Notre Dame Football has one of the richest histories in the sport of college football. Despite not winning a national championship since 1988, the Irish are firmly entrenched as one of the elites in the sport. With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at the top ten greatest head coaches in the history of Irish Football. This will be a ten part series.
4. Lou Holtz
Louis Leo Holtz was born on January 6th, 1937 in Follansbee, West Virginia. His family moved to East Liverpool, Ohio shortly after he was born and remained there throughout his youth. Holtz grew up, like most boys, playing football. He excelled at the sport and was talented enough to play several seasons collegiately at Kent State. Following graduation, Holtz moved onto the University of Iowa where he spent 1 season as a graduate assistant. Over the course of the next several seasons, Holtz bounced around as an assistant coach. He spent the 1961, 1962, and 1963 seasons at William & Mary, the 1964 and 1965 seasons at Connecticut, the 1966 and 1967 seasons at South Carolina, and the 1968 season at Ohio State.
After the 1968 season, Holtz received an offer to return to William & Mary to become head coach. Jumping at the chance, he spent three seasons in Williamsburg, winning the Southern Conference title and playing in the Tangerine Bowl in 1970. He parlayed his success into the head coaching position at North Carolina State in 1972. As a member of the Wolfpack, Holtz compiled a 33-12-4 record in four seasons, including 1 ACC Championship, 3 final Top 20 rankings in the AP Poll, and a 2-1-1 mark in bowl games. Following his successful stint with North Carolina State, Holtz continued ascend the coaching ranks, agreeing to become the New York Jets head coach for the 1976 season. Fortunately for Irish fans, Holtz struggled in the Big Apple. He resigned with 1 game remaining in the 1976 season resigning and his team sporting a 3-10 record. Holtz did not allow his failure in the NFL to hold him back for long as he returned to college football for the 1977 season as the head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. During his 7 seasons in Fayetteville, he led the Razorbacks to 1 Southwest Conference title, 6 bowl games, and a 60-21-2 record. Interestingly, Holtz was rumored to be the leading candidate in 1979 to replace Ohio State coach, Woody Hayes, who had been dismissed from the university following a sideline incident. Holtz reportedly did not pursue the job because he did not want the unenviable task of following up the legendary coach. Holtz remained the head coach at Arkansas until he was dismissed following a 6-5-1 record during the 1983 season.
By this point in his career, Holtz had developed a reputation as a program builder. The Minnesota Golden Gophers, who had only won 1 game during the 1983 season, reached out to Holtz about his interest in becoming their next head coach. Holtz, sensing he was in a position of power after learning Minnesota had been turned down by 5 other candidates, inserted the legendary “Notre Dame” clause into his contract. The clause gave him an out to leave for South Bend under certain circumstances. First, Holtz would not be allowed to leave until his team had received a bowl bid. Second, Notre Dame representatives would have to make the first move to reach out to Holtz. Holtz described his logic of inserting the clause by saying, “…I just felt I should put the Notre Dame clause in there because Gene Corrigan (Notre Dame athletic director) was the athletic director at Virginia. He tried to hire me three different times. My logic, was if he tried to hire me at Virginia, why would he not be interested in hiring me at Notre Dame?” Holtz led the Golden Gophers to 4 victories in 1984, hardly good enough for a bowl invitation. In 1985, Minnesota went 7-5 and in late November received a bid to the Independence Bowl. In South Bend, Gerry Faust announced his resignation on November 26 as the head coach of Notre Dame. Wasting no time, Corrigan zeroed in on Holtz a mere 6 hours after the resignation was announced. Corrigan called up Holtz to discuss the position. After several phone calls and the time a little after midnight, Holtz told Corrigan, “Tell you what, I’ll sleep on it, and if I feel the same way in the morning as I do now, you’ve got yourself a coach.” By mid-morning the following day the deal was in place, and on November 28th, 1985, Lou Holtz was officially announced as Notre Dame’s next head football coach.
Upon Holtz’s arrival, players were put on notice. He met with the team less than 48 hours after they had lost 58-7 to the Miami Hurricanes. As he entered the room, he noticed Chuck Lanza, a future captain for Holtz, had his feet propped up on the stage as he slouched in his chair. Holtz quickly informed Lanza that he had better get his feet off the stage, sit up in his seat, and act like he cared what Lou had to say. During the team meeting Holtz stated, “There is only one way you get respect and that’s by looking someone in the eye for sixty minutes, go out there and hitch up your trousers and say, “Hey baby, here I am now. Let me see you run through me now. Let me see you show some disrespect for me when I’m on your nose. Let me see what you think of me now that my face is to you.’” Immediately, the tone was set that there was about to be a new era of Irish football. Names were stripped from jerseys in an effort to promote the team. During the offseason, 6 AM conditioning sessions were the new normal as Holtz sought to determine who would sacrifice for the team and who would throw in the towel.
