A thrilling championship season
Notre Dame's 1988 championship and the last great college football season
[Editor's note: This excerpt sets up the 1989 Fiesta Bowl showdown on New Year's Day that led Notre Dame to the title and solidified quarterback Tony Rice as a true star.]
Before the team left campus for a few days of Christmas break, Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz put them through a rigorous string of practices to prepare for the Fiesta Bowl matchup with West Virginia.
"All the little things that you're taught to do in spring practice and training camp, we went right back to them. We had some very intense practices," said linebacker and captain Ned Bolcar.
Holtz pumped the West Virginia fight song into the Loftus Center, playing it over and over and over again.
"It was so loud we couldn't hear each other," said sophomore linebacker Scott Kowalkowski.
If starters had thoughts about being complacent, Holtz erased them. "Every position is up for grabs," he said.
"Nobody was comfortable. That was one of the brilliant things about Coach Holtz, his ability to never let you be comfortable," said tackle and captain Andy Heck. "It wasn't particularly enjoyable going through it, but looking back on it, it certainly produced results."
Years later most players grew to appreciate Holtz's meticulous and disciplinary approach. In the moment, though, they struggled and sometimes commiserated about his methods.
None of the opining mattered to Holtz. He wasn't there to be liked. He was there to be their coach. Players being content or him being admired didn't matter. To Holtz, what mattered was being who he promised to be as a coach. That's what guided his words and actions.
"Your obligation is not to be well liked, not to be popular. Your obligation is to make them the very best they can possibly be," he said. The team had confidence coming off a season with wins against Miami, Michigan, and USC, and that belief grew during the boot-camp-style bowl prep.
"There was no question. There was no teaching. It was 'This is what we're going to do. This is how we're going to beat them,'" said starting safety Pat Terrell. "I don't think I've ever been more prepared or more confident for a game than I was going into the Fiesta Bowl."
For all the confidence Notre Dame had, West Virginia showed up in Arizona with an equal batch.
"To be honest, I thought we'd win that game. I thought we were a better football team," said West Virginia coach Don Nehlen.
The Fiesta Bowl was the first time the two schools met. Notre Dame retained its top status for the matchup, while West Virginia, the only other undefeated team, came in ranked third.
"We had played in a lot of bowl games, but we had never played in one like that," Nehlen said. "And the media absolutely drove me crazy. And Lou handled it so much better than I did. He was more experienced at that type of a situation."
Holtz picked what interviews to do, whereas Nehlen felt obligated to do them all.
"I was overwhelmed," Nehlen said. "I found myself running around like a damn chicken with my head cut off more than coaching a football team."
Holtz thought Major Harris possessed great talent, but he wasn't overly concerned. When the West Virginia media corps played up the fact that the Mountaineers had an easier time beating Pittsburgh and Penn State than the Irish, Holtz let them run with it.
"West Virginia was good, but I didn't think they had played the caliber of competition that we had played. We were not going to be shocked by their speed and their quickness and their execution," Holtz said. "Losing never entered my mind."
On the day before the game, Notre Dame had a walk-through at Sun Devil Stadium. Each player went to the spot where he would line up when the Irish took the field the following day. They had cameras and snapped photos of themselves, their coaches, and their teammates. The players watched the coaches play a touch football game.
"I'd spike the ball and do all the things I didn't allow them to do," Holtz said.
Before the Irish left, Holtz did something he had never done as a coach. He assigned underclassmen to specific seniors to carry them off the field when Notre Dame won. Players had even practiced carrying Holtz off the field.
"There was just never any thought we might lose," he said.
On game day, fifth-year senior Wes Pritchett had headphones on and tears pouring down his face when he stepped off the team bus.
"What's wrong, Wes?" somebody asked.
"I'm just going to kill somebody," he answered in a rage-filled howl.
Thoughts of his dad, who still lay in a coma, thoughts of the game's enormity, thoughts of his career at Notre Dame, had been filling his head.
"I absolutely remember being completely possessed," he said. "I can remember two or three days before that game feeling like I was being taken over."
A gray sky and 55-degree day covered the 70,021 fans in the capacity-filled venue. In an about-face from having names on the back of the jerseys at last year's Cotton Bowl loss, the Irish didn't even wear the sunburst Fiesta Bowl insignia patches in this game.
The first two series quickly set a tone for the day. After an incompletion and a 7-yard run, the Mountaineers faced a third down and 3 from their own 33-yard line. Harris ran a reverse option. Michael Stonebreaker dove toward his midsection and looped around Harris's lower body, forcing the quarterback to stumble. As Harris headed to the turf, all 483 pounds of Jeff Alm and Frank Stams pounced on him.
On the same third down play, cornerback Todd Lyght drew the assignment of the pitchman, halfback A.B. Brown. "I hit him right in the mouth," Lyght said.
"I don't even have the ball, why'd you hit me?" Brown asked.
"I'm going to hit you every chance I get," Lyght told him.
Harris' body contorted slightly and he favored his left side as he raised himself off the ground. He gained 2 yards, and West Virginia had to punt. He had injured his left shoulder and never recovered for the rest of the game.
After two plays, the Irish needed 7 yards on third down from their 37-yard line. Rice dropped back to pass. The pocket closed in on him and he took off, running out from under a West Virginia lineman's gloved-hand on his shoulder. Down the field, Rice sped past Mountaineer defenders who could only reach out a hand and watch the back of his jersey. He reached the West Virginia 45-yard line, where cornerback Willie Edwards broke down into perfect tackling form. Edwards crashed into Rice's thighs, but the Irish quarterback kept sprinting as Edwards bounced backward, falling away from Rice in what looked like slow motion. Rice picked up 13 more yards after leaving Edwards behind. A diving Mountaineer put a hand on Rice's foot and the quarterback lost his balance, rolling to the ground at the 32-yard line.
In the game's opening moments Notre Dame had shown itself to be the superior team. The Irish ran the ball on their first 18 plays.
"We could tell people where we were going and they couldn't stop us," Rice said.
By halftime the Irish built a 23–6 lead. Major Harris had never been hurt before in his career. During the break the West Virginia team doctor offered him a painkilling injection. Harris refused the shot.
"In retrospect, I think I should've put Major on the bench," Nehlen said. "He was just another guy that day, whereas the other 11 games we played he was a dynamite performer."
The Irish defense harassed Harris throughout the game. Stams, an All-American linebacker, picked up two sacks, and Pritchett played like the crazed man who stepped off the bus. Refs flagged him for late hits as he constantly drilled Harris.
"We all played to the whistle. Wes, in that game, played to the echo of the whistle," Stams said. "There were a couple times that game that I got close to Major Harris and all of a sudden the freight train would show up out of nowhere."
"That was probably the most fired up I had ever been in my life," Pritchett said.
As the seconds ticked away in the 34-21 Notre Dame win, a smiling Tony Rice stood on the sideline and threw his No. 1 finger in the air. The 12-0 Irish had become the national champions, and Rice was named the game's most valuable player. He threw for two scores and tallied 288 yards, more than half of the Irish's offensive output. He rushed for 75 yards and threw for 213, completing 7 of 11 attempts.
Spectators flooded the field to celebrate with the team that had returned Notre Dame to the top perch in college football. The band played the "Victory March," and underclassmen hoisted the seniors above a scene of waving Irish flags and swarming fans.
As he had done throughout the season, Rice rose to the occasion, led the Irish to victory, and outdueled his highly touted counterpart.
"Without Tony Rice you don't win it," said ESPN analyst and college football historian Beano Cook. "They don't mention him as a great college quarterback because he didn't play in the pros. He was a great college quarterback."