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30 Defining Moments in Notre Dame Football History, 1987-2011: Defeating the Defending Champion and the Dunbar Affair

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This is the sixth 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

11. January 19, 2000. Notre Dame Football Placed on 2-year Probation

The affair that surrounded Kim Dunbar and the Notre Dame football program was confusing, twisted, and convoluted. The result of an investigation surrounding this woman led to the first and only major violations for Notre Dame football, but looking back the penalties imposed by the NCAA ended up not being as harsh as the headlines would lead you to believe.

The penalties were not harsh, but the blow back from the negative PR for a school like Notre Dame was punishment enough, and the NCAA likely understood this especially given the confusing nature of the violations.

The cliff notes version of the two-plus year drama were as follows:

Kim Dunbar worked as a secretary and book keeper for a company called Dominiack Mechanical, Inc. through which she embezzeled over $1.4 million dollars over a period of several years. Dunbar then used that money to lavish gifts on up to a dozen football players, two of which she had a romantic relationship with, from 1993 until 1998.

When the NCAA found out about her activities in 1998, the issue was deciding what official relationship Dunbar had with the University of Notre Dame. Even though she did spend some money on other players, the vast majority was spent on two players with whom she had a romantic relationship and the NCAA couldn't exactly declare any violations because a player was being essentially spoiled by his girlfriend.

As such, all of her activities prior to June 1995 were deemed legal before she paid the $25 membership fee to become a booster in the Notre Dame Quarterback Club. Everything after that point was deemed illegal and the focus of NCAA scrutiny and investigation.

After the initial shock of the scandal disappeared, it did not seem that Notre Dame would be punished with major sanctions. The university and NCAA regulations investigation both determined the violations to be minor and not major. However, the case surprisingly moved its way further up the NCAA's justice system and the NCAA Committee on Infractions decided that the violations were in fact major.

The NCAA put forth this response:

"The violations were major because of the length of time over which they occurred," the committee report said, "The extravagant nature of gifts and benefits that were provided to the football student-athletes, the competitive advantage gained by the University in as much as the university continued to use student-athletes who were later declared ineligible, and the fact the violations were neither isolated nor inadvertent."

The NCAA also mentioned that the penalties could have been avoided as well:

The penalties partly spawns reports that an assistant coach learned in 1996 that Dunbar had paid for a trip to Las Vegas for herself, Edison, another player and his girlfriend. The coach said he did not notify the NCAA because he believed the gifts were acceptable because of the romantic involvement between Dunbar and Edison, according to the NCAA report.

"If he had notified someone," committee chair Jack Friedenthal said in a teleconference on Dec. 17, 1999, "then penalties might well have been averted."

There was wild speculation that Notre Dame would be hit with a giant hammer from the NCAA including a bowl ban, major scholarship losses, and its TV contract with NBC penalized as the Irish would be made an example of due to its high standards. However, the NCAA decided to roll with the MAJOR VIOLATIONS tag line (which did enough damage in the realm of public perception) but only penalized the Irish one scholarship with two years of probation.

That's how this sad story in a chapter of modern Notre Dame football came to an end. Dunbar served 1 year of a 4-year sentence for her role in embezzling money from her employer and the football violations slowly faded into the foggy memory of Irish fans and foe alike.

The university dealt with the negative reactions from all corners and it took some time for many to recover, but this was largely a PR battle and not one that impacted the actual football program to a large degree. Nevertheless, those public relation scars ran very deep for Notre Dame and its leaders and this makes it a defining moment over the last 25 years.

12. September 5, 1998. Notre Dame Upsets Defending Co-National Champion Michigan

The summer of 1998 was not a happy one for Notre Dame and her fans. The Irish were coming off a mediocre 7-6 campaign in Bob Davie's first season in South Bend, former offensive line coach Joe Moore won an age discrimination lawsuit against the university, and the aforementioned Kim Dunbar was beginning to be investigated.

Thus, it wasn't the best set of circumstances for Notre Dame when No. 5 and defending co-national champion Michigan came to South Bend to open the season. Both teams were starting new quarterbacks for the first time---Jarious Jackson for Notre Dame and Tom Brady for Michigan---but it was soon-to-be all-time leading rusher Autry Denson who carried the Fighting Irish in this contest.

The Wolverines came into the game riding a 12-game winning streak from their perfect 1997 season and controlled the game in the first half taking a 13-6 lead right before the break on a 1-yard Brady run. Michigan would end the day with a +96 advantage in total yards, but the second half belonged entirely to Notre Dame.

Notre Dame closed the gap to 13-9 on yet another field goal, but Michigan fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Jarious Jackson later found Dan O'Leary for a touchdown reception and a 16-13 Irish lead. To make matters worse for Michigan, they fumbled yet again and Notre Dame took advantage with another short touchdown drive to take a 23-13 lead.

Brady led Michigan back down the field but the Wolverines had their field goal attempt blocked and they could then feel the game slowly beginning to slip away. Notre Dame turned around and marched right down the field for another score to take a 30-13 lead. The teams would trade late 4th quarter touchdowns but the game was in the bag after the blocked field goal and subsequent Irish scoring drive.

This win was diluted the following week when Michigan lost at home to Syracuse, but the Wolverines did finish 10-3 and this was Bob Davie's only win against a team that finished with that many victories. Overall, this was probably Davie's finest moment as head coach at Notre Dame and it makes the Top 30 countdown for defining moments since 1987.