Notre Dame’s 1988 National Championship

Here we celebrate the Silver Anniversary team, Holtz’ champions of the 1988 season.

1987-Pre-Championship year Deja vu

1987 had ended with the taste of ashes. Stirring victories over Michigan, SC and Alabama raised hopes that were dashed in annoying season ending losses to Penn Stae in the cold of State College, to the Miami Hurricanes by shutout in the sunny Orange Bowl, and then to Texas A&M in the cloudy Cotton Bowl. In the 80’s the irish had made bowl heroes out of the previously undistinguished Buck Belue of Georgia and Bucky Richardson of the Aggies.

A New Offensive Line Coach

But Lou Holtz went back to work with a vengeance in the Spring. Lou was comfortable with his quarterback, Tony Rice. He trusted Defensive Coordinator Barry Alvarez. And Lou had hired a new Offensive Line Coach. His name was Joe Moore, and well, Joe did not take a lot of time to “learn the Notre Dame culture.” Moore got after it with vigor, right away, Camel dangling from his lips.

Cerrato was busy recruiting, and Lou had mentioned he could use some extra speed, so Vinnie, working east to west, stopped in Wilkes-Barre, more accustomed to producing those heavy of thigh rather than swift of foot, but he snagged a player by the name of Raghib Ismail, nicknamed “Rocket.”

Nevertheless the schedule looked daunting.

Sure Michigan would be coming to Soiuth Bend, but they had talent, and coming in on the Ides of October were the Miami Hurricanes and the irascible, contemptuous, unctuous Jimmy Johnson. The 1988 regular season would end in the Coliseum, where Rodney Peete was getting ready to lead the Trojans to glory.

Sheesh! Miami had lost only one game, an upset to Penn State in Tempe, since Johnson’s second year. They were the defending National Champions.

Spring Promise

Lou like the way his team looked in the Spring. The offensive line was responding, in a fashion, to Joe Moore. Andy Heck, just moved over from TE, was flourishing as the tackle opposite Dean Brown. Two kids from Catholic schools, Tim Grunhard from St. Laurence, and Tim Ryan from Rockhurst in Kansas City, were the guards flanking Mike Heldt. But Moore liked to have depth, and would have players like Mike Brennan and Joe Allen ready to go. By mid-October, this would be important.

Tony Rice was now comfortable after ’87’s baptism by fire, and Braxston Banks and Anthony Johnson were now the junior stabilizing forces with Mark Green with the hotshot sophs Tony Brooks and Ricky Watters. Watters would also spend time as a wideout with Yalie Pat Eilers and Steve Alaniz. Derek Brown was a thoroughbred at Tight End.

Lou felt comfortable with what Alvarez was building on the defensive side of the ball.

Chris Zorich, from CVS right there on the Chicago Skyway, having lifted weights (lots of them) and gotten acclimated as a freshman in ’87, was ready to go at Nose Guard. He was flanked by George Williams and rawboned Jeff Alm. The Irish nominally played a 4-3, but converted fullback Frank Stams often had his hand on the ground. There was new founded athleticism at outside linebacker wit Andre Jones, Flash Gordon and mercurial freshman Arnold Ale. Ned Bolcar was one tough inside linebacker but had to be a backup behind stalwarts Wes Pritchett and Mike Stonebreaker.

The secondary was the best the Irish had had in a while. Todd Lyght was an All-America candidate at cornerback. opposite swift Stan Smagala. George Streeter started at safety opposite converted receiver Pat Terrell, with Corny Southall the lead backup. Lou and Alvarez spent some time discussing Stams and Terrell and their transition from the offensive side of the ball. Alvarez thought not only that the move would not be problematic, but also that either or both might be playmakers. Boy! Howdy!


At Notre Dame, it is special when a freshman just takes the practice field by storm. Browner and Bradley had, Bobby Taylor later did, and yes, Virginia, Ron Powlus, pre-collarbone injury, would in the next decade.. But this guy made people stop and look when he was going to be in the action. Rocket Ismail was the fastest human ever to play at Notre Dame, he was elusive, and he loved the game. Rocket Ismail not only had “it” he was “it.”


There were wonderful undercurrents when Bo played Holtz. He and Lou had been assistants, at different times, under Woody Hayes.

This was a good Michigan team. While it would start out 0-2, the two losses would be to Notre Dame and Miami,
and the Wolverines would not lose again, including a season-ending Rose Bowl win over USC.

