Oct. 27, 2009
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following feature article originally appeared in the Oct. 24 Notre Dame-Boston College football game program. It can seen in that format by CLICKING HERE.
By Pete LaFleur ('90)
Nearly 60 years ago to the day, Brian Boulac witnessed his first Notre Dame football game. The eager eight-year-old was on hand Nov. 5, 1949, as the talent-laden Irish posted a 27-7 win at the University of Washington. It was a fitting baptism into Notre Dame fandom, as that 1949 squad became ND's third national champion in a four-year span.
Six decades later, Boulac is on the verge of retiring from his formal service to Notre Dame. He was a tight end on the Irish football teams from 1959-62, later spent 18 years in various coaching capacities and then went on to a 24-year career in Notre Dame athletics administration. That all adds up to a 50-year stretch, nearly all of which has been spent in service to his alma mater.
Considering the fact that Boulac has spent nearly half-a-century at Notre Dame, one would assume he is a highly-visible presence in the daily campus scene. In truth, he's an "all-star" in behind-the-scenes contributions, a man who places more value in one-on-one connections than he does on being in the spotlight.
After peeling back the layers of Boulac's life, it becomes clear that there's so much more to the man "than meets the eye."
He's a former elite high school athlete who amassed 10 varsity letters (in four sports) while attending Gonzaga Prep and Olympia (Wash.) High School.
He was a Notre Dame football assistant under four head coaches (Hugh Devore, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Gerry Faust), at one point spearheading the recruiting efforts while also playing a part in three national-title seasons (1966, '73, '77). His coaching duties naturally involved directing the offensive line, home to the anonymous stars of any team.
He's also a devoted administrator, one who knows the ins-and-outs of all 26 varsity teams while spending most of his lifetime getting to know several thousand Notre Dame student-athletes.
And he's certainly someone who can sneak up on you, with a trademark booming voice that comes alive at any number of sporting events. Perhaps it's only fitting that Boulac's nickname at Notre Dame is "Bou" (pronounced like the Halloween greeting) - as his loud bellows have been known to startle many a fellow spectator.
Lest we forget, Boulac - whose father Harold was chief of the Washington State Patrol - also has been a surprisingly legendary dancer at athletic department functions over the years, twirling around the dancefloor with the grace and ease of a man 30 years his junior. The 6-foot-4 Boulac, who regular wins "Dancing with the Stars" on the Wii gaming system, owes his dancing skills to his mother Vesta Fae Boulac. The "gentle giant's" dance moves are yet another aspect of his personality that lies beneath the surface, waiting for the right moment to emerge.
"I've been fortunate to live my dream for more than 50 years, and Notre Dame has given me so much more than I could ever give back," says the unassuming and understated Boulac.
"I learned under Ara Parseghian and Gene Corrigan, who are the most talented and respected mentors one could ask for in athletics. Being a Notre Dame employee is not a job - it's a vocation. I've been blessed to share this with so many tremendous athletes and co-workers, and I plan to continue that vocation for many years to come."
Boulac - who first came to Notre Dame from Walla Walla, Wash., in 1959 - actually wore a leather helmet on his freshman-year team. Despite playing alongside star players Daryl Lamonica, Nick Buoniconti and Angelo Dabiero, he was part of a dismal 9-20 team record from 1961-63. But the quality of his all-around experience had Boulac hooked, and he jumped at the chance to remain at Notre Dame as a 1964 football graduate assistant (the rest, as they say, is history).
From the time he enrolled in 1959 through today's game, Boulac has been on hand to see (or play in) every Notre Dame home football game for 51 consecutive seasons (a span of 287 games).
During 18 of 21 years from 1963-83, Boulac's varying duties with Notre Dame football included grad.-assistant, assistant freshman coach, administrative assistant and various position-coach roles (offensive/defensive lines, receivers, and special teams). He also served seven years as recruiting coordinator, the first ND coach to hold that title.
