After several seasons of mediocrity under the guidance of Gerry Faust, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish hired experienced college football coach Lou Holtz to take over. You can read about Gerry Faust by clicking on this link: Gerry Faust Notre Dame
Holtz had gone 33-12-3 at North Carolina State taking them to bowl games all 4 years he was the head man.
Lou Holtz spent one awful season as the New York Jets head coach, and then returned to the college
coaching ranks taking over as the head guy at Arkansas for retired legend Frank Broyles who became the Razorback Athletic Director.
Holtz was an instant success at Arkansas and led them to a 60-21-2 record. But, Broyles fired Holtz after a 6-5 season in 1983.
He recovered quickly when he was hired by the Minnesota Gophers to take over their struggling football program.
But, Holtz had his own problems at Minnesota which were clearly not of his doing. His first year at Minnesota led to a 4-7 record, but his second year with the Gophers improved to 6-5.
That’s when Notre Dame made it’s move and hired Lou Holtz away. Like Gerry Faust, and so many more coaches, Notre Dame was the dream job for Lou Holtz.
But, he did inherit a mess left behind by Gerry Faust.
Taking over in 1986, the Irish went 5-6. But, as expected, they improved to 8-4 during his second season coaching there.
The 1987 season did end on a sour note when they lost badly to the Aggies of Texas A%M in the Cotton Bowl.
1988 was an entirely different matter. A lot of times when you have the right coach in place, the third season on the job is when they will make their move.
1988 was definitely a special season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Nobody really expected much out of Notre Dame in 1988 and they began the season ranked 13th. In their opening game, they faced 9th ranked Michigan. Notre Dame managed to survive the Wolverines with a game winning Field Goal and 1:13 left on the clock. Their offense sputtered and the only Touchdown they scored was on an 81 yard Punt Return helping the Irish come away with a close 19-17 win.
The other Michigan team was next when the Fighting Irish made their way to East Lansing to face the Spartans of Michigan State.
The Spartans got on the board first with a Field Goal to take a 3-0 lead, but once the Irish got going they scored 20 straight points to win the game 20-3. The Irish offense had been a concern in game one, but they bounced back a little and at least scored a Touchdown. But, the defense had a Touchdown, too, when Linebacker Michael Stonebreaker took an interceptions 39 yards for a score.
The Irish were now 2-0 on the young 1988 season.
Next was old rival Purdue, but the Irish didn’t let the Boilermakers slow them down at all taking an easy 52-7 win in one of the worst defeats ever for Purdue.
The Stanford Cardinal was the next obstacle, but they proved to be little challenge for the Irish in 1988 with them taking an easy 42-14 win here at home in South Bend. Irish Quarterback Tony Rice had a big game here hitting 11 out of 14 passes and running for 107 yards. But, it was the defense that stood out the most.
Pittsburgh had beaten Notre Dame 3 years in a row, and they stood in the way next. Notre Dame had gone from the 13th spot in the Poll all the way down to the 5th position with the Miami Hurricanes at #1 and looming on the horizon.
Notre Dame may have been looking ahead this week and not focusing on Pittsburgh which could
have been a costly mistake. But, Pittsburgh made enough mistakes to let the Irish escape the Steel City with a 30-20 win. This was not the Pittsburgh of the Tony Dorsett age or like the years of Dan Marino. They finished 6-5 on the season. Still, a win is a win and the Fighting Irish improved to 5-0 on the season.
October 15th, 1988, the Hurricanes of Miami ranked #1 were heading into South Bend to play the now 4th ranked Irish.
This game came to be known as the Catholics versus the Convicts due to the large number of criminal activities that had been happening with Hurricane players off the field. Plus, they acted a bit thuggish on the field according to some.
This was the game the nation had been waiting for. The top ranked team versus the 4th with a lot of bad blood between them going back mostly to the last game of Notre Dame coach Gerry Faust when the Hurricanes crushed the Irish, 58-7. Miami head coach Jimmy Johnson was accused by some of running up the score. Others said, his team was just playing their game and it was Notre Dame’s job to stop them.
Regardless of which side you took, this game had all of the hype in the world. Surprisingly, the game lived up to the hype completely and then some as the Irish surprised the world and came away with a 31-30 thriller over the Hurricanes. I wrote about that game last year on my blog right before last season kicked off: Catholics and Convicts
Now, the Irish were rolling and the nation took notice. They had a few easier games ahead of them for a while and the 2nd position in the latest Polls.
First they took care of the Air Force Academy very easily with a 41-13 victory.
Then, it was old nemesis Navy who they beat 22-7.
UCLA had been #1 in the nation after the Irish beat Miami, but the Bruins lost to Washington State and Notre Dame now moved into the top spot in the Polls and were 8-0 after beating Navy.
Rice was next and the Irish manhandled them 54-11.
A disappointing 5-5 Penn State was next for Notre Dame and the Irish prevailed 21-3.
To finish out their season at 11-0, the Irish only had to get by the also undefeated and 2nd ranked USC. The Trojans were Notre Dame’s most hated rivals and the game was in Los Angeles. In a classic #1 versus #2 match up, the Irish came away with a nice 27-10 victory.