Then there was another factor. Bo was, in 1988, in his 20th year as coach of the Maize and Blue and one of his specialties was not losing to the same team in consecutive years. It had happened to Bo and Michigan only three times, in ’75 and ’82 to Ohio State and in ’85 to Iowa. The Irish had beaten Michigan soundly, 26-7, in Ann Arbor in 1987. And Bo wanted no repeat of that.

The Irish got the early edge on a Lou Holtz specialty, a special teams touchdown.. Will-of the-wisp Ricky Watters snaked through
the Wolverine punt team for an electrifying 81 yard TD. Then Reggie Ho, all 5’5″ of him, added a field goal and the Irish had a 10-0 lead. The Irish ground game, in their first outing under Joe Moore’s raspy-throated leadership, kept penetrating into Michigan territory, but could not punch the ball into the end-zone. But it was close enough for Reggie Ho, and he kicked another Field Goal for a 13-0 lead.

The game was a rare night game in South Bend and the faithful looked for Wolverine blood on the moon. But Bo was having none ot it.. The Wolverines stormed back on a Tony Boles kickoff return and a 1 yard plunge by Leroy Hoard, and then, early in the third quarter, a one yard TD run by Mike Taylor. Suddenly, Michigan had a 14-13 lead. There were lumps in the throats of the Irish fans in the stands, but not in the throats of the Irish players.

Ho notched his third field goal early in the fourth quarter and the Irish led 16-14.. While the young Irish line was paving the way for 222 rushing yards on the day, Michigan kept generating some offense, and Mike Gilette notched a field goals in the see-saw battle for a 17-16 Maize and Blue lead.

The Irish doggedly ground on for Ho’s fourth field goal and a 19-17 Irish lead with 1:13 left. Michigan took the ensuing kickoff and had a furious rally but could not get close enough and Gilette’s long, late field goal attempt was wide. Final score: Notre Dame 19-Michigan 17. The Irish were 1-0. Whew!

But We Have to Play Miami!?!

Everyone’s eyes turned to October 15, 1988. Miami and Jimmy Johnson. The Canes had Steve Walsh, Randall Hill, Russell Maryland, Cleveland Gary, Rob Chudzinski, Greg Mark, Randy Shannon, Bernard “Tiger” Clark, and a guy named Maurice Crum. The Hurricanes had destroyed Notre Dame in their last four meetings by a combined total of 132-20. Ol’ Port Arthur Jimmy, high school classmate of Janis Joplin, had that smirk, and the talent to back it up.

Oh, the Florida State Seminoles were ranked #1 in the preseason polls. the ‘Noles celebrated with typical class and grace, making a rap video. Then, in the Orange Bowl, Miami did their rap, wrapping the ‘Noles in a 31-0 beating. But the ‘Noles will always have that rap video!!

Building on Michigan

The Irish next traveled to East Lansing to meet the Spartans, and confront George Perles’ beloved stunt 4-3. The Spartans eked out an early field goal for a 3-0 lead. While Holtz adjusted his plays to Perles’ defense, the Irish were able to “eke” also, getting two more field goals from Reggie Ho for a 6-3 halftime lead. Ho had now accounted for the last six Notre Dame scores. Holtz marhaled his troops at halftime and the Irish generated nearly 200 yards rushing yards in the second half, with Rice streaking in from the 8 in the third quarter for a 13-3 working margin. Holtz inserted his new weapon, Rocket Ismail as an end on the punt block team. Punt block, not punt return. So Ismail blocked the punt!!

Alvarez’ defense held true and Mike Stonbreaker delivered the dagger to Sparty with a 39 yard interception return for a clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter and the final 20-3 margin.

The Linebacker Illuminati assembled, bellied up to the bar, and declared, after two games, the Irish offense on life support.

Then we played Purdue, back in South Bend. Notre Dame 52-Purdue 7, embarassing both the Boilers and the besotted Illuminati. More significantly, there was one play that made Irish fans say “It’s different this time.” With Notre Dame sharp with a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, the issue was yet in doubt. Then Rice tossed to Rocket Ismail for a 54 yard touchdown pass. Oh, yeah! The Irish rang the bell three more times in the second quarter for a 42-0 halftime lead.

Staying home, the Irish entertained Stanford, coached by Jack Elway, more noted as a sire than as a football coach. The Irish offense had now hit its stride and had Stanford by 28-7 at halftime before closing the deal at 42-14. Rice seemed to be improving as a passer.

