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30 Defining Moments in Notre Dame Football History, 1987-2011: A Heisman & A New President


This is the fifteenth and final 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.

29. December 5, 1987. Irish Receiver Tim Brown Win's the Heisman Trophy

Taking a look back at Tim Brown's career really puts into perspective how much the game in college has changed. As a junior in Lou Holtz' first season in South Bend, the fleet-footed Brown racked up a healthy 910 receiving yards on 45 receptions with 5 touchdowns. He also chipped in 254 yards and 2 scores running the ball, with 698 yards and two more touchdowns as a kick returner---all good enough to place him third nationally in total yardage.

As a senior, nearly all those numbers went down yet Brown still won the Heisman.

6 fewer receptions, 64 fewer yards, and 2 fewer touchdowns. He took just two fewer kick returns, but wound up with almost 250 fewer yards and no scores. He even saw his running production cut in half.

However, it would be in the punt return game where Brown seriously entered his name as a Heisman candidate. After taking just 2 punt returns as a junior, Timmy Touchdown returned 34 as a senior and scored touchdowns on 3 of them.

This includes his epic 2 punt return touchdowns against eventual Big Ten champion Michigan State that many say won Brown the Heisman.

It was a bittersweet honor when Brown eventually was awarded the Heisman following the 1987 regular season. The Irish had lost the last two games of the season, Brown famously lacked production in the losses and the Irish would even go on to be roughed up by Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day after the Heisman was awarded.

Certainly Brown befitted from the bright spotlight at Notre Dame, but he had an enormous impact within the Irish offense while continually being double and triple teamed as a senior. It also helped that the rest of the field was patently mediocre: 2nd place Syracuse quarterback Don McPherson had average numbers, 3rd place Holy Cross running back Gordie Lockbaum put up his numbers in the Patriot League, and 4th place Michigan State running back Lorenzo White average just 4.5 yards per carry and had his team lose to Tim Brown's anyway.

Despite just 7 total touchdowns, Brown's impact and big-game ability brought home Notre Dame's 7th and last Heisman Trophy---the 29th defining moment of the past 25 years.

30. September 23, 1987. Father Edward "Monk" Malloy Inaugurated as Notre Dame's 16th President

The last defining moment of this series is also the most controversial.

In the spring of 1987, after 35 years as President of the University of Notre Dame, the ever-popular Theodore Hesburgh retired and later that year Edward Malloy was inaugurated as the new leader in South Bend.

Malloy began teaching at Notre Dame in 1974 and became Vice-President and Associate Provost in 1986. Less than a year later he became one of the most powerful leaders in the Catholic world.

Like virtually all Notre Dame leaders, Malloy was a great educator and titan of academia---a man with many connections and responsibilities far beyond the sidewalks in South Bend. However, the issue with his Presidency is summed up rather succinctly at the bottom of his Wikipedia page:

He is known for deemphasizing football during his tenure at Notre Dame and can be pointed to as one of the reasons the program is in the position it is in today.

A serious charge indeed.

That charge is flung at Malloy mainly because the Irish football program fell apart under his watch. Whether he was the primary reason is debatable, but as the most powerful man on campus he has beared most of the brunt.

At the same time, Malloy was President during Notre Dame's last national championship on the gridiron (although it was merely 16 months after his inauguration) and he led the University during the 6-year reign of dominance in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

However, the charges against him can be broken down into three categories:

  • He deemphasized football by rarely speaking about the sport in public, and instead emphasized the role of Notre Dame athletics in relation to the University's greater mission.
  • He's largely blamed for the "selling out" of Notre Dame football, not to better the on-field product on the gridiron, but to financially build up the academic side of the school.
  • He oversaw the ouster of Lou Holtz and what may be a couple of the worst football hires in school history---all while having a hand in complicating, or outright nixing, the hire of better qualified candidates.

How much of these three charges is true? It's tough to say, but the evidence is there to examine.

Instead of talking about maintaining, and later building, a championship football program Monk Malloy preferred to say things such as,

"We will attempt to excel in every form of intercollegiate athletics, but not at the price of distorting our primary role as educators and moral guides."

Comments like that gave the sense that the President just didn't give a crap about football, and behind closed doors the rumors confirmed this belief.

When the school expanded Notre Dame Stadium, was the extra revenue generated in order to help the football team or build more academic buildings? That's the type of issue surrounding the second charge.

As to the third, Malloy has the weakest defense. It may be going too far to say that he single-handily drove Lou Holtz out of town, but he was part of the process and then watched as the football program crumbled to unforeseen lows.

During the drama of the Dunbar sanctions and the firing of Tyrone Willingham, Father Malloy never seemed to have the football program's back in the form of just basic loyalty---instead he seemed to be among those leading the charge of finger pointing.

Whatever you think of Monk Malloy's tenure, it was certainly a defining moment in Notre Dame football history. His results with the program will likely be mixed at best as the decades pass, but he does deserve a lot of credit for growing Notre Dame into one of the elite private schools in the world.

But football languished on his watch and that is a black mark on his resume.