The Irish had done it. They finished their regular season at 11-0 when nobody really thought they could do it. All that was left was a bowl game against 3rd ranked West Virginia.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish really had little trouble disposing of West Virginia when they jumped out to a 23-6 half time lead and then held on to win 34-21 in claiming their 11th national championship and their first since the years of Dan Devine and his championship team with Joe Montana in 1977.
What happened to the cast of characters with this 1988 Notre Dame national championship team?
Lou Holtz coached at Notre Dame for 8 more seasons before retiring. He did slip a little bit at the end but still compiled a 100-30-2 record in South Bend. He left the Irish in 1996 and went into
commentating for CBS for a couple of years before getting back into coaching with the South Carolina Gamecocks. From the 1988 season until the 1993 season at Notre Dame, Holtz had his best coaching period going 64-9-1 with a national championship and coming close on 2 others.
Holtz retired for good from coaching after the 2004 season.
From that time on he worked at ESPN as a special commentator with Mark May. His all time coaching record in college football was 249-132-7.
Barry Alvarez was the Defensive Coordinator for the Irish in 1988. In 1990, Alvarez left Notre Dame to take over as head coach for the Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers had not had a winning season in years before Alvarez came along and it took him 4 years to get that ship turned around. But, turn it around he did when he put Wisconsin on the football map and he coached them to a 119-74-4 record. Alvarez is now the Wisconsin Athletic Director.
All American Defensive End Frank Stams was recruited to Notre Dame to play Fullback by previous coach Gerry Faust. But, the next staff moved him to Defensive End where he would become one of the best in the country. Stams was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the 2nd round of the 1989 NFL Draft where he was switched to Linebacker and he played there for 3 seasons, then 4 seasons in Cleveland for the Browns before finishing up in Kansas City. He was from Akron, Ohio and attended the same high school that LaBron James would later graduate from.
Andy Heck the All American Offensive Tackle from Fairfax, Virginia came to Notre Dame as a Tight End. They beefed him up and moved him to Offensive Tackle. In the 1989 NFL Draft, the Seattle Seahawks took Heck with their first round pick. He would play in the NFL for a solid 12 years for Seattle, the Chicago Bears and the Washington Redskins. After retiring from the NFL, Heck got into coaching and is currently the Offensive Line coach for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Todd Lyght was a highly recruited Cornerback out of Flint, Michigan. In 1989 and 1990, Lyght was a Consensus All American. The Los Angeles Rams took him with their 1st round pick which was the overall 5th pick. Lyght was rookie of the year in 1991 and played 12 seasons in the NFL and on one Super Bowl winning team when the Rams moved to St Louis. He had 37 interceptions and scored 4 Touchdowns. Lyght finished his career in Detroit with the Lions and retired after the 2002 season. Lyght also got into coaching and has worked in the high school, college and the NFL. Now, he is the Defensive Back coach back at Notre Dame.
Nobody has produced more and better Tight Ends than Notre Dame and I wrote about the best ones here: Best Tight Ends Derek Brown was a high school All American out of Merritt Island, Florida and he was one of the better Tight Ends in Fighting Irish history. While at Notre Dame he caught 62 passes and was a big part of the 1988 success. He was the first round pick of the New York Giants in the NFL and he played for several NFL teams including the Jaguars, Raiders and the Cardinals. But, he did not really fulfill his promise in the NFL.
Jeff Alm was a solid Defensive Tackle for the Irish in 1988 and 1989. He was picked in the 2nd round of the draft by the Houston Oilers Alm started some games. However, in 1993, Alm was involved in an auto accident where his best friend was thrown from his car and killed. Alm pulled a gun and shot himself on the side of the road. Wearing a seat belt both of these guys would likely still be alive.
Playing Offensive Guard for the Irish, Tim Grunhard was taken in the 2nd round by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1990 NFL Draft. With the Chiefs, he converted to Center and was one of the best in the league for 11 seasons before retiring. Grunhard has coached on the high school level and was the Kansas Jawhawk Offensive Line coach for a few years before returning to the high school ranks.
Anthony Johnson was a big Running Back that played high school ball at South Bend. At 6-0, 225, Johnson was a powerful back that was the team’s 4th leading rusher in 1988, and their 3rd leading rusher in 1989. He was picked by the Indianapolis Colts in 1990 and played in the NFL for 5 different teams for 11 years.
Michael Stonebreaker may have one of the better football names I have seen. His father, Steve
Stonebreaker, also played in the NFL. Stonebreaker was a 1st team All American Linebacker in 1988 and in 1990. He missed the 1989 season due to injury, but bounced back strong in 1990. He wasn’t taken until the 9th round and played only briefly for the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints. He also played in Europe for the Frankfurt Galaxy. Stonebreaker was the leader of the magnificent Irish defense.