Heading into the 1986 season, very little was expected of Notre Dame. However, it became very clear to Irish fans that the program was headed in the right direction. The first game of the season came against #3 Michigan. In the first half, Notre Dame took leads of 7-0 and 14-7 before entering halftime with a 14-10 lead. Michigan scored the next 14 points of the game. Not quitting, Steve Beuerlein helped direct a 12 play, 66 yard touchdown drive. John Carney missed the extra point and Notre Dame trailed 24-20 heading into the 4th quarter. A Carney field goal pulled Notre Dame within 1 point with 4:26 left in the game. Next, the Notre Dame defense recovered a fumble at the Irish 26 yard line with 1:33 left in the game. Notre Dame proceeded to drive down to the Michigan 28 yard line to set up a 45 yard field goal with 17 seconds left. Carney, seeking redemption for his missed extra point, hooked the kick wide left, allowing Michigan to escape with a 24-23 victory. Despite the loss, the feeling that Notre Dame was “back” was felt throughout the country. The following week Notre Dame lost 20-15 to Michigan State. Holtz record his first win as head coach in week 3 against Purdue. Next, Notre Dame lost 28-10 to #2 Alabama. A 10-9 loss against an average Pittsburgh team left their record at 1-4. The Irish won three in a row against Air Force, Navy, and SMU. The final three games of the season were against #3 Penn State, #8 LSU, and #17 USC. Could Notre Dame run the table or would these games expose the Irish as a pretender? In the clash against Penn State, Notre Dame hung around, trailing 24-13 entering the 4th quarter. After scoring a touchdown, Notre Dame missed a 2 point conversion to leave the score at 24-19. The defense held and forced a punt, giving ball back to Notre Dame on their own 15 yard line with 2:29 to play. Steve Beuerlein completed 6 passes in a row to move the team to the Penn State 6 yard line with 1:29 left in the game. Notre Dame would advance no further and lost 24-19 against a Penn State team that would go on to win the national championship. Against LSU, Notre Dame scored its first offensive touchdown of the day with 3:32 remaining in the game. Again the team fell just short as the 2 point conversion was unsuccessful and resulted in a 21-19 loss. After two close losses, it appeared Holtz’s team had run out of gas. The team did nothing to dispel that notion against USC, finding themselves in a 37-20 hole in the 4th quarter. Undeterred, Beuerlein threw 3 touchdown passes and pulled Notre Dame within 2 points. Following a three and out by the Trojan offense, USC inexplicably decided to punt to Tim Brown, who promptly returned the punt 56 yards. The return set up an easy 19 yard field goal kick. Redeeming himself from earlier in the season against Michigan, John Carney hit the kick as time expired, giving Notre Dame an incredible 38-37 victory. Although Notre Dame finished 5-6, they hung tough in all of their games, nearly upsetting #3 Michigan, #3 Penn State, and #8 LSU along the way. Under the new coach, momentum was beginning to build in South Bend.
Despite the 5-6 record during the 1986 season, Notre Dame’s 1987 recruiting class was ranked #1 in the country. Players from the class included: Tony Brooks, Ricky Watters, Chris Zorich, and Todd Lyght. The man primarily responsible for this success was not Holtz, rather it was recruiting coordinator Vinny Cerrato. One of Holtz’s more important moves when he came to Notre Dame was bringing along Cerrato, who had been with him at Minnesota in the same capacity. Though never truly accepted by the Notre Dame administration, Cerrato made his presence felt by consistently delivering quality recruiting classes to Holtz. Both he and Holtz were instrumental in working with the admissions department to help admit students of lesser academic abilities. Beginning with the 1987 class, Cerrato helped Notre Dame to land 4 consecutive #1 recruiting classes, a feat that has not been accomplished by any other program to this day.
With the program beginning to generate momentum on and off the field, Holtz began preparing his team for the 1987 season. With Steve Beuerlein off to the NFL, Holtz turned to Terry Andrysiak as his quarterback for the season. Notre Dame began the season ranked #16 and opened up at #9 Michigan. Many thought the game would be a seesaw affair. However, 7 Michigan turnovers allowed Notre Dame to walk out of the Big House with a relatively easy 26-7 win. #9 Notre Dame followed up their opening victory with a 31-8 win over #17 Michigan State. Tim Brown kicked off his Heisman campaign against the Spartans with 2 punt returns for touchdowns. Continuing their Big Ten tour in week 3, #8 Notre Dame rolled to a 44-20 win over Purdue. At the start of week 4, Notre Dame had moved up to #4 in the polls as they prepared to travel to Pittsburgh. Proving that they had not yet arrived, Notre Dame went out and laid an egg, losing 30-22. Not only did Notre Dame lose the game, they also lost Andrysiak to a broken collarbone. The injury gave sophomore Tony Rice an opportunity to showcase his talents. Holtz much preferred an option attack to the downfield passing from the previous year. Rice’s ability as a runner allowed Holtz to shift the offense more to his liking as the team began employing an option attack. With Rice under center, Notre Dame reeled off 5 consecutive victories, including a win over USC and a 37-6 win over #10 Alabama. The winning streak bumped Notre Dame from #11 to #7 in the polls. Standing at 8-1 with road contests remaining against Penn State and #2 Miami (FL), Irish fans began to conjure up scenarios in which a national championship was possible. The key to achieving such scenarios centered on the Irish actually winning their last two games. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Notre Dame struggled at Penn State, committing 2 costly turnovers which helped explain the 21-14 deficit with 4 minutes left in the game. Rice was able to drive the team 70 yards for a touchdown. However, Holtz called for a 2 point conversion, knowing his team needed to keep winning to remain in the title hunt. The conversion failed as Penn State burst through the line to tackle Rice on an option play, and Notre Dame lost 21-20. In the season finale, Holtz’s squad was completely outmanned against the Hurricanes, losing 24-0. Despite the two game losing streak to finish the season, Notre Dame received an invite to the Cotton Bowl to face #13 Texas A&M. Continuing their last season swoon, Notre Dame was blown out 35-10 against the Aggies. Thus, the 1987 campaign concluded with an 8-4 record, a #17 ranking, and a Heisman Trophy for Tim Brown. Though the team was young, they were learning how to win. A 3-2 record against ranked opponents demonstrated clear progress for Holtz and his staff. Little did anyone know, the Irish were readying themselves for a national title run.
Despite losing Tim Brown to the NFL, Holtz’s third team returned a ton of talent on both sides of the ball. In fact, there were 31 players on the 1988 team that would go on to be drafted in the NFL. Notre Dame opened the season ranked #13. As was tradition at the time, Notre Dame opened against #9 Michigan in a night game at Notre Dame Stadium. The offense struggled throughout the day with the lone touchdown coming on a Ricky Watters 81 yard punt return for a touchdown. Irish kicker Reggie Ho added 4 field goals on the day, the last of which gave Notre Dame a 19-17 lead with 1:13 left in the game. However, the Wolverines quickly moved down the field to set up a 48 yard field goal. Luckily, the kick was missed as time expired. Following the win, Notre Dame moved up to #8 in the polls as they prepared to take on Michigan State. Again, the offense struggled, gaining 50 yards on 21 carries in the first half. The second half was a different story as Tony Rice and Mark Green helped the Irish gain 195 rushing yards, helping the Irish to a 20-3 win. Notre Dame won their next two games with ease, defeating Purdue 52-7 and Stanford 42-14. Next, #5 Notre Dame ended a 3 game losing streak to Pittsburgh with a 30-20 victory and set up a memorable contest against #1 Miami.
