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Golden memories

Kristen Durbin | Thursday, November 29, 2012

It’s been 24 years since the Irish last won a national championship in football, but 1989 Notre Dame alumni who were seniors during that undefeated 1988 season feel unmatched excitement once again as the University’s current unbeaten squad prepares for the Jan. 7 BCS National Championship Game in Miami.

From the common “third-year charm” of 1988 coach Lou Holtz and current coach Brian Kelly to the similar progressions from mediocrity to excellence, this 2012 squad evokes memories of the most recent glory days of Notre Dame football.

“To go from not playing in a bowl game to having solid bowl efforts and to see momentum building and culminating in an undefeated season is pretty neat for seniors in particular,” 1989 alumnus Pat Cooke said. “[It’s amazing] to see that development and be able to experience both the frustration of Notre Dame football as freshmen and the pinnacle and ecstasy of Notre Dame football when you’re undefeated and in a position to play for the national championship.”

Just as the program signaled a change in direction when former coach Charlie Weis was fired after the 2009 season, Cooke said the dismissal of coach Gerry Faust and hiring of Holtz after the 1985 season breathed new life into the program following a lackluster 5-6 final season for Faust.

“In Lou’s first year, we went 5-6 as well, but it felt like a different 5-6,” Cooke said. “Even though it was an identical record to Faust’s last year, we were competitive in virtually every contest.”

The current football program’s gradual improvement mirrors that of the years leading up to the 1988 championship, and 1989 alumnus Tom Schlegel said students who follow the team through such a progression can appreciate the championship berth more fully.

“Just like this year’s seniors, we started out mediocre, so as seniors, when you go from mediocre to a championship team, you were there when things were bad, when things weren’t so fun,” he said. “You’re in the best situation of all.”

1989 alumnus Brian O’Gara agreed the pain of the tough years makes the taste of victory that much sweeter.

“As freshmen, we never would have guessed that three years later we would be undefeated with a national championship,” he said. “But that progression from being a sub-.500 team, firing and hiring coaches, having a Heisman [trophy] winner in Tim Brown and then winning a championship … was a pretty awesome stretch.”

After starting the season unranked in the preseason AP top-25 poll, this 2012 Irish squad’s rise to No. 1 has been even more unprecedented than in 1988.

“We started the season ranked fairly low … and had been to a bowl game the year before, but I certainly don’t think anybody thought at the beginning of the 1988 season that we would win a championship,” 1989 alumnus Jim Winkler said.

While this season’s turning points came with a nail-biting overtime victory against Stanford at home and a decisive 30-13 road win over Oklahoma, Winkler said the 1988 squad proved itself in a 31-30 Catholics vs. Convicts rivalry victory against then-No. 1 Miami at Notre Dame Stadium.

“That’s probably what [current students] experienced on campus with Stanford and the College GameDay hysteria,” Winkler said.

O’Gara, who works for Major League Baseball, was attending Game 3 of the World Series for work when Notre Dame played Oklahoma.

“I spent more time watching the Notre Dame game than I did watching Game 3 even though I was at the World Series,” O’Gara said. “The TV was in the office of a Michigan State grad who has had to grin and bear it and realize this was a special year for us.”

The final tests of both the 1988 and 2012 regular seasons came at the Los Angeles Coliseum in Thanksgiving weekend games against USC. Schlegel, O’Gara and Cooke all made the trip out to see the final game of their senior season as part of a senior class trip.

“I had been saving up money and was going to buy a road bicycle and ride home from South Bend to Maine after graduation … so I had about $500 saved up,” O’Gara said. “Then the team went undefeated and the University sponsored a trip to USC for about $500. … I never got the bike, but I took the trip to USC to see that game instead.”

Just as this year’s seniors immediately began discussing travel plans to Miami following Notre Dame’s 22-13 win over USC on Saturday, Schlegel said his classmates did the same for the Fiesta Bowl after the Irish defeated the then-No. 2 Trojans in 1988.

“As soon as we won that game, everyone started talking about bowl game plans,” he said. “‘Can we go? Should we go? Can we afford it? Who should we stay with?’ It was all the talk as I’m sure it is now.”

Although more than two decades have passed since the class of 1989 walked the Notre Dame campus together, the common thread of undefeated football seasons helps old friends keep in touch.

“At Notre Dame, we spent a good portion of every Sunday breaking down the game from the day before. Ironically, 20-something years after graduating, we’re doing the same thing now,” Winkler said.

But reconnecting under the guise of talking about football involves much more than discussing a game’s top plays.

“Reconnecting with those glory moments from then sounds like old guys reliving the glory days, but you end up reconnecting with each other, with Notre Dame football and with what you love about Notre Dame camaraderie,” O’Gara said. “That’s something really cool that we all felt following this team we saw similarities in.”

Winkler said another “incredibly cool” tradition he appreciates is the integration of football players into the rest of the Notre Dame community.

“The players are regular guys. … When you’re heading to class, there’s Theo Riddick and Manti Te’o doing the same stuff you’re doing. They just become superstars on Saturday,” he said.

But above all, magical seasons like 1988 and 2012 create new chapters of Notre Dame football lore.

“When you come to Notre Dame and know the football history, you have aspirations. Football weekends are awesome no matter what … but when you know other classes have experienced the magic of being in the hunt for a championship, you want to taste that too,” O’Gara said.