The year was 1988. And Notre Dame was winning football games. All of them.
It started with the home opener versus Michigan. A diminutive walk-on kicker by the name of Reggie Ho kicked four field goals, including one with 1:17 left in the game. Dad and I were seven rows up in the south end of the end zone when Michigan’s Mike Gillette missed a 47-yard field goal as time expired. Final score: Notre Dame 19 – Michigan 17. ND beat its next three opponents—Michigan State, Purdue and Stanford—by a combined score of 112-24, then the Irish went on the road to beat a dangerous Pitt team 30-20.
Next up was the University of Miami, or as we referred to them in our household, “the true evil empire.” How evil? My father, the most humble man I know this side of Jesus Christ, told a Miami fan at the Friday night campus pep rally, “If the Soviet Union suited up a team and played you guys, I’d have to flip a coin to decide who to root for.” To us, Miami was Satan in shoulder pads. They were everything that was wrong about football—names on the backs of jerseys, the trash talking, the dubious academics and recruiting, and the Dark Lord himself, Jimmy Johnson. Notre Dame transcended football. They represented everything upright and good—the gold helmets and nameless jerseys, the Virgin Mary, the 100% graduation rate, and Lou Holtz.Blessed, blessed St. Lou.
Grandpa John was in the stands with me and Dad when Notre Dame free safety Pat Terrell deflected a two-point conversion from Miami’s Steve Walsh with 45 seconds remaining. All three of us were crying. My grandfather told me, “This is the best feeling I’ve had since VE Day,” and given that my grandma was an abusive, narcotics-addicted paranoid schizophrenic, I’m pretty sure Grandpa’s wedding day wasn’t remotely in the running. The Canes came to South Bend with the #1 ranking and a 36-game regular season winning streak. They left with a 31-30 loss, looking up at the Golden Dome and up in the polls at the newly crowned #1 team inthe country, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.
ND entered its season-ending battle versus the University of Southern California Trojans still #1 and sporting a 10-0 record. USC—or “Southern Cal” as we called them, pretty much only because USC fans insisted we didn’t—was also undefeated, ranked #2 in the country just behind the Irish.
I invited my girlfriend over for the game. By the middle of the fourth quarter I was rethinking my decision. She stood up, shaking her head. “Do you two ever sit down?”
For the entire three hours of a Notre Dame broadcast Dad and I would pace in front of the television. Much to my mother’s dismay, a two-feet strip of carpet running the width of the living room directly in front of the television was permanently stained and compressed. Dad flashed my girlfriend a look that was as close to stern as he could ever manage.
I stepped in and translated, whispering to my girlfriend so as not to disturb my father: “Uh, this is the Southern Cal game. In terms of Catholic holidays, we rank this a strong fourth behind Christmas, Easter and St. Patricks’s Day.”
“Easter is second, in front of Christmas?” my girlfriend said, perplexed.
“Nobody really likes Easter,” I said. “They just say they do.”
“Careful, son,” Dad said. “You know the rules.”
“Sorry,” I said, crossing myself.
“Rules?” my girlfriend said.
I whispered a quick Hail Mary with my eyes closed. “No blasphemy on gameday,” I said.
My girlfriend threw her hands in the air. “Oh, for crying out loud!”
The fourth quarter ended. I had long since sequestered my heathen, soon-to-be-ex- girlfriend in the kitchen with my mother.
“Would you look at that?” Dad said as the stats popped up on the television. “They had 356 yards to our 253, 21 first downs to our eight, they ran 34 more plays, and we still beat them 27-10.”
“Southern Cal dominated everywhere but the scoreboard,” I said.
Dad nodded. “Yep.”
“That is…” I offered my open palm to my father. “If you don’t take into account Rodney Peete getting decapitated after throwing that interception and the four turnovers.”
“Hell, yeah!” Dad shouted, smacking my hand with his. “Eleven and oh, baby.” He held his bottle of Miller High Life in the air, celebrating ND’s undefeated regular season and toasting the football gods. Or should I say God—the uppercase, monotheistic variety—since we were, after all, talking about Notre Dame.
Southern Cal week has always been a special time of year in my family. For almost 20 years my father never missed this game, whether it was in South Bend or Los Angeles. His roommate at ND, an accounting major and Hawaii native, would meet him every other year in LA for the game. The ’86 game, the 18-point fourth-quarter comeback that marked a watershed moment in the Holtz era, was one of the two games at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum I ever attended. We had an early plane out of LA on Sunday, so Mom and I were ready to leave at the beginning of the fourth. But Dad and his roommate refused. When ND started rolling, it seemed as if half the Coliseum was ND fans. We watched the ’88 game at home because my little brother had just been born. There were exceptions to the rule, and seeing to the indoctrination of another generation of Domers certainly topped the list.
Granted, the Notre Dame-Southern Cal matchup has recently lost a little bit of its luster. Being on the receiving end of a one-sided, decade-long ass beating will do that to a rivalry. But honestly, can this series ever live up to its own hype? The Irish and the Trojans have combined for the most national titles, the most Heisman trophy winners, the most All-Americans, the most College Football Hall of Famers and the most future NFL Hall of Famers of any college football rivalry, ever. As much as you’ll hear the Iron Bowl hyped this coming weekend by Auburn and Alabama fans, and as much as Michigan and Ohio State faithful think the sun rises and sets on their quaint regional rivalry, here’s something I’m guessing the ESPN College Gameday crew neglects to mention this Saturday: of the 10 most watched football games in television history, five are Notre Dame-Southern Cal games.
I look to my memories of when ND-Southern Cal mattered and tell myself this game, this rivalry, can turn on any given Saturday. Is this the Saturday it happens? Both teams are struggling with injuries and inconsistency. Notre Dame has looked unexpectedly solid over the last two games, but it’s not as if Southern Cal’s speed and athleticism has just disappeared. Make no mistake: the Trojans are still talented, and to the extent they can overcome their incompetent, snot-nosed fratboy poser of a head coach, they could still turn the Coliseum into another Irish killing field.
To say Notre Dame has faced adversity these last few weeks would be the understatement of the 2010 college football season. But I want to believe—I need to believe—Kelly has turned the corner. In the span of two weeks he’s gone from the guy who said “get used to it” when asked about his atrocious let ‘er rip play-calling at the end of the Tulsa game to a coach that says, “Good programs have to be able to establish the run and play good defense in November.” Kelly is starting to get it. He’s starting to realize if he puts his inexperienced QB in a position to just manage the game as opposed to win or lose it on every snap, he has the skill players on offense and a suddenly stout defense to pick up the slack. Humility and self-awareness from a Notre Dame head coach? Somebody pinch me.
My rosary beads are polished and ready. The Miller High Life is on ice. Go Irish. Beat Southern Cal.
McSweeney is a longtime blogger and poster on UHND. His e-novel, EXOTIC MUSIC OF THE BELLY DANCER, a coming-of-age story about sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and Notre Dame football, is available on Amazon by clicking here and at Barnes & Noble by clicking here.