As any Irish fan is aware, the Miami-Notre Dame rivalry was at its peak in the late 1980s. Heading into the 1988 contest, many Irish fans were still extremely upset over the manner in which Miami conducted itself in Gerry Faust’s last game. Miami and Notre Dame were polar opposites in terms of how their programs were run and how their players acted on the field. The famous “Catholics vs Convicts” T-shirt only further served to cement this game in Notre Dame history. Entering the game, Miami was #1 in the polls and was riding a 36 game winning streak, while Notre Dame stood at #4. During pregame warm-ups, a fight broke out between the teams after Miami deliberately ran through Notre Dame’s warm-up lines. With tensions running high in the locker room, Holtz demanded his players display class throughout the game. He made it clear that if he saw any disrespectful gestures from anyone on the field, the offending player would never play another down for the university. Holtz finished his pre-game speech by telling the players that if Miami wanted to fight, they could do so in an alley after the game, but that the players had better leave Jimmy Johnson’s ass for Holtz. That comment ignited a fuse, as the players excitedly jumped up and ran out of the locker room.
ith the pregame antics out of the way, the focus shifted to the game. Notre Dame jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter and led 21-7 in the 2nd quarter. Miami answered with 2 touchdowns prior to halftime to leave the score at 21-21. Notre Dame added 10 points in the 3rd quarter, pulling ahead 31-21. However, Miami was not about to go down without a fight. On the day, Notre Dame forced 7 turnovers, with the 7th being the most controversial and impactful. As Miami was driving for a game-tying touchdown in the 4th quarter, Miami running back Cleveland Gary was ruled to have fumbled the ball after catching a pass and running to the 1 yard line. Replays showed Gary may have been down prior to the fumble, but the officials awarded the ball to Notre Dame. Soon after, Notre Dame turned the ball back over to Miami. Miami did not waste the second chance, scoring on a 4th and goal touchdown pass with 45 seconds remaining. The touchdown was disputed by Irish fans as replays seemed to indicate that the Miami receiver lost control of the ball. Rather than playing for the tie, Miami went for a 2 point conversion. The conversion failed after Pat Terrell batted down a pass in the end zone. The play set off a near riot in the stadium, and Notre Dame emerged with their biggest victory in years.
The win moved Notre Dame to #2 in the nation, behind the Troy Aikman-led UCLA Bruins. Avoiding the proverbial letdown the following week, Notre Dame pummeled Air Force by the score of 41-13. After defeating Navy, Notre Dame moved up to #1 after UCLA was upset. Notre Dame continued its march towards perfection, defeating Rice and Penn State to run their record to 10-0. The last remaining hurdle of the regular season was against #2 USC. This was the first instance in the storied rivalry between the two programs where both teams were undefeated. The night prior to the game, Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks were late to a team function. Refusing to look past the transgression on the eve of such an important contest, Holtz suspended both players and sent them back to South Bend on game day. Neither player was missed as the team rallied to secure a 27-10 victory. Standing at 11-0, Notre Dame accepted a Fiesta Bowl bid to face the #3 West Virginia Mountaineers. Notre Dame left no doubt in the game as to who the best team in college football was. The Irish held leads of 23-3 and 34-14 throughout the game and won by the final score of 34-21. Following a trend set by Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, and Dan Devine, Holtz secured his 1st national championship in his 3rd season in South Bend. In addition, Holtz also captured Coach of the Year honors after such a magnificent season.
Coming off of a national championship and another #1 recruiting class, expectations were sky high for Holtz’s group heading into the 1989 season. Riding a 12 game winning streak from the season prior, everyone was looking to knock off the Irish. However, Michigan came into the season with the #1 ranking, while Notre Dame stood at #2. An opening season victory over Virginia allowed Notre Dame to flip flop with Michigan in the polls. With the Wolverines next on the schedule, the country would soon find out who the better team was. An evenly matched contest saw Notre Dame hold a 7-6 halftime edge. The opening kick of the 2nd half was returned 88 yards for a touchdown by Rocket Ismail. Then with the score 17-12 in favor of Notre Dame, Rocket returned another kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown as Notre Dame prevailed, 24-19. The win gave Notre Dame 3 straight victories over Bo Schembechler, the only time in his career that the famous coach had lost 3 in a row to one program. Over the next three weeks, Notre Dame would go on to defeat Michigan State, Purdue, and Stanford. Standing at 5-0, Notre Dame traveled west to take on #17 Air Force. The Irish easily dispatched the Falcons with a 41-27 victory. The onslaught of ranked teams continued as Notre Dame defeated #9 USC and #7 Pittsburgh in consecutive weeks. Finally receiving a reprieve, Notre Dame proceeded to defeat Navy and SMU by the combined score of 100-6 before returning to face stiffer competition. Traveling east to face #17 Penn State, Notre Dame racked up 425 yards on offense on the way to a 34-23 win. At this point, Notre Dame was riding a 23 game winning streak, a streak that included 9 wins over teams ranked in the Top 20. Following the win over Penn State, Notre Dame accepted an Orange Bowl bid to face #2 Colorado. Before they could face the Buffaloes, Notre Dame had a rematch with #7 Miami in the regular season finale. Though the pregame build up was not quite as intense as the previous season’s contest, plenty was riding on this contest. Miami was seeking revenge, while Notre Dame was looking to claim a 2nd national championship. Unlike the previous season, this game turned into a defensive contest. In the 3rd quarter, Notre Dame was trailing 17-10 and had Miami backed up to 3rd and 44. Inexplicably, two Irish defensive backs got mixed up in coverage and allowed Miami to convert, leading to a touchdown on the drive. Notre Dame never threatened the rest of the game as Miami won 27-10. After 17 months, Notre Dame had finally lost a game.
