuse me.”

Faust has always attended daily Mass, and while at Notre Dame, he visited the campus Grotto twice daily to pray.

The 1985, ND football season would be the last of Faust’s five-year contract. I knew it was a longshot that he would survive beyond that. I knew it was now or never to try to meet this coach I admired. I wanted to find out if he was the same decent person — after experiencing defeat way too often – as he was when his teams always won.

Requesting an interview

I was a small-town editor of a weekly newspaper in the Lake Cumberland region, The Times Journal of Russell Springs. I wrote him a letter in early summer asking if I could come visit him. It would have been easy for him to say “no” because he was way too busy.

But, a week after sending the letter, he called, asking if I could come to his office on Aug. 9. “If you get here at 11 a.m., we could spend a couple of hours together,” he said in his familiar hoarse voice.

When I arrived at the football office, his schedule was crammed with interviews from major TV and newspaper reporters. But first, Coach Faust took time to hand out autographed Nerf blue and gold footballs to Charlsie, Kevin and Kennedy, who were with their mother and hoping to get to see him for a few seconds before I interviewed him. He gave them an extra football for Kathryn, their baby sister back home, and invited them to see his office.

After that visit, I began praying Notre Dame would win games, even though I felt God doesn’t care who wins athletic events. I was really just praying for Coach Faust to get to stay at Notre Dame. That meant eight wins.

It didn’t happen.

I went to the Southern Cal game after the maximum three losses had already occurred and the Irish breezed to a 37-3 win. After two more home wins, it was on the road to face undefeated and top-ranked Penn State. My prayers picked up. But in the rain and mud, the dream ended. John Shaffer, a former Cincinnati Moeller player, quarterbacked the Nittany Lions to a 36-6 win.

Our family tickets to the LSU game weren’t available. That didn’t matter. Kevin, Kennedy and I were going to the final home game of the season and Faust’s final game on the sideline at Notre Dame.

Thanks to Coach Faust, we sat high in the stadium on the 50-yard line. Our feet rested on snow and ice. It looked and felt as if a new layer of snow may cover the field before halftime. The Golden Dome, visible from our seats, brightened a dark gray sky.

Faust’s first game as coach at Notre Dame was against LSU, and an 18-point victory at home vaulted the Irish to a No. 1 ranking. It lasted one week . . . and never returned. It didn’t take long for sports writers to put embattled in front of his name. After his first season, many ND fans began crying “Oust Faust.”

In his final game at ND Stadium, the Irish scored early and for most of the afternoon it looked as if his farewell game there would be a win. But LSU, which managed a field goal just before halftime, added a touchdown late in the game and won 10-7.

Most of the crowd was long gone when Faust exited the stadium. After he signed a few game programs and ticket stubs, Kennedy, Kevin and I walked with him to his office. I told him we would see him next year.

“But I won’t be here,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “We’ll go wherever you are.”

Three days later, he resigned.

University of Akron years

In the autumn of 1986, an 8:02 a.m. knock on the door of Room 116 at the Holiday Inn in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, woke Gerry Faust, the new University of Akron head football coach. It was homecoming Saturday at Middle Tennessee State University.

But first, there was Mass at 8:30 a.m. in Father Clyde Foster’s room. Then in a private dining room, spaghetti, lasagna and pizza were served to the players for breakfast. After breakfast, an interdenominational church service was conducted in the dining room.

It was a close game but Akron lost.

Several weeks later, Akron played at Tennessee Tech and our entire family attended the game. Akron scored 28 points in the final quarter to win.

In the dressing room after the game, just before the Lord’s Prayer, Faust told players that punter Mike Knapp just learned of his grandfather’s death. Mike’s eyes were red. He told the team his grandfather was “85 and just worn out.”

Then Faust spoke. “He’s with God now, Mike. That’s the important thing. That’s one thing you’ve always got to remember men. I’m not trying to be sentimental, but we’re here for a trial in life. How you approach life is how you’re going to be rewarded afterwards. We need to be good neighbors and try to be good persons.”

Akron finished 7-4 his first year. We continued to follow him through the years — in road games at the University of Louisville, University of Tennessee, East Carolina University and Ball State University.

