This is the second post of a weekly series that will take us up to the 2012 season. In each post, we will recount two defining moments from the last 25 seasons in Notre Dame football history, starting in the present and working back to 1987, when the Irish went 8 and 4 under 2nd-year head coach Lou Holtz before heading into their last undefeated season in 1988, their eleventh and last national championship.
The occasion for this series is the 125th anniversary of the Notre Dame football program in 2012. The last 25 years, on which we will focus, have seen Notre Dame rise with dominance to the top of the football world and plunge to what many have called irrelevance, to the losingest four-year period in school history from 2007-2010 and to a time when Notre Dame is struggling to regain its identity, cast its roots again in the fundamentals of the game, in true talent and depth and excellence, and learn how to win consistently week after week, season after season.
And while we look forward, hoping, even with confidence, that the Irish under Coach Brian Kelly are indeed on that arduous path back towards sustained success, we look back now over some of those moments that have defined Notre Dame football over the past 25 years.
3. December 10, 2009. Golden Tate wins the Biletnikoff Award as country's top wide receiver
Golden Tate's career in blue and gold certainly didn't get off to a great start. An all-purpose athlete out of Hendersonville, Tennessee, Tate struggled to learn the receiver position as a true freshman in combination with perhaps the worst Notre Dame offense in school history.
As a sophomore, Tate finally came into his own ending the season with a very respectable 58 receptions, 1,080 yards and 11 total touchdowns. However, no one except Tate himself was ready for the assault on the record books he was about to unleash as a junior in 2009.
Golden simply put up Xbox numbers.
His 93 receptions were the most in a single Irish season---until Michael Floyd broke the record with 100 catches in 2011.
Tate's 1,496 receiving yards remains a school-record for a single season---more than 200 yards than anyone else.
Golden also tied Jeff Samardzija's single-season record for receiving touchdowns with 15.
His 1,915 all-purpose yards in 2009 was also the second-most for one season in Notre Dame history and just 22 yards behind Tim Brown's 1986 season.
It wasn't merely the numbers themselves that Tate produced, but the dramatic flare and memorable moments included in the records.
For his efforts, Golden Tate was named a Walter Camp first-team All-American---the first Irish player with that honor since defensive back Shane Walton in 2002. Tate was also the first Irish wide receiver to achieve that honor since Rocket Ismail in 1990.
Shortly after the 2009 season, Tate announced that he would be foregoing his last year of eligibility and entered the NFL Draft, where he was ultimately selected in the 2nd round (60th overall) by the Seattle Seahawks.
Three days later Golden was awarded the Fred Biletnikoff Award as college football's top wide receiver, becoming the first Notre Dame player since the award's founding in 1994 to take home the trophy.
Whether slashing through defenders, beating them deep, or out-muscling opponents into the end zone, Tate certainly had a memorable 2009 season and one of the top 25 defining moments of Irish football since 1987.
4. Summer 2008. Jack Swarbrick hired as University's 12th athletic director
Jack Swarbrick has just finished his fourth year as Notre Dame's Director of Athletics and University Vice-President, having been hired in 2008 to carry on the strong legacy of Fighting Irish athletics.
A 1976 magna cum laude graduate of Notre Dame, Swarbrick was a very hot commodity before his appointment as AD at Notre Dame. Before coming to South Bend he graduated from Stanford law school, specialized in sports management as a worker (and later partner) at the Indianapolis law firm Baker & Daniels, and was a member and chairman (1992-2001) of the Indiana Sports Commission whose actions were instrumental in bringing the Super Bowl, NCAA headquarters, and BIG Ten basketball tournament to Indianapolis.
Swarbrick's hiring at Notre Dame was important because he's not Kevin White yes, but also because he's shown a commitment to winning and putting Irish athletes in the best position possible to do so. Most of all, Swarbrick has set out to modernize Notre Dame athletics, a tricky and challenging job for sure, but one which he has excelled at so far in South Bend.
He immediately assigned an administrator to each of the school's 26 varsity sports, and in the summer of 2009 created a new Athletics Performance Division within the athletic department. Swarbrick commented on the new initiative:
"The goals and expectations of athletics at Notre Dame necessitate finding ways for our student-athletes to optimize their efforts when they compete at the championship level of our programs. That doesn't happen by accident...If we can help them become just a little bit faster, quicker, stronger and more confident, then they and our programs will have better chances to attain success at the highest levels."
Mike Karowski, Notre Dame's Associate Athletic Director, became head of the new division and explains:
"Every university has an athletic training department and a strength and conditioning program, and a handful of schools also have a sport nutritionist and a sport psychologist. But they are all separate units that may not always communicate effectively. What we are trying to do is wrap all those into one program."
Moreover, Jack Swarbrick has nurtured one of the best athletic programs in the country and continues improving what he inherited towards the end of the last decade. He has overseen the construction of a new soccer field, new hockey rink, renovated Purcell Pavilion in the south dome of the Joyce Center, and continues to support new digital technology avenues with the improvements on und.com and features such as Irish ICON and Student. Athlete. Irish.
Swarbrick has also embraced the new NBC Sports Channel and given the athletic department yet another way to promote its sports through a football game preview show, the lacrosse documentary Inside the Walls of Arlotta, Friday night hockey games, and more.
With all the positive things Swarbrick has initiated since 2008, his legacy may very well be determined by his hiring of Brian Kelly after the 2009 season, and how successful the football program becomes over the next 3 to 5 years.
The trend lines have been mostly positive for the Kelly hiring and the football program, but they are also being viewed through the lens of mediocrity since Lou Holtz left town. At some point, both Swarbrick and Kelly's "defining moments" will be judged by the larger scope of Fighting Irish history and accomplishment.
In many ways, Jack Swarbrick and Brian Kelly are mirror images of each other. They were both highly successful and well respected before earning their positions at Notre Dame, but at the same time, both were unproven and inexperienced in the pressure-cooker and limelight of their current jobs.
As such, they are both far from a sure thing but they are definitely upgrades from the previous regime, and while that may not be satisfactory down the road for Notre Dame's high standards, it's at least a proper and necessary step in the right direction right now.
Jack Swarbrick has made shrewd moves with the football schedule in adding multiple games with Oklahoma, Texas, and Miami, moving the team to a 6-5-1 scheduling model that encourages more home and home series with better competition, slowly weaned the program off the three annual games with Big East teams, and successfully hosted neutral site games across the country.
Further, Swarbrick has proven that his 25-year experience in the college athletics industry allows him to adeptly navigate the tricky waters of conference realignment. He's been praised for his knowledge and respect among his peers, forged solid relationships with programs like Texas, and handled the chaotic mess of the past few years with incredible professionalism.
The future is uncertain, yet Swarbrick appears steadfast in his belief that Notre Dame will remain independent in football. More importantly, he appears like someone who understands the value of Notre Dame's independence and is the type of leader who can and will negotiate the rough terrain and keep the Irish independent.
That didn't always seem to be the case with his predecessor, both in belief and ability.
There is still much work to do, more months of judgement ahead, and more success to achieve, but Jack Swarbrick has been an important part of the history of modern Irish football. His handling of Brian Kelly, plus the fight to keep Notre Dame independent in football in the coming years makes Jack Swabrick's hiring as athletic director one of the defining moments of the past 25 years.