Nov. 13, 2014
By Todd Burlage
Exactly 25 years after the magical run sparked by Lou Holtz, the legendary University of Notre Dame coach still marvels at the two seasons his football program enjoyed during its national championship run in 1988 and its No. 2 final ranking in 1989.
Dozens of great teams and many legendary coaches have roamed the sidelines at Notre Dame during its proud history, but none ever accomplished what Holtz and his troops did a quarter century ago when they won 23 consecutive games, an Irish record that may stand for many years to come.
Notre Dame had a 39-game unbeaten streak from 1946 to 1950 but there were two ties during that string, Army (0-0) in 1946 and USC (14-14) in 1948.
"When I look back on it, to win 23 games in a row, that was really incredible," Holtz says. "But it was something we never talked about at the time. It's something you really can't dwell on. You don't appreciate it until you look back, not while you're involved in it."
Starting with a 19-17 comeback win over No. 9 Michigan in the 1988 season opener, through the 31-30 game-of-the-century victory over top-ranked Miami, onto the 34-21 Fiesta Bowl win over West Virginia to clinch the national championship, and then beating a school-record six ranked teams in 1989, this incredible winning streak carried a little bit of everything ... well, almost everything.
"There was no joy in that winning streak," Holtz says with heartfelt sincerity. "You left every game saying, 'Whoa, thank goodness that's over.' You can't enjoy it because everybody expects you to win, so you're not enjoying the winning streak. It begins to wear on you."
The record streak moved through most of two full seasons at Notre Dame. But the roots to this magical run sprouted well before it began, during a period when winning just three or four games in a row was a considered a major accomplishment.
Notre Dame suffered through consecutive 5-6 seasons in 1985 and again in 1986, the year Holtz took over the program.
The players from that era all agree the talent was in place for success in those two sub-.500 seasons, but the climate and attitude within the program needed adjustment, and Holtz became the perfect savior to boost a roster of top talent that wasn't used to winning.
"We had an expectation when we came to the University," says 1988 Irish tailback and tri-captain Mark Green. "We understood the notoriety, we understood the tradition, we understood the mystique and everything that comes with going to Notre Dame. But at some point, we gotta win games."
Green came to Notre Dame in 1985, so he played through the lean years during his freshman and sophomore campaigns. But everything began to change in 1987 when his team won eight of its first nine games and climbed to No. 7 in the polls, before losing the last three games of that season, including a 35-10 Cotton Bowl loss to No. 13 Texas A&M to finish 1987 with an 8-4 record.
A game was lost, but a direction was found.
"That loss in Dallas was obviously disappointing, but the attitude of the team was changing because we finally had a taste of winning that season," Green says. "We were starting to understand what was required to be successful, and we didn't know that before. We just thought we could go out there with our gold helmets on, wearing our cool blue jerseys and beat anybody, but that wasn't the case.
"There was a transformation we had to make. We had to learn how to win and learn what was required in order for us to create the winning streaks that we created."
Like Green, Ned Bolcar came to Notre Dame in 1986 when times were tough but he eventually became an integral part of the evolution that started with a spark in 1987 and then became an inferno in 1988 and beyond.
Bolcar, an All-American linebacker, said the move from chumps to champs was gradual, but the launch point was clear -- it was the day Holtz hit the door in 1986 and delivered a strong message that even winning one game in a row doesn't happen accidentally, let alone 23.
"It was planned success for our coaching staff and the team. The winning streak wasn't luck," says Bolcar, an Irish captain in 1988 and 1989. "We put in the work and what eventually started to happen is you start to believe in the process, you start to believe in the foundation, and therefore you finally start to go into games thinking you should win."
And not only did the Irish win, they won against a national schedule that makes this impressive 23-game winning streak almost impossible to believe.
Among the highlights from that 23-game run:
And as the winning streak grew longer, camaraderie grew stronger.
"The coaches are a nervous mess, yet, within the players, the confidence builds," Holtz says. "The men had faith in themselves but also in their teammates. And when they started to feel like they had great teammates, and they started to feel like `I don't want to let them down,' that is the ideal situation you want a team to be in, and that is what continued to generate during that win streak."
The Irish won their 23 consecutive games by an average of more than 20 points per outing, but things weren't as easy as that impressive margin of victory might suggest, not even during the championship season.
The streak started in the 1988 season opener with the narrow two-point win against Michigan on a last-minute 26-yard field goal in the "Reggie Ho Game," named after the heroic walk-on kicker playing his first game that day for Notre Dame.
Four games later, ill-timed penalties and turnovers by Pittsburgh helped the Irish narrowly escape the Steel City with a 30-20 win. One week after the victory over the Panthers, Notre Dame officially arrived, sending shock waves through the college football world in an epic 31-30 win over No. 1 Miami that broke the Hurricanes' 36-game regular-season winning streak.
Using the Miami win as a springboard, Notre Dame breezed through the rest of the 1988 campaign with a 27-point margin of victory average in its last six games, including a 27-10 win at previously undefeated and No. 2 USC and a 34-21 conquest of No. 3 West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl that capped a perfect 12-0 season for the Irish and secured the program's 11th national championship.
"We would be going into games against these top-five teams and I would say to the players, `Let me tell you something, this game doesn't have to be close,'" Holtz says. "`We have no obligation to TV or the fans to make this an interesting game. There is nothing illegal about blowing their [butts] out of the stadium.' The players still laugh a lot about it."
As memorable and historical as the 1988 undefeated championship season will always be, it could be argued that 1989 was equally as impressive, even with the one loss.
From the two kickoff returns for touchdowns by Raghib "Rocket" Ismail in a 24-19 win for the top-ranked Irish over No. 2 Michigan in Game 2, and the two rushing touchdowns by Tony Rice in a tricky 28-24 fourth-quarter comeback win mid-year over No. 9 USC, to the impressive 21-6 victory over No. 4 Colorado in the Orange Bowl, the 1989 season was loaded with fond moments and one forgettable one.
Despite 11 straight wins to start the season, a three-touchdown average margin of victory for the year, a No. 2 ranking in the final AP poll, and a 12-1 overall record, the 1989 season will unfortunately always be remembered for the "1" -- a 27-10 loss to No. 7 Miami at the Orange Bowl that ended Notre Dame's winning streak and kept the Irish from back-to-back national titles.
"This one is going to haunt us the rest of our lives," Bolcar said immediately after the game.
But time eventually heals all wounds. While there is still disappointment in losing that one game in two full seasons while playing the toughest schedules imaginable, there is no shame in claiming 24 victories during the '88 and '89 seasons.
"I look back on it now, winning 24 out of 25 games, wow, that's pretty impressive," Bolcar says. "I am so proud of being part of that era. It's nice to be part of that but all streaks have to be broken and I look forward to the day that happens at Notre Dame. But in the meantime, I am very proud of what we accomplished."