After home games, the Pearls were always invited to the Faust home for conversation and food. On our first visit to Akron, we arrived at the football office early on a Saturday morning of a night game. He was alone, watching game films of his opponent. He stopped what he was doing, took us to his car and gave us a tour of the campus. That’s Gerry Faust.

He drove down one street the wrong way, where construction was underway, and got yelled at by a frowning worker. Faust smiled, waved and said, “They don’t have any idea who I am.”

It was a humbling experience going from Notre Dame to Akron. But Faust worked just as hard as he did at ND, and was just as energetic, enthusiastic and optimistic.

“He has boundless energy,” said Priest Clyde Foster. “He can’t sit still longer than 20 seconds.”

Steve Love, a writer at the Akron Beacon Journal, said Faust, an organized man, at times seems disorganized because he schedules himself for 28-hour days and expects others to keep pace. Love later co-authored Faust’s autobiography, “The Golden Dream,” first published in 1997, three years after Faust’s coaching career ended.

In nine years at Akron, his best season record was 7-3-1 in 1992. After his 1994 team finished 1-10, Faust was fired.

Ray Meyo, a businessman who became a Faust fan at Notre Dame and remained a friend at Akron, said, “It’s very easy to show class and dignity when you are on top and everything is going well. But how you judge a guy is by what he does when things aren’t going well. In my life, I’ve come across a lot of people with character, but I’ve never come across anyone with more character than Gerry Faust.”

Faust friendship rekindled

Daughter Charlsie (Pearl) Garrett — a 1991 Frankfort High graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree at Centre College and played basketball there — called several months ago, asking if I had kept old stories I had written on Coach Faust.

“I was talking with a young Notre Dame fan and telling him about getting to meet a Notre Dame football coach when we were kids, and that you had written stories about him. He wants to read about Coach Faust.”

Charlsie’s call brought back good memories and I wanted to talk to him. I was pretty sure he still lived in Akron. I tried his old cell phone number, guessing it wasn’t going to be his number today.

He surprised me. The familiar hoarse voice answered. He’s 84 and it took a minute for him to remember me. He’s touched the lives of thousands in his lifetime and has many close friends. We hadn’t talked in eight years. That was when son Kennedy was in South Bend for a game and saw Faust signing his “Golden Dream” books before the game. He asked about me and Kennedy called me and put him on the phone for a brief conversation. The call made my day.

Faust has that good compassionate energy that’s contagious. He uplifts everyone in his presence.

Life after coaching is good, he said. “The good thing about now is I have more time to spend with my grandchildren, my kids and wife, which I didn’t have before.”

He enjoys going with wife Marlene to St. Vincent-St. Mary High School football games on Friday nights in Akron. “Moeller usually plays a game in Cleveland every year and I go to those. I try to go to one Notre Dame game a year and watch most of their other games on TV. When I’m home, I go to University of Akron games. They’re great to me.”

Faust still goes to Catholic Mass every morning. He said he doesn’t do much to stay physically fit other than playing golf once a week with friends from church. “I’m not very good at it. In fact, I’m terrible.”

The Fausts have three children, Gerry III, a businessman in the Cincinnati area; Steve, a Notre Dame graduate who is a doctor of veterinary medicine near Akron; and Julie Marie, an elementary teacher at an inner-city public school in Akron; and six grandchildren.

I told him a lot of people today in Frankfort are trying to make our state capital a more compassionate community, and asked what his suggestions would be.

He said, “Three things I do in life are: I never judge a person. I treat people the way I want to be treated. And, if someone starts talking about another person and it isn’t congratulatory or positive, I walk away and don’t say anything.”

My all-time favorite football coach doesn’t text or send emails. He doesn’t have a phone with a camera. I don’t know that I’ll ever see him again.

But I do know every Thanksgiving, I’m grateful that in 1985, on an extremely busy day when the pressure to win football games was at an all-time high for him, Gerry Faust welcomed me into his office and life for a couple of hours at Notre Dame. His kindness and compassion have been etched in my heart and mind ever since.