The loss dropped Notre Dame to #4 in the polls. However, there was still a path to win a national championship. First, the team would need to defeat #1 Colorado Buffaloes. After that, Michigan stood at #3, whom they had already beaten. Despite losing to #2 Miami, Notre Dame had a clear strength of schedule advantage over #2 Miami. At the time of victory, Notre Dame had defeated #2, #17, #9, #7, and #17 in the country. On the other hand, Miami had defeated #14 and #1 in the country.
Fittingly, the Orange Bowl ended up being an extremely close battle. Neither team scored in the first half, though Colorado shot had multiple chances to do so In the 1st quarter, Colorado’s quarterback fumbled the ball on Notre Dame’s 15 yard line. In the 2nd quarter, Colorado had 1st and goal at the 1 yard line and did not score after a fake field goal attempt was sniffed out. They also missed a 23 yard field goal. Holtz’s team took advantage of these miscues and kept fighting. In the 3rd quarter, Notre Dame scored on their first two possessions of the half to take a 14-0 lead. After Colorado answered with a touchdown (missing the extra point), Notre Dame put together an 82 yard, 17 play touchdown drive in the 4th quarter that chewed up nearly 9 minutes. The touchdown would be the last points of the game as Notre Dame emerged with a 21-6 win. Michigan lost in the Rose Bowl to USC, but Miami defeated #7 Alabama 33-25 in the Sugar Bowl. Now the voters had to decide if they would reward the team with the better resume or the team that had won the head to head battle. Ultimately, the voters decided the head to head victory gave the edge to the Hurricanes, crowning them the 1989 national champions. Thus, Notre Dame finished #2 in the AP Poll with a 12-1 record. Though his team did not win a title, the 1989 team may have been the best of the Holtz area, recording victories over the conference champion of the Pac-10, Big 10, ACC, and Big Eight.
Heading into the 1990 season, Lou Holtz has established such a dominant program that nothing short of a national championship would suffice for the fan base. Thanks to the sustained recruiting success, the Irish were oozing talent all over the field. On offense, Tony Brooks, Ricky Watters, and Rodney Culver presented a three headed monster in the backfield. At quarterback, Rick Mirer took over for Tony Rice. Rocket Ismail was the top receiver for the Irish. Defensively, Notre Dame returned Chris Zorich, Todd Lyght, and Michael Stonebreaker. Notre Dame received the nod as the preseason #1. In a game played under the lights, Notre Dame opened the season against #4 Michigan. Notre Dame jumped out to a 14-3 lead, yet trailed 24-14 heading into the 4th quarter. Mirer, in his first career start, helped lead the team to 14 points in the last quarter. An 18 yard touchdown pass with 1:41 remaining in the game helped Notre Dame win 28-24, recording their 4th straight win over Michigan. In week 2, Notre Dame found themselves trailing #24 Michigan State 19-14 late in the 4th quarter. Mirer led the final drive of the day, bringing the team to the Spartan 26 yard line with under a minute to go. On the next play, Rick Mirer threw a pass that hit Michigan State linebacker, Todd Murray directly in the chest. Instead of an interception, the ball bounced straight into the air and into the hands of Irish receiver, Adrian Jarrell at the Spartan 2 yard line. With 34 seconds remaining on the clock, Rodney Culver punched the ball into the end zone, and Notre Dame escaped with a 20-19 victory. After an easy 37-11 win over Purdue, Notre Dame suffered an uncharacteristic loss to an unranked Stanford team. Unfazed by Notre Dame’s 19 game home win streak, the Cardinal took advantage of a Rocket Ismail injury, 2 fumbled punts from the new punt returners, and a dropped pass by the Irish in the end zone on the game’s final play to win 36-31. The Irish rebounded to win their next 5 games, highlighted by a 29-20 win over #2 Miami at home and a 34-29 win over #9 Tennessee on the road. Standing at 8-1, Holtz saw his squad rise back up to #1 as the team prepared to face #18 Penn State at home. Leading 21-7, it appeared as though Notre Dame was on its way to another win over a ranked foe. However, Ismail did not play in the 2nd half after re-aggravating a deep thigh bruise he suffered against Stanford. With the offense stymied, the Nittany Lions came roaring back and kicked a 34 yard field goal with 4 seconds left to win 24-21. The ugly loss dropped Notre Dame to #7 in the rankings and effectively ended any chance at a title.
Following a laborious 10-6 win over #18 USC on the road, Holtz prepared his team for a rematch with #1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl. Similar to the 1990 Orange Bowl, the 1991 game was evenly matched. Trailing 3-0, Notre Dame scored a touchdown in the 2nd quarter. In a play that would loom large, the Buffaloes were able to block the extra point as Notre Dame entered halftime with a 6-3 lead. Colorado added a touchdown in the 3rd quarter, while Notre Dame countered with a field goal. The score remained 10-9 late into the 4th quarter. What happened next will live forever in the minds of Irish fans. With 1:05 left in the game, Colorado decided to punt the ball to the dangerous Ismail. He fielded the ball at his own 9 yard line and proceeded to break several tackles, regained his balance, and raced up the sidelines for a 91 yard touchdown. There was only one problem; Notre Dame was flagged for an extremely controversial clipping penalty, negating the touchdown. Notre Dame went on to lose the game 10-9. An extremely subdued Holtz stated after the game, “The return by Rocket Ismail was one of the greatest individual efforts I’ve seen. That was incredible. I don’t know if the clip had anything at all to do with the run—I sure hope it did.” The penalty notwithstanding, Notre Dame had no one to blame but themselves. Five turnovers, 2 missed field goals, and a blocked extra point certainly were not the referees’ fault. It was an unusual performance for a Holtz-coached team in such a big moment. Notre Dame ended the season 9-3, with the losses coming by a combined total of 9 points. Reflecting how close Notre Dame came to glory in 1990, they finished the season ranked #6 as many were left to wonder what might have been.
ntering the 1991 season, the pressure was mounting for Holtz. After winning a title in 1988, the 1989 team controversially missed out on repeating as national champions, and suffering 3 losses in 1990. Was the short-lived dynasty over already? Based on the offensive talent on the field, it would be hard to argue that it was. Mirer returned for his 2nd season at quarterback. Jerome Bettis, Tony Brooks, and Derek Brown formed a potent collection of offensive weapons. Although the offense was well-stocked, there was a lack of elite defensive talent. For the first time in 3 seasons, Notre Dame would not have a 1st team All-American on defense.