In addition to winning several noteworthy recruiting battles (for the likes of Steve Niehaus, Jim Stone, Bob Crable and Bobby Leopold), Boulac impacted hundreds of players simply by helping them come to Notre Dame. Linebacker Mike Koveleski, a spirited leader during some lean seasons in the mid-1980, made the most of his chance to play for the Irish.
"Brian Boulac single-handedly changed my life," says Koveleski. "He believed in an undersized, overachieving linebacker from a small Indiana town and convinced coach Faust to take a chance ... otherwise, I wouldn't be part of the wonderful ND family. Brian is an exceptional human being and faithful servant to Notre Dame."
Kevin Kelly - son of former ND assistant coach/administrator George Kelly - was an early-'80s long-snapper, with Boulac serving as his "personal coach" (most often decked out in his classic nylon coaching shorts, sunglasses and high-profile monogram hat).
"Specialists can develop bad habits, but I always could count on `coach Bou' to put in extra time and help me fix the kinks," says Kelly. "I grew up around him as a kid, but that never gave me an advantage. Now I realize that was the best approach he could have taken.
"Coach Bou was cut from a different cloth than coaches today. He was old-school and tough, yet always willing to put his arm around you to encourage and mentor through any crisis."
Kelly fondly remembers a game at the University of Colorado, where team mascot Ralphie (a two-ton buffalo) often is steered near the visiting sideline.
"Bou was standing next to me, taunting that huge animal as if saying `You want a piece of me!', with his arms clinched and ready to rumble," recalls Kelly. "If he couldn't get you fired up, then you better check your pulse." (Similar stories have circulated as to Boulac's interactions with USC's horse mascot, Traveler.)
Brian and his wife of 43 years, Micki ('83 ND Law), met in 1964 when she was a junior at nearby St. Mary's. Before they even started dating, Micki was predicting wedding bells: "My parents were visiting and I spotted Brian walking across campus, pointed him out to my mother and said, `That will be your son-in-law one day.' We were married two years later."
Boulac's football duties often kept him away from Micki and their four young daughters (each eventual ND graduates) - but he made up for that absence by serving 17 years with the Chet Waggoner Little League, coaching each of his daughter's softball teams along the way. Of course, that required some modification to coaching style.
"Brian had to tone down his language, so he came up with one pressure release word - `unbelievable' - which to this day is used by all that know him," recalls Steve Pinter, who coached softball with Boulac for 10 years.
"But Brian was known by all the little girls as 'the big teddy bear,' and a picture of him carrying his daughter's three-foot pink rabbit says it all."
The Boulac home - a symbol to the couple's warm and welcoming personalities - has become a gathering place for countless current/former students (athletes and otherwise) spanning the past three decades. Located blocks from campus, the house was a regular spot for student Monday Night Football gatherings among other regular and impromptu events.
"People still come over to the house after the ND games," says Debbie Boulac, second-youngest of the sisters. "That's a testament to the strong relationships my parents formed over so many years."
Former mid-'80s player Van Pearcy considered Brian and Micki his parents-away from-home. "Those two simply made the ND experience for me and so many others," says Pearcy, who signed with Boulac and Notre Dame despite strong overtures from home-state team SMU.
"Coach Bou was someone you looked up to and who `had your back' - but also someone able to constructively correct, teach and educate. Coming back to South Bend with our family and entering the Boulac home always is like coming back home."
Before the Boulacs owned a VCR, the daughters often would attend 6:00 a.m. Sunday Mass with their dad so they could watch the edited ND football replay that aired at 8:00. If the Irish lost the day before, the girls instead would go to 8:00 Mass with their mother - "to save our eardrums," jokes the eldest, Dawn.
The purchase of a VCR transformed the ritual into an immediate postgame-review party, with plenty of visitors on hand as the Boulac patriarch narrated the replay.
"Our girls definitely know more about football than the average armchair quarterback," says the ever-patient wife/mother Micki.