The Irish had just one more game before Miami, a trip to Pittsburgh to play Mike Gottfried’s Panthers. For the first time, the Irish were facing an extremely athletic quarterback, Darnell Dickerson. He was big, elusive and could reset and throw the ball the few times he was flushed from the pocket. Alvarez’ defense was no mystery to Dickerson and Gottrfried, and the Irish offense, complemented by the consistent Ho’s late field goal, gave Notre Dame a nervous 17-14 lead at halftime in rainy Pitt Stadium.

Pitt never rolled over, but the Notre Dame defense tightened in the second half and held the Panthers to two field goals while touchdowns by Braxston Banks in the third quarter and steady Mark Green in the fourth quarter brought the Irish the 30-20 win. The good news was that the Irish were 5-0 for the first time since 1980, Devine’s last year. The other good news was that the Pitt outing would not leave the Irish overconfident for Miami.

Build Up

There was a swirl of emotions on the Notre Dame campus, not all of them good. The later banned ” “Catholics versus Convicts” t-shirts were a big seller.

Miami would be arriving with great players, swagger and a 36 game regular season winning streak. And a head coach who just loved the attention of being a lightning rod. It was the first big game on the campus since the 1980 Michigan game and would be for the pole position in the polls. At Notre Dame, victory is both expected and traditional. But there is nothing that gets the juices flowing in the Notre Dame community quite like being the underdog in a big game. And Louis Leo Holtz, an underdog his whole life, loved being thrown into the briar patch from whence underdogs sprang.

Warming up on the field that day were Maurice Crum, a linebacker from Miami, and Andre Jones, an OLB for Notre Dame. Later, each had a son who would play for Notre Dame.

Miami always came alive on the road trying to get in the first intimidation and pushing the home fans back in their seats. During the pre-game warmups the Canes ran through the Notre Dame team and bumped into a number of Notre Dame players. Push me, shove you, eh? Well, there were fisticuffs in the North End Zone. It was a twin gusher of testosterone and adrenaline.

In the locker room, Holtz got sanctimonious and warned his players about fighting and threatened dismissal if anyone brawled.
But, never one to let a crisis go to waste (cf. OU-Arkansas 1977, ND-SC later in the year-Brooks/Watters) Holtz offered that
if Miami started a fight after the game, that it was fair game for the Irish to fight back-and win, subject to one proviso-“Save Jimmy Johnson for me.” The players went ballistic and left the locker room and charged onto the field. The way Lou now retells the story is that he was not concluded with his pregame remarks. Nevertheless, the squad rushed out, touched the sign, exited the tunnel………

Oct. 15, 1988

Bright, sunny, football time in Michiana. The campus had that special aura, the aroma of a stew of equal parts adrenaline,
vitriol and anticipation that had been simmering all week. These were not the tickets you gave away to the dentist or doctor. These were the ones you kept.

The Fighting Irish drew first blood, with Stams slapping the ball out of Walsh’s hand, but the Irish could not convert.

But the Irish were attacking, and later scored the first touchdwon of the game on a Tony Rice keeper from 7 yards out, following great blocks by the right side of the line and a fine block by Tony Brooks—for a 7-0 first quarter lead.

The Canes struck back in the second quarter on a short pass from Walsh to Andre Brown to knot the score at 7.

In the second quarter the Irish had the best of it for most of the quarter, with a long 57 yard pass to Ismail setting up a drive capped by a nine yard pass from Rice on a delay to Braxston Banks for the score. Later, the Cave family of Mishawaka would name their baby boy “Braxston” after Banks. Not a lot of people in Mishawaka named “Braxston.!!” 14-7 Irish.

Then came the play that caused the biggest eruption in Notre Dame Stadium since the green jersey entry of ’77. It was cooked up by the two defenders who had converted from offense Walsh dropped back, heavily harassed by Frank Stams got a little too much air under the ball and swooping in, with a receiver’s stride, hands and fluidity, Pat Terrell snatched the ball out of the air, and raced into the south eend zone from 60 yards out and a magnificent and delirious 21-7 lead. The rout was on! Or not.

People who had watched Miami come back in Ann Arbor for a 31-30 victory by overcoming a 30-14 deficit with 5 minutes to go, then suffered deja vu. Johnson and Walsh turned up the jets and put up 14 points against a proud Notre Dame defense in just 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The score was 21-21 at the half, and serious, not morose, fans wandered the concourse at halftime. Jaws were clenched. The game was living up to the buildup. And then some.

Nervous, but excited fans filed back into the stands. We belonged on the same field with the mighty Canes. But they sure belonged on the field with Notre Dame.