Beginning the year ranked #7, Notre Dame scored 49 points en route to a season-opening 49-27 win over Indiana. In week 2, Michigan finally defeated Notre Dame for the first time in five tries, winning 24-14. As had been the case throughout Holtz’s tenure in South Bend, his team responded to adversity. The team went on a 7 game winning streak, including a 42-7 drubbing over #12 Pittsburgh. In the process, Notre Dame worked its way back up to #5 in the polls and appeared to quell the rumblings that the Irish program was on the decline. Next up, Notre Dame faced #13 Tennessee. Midway through the 2nd quarter, Notre Dame held a comfortable 31-7 lead. The Irish lined up for a field goal with under a minute to go in the half when the craziness started. The Volunteers blocked the kick, returning it for an 85 yard touchdown. In the 2nd half, the visitors proceeded to outscore Notre Dame 21-3. Giving themselves a sliver of hope, Notre Dame drove 66 yards in just under 4 minutes to set up a 27 yard field goal. Alas, walk-on kicker Rob Leonard, who had to sub in after Craig Hentrich’s injury following the 2nd quarter blocked field goal, missed a 27 yard field goal Holtz summed it up best saying, “This is the most disappointed I’ve ever been in my life.” The schedule did not let up as Notre Dame had to travel to face #8 Penn State. Holtz could not combat the hangover from the previous week as the game spiraled out of control in the 1st half. Penn State scored 21 points in the 1st quarter on their way to a 35-13 beat down. Seemingly at a loss, Holtz remarked after the game, “I told my wife yesterday that this thing could get ugly. And it did. It got very, very ugly.” Despite the atrocious performances, and standing #18 in the polls, Notre Dame received an invite to the Sugar Bowl to take on SEC champion, Florida. Opposing fans were outraged, claiming the Irish were getting preferential treatment and did not belong in the game. Before they could play in the bowl, the Irish limped out to Honolulu to take on Hawaii in the regular season finale. The Irish again appeared to be on their way to a rout, holding a 28-10 lead. However, the defense’s inadequacies reared their ugly head yet again, surrendering 32 points in the 2nd half. The Irish hung on for dear life and managed a 48-42 win.
As bowl preparation began, Notre Dame defensive coordinator, Gary Darnell, left for Texas. This left Holtz in charge of the defensive scheme. Recognizing the struggles of the unit, he devised a game plan that would feature 9 defensive backs at times. Sensing his team may be in need of an emotional lift, Holtz decided the team would wear green jerseys for the game. He held off on telling the team until the day of the game. In a scene reminiscent of the 1977 “Green Jersey Game”, the team warmed up in their usual jersey before coming back to the locker room to find white jerseys with green numbers hanging in their lockers. The team used the emotional boost to shock many in the country, defeating the #3 Gators 39-28. The win helped to stem the negative momentum that was building around the program in recent months and proved Holtz was among the best big game coaches in the country. Holtz could take solace in the fact that finishing the year at 10-3, ranked #13 in the country, was considered a down year under his watch.
Lost in the commotion of the end of the 1991 season was that fact that the football program had lost a significant battle with administration. Previously, Holtz and Vinny Cerrato had done an excellent job negotiating with the admissions department to get athletes who were at-risk academically admitted into the university. Notre Dame had even developed a promising track record with helping these students graduate on time. For whatever reason in 1991, the admissions department put their foot down. A large portion of the Irish’s 1992 recruiting class had come to campus for recruiting visits in December; only to find out they had been denied entry into the school based on academic grounds. After luring so many talented players to South Bend, Cerrato determined administration would be unlikely to reverse course in the coming year. Reading the writing on the wall, he left to take a scouting position with the San Francisco 49ers. Though the team would continue to produce at an elite level on the field for the next couple of years, Notre Dame was unable to consistently recruit the type of players needed to sustain success moving forward. Unbeknownst at the time, the admissions department played a pivotal role in the demise of the Holtz dynasty.
