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30 Defining Moments in Notre Dame Football History, 1987-2011: Upset by Stanford & the Recruiting Wizard Leaves Town


This is the tenth 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.

18. October 3, 1992. Underdog Stanford Hands Notre Dame its Only Loss of the 1992 Season

Notre Dame was heading into its fourth season in 1992 since last winning the national title, and even suffered 3 losses the prior season. Still, the Irish were stacked on both sides of the ball and were one of the favorites to win it all in '92.

Despite those three losses to strong teams in 1991, Notre Dame had upset Florida in the Sugar Bowl and expectations were sky high for the team in '92, particularly with the offense returning Rick Mirer at quarterback, Jerome Bettis, Reggie Brooks, and Lee Becton in the backfield, and Lake Dawson, Irv Smith, and a young Derrick Mayes catching passes.

The season began with a 42-7 thrashing of Northwestern at Soldier Field, but Notre Dame could only tie a Michigan squad that would go undefeated, but also suffer two more ties. Week three saw the Irish give up far too many points, but 52 of their own created a comfortable win over Michigan State. A 48-0 blowout over Purdue the next week signaled a strong turnaround.

For the first game of October the Irish welcomed No. 18 Stanford and new head coach Bill Walsh to South Bend, a team that pulled a huge upset on the Irish just two years earlier. After falling from No. 3 to No. 7 in the rankings following the tie with Michigan, the Irish had only climbed to No. 6 by the time this game rolled around, but still very much in the national title discussion.


Notre Dame raced out to a 16-0 lead and it looked like the Irish would run away with the game.

Unfortunately, the Irish would be shut out the rest of the game as Stanford caused turnovers and rattled off 33 unanswered points for one of their programs biggest wins and one of Lou Holtz' most devastating losses.

After the game, the legendary Walsh said it was as big of a win as he's ever had in his career. For Holtz, it would be a tormenting loss that likely prevented a second national championship at Notre Dame.

The Irish played with passion the rest of the season, defeating four ranked opponents to end the year, but the Stanford loss looms as the big one that got away, much like the following seasons loss to Boston College.

19. Winter of 1991. Vinny Cerrato Leaves Notre Dame Recruiting Post to Take Position with San Francisco 49ers

Vinny Cerrato was an enigma during the early years of Lou Holtz' tenure at Notre Dame, a man so crucial to the success of the football team but also so misunderstood and distrusted by many within the campus power structure.

Back in those days, programs didn't need to have their recruiting coordinators be a coach, and Cerrato flourished in this full-time role like so few people in college athletics. He came with Holtz to Notre Dame from Minnesota after being named the recruiting coordinator for the Gophers at the tender age of 23 in 1985, and proceeded to turn heads within a couple years.

If people doubted his ability to bring talent to South Bend, they would be sorely mistaken.

Cerrato's five full classes from 1987-1991 were packed full of some of Notre Dame's most illustrious modern talents, including:

Ricky Watters, Tony Brooks, Kent Graham, Chris Zorich, Todd Lyght, Rocket Ismail, Derek Brown, Rodney Culver, Rod Smith, Kevin McDougal, Rick Mirer, Demetrius Dubose, Jerome Bettis, Michael Stonebreaker, Mirko Jurkovic, Reggie Brooks, Ray Zellers, Lake Dawson, Lee Becton, Bryant Young, Aaron Taylor, Jeff Burris, Tom Carter, and Craig Hentrich.

Those five classes would go 72-13-1 during their careers at Notre Dame, and 64-9-1 from 1988 to 1993, winning a national title and 5 major bowl games along the way.

Cerrato was young, good looking, confident, and a master salesman. By 1990, he seemed to have the whole world in his hand.

Holtz liked to joke that Cerrato was the only person in South Bend with a year-round tan, because Cerrato was rarely on campus due to his long hours recruiting across the country.

What's more, his recruiting methods were cutting edge and incredibly crafty. In fact, the NCAA had to institute new recruiting regulations (dubbed the Vinny Cerrato Rule by Holtz) specifically because of his his actions while at Notre Dame:

"What Cerrato did at the Orange Bowl game was the stuff of sales genius. It had nothing to do with football strategy; other coaches called the plays against Colorado.

Cerrato, 30, stood on the sidelines with a cellular phone and a list of 35 high school seniors. Actually, he had two phones - a spare, and a pocketful of extra batteries. The 35 high school seniors on his list were football players in whom Notre Dame was interested, and who had either visited the campus or had been visited by Cerrato.

When the game started - remember, this was potentially for the national championship, and was telecast in prime time - Cerrato started calling the high school athletes.

"They were all watching the game," Cerrato said. "I knew they would be. So I called their houses all over the country, and I said: 'This is Vinny Cerrato from Notre Dame. I'm on the sidelines at the Orange Bowl. You watching?' And then I'd tell them what the next play was going to be."

That's correct - Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz sends in each offensive play, and Cerrato made a point of finding out what the play was going to be. He knew how effective this would be over the phone.

"The high school kids could hear all the crowd noise, and they could hear our players hollering," Cerrato said. "I'd say: 'I'm on the 35-yard line. I've got the play for you. We're going to run a 34.' A 34 is a handoff to the fullback over the right side. I'd say to the high school kids, 'Watch the fullback.' And while I was on the phone, the fullback would run that play."

Cerrato first tried this cellular phone technique a year ago, at the Fiesta Bowl. "But it didn't work," he said. "I didn't have my own phone, so I borrowed one from the hotel, and it broke after only three calls. This year my phones worked perfectly. I was making calls from a few moments before the opening kickoff until the final gun."

Occasionally Cerrato would put one of the Notre Dame players on the phone. "They just said hello real quickly, but you can imagine how it made the high school guys feel," Cerrato said.

Perhaps Cerrato's finest moment came when he was talking on the phone to an extremely talented high school prospect, and Notre Dame speedster Rocket Ismail saw what he was doing.

According to Cerrato, "Rocket asked me who I was talking to, and when I told Rocket he said, 'Tell him if I give the thumbs-up sign when I'm in my stance, that means I'm going deep.' That's got to be pretty impressive to a high school football player - a message like that from Rocket Ismail in the middle of the Orange Bowl game."

Because Cerrato felt that the phone calls would be most effective if they came totally by surprise, some of the high school players weren't home when he called. "They were over at their buddies' houses watching the game," Cerrato said. "So I got their buddies' numbers from the parents of the players, and I called their buddies' houses. In a way that was even better - their friends could get on the phone and listen, too."

One high school player talked to Cerrato and said, "I can't see you. Stand behind Coach Holtz." So Cerrato did just that - he and his cellular phone moved behind Holtz."

As you can imagine, Cerrato didn't exactly carry around the best reputation on campus---he didn't "fit in" so to speak. People were suspicious of his methods. People were upset that he was never on campus or that he didn't serve any real role on the staff as a coach.

As a result, his time at Notre Dame was short. Since coming with Holtz to South Bend in 1986, Cerrato watched the 1991 class sign their letters of intent and then left to become the Director of College Scouting, and later Director of Player Personnel, for the San Francisco 49ers.

Though his time was short, Cerrato left an indelible mark on Irish football history. More than any other individual, he's credited with being one of the most important reasons why Notre Dame flourished on the field in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

Although Notre Dame would continue to recruit well after his departure, including up until today, no one has brought in the star power that Cerrato did. He wasn't around for the success of the 1991-93 seasons, but his absence on the recruiting trail would be felt once his players graduated.

And that makes Vinny Cerrato's departure one of the Top 30 Moments in Notre Dame football history, 1987-2011.