Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl History

Notre Dame Fiesta Bowl History
Photo: Nick Doan/Icon Sportswire


The bowl season was ruled by four bowls:

  • Cotton Bowl
  • Rose Bowl
  • Sugar Bowl
  • Orange Bowl

Sure there were other bowls, but they were merely ladies-in-waiting, the handmaidens to the Cotton, Rose, Sugar and Orange.

It was in a galaxy far, far away but New Year’s day had a set pattern. The Cotton Bowl started off the day, followed by the Rose Bowl, which often ended with another Big Ten Team succumbing to the Pac 8 or Pac 10 just about the time the sun succumbed to the San Gabriel mountains. Night fell and on came the Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl, noteworthy for Earnie Seiler’s baroque, unending halftime shows.


It was started by some Valley of the Sun partisans in ’71 and offered Arizona State a convenient bowl venue.   The Sun Devils played in 7 of the first 15 Fiesta Bowls with their rivals from Tucson, the University of Arizona playing in one Fiesta Bowl. The Fiesta was fighting with the Gator, Peach and Liberty for fifth place behind the entrenched four.


That all changed in 1986.

Before thy BCS and the absurdly small current “of ESPN, by ESPN and for ESPN” four team mini-playoff, the Big Four battled for the “mythical national championship game” subject to the then au courant conference tie ins.

Nature, and the Fiesta Bowl committee, both abhorred a vacuum, and The Fiesta Bowl changed things forever by ignoring the Big Four and moving their game to a Friday Night, January 2d, for the battle between Jimmy Johnson’s unbeaten Miami Hurricanes and Joe Paterno’s unbeaten Penn State Nittany Lions. The other bowls gasped. They had been snookered by the lads from Tempe.

Penn State won the game, but on that same Friday night not only did Jimmy Johnson’s fatigue-wearing ‘Canes lose but the Big Four lost their mojo forever. In a 17 year period, the Fiesta bowl hosted 7 national championship games.


Lou Holtz had harvested third year magic in South Bend, highlighted by two stirring home wins against Michigan and the Prince of Darkness’ Miami team, capped by a thorough rout of Southern Cal in the Coliseum. The ’88 Irish team was loaded with stars on both sides of the ball, Tony Rice, Anthony Johnson, Ricky Watters, Andy Heck, Dean Brown Rocket Ismail, Chris Zorich, Mike Stonebreaker, George Williams, Frank Stams, Pat Terrell and Todd Lyght.

Meanwhile up in the hills of Morgantown, WV Don Nehlen had built a Mountaineer powerhouse. His quarterback was from Pittsburgh, an explosive playmaker named Major Harris. The Mountaineers had laid waste to all the Eastern powers, crushing Maryland 55-24, Pitt 31-10 @ Pitt, a now Flutie-less Boston College 59-19 and the scourge of the East, Penn State (still in its pre-Big 10 phase) 51-30. The Mountaineers had won all their games by 10 or more points. The Irish had beaten Michigan and Miami by 2 and 1, respectively.

Partisans flocked to the warmth of Tempe for the battle of the unbeatens. A favorite Irish T-shirt (the Favorite T-shirt before the ’73 tilt with Bama was “There will be no Crimson Tide where the River Shannon flows”) showed the Four Horsemen in the iconic picture above the caption “Mount this, Major Harris!”

The Irish struck quickly and settled for a Billy Hackett Field Goal for a 3-0 lead and they never looked back. Anthony Johnson then capped a long drive with a 1 yard plunge for a 9-0 lead, with the conversion missed. While Stams had slammed Major Harris to the turf, his other confreres were shutting down the explosive Mountaineer offense. Notre Dame, under coordinator Barry Alvarez held WVU to 282 total yards, 200 yards fewer than their season average.