After losing the recruiting battle with administration, the program began preparations for the 1992 season. Coming off the impressive bowl win, Notre Dame began the year ranked #3. Entering his senior season, Rick Mirer returned as starting quarterback. Notre Dame cruised to a 42-7 victory over Northwestern in their opener. Facing #6 Michigan in week 2, Notre Dame rallied from a 17-7 4th quarter deficit and were tied 17-17 with the Wolverines. Following an Irish interception, Notre Dame took over on their own 12 yard line with a little over a minute to play. Holtz called for a run play up the middle on 1st down, which went nowhere and drew a penalty. Two pass plays were called but both feel incomplete and the game ended in a tie. Many felt Holtz had played for the tie at the end of the game, and he drew heavy criticism as a result. Holtz completely denied this stating, “We’ve worked too hard for too long to settle for a tie. We were going for the win.” Dropping to #7 following the tie, Notre Dame defeated Michigan State and Purdue in back to back weeks. Next up, #18 Stanford came to town. Another easy win appeared to be in the cards after Notre Dame took a 9-0 lead less than 3 minutes into the game. However, after a touchdown with 11 minutes left in the 2nd quarter, Notre Dame would not score the rest of the day. Taking advantage of 5 Irish turnovers, Stanford scored 33 unanswered to stun the Irish, 33-16. With their chances at a title virtually dashed, Notre Dame rebounded to steamroll their next 4 opponents.. After steamrolling #9 Boston College by the score of 54-7 , Notre Dame hosted #22 Penn State in the famous Snow Bowl game. With 25 seconds left in the game, Notre Dame trailed 17-16. On the ensuing play, Mirer stepped back to pass and found Jerome Bettis for a 4 yard touchdown. Electing to go for the win, Holtz called for a 2 point conversion, which succeeded after Mirer found Reggie Brooks for a 3 yard pass. In one of the more thrilling finishes in the history of Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame edged Penn State 17-16 as they won their 5th straight game. Continuing their stretch against ranked opponents, the Irish traveled to Los Angeles to take on the #19 USC Trojans to finish the regular season. Entering the game several players were battling the flu, including running back Reggie Brooks. However, a person wouldn’t have known it from watching Brooks run for 232 yards and 3 touchdowns. His efforts propelled Notre Dame to a 31-23 victory, giving the Irish their 10th straight win over USC. Thanks to the late season resurgence, #5 Notre Dame earned a Cotton Bowl bid against undefeated Texas A&M, who was ranked #4 in the county. Watching the game, it would have been hard to tell who was playing for a shot at a national championship and who was playing for pride. Notre Dame whipped the Aggies, recording a 28-3 victory. Notre Dame held a 439-165 advantage in total yardage, surrendered only 11 first downs, and held the Aggies to 3/12 on 3rd down conversions. Jerome Bettis powered the offense with 3 touchdowns, though Rick Mirer took home MVP honors. After facing harsh criticism early in the year, Holtz demonstrated his coaching prowess down the stretch as the Irish went 4-0 against ranked teams to finish the season. His 7th team finished 9-1-1 and finished #4 in the country.
Heading into the 1993 season, a national championship did not appear to be in the cards. Gone were key contributors from previous teams, such as Rick Mirer, Jerome Bettis, Reggie Brooks, Irv Smith, and Tom Carter. Though those losses were substantial, the Irish still began the year ranked #7. The team began the year with an easy 27-12 win over Northwestern. Next up was a trip to Ann Arbor to face #3 Michigan, a program riding a 20 game regular season winning streak. Jumping out to a 24-10 lead at halftime, Notre Dame made several key plays in the 2nd half to hold on for a 27-23 win. Over the next 7 weeks, Notre Dame would face 7 unranked opponents, defeating them all. The smallest margin of victory over that time period was 17 points. Along the way, Notre Dame ascended to #2 behind Florida State, a team they were set to face on November 13th in South Bend.
The showdown with the Seminoles caused quite the circus in South Bend. Billed as the “Game of the Century”, ESPN brought its college football show, College Gameday, to a college campus for the first time ever. The Seminoles came in with soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner, Charlie Ward, at quarterback. Moreover, the Seminoles had 24 players on the 1993 team that would go on to the NFL. The talent disparity clear, it seemed that only a miracle from the heavens would allow Notre Dame to win this contest. However, once the action on the field began, Notre Dame appeared to be the better team. The Irish held a 24-7 lead early in the 3rd quarter when Florida State began to answer back. Having been harassed for much of the day, Ward helped to engineer 3 scoring drives over the last quarter and a half to leave the Irish ahead by only 7. However, late in the 4th quarter, Notre Dame recovered an onside kick attempt looking to milk the clock. Unfortunately, they could not move the ball and were forced to punt after 3 plays. Florida State took control on their own 37 yard line and moved down to the Irish 14 yard line in 5 plays. With enough time left for two plays, the crowd was in a frenzy, seemingly willing the defense to make a stand. After an incompletion, the Seminoles had time for one last pass into the end zone. On the play, Ward rolled to his left and fired the ball into the end zone where Shawn Wooden was waiting to knock the pass down allowing Notre Dame to secure a 31-24 win. After the game, Holtz commented, “To me the mystique of Notre Dame is faith in belief. The biggest problem with this team, I thought, was getting them to believe.”
The monumental win elevated the Irish to #1 in the country with 1 game left in the regular season. Unfortunately, it seemed the team took Holtz’s comment from the previous week to heart and believed a little too much against #17 Boston College. The Eagles owned much of the day, leading 38-17 in the 4th quarter. Suddenly, the Irish awoke and scored 22 points in 9:03 to take a 39-38 lead with just over a minute remaining. We all know what happened next. Boston College drove down to kick a 41 yard game-winning field goal as time expired. The loss knocked Notre Dame from its #1 ranking, a spot which they would not return to for nearly 20 years thereafter.
Heading into the bowl season, Florida State was somehow ranked #1 ahead of unbeaten Nebraska and West Virginia, as well as Notre Dame. Notre Dame was set to face #7 Texas A&M in a Cotton Bowl rematch. Florida State was set to face #2 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, while #3 West Virginia faced off against #8 Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Holtz and Irish fans clung to the belief that if both unbeaten teams lost, Notre Dame would be awarded the 1993 National Championship based on a head to head tiebreaker with the Seminoles. In the Cotton Bowl, Notre Dame appeared headed for another rout of the Aggies following an opening touchdown drive. Things would not be so easy the rest of the game. The Aggies scored the next 14 points of the game, holding a 14-7 halftime advantage. At halftime, Holtz laid into the team, asking for 22 players who wanted to win the game to sign their names on the chalkboard. The speech worked, and Notre Dame came out in the 3rd quarter a different team. Scoring two touchdowns in the quarter, Notre Dame was tied with A&M at 21 heading into the final quarter. No one would score until an Irish 31 field goal went through the uprights with 2:22 left in the game. The Notre Dame defense stoned the Aggies on 2 more possessions, allowing the team to hold on for a 24-21 win. In the other bowl games, both Nebraska and West Virginia lost. This meant that every team in the country had one loss. Going off of the logic used against the Notre Dame program in 1989, voters were more concerned with head to head results than strength of schedule. However, this time around the script was flipped, and the Irish were burned again as the voters awarded the national championship to Florida State. Many felt part of the reason the Seminoles won the title was because Bobby Bowden was still seeking his 1st title, while Holtz already had 1 title to his name. Dumbfounded, Holtz remarked after the season, “I don’t think there is any doubt in my mind, we are the best.” Regardless of his thoughts, Notre Dame had to settle for a #2 rank and an 11-1 record on the year as another championship slipped through Holtz’s grasp.