Midway through the third quarter, Johgnson let impatience and hubris get the best of him. With a fourth and three at his own 46, Johnson went to an old standby, the fake punt. But you don’t outwit Lou Holtz on special teams, and indeed, the team did “save Jimmy Johnson for me.” Miami fans love to yak about the Cleveland Gary play, but this was the fulcrum of the second half. The fake punt. That Notre Dame stuffed.

Seizing the moment, on the next play, Rice went long to Watters to the 3 yard line. Then, on the next play Pat Eilers, the secret weapon, dove in from the three. punched it in. Irish 28-Canes 21. Holtz, five years later, would use this “unexpected weapon” ploy in a big game sending little-used Adrian Jarrell around right end on a thirty yard reverse against Florida State.

Later in the third quarter, Jeff Alm dropped into a lane and intercepted a pass, and the Irish marched down close enough for a Reggie Ho field goal as the third quarter waned for a 31-21 lead.

With about 2 minutes gone in the fourth, Carlos Huerta kicked a fild goal from 23 yards and it was Notre Dame 31-Miami 24.

Miami drove and with 6 minutes left, was knocking on the door, and Walsh tossed to Cleveland Gary who lost the ball and it was ruled a fumble with Notre Dame recovering at its 1.

With a little over 3 minutes left, Stams banged Walsh again, forcing a fumble which Zorich recovered. But Rice, under duress from future Cane coach Randy Shannon, coughed up the ball inside the 20.

Time had seemed to stop. The game clock seemed as gooey and gelatinous as Dali’s famous clock.

With 45 seconds left, as he had for Miami’s first score, Walsh hit Andre Brown for an 11 yard touchdown Notre Dame 31, Miami 30.

Moment of truth. 2 point conversion. It seemed that destiny required this moment. 59,075 on their feet. George Williams pressured Steve Walsh, and Pat Terrell easily batted the ball away from Leonard Conley.

The Irish ran it out after the onside kick was recovered by South Bend Adams’ Anthony Johnson.

The Irish fans were delirious. The streak was over. Johnson and the Canes had been defeated. They stayed in the parties and the bars, and a surprising number looked up at the TV screen that night to see Kirk Gibson’s marvelous home run against Rollie Fingers and the A’s Scully offered “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened” One quote, dual application.

The Irish continued to work through the schedule with a month to go before the third head of the three headed monster on the regular season schedule, (USC, in the Coliseum, following Michigan and Miami)

Air Force came in to South Bend and the offense, relishing the opportunity to play against a defense less stellar than the Canes, rolled easily and won 41-13.

The letdown came the following week against Navy in rickety old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. In a desultory, but WINNING performance, the Irish squeaked by, 22-7, validating Holtz’ mantra “I’m scared to death of the University of Navy.” That very evening, unbeaten UCLA fell to Washington State, clearing the logjam for the USC-Notre Dame game Thanksgiving weekend in Los Angeles.

Rice came in the next week, and the Irish set two special team records. One made Holtz chortle with glee, the other made him gag. Rocket Ismail brought two kickoffs back for a touchdown, tyng a Notre Dame record set by Paul Castner in 1922 against mighty Kalamazoo. The Irish were in gear, and led 31-6 at the half, finishing with a 54-11 win.

The Irish rushing attack for the year was balanced, and the season end totals would show Rice with 700 yards, Brooks with 667 and Green with 646. Johnson, Culver and Banks would all rush for more than 100 yards.

In the fourth quarter after another Irish touchdown, Rice blocked the extra point, and Billy Stone took it into the Notre Dame
end zone for 2 points, the first such defensive conversion for two in NCAA history. Holtz was less than excited by entering
the record book in this way.

Penn State was Senior Day, and the Nits put up the usual fight, being outgained 502-179, but being begrudging on the scoreboard.
Rice scored in the first quarter, Mark Green in the seond, and a last second field goal by Penn State made the halftime score Notre Dame 14-Penn State 3. In the third quarter Rice tossed a 67 yarder to Ismail, and the final margin was 21-3.

The Irish were 10-0, and so were the USC Trojans, Pac-X Champions , Rose Bowl bound, who had ridden Rodney Peete’s arm to outscore opponents 346-135. Never before in the grand and glorious history of Rock’s creation, football’s greatest intersectional rivalry, had the foes in the USC-ND game been ranked #1 and #2. Now, in 1988, they were.


“Die Hard” was the top movie in 1988 and Los Angelenos thought the Coliseum was Nakitomi Plaza, that Larry Smith was Bruce Willis’ John McClain and that Lou Holtz would wind up like Hans Gruber..