Debbie Boulac ('93) - who followed Dawn as an ND softball player - has worked in production for NBC and CBS, twice earning Emmys ('04 Masters; '08 Jason Ray Feature) along with a Global Media Award for the 2009 Final Four's "One Shining Moment." She currently is a CBS associate producer/director. Dyan Boulac Harrington ('94), a former ND volleyball player, studied post-grad at gemology school in southern California, later working for Neiman Marcus and others. She and husband Chad live in Mishawaka with "Brian and Micki's grandchildren" Cate (2 ½) and Jack (six months).
Early in Boulac's days as an assistant athletic director (late-'80s), he led the hiring process that landed three current ND head coaches: Bobby Bayliss (men's tennis), Tim Welsh (men's swimming; also coached women's swimming) and Debbie Brown (volleyball). It turns out that Boulac's experience with identifying top student-athletes transferred to his skills in attracting quality coaches (Bayliss even refers to those interactions with Boulac as a "recruitment").
"One of the deciding factors in my decision was the transparent and sincere love Brian has for Notre Dame," says Bayliss. "I was making a higher income in Boston, but Brian could not fathom that I might not want to move my family here.
"Brian is the most selfless person in the department, willing to do anything to make all of us look better. He's a fountain of information about Notre Dame history and is, quite simply, a Notre Dame original."
Adds Welsh: "When I hear the old chant `He's a man; he's a man; he's a NOTRE DAME Man!', I think of Brian as the current person who fits that description. He's one of our last links to `old-school' traditional ways of Notre Dame. I'm so indebted to Brian and have great respect for him. He's cordial, friendly, helpful and always has time for you."
Of course, one of the other late-'80s coaching moves was an easy one - as the AD at the time (Dick Rosenthal) replied "We already have one - you?" when Boulac inquired about top head-coaching candidates for the first-year varsity softball program. He went on to post four 30-win seasons and guided the Irish to a pair of conference titles, despite operating with only two full scholarships.
Boulac - whose administrative duties have included admissions, financial aid, student development and Joyce Center management - has served as sports administrator for more than half of the current varsity teams (14-of-26), with a particular affinity for the sport of fencing (he worked the fencing venue at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta) that has a similarity to offensive-line play due to the importance on footwork.
One of Boulac's favorite duties was overseeing the old "Book Room," which helped varsity athletes procure their source material at the start of each semester.
"Brian used to make sure that every student-athlete had their books and he spent time with each of them, talking about more than just books and classes," recalls Micki. "He would recognize the athletes around campus and, later on, when they moved the book process to the bookstore, he really missed that bonding time with the young people."
Boulac - who has dedicated his career to "helping student-athletes adjust to college life" - seems to have been drawn to the "non-glamour" tasks. Unlike virtually all of his contemporaries, he even missed the recruiting grind (after shifting to the administrative chair), because he drew "true pleasure" while going out on the road and selling Notre Dame to the nation's top student-athletes.
He is particularly proud of his many Notre Dame players - such as Mike Oriard, Larry Williams and Dave Casper (to name only a few) - who have gone on to distinguish themselves in various walks of life. He also has been impressed by numerous student-athletes in recent years, most of them from sports other than his beloved football (although he considers recent tight end John Carlson "a superb young man"). Others who have made a profound impact on the ultimate ND sports fan include early-'90s volleyball player Jessica Fiebelkorn, recent softball catcher Jarrah Myers, and elite fencers such as Alicja Kryczalo, Patrick Ghattas and Mariel Zagunis.
Boulac's daughter Debbie summarize the thoughts of her sisters, and from so many others that have been positively impacted by her father over the years.
"I'm grateful for all Notre Dame has given our family and it was the best place to grow up," she says. "My parents raised us all to be good, hard-working and loyal people.
"If I could make just a portion of the contributions my father has made, I will count my life a success. My father is my hero and I loved watching him coach. I learned early on that it was a good thing when he yelled, because he knew you were better and he was going to help you be better. And that's all part of the caring he's felt for every Notre Dame athlete that's crossed his path."