Monday, July 12, 2010

Irish Football 101: Lou to the Rescue

Q: So Notre Dame is in dire straits when they tap Lou Holtz to replace Gerry Faust. What was Holtz's background?

A: Well he'd coached at William & Mary, NC State, Arkansas, and Minnesota and experienced success at all four stops. He had a short stint at W&M, but in his second year led them to a conference championship and earned a berth in the Tangerine Bowl before accepting the job at NC State.

His record in Raleigh was 31-11-2, leading the Wolfpack to bowls in each of his four seasons at the helm. After an unsuccessful one year stint with the New York Jets he landed at Arkansas where during his first season he took the Razorbacks to an 11-1 record and a berth in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma. Prior to the game his top two running backs violated teams rules and Holtz chose to send them home. The Hogs went on to thump Oklahoma 31-6 despite being shorthanded (ironically, by knocking off the Sooners Holtz helped seal Notre Dame's 1977 national championship).

His final stop before South Bend took him up to Minnesota prior to the '84 season, where he took a floundering program to a bowl game in only his second season. Before having the chance to coach that bowl game though Holtz was offered and accepted the Notre Dame position. He had actually put a "Notre Dame Clause" in his contract at Minnesota that said if offered the Notre Dame head coaching job he could accept it without penalty.

Q: What was Holtz like?

A: He had the reputation of disciplinarian and master motivator. His victory in the aforementioned Orange Bowl helped put him on the map as a coach who delivered in big games and his work turning around the programs at NC State and Minnesota made people believe he could do the same when he arrived at Notre Dame.

Q: Was everyone excited when he accepted the job?

A: From everything you read back then people were happy with Holtz but he was far from a slam dunk to lead the Irish back to the "Promised Land." He had only posted a 6-5 record at Minnesota the year before he took the ND job so it's not as if he was setting the world on fire. He had a reputation as a program builder but his star had faded a bit after being a prime candidate to replace Woody Hayes at Ohio State in the late 70's.

Q: How did he differ from Faust?

A: In the book Talking Irish, offensive lineman Chuck Lanza recalls the team's first encounter with Holtz. It was cold November day, less than 24 hours after the season ended the Faust Era with the mortifying Miami game and Faust had just said his final goodbye. Then Holtz walked in the door.

As Lou came in the room Lanza was leaning back, slouched in his chair with a foot up on the stage the coach stood upon. Holtz looked down at Lanza and said, "What's your name?" Lanza told him and Lou asked him how long he'd been playing football. Lanza said, "about ten years." Lou glared down and responded, "if you want to play one more you better move your foot, you better sit up in your chair, and you better pay attention."

There was a new sheriff in town that wasn't going to allow the slacking that had gone on under Faust. Holtz instantly injected discipline, toughness, and swagger to the program--three things that had been sorely lacking.

Q: Was he an instant success a la Parseghian?

A: Not quite. The Irish showed a lot of promise in the 1986 campaign but their final record didn't reflect it. After nearly upsetting #3 Michigan in the season opener, Notre Dame stumbled to a 5-6 record. There were signs of vast improvement though and perhaps the tipping point that pushed the Irish in the right direction came in the season finale against 17th ranked Southern Cal.

Notre Dame was trailing the Trojans 37-20 with under 13 minutes left when quarterback Steve Beuerlein engineered a furious rally that culminated when kicker John Carney--who had missed two game-winning kicks earlier in the season--split the uprights to secure a 38-37 victory for the Irish.

The victory set the tone for 1987. Notre Dame jumped out to an 8-1 record and in November was right in the thick of the national title hunt. Unfortunately they stumbled to the finish line with three straight losses, including a 24-0 loss to the hated Miami Hurricanes and a 35-10 drubbing at the hands of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.

Q: Were people happy with the direction of the program under Holtz after year two?

A: The disappointing finish to the '87 campaign led some to question whether Holtz could ultimately take the Irish to a title, but there were plenty of positive signs in those first two seasons. The days of being totally man-handled in games against high-caliber opponents were gone, the defense showed a toughness that had been sorely lacking, and the offense sprung to life leading to Notre Dame's first Heisman Trophy winner in 23 years--wide receiver Tim Brown. Brown set the school record of All-Purpose Yards and provided an electric element that Notre Dame fans hadn't seen since the days of Nick Eddy.

Q: I mean this was in the 1980's, an era that Youtube covers pretty well. Got any videos with Brown highlights?

A: I'm glad you asked. There are plenty of highlights on Tim Brown's reel that are worth checking out, but at the top of the list was the 1987 game against Michigan State. In the second half Brown returned two consecutive punts for touchdowns, sparking an Irish victory and his Heisman campaign.

Q: So expectations were a bit higher going into Holtz's third campaign. Did he deliver?

A: You better believe it. It started in the season opener against Michigan in a night showdown at Notre Dame Stadium.