Early in the second quarter Rodney Culver scampered in from the 5 for a 16-0 Irish lead. After a WVU field goal cut the lead to 16-3, Notre Dame drove a stake through the Mountaineers’ heart when Rice hit Raghib “the Rocket” Ismail on a swift slant for a 29 yard TD and an insurmountable 26-3 lead. The Irish were exquisitely balanced with 242 yards rushing and 213 passing.

The final was 34-21. Holtz had earned his first National Championship. So far, it has also been Notre Dame’s last National Championship.


Holtz had robbed Colorado of one National Championship in the Orange Bowl after the ’89 season and returned to the scene of the crime to play recidivist after the ’90 season, but a Greg Davis clip was called on what would have been Rocket Ismail’s game winning, highly dramatic punt return on his last play in a Notre Dame uniform.

Holtz brought a 6-4 team to Tempe to play the 10-1 Buffs.

Kordell Stewart was unstoppable in the first half and the Buffaloes had a commanding 31-10 lead at the half. Powlus tried to lead the Irish back by searching for Derek Mayes, but Colorado prevailed easily 41-24.


You only need to look at the sideline before the game.

Notre Dame was coached by Bob “all ball” Davie. Davie is now serving as “El Lobo,” the head coach at New Mexico. Oregon State was coached by Dennis Erickson.

Notre Dame’s quarterback was Matt Lovecchio. In this game his stat line was 13-33-138-2INT.

Oregon State’s two best receivers were speed merchants that Erickson had brought to Corvallis from Southern California and South Florida. They were T. J. Houshmanzadeh and Chad Johnson, later known as “Ocho Cinco.”

It was not a pretty sight.

Erickson had brought his same sportsmanship manual from Coral Gables to Corvallis, and the Beavers committed 18 penalties for 174 yards, compressing the final margin to Oregon State 41-Notre Dame 9.


Jim Tressel led the Ohio State Buckeyes into the game against a talented, but underdeveloped and poorly coached Notre Dame team. Brady Quinn started well, but Tressel turned his speed into a schematic advantage as Ohio State totaled 617 yards.

The Notre Dame offense both bent and broke. Troy Smith passed for 56 yards to Ted Ginn Jr. for a TD. Ginn later rushed 68 yards for a touchdown. Smith, later to win a Heisman Trophy, completed an 85 yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes. Finally, Antonio Pittman rushed 65 yards for the final Buckeye score in the 34-20 rout.


Notre Dame has fared well in the Original Big Four

  • Rose Bowl   1-0
  • Cotton Bowl 5-2
  • Orange Bowl 2-2
  • Sugar Bowl 2-2

So this 1-3 embarrassment in the Fiesta Bowl just won’t do. There are scores to settle with Ohio State and scores to settle in the Fiesta Bowl. Each and both represent 3 game losing streaks for the Irish. It is time to restore order and balance in the football universe.



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One Comment

  1. Certainly covered a lot of ground in this article. Really loved those days with the four majors on New Year’s Day. Anticipation how it would play itself out and effect the final rankings. Pac 8&10 would always seem to prevail in the Rose somehow, which would piss me off.
    WVU and Major Harris was the constant theme and it was great to watch ND control that game so dominate.
    The “Clipp” that never was. Robbing the Irish. Maybe even marking the beggining of ND’s future frustrations.
    For the bowl losses. The worst was Oregon St. and Dennis Erickson to boot. Oregon St.?
    Getting handled by LSU and Ohio St. was not fun either. Longing for yesteryears.
    So for the fans. Their is definitely scores to settle. Most of those in the program and players may not even be aware of these outcomes nor will it matter. Only being dominated twice in the last few years. Even the ASU game, ND rallied. Really beating themselves. The final hurdle. Not beating themselves. All other contest was their games for the taking.
    As Duranko had eludedd to. Teams on game day play two opponents. Adversary and themselves.
    The team/program is back. A determined and proud group of players/personnel. They have chosen the “US vs. I” repeatedly over this season, building from previous seasons. Total team mentality wins out. I’m witnessing the marking of a new era. So appreciative for it. Another great article by UHND. Thanks.

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