“Objective” Keith Jackson was calling the game.

Lou, in a move evocative of his player suyspensions before the Arakansas OU game in the the 78 Orange Bowl, sent Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks after they were late for a meeting. Lou’s way or the highway!

Early in the game, with the Irish backed up in their own end zone, Rice went back deep into the end zone and uncorked a beatury to Ismail, putting the Irish out of harms way. “Objective” Keith Jackson got apoplectic and insisted that Rice was out of the end zone. “Hatred makes you blind, Keith!” And he kept insisting on it!!

With the game less than 5 minutes old, Holtz called a bread and butter play, the option to the left. The vaunted USC rush defense got caught napping, with Mark Carrier confronting two players, Mark Green and Rice. Carrier, caught between Scylla and Charybdis, chose Mark Green and Rice sauntered in 65 yards for the 7-0 lead. Later in the quarter the Irish marched to the USC goal line and Mark Green punched it in for the 14-0 lead. The only mammal in Trojan colors pleased at this time was Traveler, who hadn’t yet broken a sweat.

Lat in the second quarter the Trojans punched in their first score on a short run by Scott Lockwood. The scoreboard changed to Notre Dame 14-USC 7 as Traveler executed that haughty equine prance.

The Trojans swiftly got the ball back and the crowd roared for their hero Peete to tie the game. Rodney Peete-meet Stan Smagala. St., Laurence Stan made a perfect read, intercepted the ball, and then snaked his way through the befuddled Trojan offense for a 64 yard TD. Stan was aided by a decleating block by Frank Stams on Peete. 20-7 Notre Dame at the half.

In the second half, defenses prevailed and the Notre Dame defense held the mighty Trojans to just a third quarter field goal.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Irish now wearing down the Trojans, senior Mark Green dashed in from the 1 yard line, and it was 27-10 Irish. The glum Trojan faithful exited and headed to Julie’s to drown their national championship sorrow.

The Irish were unbeaten. The Irish were #1!

Notre Dame versus West Virginia-Fiesta Bowl

West Virginia had had a magical unbeaten season under Don Nehlen. With cannon-armed and swift-footed Major Harris, recruited from Pittsburgh, operating behind a huge, veteran offensive line, the Mountaineers had put up 472 points in 11 games, over 42 a game. They had hung 59 on Boston College and 51 on normally stingy Penn State. The Irish had struggled with Darnell Dickerson. Harris was a level above.

Lou Holtz was born in Follansbee, West Virginia. He knew the state, he knew the culture, he knew a little about the option. He knew how Nehlen and the Mountaineers would come at him. Lou would be ready and would ensure that his team would be. The Irish had conquered Michigan, Miami and USC. A let down was not in the cards.

Stams nailed Major Harris early, driving him into the ground. Harris injured his shoulder. The Irish were methodical and inevitable. They started slowly, driving for a 45 yard field goal by Billy Hackett. Later in the first quarter, the Irish got a 1 yard plunge from steady Anthony Johnson, but, as often happened in ’88, the extra point was missed. Notre Dame 9-WVU 0 at the quarter break.

The Irish kept grinding, and moved down for a 5 yard running TD by Rodney Culver. 16-0. The Mountaineers got their first score, but a mere 29 yard field goal. Alvarez’ defense was swarming and was swifter to the sidline than the Mounties. Then Rice threw a beautiful crossing pattern to Rocket Ismail for a 29 yard TD pass and a 23-3 lead. Baumann of the Mountaineers added a field goal before halftime and the Fiesta Bowl scoreboard read: Notre Dame 23-West Virginia 6.

The Irish just had to hang on in the second half. Ho addedd a field goal for a 26-6 margin, but the Mounties fought back and Harris hit Grantis Bell for a TD pass and a 26-13 Irish lead. The issue was still, technically, in doubt, but the Irish responded and early in the 4th quarter Rice found Frank Jacobs alone in the end zone for a TD pass. Rice ran in the two point conversions and it was a clinching 34-13. WVU scored late for the 34-21 final.

The Irish were National Champions of 1988. Holtz’ long odyssey from West Virginia to Kent State to Ohio State to William and Mary to NC State to the Jets to Arkansas to Minnesota had wound up in South Bend, and the National Championship Trophy for 1988 wound up there too.

25 years ago. This season, in some fashion, Notre Dame will celebrate the Silver Anniversary of this team. We should too!

Go Irish!

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