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Unclaimed Glory: The 1989 National Champion Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team

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A look at Holtz’s second National Title at Notre Dame

Notre Dame Fighting Irish v USC Trojans Photo by Bernstein Associates/Getty Images

As part of our on-going series with SB Nation this week about the best teams not to win a championship — and in most cases here it’s about championships that are unclaimed — we take a look back at Lou Holtz’s second consecutive national title with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in 1989.

Coming off a perfect 12-0 1988 campaign Holtz and the Fighting Irish were looking to repeat as national champions for the first time since the 1940’s under Frank Leahy. The team returned the main core of it’s 1988 championship team including key cogs such as Tony Rice, Raghib Ismail, Ricky Watters, Tony Brooks, Jeff Alm, Chris Zorich, and Pat Terrell among others.

Many inside the Irish program felt the 1988 team was “a year ahead of schedule” in terms of when they thought they would win a national title and the 1989 team would end up being Holtz’s first real shot at winning. Even to this day Holtz will contend the 1989 team was the best team he coached during his tenure in South Bend. With a 1988 title already in hand, the program felt very confident about their ability to repeat. We now know that it was not meant to be in the eyes of some pollsters. A late season loss to the Miami-Florida Hurricanes derailed what many considered Notre Dame’s shot at their second straight title.

Bryan Flannery Pouring Bucket of Ice Water on Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz
This should have been a celebration of a championship after Notre Dame drubbed Colorado 21-6

The Case

Here at One Foot Down we do not consider this to be canonical. Notre Dame rightly won the national title in 1989. What worked against the Irish in 1989 (a head-to-head loss against Miami) did not work in their favor in 1993 with the Florida State Seminoles with some of the major polls. Notre Dame was awarded the 1989 National Title by the following officially recognized polling organizations: Berryman(QPRS), Eck Rating System, Rothman(FACT), and Sagarin. Bill Connelly’s Est S&P+ also ranks Notre Dame as the best team in the nation in 1989.

Diving deeper into some of the numbers Notre Dame has a very strong case to claim this national title. Notre Dame finished the season at 12-1 while Miami finished their season at 11-1. Miami’s lone loss was to an FSU team that would finish ranked #3 in the final AP poll while Notre Dame’s lone loss was the the #1* ranked Miami Hurricanes. Notre Dame finished the season according to the NCAA with the most difficult schedule in the nation. The Irish notched wins over teams ranked (at the time) #2, #17, #9, #7, #17, and #1. Miami had only three top 25 wins all season. Sagarin was also a fan of the Irish as he awarded them with the most difficult schedule and a 7-1 record against the Top 30. Miam in comparison was only 4-1 vs his Top 30.

Miami did beat Notre Dame head to head and is well within their right to claim their own national championship this year. It does however need to be pointed out they don’t win that National Title without the help of the at the time #4 ranked Notre Dame throttling the #1 ranked Colorado Buffaloes in the Orange Bowl by the score of 21-6. If Miami can back their way into a national championship, Notre Dame can win it’s way into one. So, to my fellow Irish fans stuck in quarantine around the world; print the shirts, raise your glasses, and let’s celebrate our 1989 National Champion Fighting Irish. It’s backed by FACT.