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Football: 14 Years of Pain

Chris Khorey | Friday, October 12, 2007

The date is Nov. 20, 1993.

Coming off a dramatic and impressive win over then-No. 2 Florida State, Notre Dame is 10-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country. With only a home game against Boston College left in the regular season, the Irish look primed to head into the bowl season in the top spot. Most of the country expects Notre Dame to capture its 12th National Championship.

“Everybody assumed Notre Dame would beat Boston College because they manhandled them the year before,” says Tim Prister, who covered the Irish for Blue and Gold Illustrated at the time and now writes for Irish Illustrated.

But Eagles quarterback Glenn Foley is on fire, and tight end Pete Mitchell seems to be open every play.

Boston College opens up a 24-14 halftime lead, and then extends it to 38-17 in the third quarter. The 59,075-seat Notre Dame Stadium is silent.

With 11 minutes remaining, Irish quarterback Kevin McDougal suddenly gets hot. He leads his team to 22 straight points and a 39-38 lead. The crowd roars. Notre Dame is in the lead, the National Championship is still in reach.

But the enthusiasm is short-lived. After beginning their last-minute drive with two incomplete passes – one of which is almost intercepted – the Eagles drive straight down the field. With five seconds left, kicker David Gordon trots on to the field for a what would be a career-best 41-yard field goal. The ball wobbles through the uprights as time expires.

“It was like a death in the family,” Prister says. “You really felt like this was the best team in the country, especially after the Florida State game.”

Notre Dame hasn’t been ranked No. 1 since.

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In the 14 years since the Eagles’ upset, the Irish are 100-63-1 – a winning percentage of .610, about .120 below Notre Dame’s all-time mark. The Irish have won only one bowl game since Gordon’s kick split the uprights: the Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M to conclude that season. Lou Holtz retired, three other coaches have come and gone, and a fifth is feeling the pressure of a 1-5 start in his third season.

Notre Dame hasn’t seriously challenged for a National Championship, has only had an outside shot going into November three times and has only finished in the top 10 only once since 1993.

So what happened to the nation’s most storied program? Did Gordon’s kick do more than pierce the hearts of the 1993 team? Are the Irish cursed?

Holtz’s final years

Notre Dame immediately regressed in the 1994 season. In their first season laboring under the “curse,” and after losing 10 starters to the NFL Draft, the young team struggled.

“There were six first round draft choices from the [1993] senior class,” Prister said. “There was a significant drop-off in talent.”

Red-shirt freshman quarterback Ron Powlus began his career with a bang, throwing for 291 yards and four touchdowns in a season-opening win over Northwestern. Notre Dame opened the season 4-1, with only a close loss to Michigan.

But as the year went on and injuries mounted on a young offensive line, the Irish were shocked in consecutive weeks by Boston College and BYU. The team limped into the Fiesta Bowl 6-4-1 and was soundly beaten by Colorado.

“We had some ups and downs,” said Powlus, who is now Notre Dame’s quarterbacks coach. “There were a couple games we feel like we should have won.”

The next season opened in disappointing fashion with a stunning loss to Northwestern, although the shock wore off later in the year as the Wildcats went 10-2 and played in the Rose Bowl.

But 1995 was important for other reasons – most notably, Holtz’s health. The storied coach entered the Mayo Clinic for spinal surgery in mid-September. He only missed one game, naming defensive coordinator Bob Davie acting head coach for a 41-0 win over Vanderbilt. When Holtz got out of the hospital, he coached from the press box, wearing a neck-brace, while Davie patrolled the sidelines. Notre Dame finished 9-3 that season, with losses only to the Wildcats, Ohio State and Florida State, all of whom ended up ranked in the top 10.

South Bend was ecstatic with Davie’s performance.

“That was ground work of him becoming the head coach,” Prister said. “When he filled in as the interim head coach, they poured Gatorade on him. There were a lot of positive vibes.”

The Davie regime

Holtz entered the 1996 season with high expectations. He had 14 returning starters and Powlus entering his junior season. But the team slumped to 8-3 – including a stunning upset loss to Air Force – and Holtz decided it was time to call it quits. On Nov. 19, he announced he would resign after the season.

Bob Davie was named the new head coach less than a week later.

Optimism was high in the fall of 1997, but the downturn of Holtz’s last two seasons continued.

Davie installed a new pass-oriented offense designed to showcase Powlus in his senior season, but Notre Dame struggled to move the ball, scoring 17 points or fewer in each of its first five games, four of which were losses.

“People had a lot of questions because [Davie] had never been a head coach before,” Prister said. “You start losing people as soon as you start to lose.”

Notre Dame recovered to finish the regular season 7-5 but fell to LSU in the Independence Bowl.

In 1998, it looked the like the curse might be broken. On Nov. 7, the Irish ended a dramatic Boston College comeback by stuffing Eagles running back Mike Cloud at the 1-yard line with seconds to go.

Two weeks later, Notre Dame was 8-1 and was closing out a thrilling 39-36 win over LSU. The Irish were ranked No. 10 and were looking at an appearance in a BCS Bowl and possibly even a spot in the National Championship game if things broke right. It looked as if the thrilling win over the Eagles had broken the malaise that had gripped the program since 1993.