Coming off another magnificent season in 1993, the pollsters threw their faith behind the Irish again, ranking them #2 to begin the year. What quickly became apparent was that this team was not a vintage Holtz squad. Things began innocently enough with a blowout victory over Northwestern to begin the year. The following week, Notre Dame scored a touchdown with 52 seconds remaining to take a 24-23 lead against #6 Michigan. However, the defense, which had started to show signs of slippage in 1993, provided little resistance on Michigan’s last drive. The Wolverines were able to drive down for a 42 yard field goal as time expired, handing the Irish a 26-24 loss. Over the next three weeks Notre Dame would defeat Michigan State, Purdue, and Stanford teams, all of whom would finish below .500. Next up, the #8 Irish faced unranked Boston College. Seeking revenge from the previous year, Notre Dame instead fell flat on their face and lost 30-11. A second consecutive loss came occurred at home against #25 BYU as the team fell out of the rankings completely. The season was quickly slipping away from Holtz. After beating Navy, Notre Dame hung tough against #8 Florida State, ultimately suffering a 23-17 loss against the vastly superior Seminole team. Normalcy was restored with a win over an above-average Air Force team. After a short hiatus, wackiness returned in the regular season finale against #17 USC. Notre Dame led 17-10 with just over 5 minutes left in the game. Following an Irish drive that put them in scoring territory, the Irish lined up for a field goal. Instead of adding to their lead, Notre Dame allowed a blocked kick that USC ran back for a touchdown. Neither team would score the remainder of the game as a 17-17 tie resulted. Standing at 6-4-1 and unranked, Notre Dame was selected over a 1 loss Alabama team to face #4 Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl. Predictably, the game was a blowout. At one point the Buffaloes held a 31-3 lead before Notre Dame rallied to make the score a more respectable 41-24 final.
In a complete head scratcher of a season, Notre Dame finished the year at 6-5-1 and unranked. Holtz had suffered occasional losses to inferior opponents during his time in South Bend to be sure. Yet it was hard to understand how the once dominant Irish had lost to 3 teams that would finish outside of the Top 25. Though many did not realize it at the time, the loss of Vinny Cerrato was beginning to take its toll. Simply put, the program lacked the star power it had enjoyed during the late 80s and early 90s.
The start of the 1995 season to did little erase the belief that college football was passing Lou Holtz by. Ranked #9, Notre Dame fell to an upstart Northwestern team that would go on to win the Big Ten that season. Three wins over Purdue, Vanderbilt, and #13 Texas helped restore some faith in the program. Of note, Holtz had to have surgery on September 12th to remove a bulging disc in his neck. With Holtz unable to coach, Bob Davie received interim head coach tag against Vanderbilt. Upon returning against Texas, Holtz coached from the press box for a good portion of the season as he recovered. Following the 3 game win streak, the team traveled to Columbus to take on #7 Ohio State. Notre Dame came out strong against the Buckeyes, leading 20-14 late in the 4th quarter. Over the next 7 minutes of time on the game clock, it seemed as if the Irish players had been replaced by a junior varsity squad. Three Irish turnovers led to 21 straight points for the Buckeyes, who pulled away for a 45-26 win. The Irish rebounded the following week with a 29-21 road victory over #15 Washington. Prior to facing #5 USC, Notre Dame was slated to face Army. Holtz entered the game 17-0 against service academies, though his perfect record was nearly tarnished on this day. Trailing 28-21 with 2:33 left in the game and standing on the Irish 42 yard line, Army began driving for the game-tying score. With 43 seconds left, Army scored on a 7 yard pass. Smelling blood in the water, Army went for the win. On the 2 point conversion, an Army receiver caught the ball on the 2 yard line, seemingly heading in for the score. Instead, in one of the most iconic tackles in Irish Football history, 160 lb cornerback Ivory Covington met the player head on and drove him out of bounds at the 1 yard line, giving Notre Dame a narrow 28-27 win. The following week against USC, a completely different Irish team took the field. In a vintage Holtzian performance, Notre Dame whipped USC 38-10. To close the year, Notre Dame defeated Boston College, Navy, and Air Force. Sitting at #6, Notre Dame finished the year in the Orange Bowl against #8 Florida State. Lacking the stakes of the 2 previous contests, the game appeared to be headed for a blowout early in the 4th quarter. Within the first 5 minutes of the quarter, Notre Dame scored a touchdown and forced a safety to grab a 26-14 lead. Following the sequence, it was all Seminoles the rest of the way. Florida State scored 17 straight points to steal a 31-26 win from the Irish. The up and down season saw Notre Dame finish with a 9-3 record and a #11 ranking in the final AP Poll of the year.
s the 1996 season began, all seemed normal in South Bend. The Irish were again ranked in the preseason top 10, a major bowl bid was the expectation, and Lou Holtz was roaming the sidelines. However, in a few short months, the football program would be turned upside down. The season began with a rare Thursday night contest against Vanderbilt, which the Irish won 14-7. After whipping Purdue, Notre Dame went on the road to faced #6 Texas. Incredibly, the Irish trailed 24-17 with just under 3 minutes remaining in the game before rallying for 10 points, the last 3 of which came on a 39 yard field goal as time expired. The last second field goal gave Notre Dame a heart-stopping 27-24 win. Rising to #5 in the polls, Notre Dame played host to #4 Ohio State the following week. The typically strong Irish run game was held to 44 yards rushing. With the vaunted Irish ground game held in check, the Buckeyes scored a 29-16 victory. After bouncing back with a 54-20 win over #16 Washington, Notre Dame shot itself in the foot with its performance against Air Force the following week. Ron Powlus coughed up 3 fumbles on the day. These turnovers helped the Falcons hang around and force overtime. In the first overtime period, Powlus again fumbled the ball and killed the Irish drive. Air Force managed a field goal on their 1st possession, giving them a 20-17 win over the Irish. Plummeting from #8 to #19 in the polls, the Irish were still in good shape for a major bowl bid at the end of the year. Over the next 3 weeks, Notre Dame would defeat Navy, Boston College, and Pittsburgh. With their record sitting at 7-2, all appeared well. However, the week before the Rutgers game a bombshell was dropped on college football.