Q: Wait, they played night games at Notre Dame Stadium?!?!

A: Yes.

Q: Was the homefield advantage significantly greater at night?

A: Well at one point the crowd noise was so loud that Michigan protested and refused to take another snap until the crowd quieted down. The fans were so loud they were actually penalized at one point. Don't believe me? Let's go to the tape!

(Side question to Bill--has the vaunted Penn State student section adorned in their undershirts ever been so loud that the team was assessed a penalty?)

Q: Wow, Michigan wouldn't run a play because there was too much noise? Did they delay the game when there was wind too or when it got too hot or cold on the field?

A: What can you say--the Michigan Wolverines are a bunch of sissies. The Irish went on to win that game 19-17 and rolled to a 5-0 start. Notre Dame ascended to #4 in the rankings, setting up an October 15th showdown in South Bend with the top-ranked Miami Hurricanes. For the first time in years the Irish were expected to have a chance against the vaunted "U."

Q: Were there still hard feelings from the 1985 game when Jimmy Johnson ran up the score?

A: Um, yes. The Notre Dame senior class had witnessed the 58-7 drubbing their freshman year so the embarrassment was still fresh in their minds. The two schools were on opposite ends of the spectrum on just about everything, adding to the intrigue of the matchup. South Bend vs South Beach. Grit vs Flair. Old School vs New School.

Some entrepreneurial Notre Dame students added "Catholics vs Convicts" to that lineup, printing now famous shirts in preparation for the game that played on the fact that most Miami players had more misdemeanors on their record than C's on their transcripts (and more felonies than B's).

The venom between the two teams was palpable and during pregame warmups it boiled to a head. Notre Dame was in the endzone doing light special teams drills when Miami made its way to the locker room. A few of the Hurricanes decided to run through the Notre Dame drill as opposed to going around it and then stayed at the edge of the tunnel jawing at the Irish players in the endzone. Much of Miami's "mystique" and "aura" was based on intimidation even before the opening gun sounded. With the bully once again running its mouth some Irish players decided it was time the bully got punched in the mouth...literally.

A brawl broke out and became so large that it flooded into the tunnel. Police separated the teams and ushered them into their respective locker rooms. The Irish stewed in anger in the locker room, unsure of what Holtz would say about the events that had just taken place. He tried to refocus their attention on the game and not let the taunts and actions of the Canes distract them.

After a brief talk about the strategy the room fell silent. According to both Rocket Ismail and Pat Eilers, just before the players were to take the field Holtz lowered his voice and said, "I want you guys to go out there and play the Miami Hurricanes...but I'll tell you one thing: SAVE JIMMY JOHNSON'S ASS FOR ME." The team erupted, all but knocked the hinges off the door to the locker room and took the field.

In what is arguably the greatest Notre Dame moment ever, the Irish knocked off the trash-talking Hurricanes 31-30. Notre Dame's defense stepped up and forced seven turnovers, ran back an interception for a touchdown, and held off a late Miami charge by batting down a two-point conversion in the games waning moments. The Irish had slayed the giant, setting the stage for a run for the title.

Q: Did the Irish have an easy path the rest of the way to the national title game?

A: There was still one huge hurdle to clear: the Trojans of Southern Cal, who were ranked #2 in the country. The final game of the season required a trip to the LA Coliseum--a place that had haunted so many Irish teams in the past--and though the Irish were ranked #1 they entered the contest as underdogs. There would be no heartbreak during this trip. The Irish manhandled the Trojans 27-10, landing them a spot in the Fiesta Bowl with a shot at the national title.

The #3 West Virginia Mountaineers possessed a vaunted offense led by do-everything quarterback Major Harris, but on that day they were no match for an Irish team on a mission. Notre Dame handily defeated the Mountaineers 34-21, wrapping up their first national title in 11 years. Holtz--like Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, and Devine--had taken Notre Dame to the summit in his third season on the job.

Q: Who were some of the key players that led the way?

A: On offense quarterback Tony Rice brilliantly engineered the option attack all season, delivering with both his arm and legs. He was accompanied by playmakers Ricky Watters and arguably the most electrifying player in college football history, The Rocket.

Q: The Rocket?

A: Raghib "Rocket" Ismail was one of the fastest players in the history of college football. He was a jack of all trades for the Irish--returning punts and kicks, taking handoffs and option pitches in the backfield, and splitting out wide as a receiver. Holtz came up with innovative ways to get Rocket the ball each game since every time he touched the ball he could go the distance in the blink of an eye. During that national championship season he averaged almost 28 yards per catch and returned two kicks for touchdowns.

Q: How about on the defensive side of the ball?