But quarterback Jarious Jackson, who had replaced Powlus as the starter, was hit and injured his knee while trying to run the clock out in his own end zone. Without Jackson, the Irish fell 10-0 to USC the following week and dropped all the way to the Gator Bowl, where they lost to Georgia Tech.

After a 5-7 season in 1999, many expected 2000 to be Davie’s last year in South Bend. But when the Irish turned in a 9-3 performance behind freshman quarterback Matt LoVecchio, Notre Dame’s new athletic director, Kevin White, gave the coach a contract extension.

The season was not without an intervention from the curse, however.

At 2-1 and with only an overtime loss to No. 1 Nebraska, the Irish looked primed to get right back into the national title race.

They didn’t.

Leading Michigan State 21-20 with two minutes left in East Lansing, Notre Dame had the Spartans where the Irish wanted them: fourth-and-10 deep in their own territory.

But then disaster struck.

Michigan State wide receiver Herb Haygood took a quick slant and raced 68 yards for the winning score.

The embarrassment of 2001

Despite his contract extension, Davie was fired a season later. After an 0-3 start, including an anemic 24-3 loss to Texas A&M, Prister says, the coach knew his fate.

“A decision had been made that they were going to start looking for a replacement for Davie at the end of the year,” Prister says.

After finishing the year 5-6, Davie was let go.

Notre Dame’s replaced Davie with Georgia Tech head coach George O’Leary. O’Leary was presented to the student body with pomp and circumstance, but he resigned within a week, after reporters discovered he lied on his résumé.

“You felt like you were at one of the low points in Notre Dame football,” Prister says. “I don’t know that anyone was prepared with someone of George O’Leary’s qualifications and magnitude to find out many years later that he lied on a resume.”

Tyrone Willingham was hired with much less fanfare, quietly introduced on January 1, 2002 – during Christmas Break and in the midst of other school’s bowl games.

1993, part II

After an 8-0 start to his career, Willingham was being lauded as a hero. Notre Dame was ranked No. 3 in the BCS and was fresh off an impressive win over then-No. 11 Florida State in Tallahassee. David Gordon was a distant memory – but it shouldn’t have been.

Boston College was coming to town to follow Notre Dame’s big win over the Seminoles.

Notre Dame, wearing neon green jerseys, turned the ball over five times that day, including an interception in the Irish backfield that Eagles linebacker Josh Ott returned 71 yards for what proved to be the winning score.

A media firestorm

It was all down hill after that for Willingham, as consecutive 5-7 and 6-6 seasons resulted in his firing on Nov. 30, 2004 – and for the second time in four years, the usually on-field curse lasted well into December.

Willingham was the first Notre Dame coach to be fired after only three seasons since Hunk Anderson in the early 1930s and, because he was African-American, there were accusations of racism. ESPN aired 48 hours of near-continuous coverage, most of it attacking the University.

“That was wild,” Prister said. “It was a combination of things. There was not enough offense, and it was clear the recruiting was going poorly. I will go to my grave knowing this school did not make a racist decision, it made a business decision, because the business of Notre Dame football was not going in the direction they wanted.”

After courting several coaches, including Utah coach Urban Meyer, who had been an assistant under Davie but ended up taking the job at Florida, Notre Dame settled on New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.

A glimmer of hope

Weis’ offensive expertise immediately improved the Irish, but his otherwise successful 9-3 season in 2005 had two major pitfalls.

The first came in September. Notre Dame was 2-0 and riding high after its first road win over Michigan in the post-David Gordon era, the Irish suddenly found themselves down 38-17 to Michigan State in the second half.

In a repeat of the 1993 Boston College game, Notre Dame stormed back, only to lose in overtime when Jason Teague’s touchdown run gave the Spartans a 44-41 win.

Even with the loss, the Irish looked to be able to jump back into the national title picture if they could pull off a home win over No. 1 USC four weeks later – and after Brady Quinn dove into the end-zone to put his team up 31-28 with less than two minutes left, that victory looked assured.

Then the curse struck.

The Trojans faced fourth-and-9 at their own 26, but quarterback Matt Leinart hit wideout Dwayne Jarrett with a perfect pass down the sideline that Jarrett turned into a 61-yard gain. A few plays later, Leinart spun across the goal line, with the help of a pushing Reggie Bush, for a 34-31 win.

2007: Rock bottom

In his first two seasons in South Bend, Weis went 19-6. Even after a disappointing 10-3 record in 2006, Weis had turned around recruiting and appeared comfortable as the coach of the future.

But a 1-5 start to 2007 has raised questions. The team is extremely inexperienced, but its struggles are nearly unmatched in the annals of Notre Dame football.

“I’m caught by surprise,” Prister says. “Is it going in the right direction? I think it will go in the right direction. [Weis] has done a very good job of keeping this team playing hard.”

On Saturday, the Irish have an opportunity to pay back the Eagles for Gordon’s kick, as Boston College comes in undefeated and ranked No. 4. A win might break the curse, but it could also do something much more tangible: Give Notre Dame a signature win to give its young players confidence and turn this season – and Irish football in the post-David Gordon era – around.