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Football Commentary: Holtz’s ’93 squad a model for success

Matt Gamber | Friday, December 11, 2009

Notre Dame message boards have been a free-for-all for the past month, and perhaps none more than ND Nation — the final destination for disgruntled and often boisterous Irish fans to voice their opinions, especially in times of coaching transition. And with Friday’s formal announcement that Brian Kelly would man the Notre Dame sidelines next year, the boards went haywire.

In sifting through the rubble of questions and comments on the Kelly hire, I stumbled across one nostalgic post that linked to an archived Sports Illustrated cover story that ran after the No. 2 Irish toppled top-ranked Florida State in a colossal clash of unbeatens at Notre Dame Stadium in 1993.

I was only four years old then, and while I’ve read plenty about the ‘93 Irish getting robbed of a national title, this Austin Murphy article from 16 years ago was my first real foray into the way Lou Holtz’s team played that year.

It was eye-opening.

The cover headline — “WE DID IT! Jim Flanigan and Notre Dame outmuscle Florida State” — and the triumphant photo of the Irish stud defensive tackle turned me on to that ‘93 squad and convinced me that the next Notre Dame head coach should look to that team, and that game, as his model.

Holtz was the last successful Irish coach, at least by Notre Dame’s lofty standards. And while every coach has his own strengths, his own style and his own approach, Kelly would be well-served to make note of what Holtz’s ‘93 team did, especially in that “Game of the Century” against the Seminoles.

The offense dominated the line of scrimmage, starting with All-American left tackle Aaron Taylor, a physical specimen who hustled all over the field, sold out on every play and helped spread that approach to his teammates. They punched people in the mouth and would grind teams out with a power running game for four quarters. They didn’t turn the ball over or suffer mental lapses.

The defense played fundamentally sound football, didn’t allow big plays and forced turnovers. It relied not on complicated stunts and blitzes, but on linemen to generate pressure up front, linebackers to contain the run and defensive backs to keep plays in front of them and go after balls in the air.

The coaches publicly respected their gifted opponent but privately exuded the kind of contagious confidence that sparks players and wins games in college football. They challenged their players to succeed “what though the odds,” and then they put them in position, mentally and physically, to succeed. And they did it despite losing several stars to the NFL and other key players to injury.

In that epic showdown, it was the Seminoles’ offense that mysteriously abandoned a successful running game and inexplicably disappeared for two quarters after utterly dominating on their opening drive. It was the Seminoles’ defense that lamented countless missed tackles and couldn’t muster an answer for a downhill ground attack. It was the Seminoles’ coaching staff whose poor time management resulted in no timeouts for a last-ditch comeback attempt that eventually fell short. And as Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden put it at the time, it was Florida State that let “the big one” get away.

Stop. Reread that last paragraph, but replace Seminoles with Irish, Florida State with Notre Dame and Bobby Bowden with Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham or Charlie Weis — no offense to the just-retired Bowden, whose 388 wins at the Division I level rank second all-time.

Now, how often have we heard that over the last 12 years? Too many, and that’s why Kelly is here now.

He’ll do it his own way, as well he should, and I hope it works. For the record, I think it will, considering the way in which Kelly built and sustained successful programs at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

This is Notre Dame, and there’s no denying that Kelly’s new job presents an unmatched set of challenges and a glaring national spotlight that only his predecessors can fully comprehend. But it also presents an incredible array of opportunities, from elite resources to the promise of legendary status that accompanies all those who bring success to South Bend.

Holtz was the last man to accomplish that feat, and, in truth, it’s no real secret how. The blueprint is right there in that Sports Illustrated article.

I’ll give you the link — I wouldn’t want you to have to sift through the message boards for it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
Contact Matt Gamber at mgamber@nd.edu