A: There were a host of future NFL players like defensive backs Pat Terrell and Todd Lyght, but the most memorable are nose tackle Chris Zorich and "The Three Amigos" that made up the linebacking core: Frank Stams, Wes Pritchett, and Michael Stonebreaker. Zorich was an undersized defensive tackle from Chicago who seemingly willed himself into opposing backfields while wearing his signature cut-off jersey while the trio of linebackers terrorized defenses and set the tone for a revamped toughness that had formed under Holtz's tutelage.

Stams actually was a fullback that Holtz switched to defense. This was something Holtz was well-known for over the course of his time in South Bend. On that '88 squad there were quite a few contributors that were playing a different position than when they arrived as freshman--including Stams, Terrell, and starting offensive tackle and converted tight end Andy Heck.

Q: Wait...there was a linebacker named Michael Stonebreaker?

A: Yes.

Q: Has there ever been a more perfect name for a linebacker?

A: No chance...though I suppose Manti Te'o maybe be an acceptable alternative.


This Week's CliffNotes:

* Lou Holtz had experienced success in three previous stops at major college football programs, taking all three (NC State, Arkansas, Minnesota) to bowl games.
* Holtz was known as a disciplinarian and someone whose teams came up big in high-profile games. He also had grown up admiring Notre Dame and even had a clause in his contract at Minnesota that said he could take the Notre Dame job without penalty should it be offered to him.
* There were some growing pains in the first two seasons, but the Irish showed many signs that they were on the verge of re-entering the elite of college football in '86 and '87.
* Tim Brown became Notre Dame's first Heisman winner in 23 years when he won the award in 1987.
* They used to play night games at Notre Dame Stadium...and they...were...AWESOME.
* Michigan cries about EVERYTHING, including but not limited to: the opposing crowds being too loud, the air being too humid, the lights of the stadium being too bright, the opposing defenses being too mean, and their coach being a complete sleaze who is in over his head. Actually, they don't cry about the last thing. But they should. Long and short of it is they're a bunch of sissies and morons.
* Three years removed from one of the most embarrassing losses in Notre Dame history, the Irish knocked off the trash-talking Miami Hurricanes and their hair-spray addicted hick of a coach Jimmy Johnson 31-30 in the original Catholics vs Convicts game.
* After vanquishing #2 Southern Cal on the road and #3 West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame was crowned national champion for the first time in 11 years.
* Some of the stars of the national championship team were quarterback Tony Rice, running back/flanker Ricky Watters, jack of all trades Rocket Ismail, defensive tackle Chris Zorich, and the Three Amigos--linebackers Frank Stams, Wes Pritchett, and Michael Stonebreaker.
* Stonebreaker is probably the front-runner for the coolest name in football history and Rocket might be the best nickname ever. This team had everything.


  1. One minor correction...when Holtz was at William & Mary in the '60's it WAS a D-1 program. It went 1AA in 1982. I played at W&M after Holtz but the seniors when I was there were recruited by him--and loved him! I followed his career to ND and knew he would be a success... as he was everywhere he went.

  2. No kidding! My bad on the mix-up, I'll add in a line out of respect for The Tribe.

  3. Great stroll down memory lane. A question: I believe that Frank Stams was a defensive end, not a linebacker, right?
    Of course, anything was better than his frosh year under Faust being what seemed like the slowest fullback in history.

  4. I think for the most part he played with his hand on the ground, but from what I've read he also would drop back into coverage from time to time. Ned Bolcar was another stud linebacker on that squad so I'd assume there were times when Stams played down and Bolcar-Pritchett-Stonebreaker manned the LB positions.

    This is slightly before my time so if there's anyone who can clarify please chime in.

  5. Great format and crisp writing, thanks for presenting this series. When the tradition and resiliency of the Notre Dame football program is combined with an inspired leader and a proven winner, great things happen. Go Irish!

    PS. One can only guess it's another (or the same?) enterprising ND student who has revived the classic Catholics vs Convicts shirt for the 2012 renewal of ND vs Miami. I saw these shirts earlier this summer at when the rumors started...Unfinished Business, indeed.*

  6. For some clarification on what Stams actually played I emailed Blue and Gold Illustrated's Lou Somogyi who covered the team:

    "Frank Stams was a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end in 1988, similar to what Darius Fleming will be this season. You can line up either in two-point stance at outside linebacker or, in passing situations, in a three-point stance and come off the edge. ND was recognized as a 3-4 defense with Chris Zorich at nose tackle, George "Boo" Williams and Jeff Alm flanking him, and then Stams at the hybrid position.

    The other outside linebacker was known more as a "drop end," and that position was shared by fifth-year sneior Darrell "Flash" Gordon, sophomore Andre Jones (father of current freshman wideout Tai-ler Jones) and freshman Arnold Ale, who transferred the following year to UCLA.

    The two inside linebackers were Wes Pritchett in the middle and Mike Stonebreaker at Eagle, with Ned Bolcar the top backup for both."


    Thanks Lou!