1988 Irish Return to Campus.
by Craig Chval
As the saying goes, Rome wasn't built in a day.
Players and coaches from the 1988 Championship team returned to South Bend Saturday.
It might have been a different story, though, if Lou Holtz had been in charge of the job.
The way things looked in November 1985, when Holtz was hired as the 25th head football coach in the history of the University of Notre Dame, many people might have argued that rebuilding the once-proud Irish football program was a more challenging task. The 5-6 season mercifully ended as the Miami Hurricanes administered a 58-7 whupping of the Irish.
Just three years later, Holtz had Notre Dame back on top of the college football team, leading the 1988 Irish to the school's 11th national championship. Remarkably, the cornerstone of that championship team was compromised of a group of seniors who had survived that 1985 nightmare on the floor of Miami's Orange Bowl.
Dozens of players and coaches, along with former athletic director Dick Rosenthal, were back on campus last weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the team.
Presumably, many of the players who contributed to that national championship weren't watching that Miami debacle on television. Tony Rice was still in Woodruff, S.C.; Patrick Terrell was in St. Peterburgs, Fla.; Michael Stonebreaker in River Ridge, Louis. Any who watched the entire game and still enrolled at Notre Dame can look the world in the eye and truly claim they love a challenge.
Some of the most important players on the championship squad, though, saw the nightmare up close and personal. Andy Heck. Mark Green. Frank Stams. Ned Bolcar. D'Juan Francisco. Wes Pritchett. Flash Gordon. George Streeter. They had no choice but to watch the whole game. Stams, who would be named CBS Notre Dame MVP of the 1988 upset of Miami and the defensive MVP of the national championship-clinching Fiesta Bowl, was a sophomore starting fullback; most of the others had worked their way onto the depth chart.
Like they say, if it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger.
Some might say Holtz took that adage to heart as soon as he took over. It seems that not a single player has forgotten the 6:00 a.m. conditioning regimen he instituted.
"We got up at 5:15, started at 6:00, and I'm not kidding, there were guys throwing up and passing out," recalls Stams. "It lasted about 45 minutes. Then we'd go back to sleep and wake up later, thinking that we'd had a terrible nightmare."
Holtz's first Irish squad debuted by dropping a 24-23 decision to highly-regarded Michigan when a penalty call disallowed a late Notre Dame touchdown. Although the Irish raised their level of play several notches from the prior season, they still entered the ¹86 season finale at USC with a 4-6 record, thanks to five losses by less than a touchdown.
In the contest against the Trojans, All-American Tim Brown fueled his 1987 march to the Heisman Trophy and a furious Notre Dame comeback against USC. John Carney's field goal on the last play of the game gave the Irish a 38-37 victory ‹ and perhaps a lot more.
"That was the point where we turned the corner, " insists Green. "We went into that locker room after that game like we had won the national championship. That really brought us out of the depths."
In 1987, the Irish finished 8-4, defeating Michigan, USC and Alabama, while earning a Cotton Bowl berth. And even though he had to replace Brown and the entire starting offensive line prior to 1988, Holtz suspected he had something special. When he met with his players in August of ¹88, he pulled no punches.
"Virtually everyone picks us to be 17th or 18th in the country," Holtz told the Irish. "Do you know what that means? That means they really don't think we'll have a good football team. That's not what I believe. I look at our football team and I expect us to be good and have an opportunity to meet every goal that we have."
On that list of goals was winning a national championship. Many outsiders, while recognizing the dramatic improvement during Holtz's first two seasons, figured the young Irish were still a year away.
To those seniors, though, that didn't seem like a very good plan.
"From the players' perspective, especially the junior and seniors, there was a feeling that we don't have that luxury," remembers Pat Eilers, a senior in '88 who transferred to Notre Dame after playing baseball as a freshman at Yale. Eilers is the chairman of this weekend's reunion.
As many people expected, Notre Dame had to rely on its defense and special teams early. Four field goals by Reggie Ho in his first Notre Dame appearance ever, an 81-yard punt return touchdown by Ricky Watters and a missed Michigan field goal on the final play of the game allowed the Irish to escape with a 19-17 season-opening win over the Wolverines.
"Michigan obviously was a very good team, and when you beat a good team, you gain confidence," explains Pritchett, who led the '88 Irish in tackles with 112.
Bolcar agrees. "The turning point was not Miami later in the season, but Michigan. Even though we nearly lost the game on that field goal at the end, it was a big win and it started the ball rolling and gave us momentum."
After routing Purdue and Stanford, sandwiched between hard-fought victories over Michigan State and Pitt, the Irish were 5-0 and ranked fourth in the country. They next found themselves staring in the face of number-one Miami. The Hurricanes were winners of 16 in a row overall and four straight over the Irish by a combined score of 133-20.
Holtz's rebuilding job was looking awfully good on the outside. The Irish had stacked some pretty impressive bricks: two straight wins over Michigan, Michigan State and USC; avenging the '87 loss to Pitt.
Remarkably, the main event surpassed the hype before the game. Notre Dame's 31-30 heart-stopper over the Hurricanes ranks as one of the greatest games in Irish history.
