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30 Defining Moments in Notre Dame Football History, 1987-2011: O'Leary's Short Tenure & Heartbreak Against Nebraska

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This is the fifth 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.

Defining Moments

9. December 15, 2001. George O'Leary Fired After 5 Days as Head Coach

When Bob Davie took the field for the first time as head coach at Notre Dame, he would play a Georgia Tech team led by a man who would end up being his successor in South Bend. The 11th ranked Fighting Irish won that 1997 season and home opener by the score of 17-13, but unfortunately they would go on to lose 4 straight and 5 of the next 6 games following that first win.

This is how Notre Dame fans were brought quickly into the cold harsh reality of the post-Holtz era. After just one season of 5 losses over the previous 9 years, the Irish stood with that many defeats by mid-October in 1997.

Notre Dame would finish one game over .500 in 1997 and then sandwich a 5-win season in between two solid 9-win seasons. In the all important fifth season Davie needed a big turn around but the start of the calendar year in 2001 was far from encouraging to end his fourth season. Notre Dame was blown off the field 41-9 on New Years Day in the Fiesta Bowl against Oregon State, then proceeded to lose the first three games of the season that fall, while also dropping 3 of the seasons last 5 games by an average margin of just 6 points.

With a (then) unthinkable 25 losses over five years, Bob Davie was fired as head coach at Notre Dame and his replacement quickly became Georgia Tech head coach George O'Leary.

O'Leary began his coaching career in the high school ranks on Long Island, New York before heading to Syracuse to coach defensive line for 7 years. He then became the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech where he won a share of the 1990 national title. O'Leary followed Tech head coach Bobby Ross to the San Diego Charges for two seasons before coming back to Atlanta to be the head coach of the Yellow Jackets in 1994 after the program had fallen back under Bill Lewis.

O'Leary actually took over late in the '94 season and ended up losing his first 3 games as well as 14 of his first 25 games, but slowly built Georgia Tech up into one of the better ACC teams. Over a three-year stretch from 1998-2000, the Yellow Jackets went 27-9, finishing no worse than 2nd in their league in each year, while sharing the ACC title in 1998 and a Gator Bowl win over green-clad Notre Dame.

O'Leary was viewed as a quality coach, a solid hire by Notre Dame following the lack of success of Bob Davie and he also was looked at as someone who could continue the tradition of strong defense in South Bend but also work on the struggling Irish offense as well.

However, a mere five days after being hired, George O'Leary was fired as the head coach of Notre Dame, for what amounted to false padding of his resume. He lied about lettering in football at the University of New Hampshire, and about receiving a masters degree from New York University.

As the New York Times reported, Notre Dame was willing to let O'Leary stay at first:

O'Leary offered his resignation, said Lou Nanni, vice president for university relations, and the university refused to take it. But then officials asked O'Leary if there were any more falsehoods, and O'Leary said he had never gotten a graduate degree, Nanni said.

At that point, the university accepted O'Leary's resignation.

In a prepared statement O'Leary explained his side of the story:

''Many years ago, as a young, married father, I sought to pursue my dream as a football coach. In seeking employment, I prepared a résumé that contained inaccuracies regarding my completion of course work for a master's degree and also my level of participation in football at my alma mater. These misstatements were never stricken from my résumé or biographical sketch in later years.

During my coaching career, I believe I have been hired because of the success of my players on the field and the evaluations of my peers. However, these misstatements have resurfaced and become a distraction and embarrassment to the University of Notre Dame, an institution I dearly love.

Due to a selfish and thoughtless act many years ago, I have personally embarrassed Notre Dame, its alumni and fans. The integrity and credibility of Notre Dame is impeccable, and with that in mind, I will resign my position as head football coach effective Dec. 13, 2001.''

The university had moved quickly to find a replacement for Bob Davie in order to save the recruiting class that February, but after this fiasco Notre Dame found itself truly scrambling to hire yet another new coach. This hurried process ended in the hiring of Tyrone Willingham and that definitely didn't work out for the better as Notre Dame's record remained the same as the Davie tenure and recruiting fell off a cliff over the next few seasons.

Thus was the incredibly short tenure of George O'Leary a defining moment in Notre Dame football over the past 25 years.

10. September 9, 2000. Notre Dame Falls to No. 1 Nebraska in Overtime

The schedule for Bob Davie's third season at Notre Dame would be without the Michigan Wolverines, but the first of a two-game series with the Nebraska Cornhuskers had to be faced in week two instead.

Nebraska had won the national title in 1997, after which the legendary Tom Osborne retired and in his place Frank Sorich was rebuilding the Corn for more championship runs. They dropped down to 9-4 in 1998, but prior to 2000, Nebraska had gone 12-1 with just a 4-point loss to Texas preventing another national championship in Lincoln.

The Cornhuskers beat San Jose State 49-13 to open the 2000 season, had quarterback Eric Crouch growing into one of the top players in the country after a 1,000-yard rushing season in 1999, and came into South Bend as the No. 1 team in the country for the first game between Nebraska and Notre Dame since 1973. It was also the Cornhuskers first game in Notre Dame Stadium since 1947.

This was the game in which the visiting Nebraska fans flooded Notre Dame Stadium, much to the chagrin of Irish fans to this day.

The game opened up with the teams trading punts, followed by an interception thrown by Irish quarterback Arnaz Battle. Nebraska was called for holding and slowly advanced into Notre Dame territory but Tony Driver stopped Crouch after 3 yards on a 4th and 4 play. Notre Dame punted twice more and Nebraska once, but the Corn struck late in the first quarter on a 62-yard touchdown run by Crouch, but the Irish answered with their own 11-play 82-yard touchdown drive to even the score at 7-7.

Nebraska took the lead again on their next drive of 65 yards ending in a short Crouch touchdown. After an Irish punt, the Cornhuskers ran out the clock on the first half with a 14-7 lead.

To start the third quarter the teams once again traded punts but a 28-yard touchdown run by Dan Alexander extended Nebraska's lead. Things were starting to look bleak for Notre Dame but a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown restored confidence in the Irish, and so did a Shane Walton interception on Nebraska's ensuing drive that had crept dangerously toward the Irish red zone.

The teams traded punts yet again but Joey Getherall took the Nebraska punt early in the fourth quarter for another Notre Dame special teams touchdown. Notre Dame had the ball on the Nebraska 30-yard line with under 8 minutes left but Battle tossed an incomplete pass on 4th and 1 to turn the ball over. As a result the game would end in a tie after regulation.

Notre Dame took possession first and gained a first down, but a sack on third down forced the Irish to kick a field goal for the 24-21 lead.

Nebraska just barely converted a 3rd and 9 completion for their possession and two players later Crouch scampered into the end zone for the winning score.

Notre Dame linebacker Rocky Boiman summed up the loss saying:

"I'm not big on that moral victory stuff. We're Notre Dame. We played hard. We poured our hearts and souls into this game, and my guts are torn up inside."

Much like the USC game 5 years later, this was the victory that achingly got away from Notre Dame and could have changed the course of a season. Although the Irish would go on to win 9 games in 2000, they were thrashed in the aforementioned Fiesta Bowl by Oregon State and the decline of Bob Davie began soon after.