Led by All-America linebacker and team co-captain Ned Bolcar, Notre Dame planted its flag atop the college football mountain for the 11th time in 1988, clinching the national championship and a perfect 12-0 season with a 34-21 win over West Virginia at the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.
Oct. 18, 2013
By Craig Chval Sr.
After 25 years, perhaps Lou Holtz is coming clean. Or perhaps not.
But as Holtz reflects on Notre Dame's 1988 national championship team, he allows that maybe everyone who predicted his rebuilding job would come to complete fruition in 1989 were right.
"I felt that we would be competitive, but I thought we might be a year away," says the Hall of Fame head coach of the prospects for the '88 Irish.
Of course, Holtz always was notorious for painting a different picture for the public than the one he painted for his players, and his reminiscence may be nothing more than old habits dying hard.
"There was always a clear-cut line between what Coach Holtz told the public and what he told the team," says Pat Terrell, one of the many heroes of Notre Dame's classic 31-30 victory over number-one Miami that season.
"He'd talk at the press conference about how we were going to be playing the best 2-7 team in history, and then he'd go right into the locker room and tell us that if we gave up one first down, every starting position was going to be re-evaluated."
Holtz's reclamation project had already made remarkable strides in just two seasons, as he had led Notre Dame to a 5-6 record with several near-misses against elite teams in his first year at the helm in 1986, and followed that up with an 8-4 record and Cotton Bowl bid in 1987.
That wasn't good enough for Holtz.
The passion in Holtz's voice is still evident today as he recalls seeing how upset Chris Zorich was in the locker room following the one-sided game, and how determined Holtz was to find more of that passion.
"Here was a kid who didn't play a down that year for us, and he was that upset," says Holtz of Zorich, who was in tears after the game. "I just wanted to put 11 guys on the field who cared that much."
Holtz spent the day following the Cotton Bowl loss on a 15-hour flight to Japan, where he was to coach in an all-star game, giving him plenty of time to stew. Upon his arrival, he was awakened at 5 a.m. by a group of construction workers across the street from his hotel. Before they went to work with their tools, however, the crew engaged in physical exercise, in unison.
"Watching them, I was reminded that it was all about our team, and what we were going to be able to do as a team," relates Holtz.
What Holtz's team was able to do was claim Notre Dame's 11th national championship by posting a perfect 12-0 record despite returning just seven starters from the '87 season. En route to the crown, the Irish defeated the number-one (Miami), number-two (USC) and the number-three (West Virginia) ranked teams in the country.
Reflecting their heavy graduation losses, which included Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown and the entire starting offensive line, the Irish were ranked 13th in the nation heading into their season-opener against ninth-ranked Michigan at Notre Dame Stadium. Reggie Ho's fourth field goal of the game with 1:19 to play lifted the Irish to a 19-17 victory.
By the time Miami came to town, the 5-0 Irish were ranked number-four; meanwhile, the defending national champion Hurricanes carried a 36-game regular-season winning streak and number-one national ranking into the showdown.
Miami also brought a swagger that didn't escape anybody at Notre Dame. Terrell, who enjoyed a stellar career in the NFL after graduating from Notre Dame, grew up in Florida and knew many of the Hurricane players.
"There were a lot of elite teams who didn't respect Notre Dame," he recalls. "And a lot of our guys had a chip on their shoulder, including me."
That arrogance and that chip famously collided before the game even got underway, when several Hurricanes decided to force their way through Notre Dame's standard pre-game warm-up alignment.
"I saw the Miami players running right toward the middle of our line," remembers All-American linebacker Wes Pritchett. "And they kept coming, and coming, and coming. And all of a sudden (Irish linebacker) Ned Bolcar took off and I was right behind them, and the fight was full-on.
"That sent the message right there that we weren't going to back down."
"I was so mad," insists Holtz, still sounding a little bit like the proud father chastising his son for walloping the class bully. "I told our players that was not what Notre Dame stood for, but if they wanted to meet them in the parking lot after the game... ."
Pritchett remembers exactly how Holtz finished that sentence.
"He said, `Save (Miami head coach) Jimmy Johnson's ass for me.'"
Nobody would have had enough energy remaining to fight after the classic battle, with the two teams trading haymakers like heavyweight prizefighters. Miami fought back from a 14-point first-half deficit and then scored a touchdown with less than a minute to play to pull to within 31-30. College rules at the time didn't provide for overtime, so Johnson tried a two-point conversion for the win.
But Terrell, who had returned a pass deflected by Irish defensive end Frank Stams 60 yards for a first-half touchdown, batted away Steve Walsh's pass in the endzone to preserve the victory.
"We were in the huddle during a timeout in the fourth quarter and I remember looking at my teammates," shares Terrell, "and I had this grin on my face and I was saying, `Isn't this awesome?'
"I remember looking around, and the smell of the grass, and thinking, `This is why I came to Notre Dame, to play in games like this.'"
Terrell claims that things didn't look so serene when he looked across the line of scrimmage at the Hurricanes' huddle. It was as though he could see the cockiness borne of those national championships and that winning streak and the recent domination of Notre Dame ebbing away before his very eyes.
"You see that number-one team in the country, and you see that doubt start to creep in," he says.
There was a transformation on the Notre Dame side of the line, too.
"The Miami game changed everything," says Holtz. "It changed the expectations, the faith, the belief."
"That was our `Braveheart' moment," Pritchett says. "After the Miami game, there wasn't anybody on our team who didn't think we could beat anybody in the country. And after that, we really weren't in any dogfights."
Indeed, the Irish throttled number-two USC 27-10 behind quarterback Tony Rice and a stifling defense in their regular season finale before trouncing number-three West Virginia 34-21 in the Fiesta Bowl to crown their season. Neither game was as close as the score suggested.
Pritchett, who also played several years in the NFL, considers the '88 season the highlight of his football career, in part due to the hard times early on at Notre Dame.
"We literally went from the outhouse to the penthouse," he says. "And I never felt like I was working that year. We were just having so much fun."
All these years later, Holtz might be shocked to learn how much fun his players were having.
"The greatest thing Coach Holtz did when he got to Notre Dame was to instill in us a belief that if we did things his way, we would win," says Pritchett. "He told us, first we'd be the best, then we'd be first."
"One of the things that Coach Holtz did was establish that there was no tolerance for mediocrity," echoes Terrell.
Stams, who was named Notre Dame's most outstanding player in the Miami game and most valuable defensive player in the Fiesta Bowl, uses the term "perfect storm" to describe the '88 championship.
"Talent alone doesn't get you there, and coaching alone doesn't get you there," says Stams, who played seven seasons in the NFL.
Stams also credited players who never saw the promised land, who had graduated before Holtz arrived.
"These were the guys that I looked up to as a young player and the guys who got us through the tough times - and it was really tough."
On a personal level, Stams is grateful for the friendship of Notre Dame's legendary sports information director, Roger Valdiserri.
"I pretty much floundered during my first four years at Notre Dame," Stams claims, "and Roger really helped me believe in myself during my last year. And he continues to be a friend and confidant to me to this day."
For Holtz, whose 100 victories at Notre Dame are second only to Knute Rockne's 105, the drive to return Notre Dame to its legacy of greatness didn't allow him to enjoy the moment as much as some of his players did.
"At the time, I didn't think what we did was special," he insists. "That's why they hired us. Those expectations are a part of it, and if you don't want that, don't come to Notre Dame."
As he did everywhere else he coached, Holtz exceeded expectations, leading the Irish to a school-record 23 straight victories in 1988-89, five bowl victories and four top-five finishes.
"It was a great run," he acknowledges. "And I'm proud of what we accomplished."