Chris Zorich played Nose Guard and the game is still won in the trenches. Zorich controlled the line of scrimmage for the Irish and was an awesome Middle Guard or Defensive Tackle. Zorich was recruited out of the South side of Chicago from the same school that produced the great Dick Butkus, Chicago Vocational High School. The school also produced Juwan Howard of the famous Michigan Fab 5. Zorich grew out of his Linebacker size and into a fantastic Defensive lineman, and he was a Consensus All American in 1988 and 1989 he was a 2nd round draft pick of his hometown Chicago Bears. He played for the Bears for 6 years before finishing up with the Washington Redskins. Zorich was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Ricky Watters was a highly recruited Running Back out of Bishop McDevitt High School in
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Gerry Faust said his grandmother could recruit for Notre Dame, well, Lou Holtz was a way better recruiter than Faust’s grandmother and Watters class was the second top class in a row signed by Holtz and his staff. Watters started at Notre Dame as a back up Running Back and Punt Returner. He moved to Wide Receiver to replace Tim Brown in 1988 and was successful. Watters moved back to Tailback in 1989 and was second on the team in rushing. The San Francisco 49ers drafted Watters with their second pick in 1991. In the NFL, Watters ran for over 10,000 yards and had over 4,000 in receiving yards along with 78 Touchdowns.
Memphis, Tennessee produced Safety Pat Terrell who knocked down the pass from Steve Walsh when Miami went for 2 points to win the game in the famous Catholics vs Convicts game as Notre Dame held on to win 31-30. Terrell Was a second round pick by the Los Angeles Rams and played with them for 4 seasons and then with the New York Jets, the Carolina Panthers and the Green Bay Packers.
Pat Eilers was a safety for the Irish out of St Paul, Minnesota. He was not drafted but signed with the Minnesota Vikings and then he played for the Washington Redskins for a few seasons and finished up with the Chicago bears.
Scott Kowalkowski was the son of Bob Kowalkowski that played for the Detroit Lions. Scott was an All American defensive lineman in high school that moved to Linebacker for the Fighting Irish. He was drafted in the 8th round of the NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles and played there for 3 seasons before moving to the Detroit Lions where he played another 7 seasons.
Raghib Ismail otherwise known as the Rocket. Ismail was one of the top punt and kickoff return guys of all time taking 2 kicks in the same game against Michigan. The guy was a real game breaker and also a sprinter in track. At Notre Dame he ran a 10.2. Ismail decided to go to the Canadian
Football League after Notre Dame and he was a franchise player up there. He returned to the United States after a few years and played for the Raiders, Panthers and the Cowboys for 3 years each totaling 9 years in the NFL. He was one of the most exciting players in the country along with guys like Deion Sanders.
Mark Green was the Notre Dame primary Running Back in the 1987 and 1988 seasons. He did not put up huge numbers but did run for nearly 2,000 yards in his career at Notre Dame. Green was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the 5th round of the 1989 draft and he played there for 4 seasons. Green was never a big back but in 1984 he was one of the more highly recruited Running Backs in the country out of Riverside, California and he was a high school All American.
Ned Bolcar was also a 1984 high school All American, but from a different coast coming out of Phillipsburg, New Jersey. After much recruiting traffic, Bolcar decided on Notre Dame because again Holtz could out recruit Gerry Faust’s grandmother in his sleep. He was a captain on the 1988 team and 2nd team All American in both 1987 and 1989. Bolcar was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the 6th round of the draft and he played there for a season before playing at Miami for the Dolphins for a couple of seasons.
Wes Pritchett, Mike Stonebreaker and Frank Stams teamed up to form the so-called Three Amigos who helped lead the Fighting Irish to the 1988 national championship. Pritchett was an All American in 1988 and at 6-2, 245 he was a big, strong Linebacker. Pritchett played high school ball in Atlanta, Georgia choosing the Irish over any of the SEC teams or Georgia Tech. He was drafted in the 6th
round by the Miami Dolphins but didn’t play there only playing a short time in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons.
Stan Smagala came to Notre Dame from Chicago St Laurence High School. Much has been made of Lou Holtz’ first class at Notre Dame. He signed 8 recruits out of the Chicago Catholic Leagues. All of them were heavily recruited other than Stan Smagala. Holtz basically told Smagala that he didn’t want him saying he had committed to Gerry Faust and he would honor that. But, that Smagala would be better off going elsewhere. Of that group of 8, Stan Smagala turned out to easily be the best being a long term starter at Cornerback for the Irish. Tim Grunhard was also a starting Offensive Guard for the Irish and he was a high school teammate of Smagala. The others in that group didn’t pan out and they were highly recruited high school players. Smagala played briefly in the NFL.
Out of all of the guys in this talented group of guys, probably Tony Rice was the most important regarding winning the national championship. Tony Rice was their leader. Coming out of Woodruff, South Carolina, Rice was Notre Dame’s first ever partial qualifier. He was not the prototypical Quarterback that was so common at Notre Dame, but he was able to run the 40 yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds. At Notre Dame, he threw for over 3,000 yards and he ran for over 2,000 yards. NFL teams wanted little to do with Rice as a Quarterback, but he did go on to a successful career in the CFL.