Ten years later, it provides a wonderful composite of what made that team so great.
A defense that surrendered 30 points and a school-record 424 passing yards, but came up big when it mattered most.
A team sparked by players who had been moved to different positions by Holtz, including full-back-turned-defensive end Stams, the game's MVP with two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery; offensive tackle Heck, a converted tight end; and defensive back Patrick Terrell, a former split end who scored one touchdown on a 60-yard interception return and batted down Steve Walsh's game-winning two-point conversion pass attempt in the game's final minute.
A big-play offense that was outgained 481-331, but stunned the 'Canes with Tony Rice strikes of 57 yards to Rocket Ismail and 44 yards to Watters, while Walsh's longest completion was 23 yards.
Most importantly, an unwavering belief that the Irish would prevail.
Green reflects on Miami's two-point conversion attempt with 45 seconds to play. "I just felt that we had worked so hard and come so far, that somebody was going to step up and make a play."
Pritchett was on the field at the time. The Irish were in man-to-man coverage. "I remember thinking that my man wasn't going to score."
The Irish had passed the gut check-with Holtz right on the front line.
The slightly-built taskmaster had already gone out of character the previous night when he told a delirious pep rally crowd to go find Hurricane coach Jimmy Johnson and tell him that the Irish would win the shutdown.
Now, the Irish were in the halftime locker room. Two lightning Miami touchdowns in the final 2:16 of the second quarter had erased a 14-point Notre Dame lead and forged a 21-21 tie.
After exhorting the Irish to play hard, clean, physical football for the last 30 minutes, Holtz admonished his players ‹ "Save Jimmy Johnson for me."
The rebuilding was complete. It was more of a transformation than a rebuilding. The rest of the season, including victories over USC. (10-0, number-two and favored-a fact Holtz masterfully used to his advantage) and West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl was almost anti-climatic.
Holtz had built a bruising defense and a relentless offense. Most impressively and most importantly, he built a team of character, more than capable of handling the pressure of the march to an undefeated season and national championship.
On a team where 22 of 24 starters were drafted by National Football League teams, competition for playing time was fierce. In more than one situation, veterans found themselves losing time to younger players. Bolcar who served as tri-captain along with Heck and Green, credits the type of player recruited by Notre Dame.
"I have the best two parents in the world," he says. "And there are a hundred guys on that team that feel the same way. We had a lot of players who believed in Notre Dame, and decided that they wanted to let the program be bigger than each of us."
Even though those players were a part of one of Notre Dame's greatest teams and started the longest winning streak in Irish history (23, extending into the 1989 season), they're still not interested in taking credit or talking about their on-the-field exploits.
Despite all of their talent, they give the lion's share of the credit to Holtz. "He was the right man for the job," says Bolcar.
Similarly, they reflect most on the friendships they formed in the process of restoring Notre Dame's football program to glory.
"It was the most fun I ever had playing football in my life," says Stams. "I started playing when I was eight and I stopped when I was 31, and that was the greatest group of guys ever-players, coaching staff, trainers and equipment people."
The players didn't just like each other, they believed in each other. That belief was never demonstrated more clearly than just prior to the regular-season finale at USC. Holtz, concerned about distracting behavior by Watters and leading rusher Tony Brooks, convened a group of team leaders. The twelve leaders voted unanimously to play the showdown without the pair of sophomores.
"It was nothing personal," says Stams. "But I believed we could win without anybody. I said that if anybody thinks we can't win without certain players, I'd go out there by myself and beat USC."
Stams didn't have to. He had plenty of help. Waters and Brooks rejoined the team for the Fiesta Bowl and went on to complete sparkling careers at Notre Dame.
"That was a defining moment, " says Eilers. "We knew that what we were trying to accomplish as a team had to come first."
Now, 10 years later, it is clear. While Holtz and those seniors might have built quickly, they also built well. And, they built to last.
The University of Notre Dame welcomes back the following players, coaches and administrators back to campus this weekend for the 10th anniversary reunion of the 1988 national championship team:
Steve Alaniz, Joe Allen, Mickey Anderson, Braxston Banks, Steve Belles, Ned Bolcar, Mike Brennan, Dean Brown, Scott Burfton, Mike Crounse, Doug Dierio, Rich Earley, Pat Eilers, Joe Farrell, Bryan Flannery, Ted Fitzgerald, John Foley, D'Juan Francisco, Mike Gatti, Pete Graham, Mark Green, Donn Grimm, Flash Gordon, Tom Gorman, Andy Heck, Reggie Ho, Lou Holtz, Andre Jones, Chuck Killian, Lindsay Knapp, Dave Jandric, Joe Jarosz, Bernard Mannelly, Gene McGuire, Ted McNamara, George Poorman, Dave Prinzivalli, Wes Pritchett, Tony Rice, Aaron Robb, Richard Rosenthal, Tim Ryan, Winston Sandri, Jim Sexton, Brian Shannon, Stan Smagala, Corny Southhall, Frank Stams, George Streeter, Jim Strong, Roger Valdiserri, Rod West, Darryl Wodecki, Kurt Zachrison and Chris Zorich.