Holtz retells story of ’88 title team
Matthew DeFranks | Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Lou Holtz had an undefeated Irish team that had already beat Michigan, Miami and USC, so the preparations for the 1989 Fiesta Bowl were simple – rest the seniors, take pictures and practice celebrations.
Holtz, the former Irish coach whose 1988 team finished 12-0 and as consensus national champions, took to a few unorthodox measures to prepare Notre Dame for a showdown with undefeated West Virginia, including not practicing the seniors for three weekends during the long layoff before the bowl game.
“We felt this, we could not maintain the same momentum we had so we had to treat that like a one-game season,” Holtz said in a phone interview with The Observer. “I loved their preparation because the first three weekends, I didn’t practice the seniors.”
Notre Dame’s seniors entered their final season under the Golden Dome with an uninspiring 18-16 record but came to life in Holtz’s third season, carrying the team with them. But, before and after the Fiesta Bowl, it would be the underclassmen carrying the seniors – literally.
“I assigned each underclassman a senior to carry off the field after we won,” Holtz said. “We worked on carrying the seniors off the field after we won. I just wanted to be in a good mental state that we were going to win this game and there was no doubt.
“We practiced that. This is what we’re going to do when we win and this is how we’re going to handle it: Carry the seniors off the field. They’re the ones that provided the leadership for us. That also sent a message to the players that we were confident.”
The current ESPN college football analyst also said the day before the bowl game, the Irish spent the day taking pictures with each other in the stadium.
Holtz and the Notre Dame coaching staff kept the Irish on a tight schedule during the extended 37-day break. After scrimmaging on Dec. 22, they reviewed the tape the morning of Dec. 23 before sending the players home for Christmas that afternoon. The team reassembled in Tempe, Ariz., on Christmas night after the Irish spent the morning with their families.
“Then we had our game plan and all we had to do was perfect it,” Holtz said. “We didn’t have to teach anything, just perfect it, keep them sharp, work on fundamentals. When game time came, it was a one-game season. We were ready.”
The Irish had already navigated a tough schedule that featured defending national champion and powerhouse Miami and rivals Michigan and USC. All three teams were ranked in the top 10.
But it was after a 30-20 win over a mediocre Pittsburgh squad that Holtz realized he had a special team on his hands.
“Just the way they competed, they were on the road in a difficult situation,” Holtz said. “They knew something about winning and competing and they hung in there together.”
The following week, Notre Dame had to face Miami, perhaps the most hated team not only in South Bend but also the country. Holtz enlisted the services, and advice, of Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, whose Wolverines had already fallen to both Notre Dame and Miami.
“I had called Bo prior to the Miami game and I said, ‘Bo, how good is Miami?’ and he said, ‘They’re awfully good,'” Holtz said. “I said, ‘Do we have a chance to beat them?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you’re going to have to play a good game but yeah, you can beat them.’
“After the Pittsburgh game, the confidence of talking to Bo, I felt we really had a chance to do something special. We played such a difficult schedule, every week it was just another battle and we had to find a way to get through it.”
So when Notre Dame had to face yet another undefeated team in the Fiesta Bowl, the Irish felt no additional pressure.
“You always have pressure,” Holtz said. “We were there on a mission. It’s easier to keep them focused when you’re playing for a national championship than if you’re just playing in a bowl game.”
Notre Dame jumped out to an early 16-0 lead on the Mountaineers and never looked back despite a late West Virginia rally, cruising to a 34-21 win and the school’s first national championship in 11 seasons.
Just as he wanted the seniors to be carried off, Holtz himself was lifted in the air after the win.
“The first thing you’re worried about is them dropping you,” Holtz said. “You don’t know if they have a good hold of you.”
Holtz said the emotions after the game were tough to describe.
“You don’t realize the impact that winning the national championship at Notre Dame,” he said. “You never rely on yourself to say ‘This is what it’s going to be like’ or ‘This is how I’m going to feel.’ You’re just constantly prepared.”
That impact finally hit Holtz in a locker room overflowing with exuberant players, trustees and other University administrators.
“There is no tomorrow, there is no looking at film, practicing, no more, it’s over. It’s done,” Holtz said. “It just felt like a burden off your shoulders.”
But still 24 years later, it feels as if that burden has been placed back on Notre Dame’s shoulders as they prepare to face No. 2 Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami on Jan. 7.
Holtz said he never envisioned the Irish would go that far between national title game appearances but said it is good for college football when they do.
“I’ll tell you this, it’s great for college football when Notre Dame is on top,” he said.
“I’ve been going up to ESPN for eight years and have to eat in restaurants and there are about five or six restaurants I rotate. I think eight years, no one’s ever said a word to me. All of a sudden, I’ve got waitresses, the same waitresses that having been waiting on me for eight years, saying ‘Boy, what a great year for Notre Dame. Do you think they can win?’ They don’t know anything about football. That’s because of Notre Dame.”
Contact Matthew DeFranks at [email protected]