On November 19, 1996, Lou Holtz met with the media for his customary Tuesday press conference. At the press conference, Holtz informed the media that he would be resigning from Notre Dame, effective at the end of the season. No reason was provided for the abrupt resignation, but Holtz did mention that he did not want to pass Knute Rockne for the all-time wins record at Notre Dame. Prior to the Rutgers game, Rockne stood at 105 wins, while Holtz had 99 victories. Holtz stated, “I cannot honestly give you a reason for my resignation, except to say I feel it is the right thing to do. I have no desire to become the all-time winningest coach at Notre Dame. The record belongs to Knute Rockne or some other coach in the future. I am comfortable leaving here with his record intact.”
There were several theories as to why Holtz left. One theory was that administration forced Holtz out because they wanted to preserve Rockne’s record. Another was that Holtz had grown weary of his battles with administration over recruits for the past several seasons. Harkening back to December of 1991, admissions had been making it more difficult for Holtz to get football recruits with less than stellar academic records admitted into the school. Holtz was still upset that Randy Moss had been denied enrollment at the university in 1995. The official reason provided was that Moss simply did not meet admission standards; however, the denial came right after Moss had been arrested for battery in a controversial fight at his high school. There were rumors that Holtz may go back to the NFL as a head coach. At the time, there was also an NCAA investigation into improper benefits provided by a booster. This investigation, which was completed after Holtz had left, ultimately led to a loss of 1 scholarship over the course of two seasons and the school was placed on probation. In addition, there was the possibility that Holtz was simply burnt out from living under the Notre Dame microscope for 11 seasons. Holtz even said years later, “I wasn’t tired of coaching. I was tired of maintaining…What I should have done was set dreams and goals and ambitions for this university and the football program that nobody thought was possible.” Ultimately, we will never know the real reason that Holtz decided to step aside.
Facing a lowly Rutgers team in Holtz’s final home game, the team rallied around their beloved coach to pummel the Scarlet Knights 62-0. Following the contest, Holtz delivered an emotional farewell to the fans.
With the team in position for a Fiesta or Cotton Bowl berth, Notre Dame traveled to USC for the regular season finale. Entering the game, Holtz held a 9-0-1 record against the Trojans. Early in the 4th quarter, Notre Dame led 14-12 when they scored a touchdown but missed the extra point, extending their lead to 20-12. The missed extra point would loom large later in the game when USC drove 67 yards for a late touchdown and converted the 2 point conversion to force overtime. In their 2nd overtime game of the season, Notre Dame surrendered a touchdown to the Trojans on their 1st possession but could not match the touchdown while on offense. Thus, the Trojans scored a 27-20 upset victory and recorded their 1st win against the legendary Irish coach. The loss wiped away any chance of a major bowl berth. Administration turned down an invite to play Auburn in the Independence Bowl as they felt the bowl and opponent were beneath them. Stunningly, a once promising season, along with the Holtz era came to an abrupt end. After 11 years of coaching the Irish, Holtz was finished in South Bend.
There is no denying the impact that Lou Holtz had on Notre Dame. Many still point to his time in South Bend as the golden era of Notre Dame Football. As the coach of Notre Dame, Holtz had a .765 winning percentage, captured the 1988 National Championship, participated in 9 major bowls in 11 seasons, and went 32-20-2 against ranked opponents. Furthermore, Holtz had separate 23 game and 17 game win streaks during his time at Notre Dame. In nearly half of his seasons (5), the Irish finished in the top 6 of the AP Poll. He sent 74 players to the NFL and coached 10 consensus All-Americans. While at Notre Dame, Holtz never shied away from facing stiff competition. He routinely went up against the likes of Michigan, USC, Miami, Florida State, Colorado, and Texas A&M. Compared to today’s college football, there were more programs jockeying for the national title on an annual basis.. Along with the on field success, Holtz played a large part in the 4 consecutive #1 ranked recruiting classes from 1987-1990. Though the recruiting dipped after Vinny Cerrato left town, part of the blame has to lie at the feet of administration that drew a hard line in the sand regarding what type of prospect they would admit to school. As a coach, Holtz was among one of the best motivators in his profession. He helped create traditions at Notre Dame such as the last names of the players not being on jerseys, as well as installing the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign in locker room. His personality played a key role in turning the program around once he arrived in South Bend and was a key component to his teams’ success year in and year out. Though he did not play a part in the direct negotiations, his on field success helped Notre Dame to land a deal with NBC to televise all Notre Dame home games beginning in 1991, further helping to promote the Notre Dame brand. About the only negative against Holtz was that the tail end of his career paled in comparison to what he accomplished prior to 1994. However, it is a testament to what he built that the 3 loss seasons in 1995 and 1996 were looked down upon for essentially being failures. Holtz’s candidacy may have received a boost if he had been able to capture a national title in 1989 or 1993. However, many of those circumstances were out of his control. In 1989, he lost the head to head but had a better overall strength of schedule. In 1993, he won the head to head but did not have as strong of a resume as Florida State. Ultimately, Holtz is one of college football’s most iconic coaches. He helped get the program back on track after a brief period of mediocrity. He will forever live on in Notre Dame history as one of the most successful coaches ever to roam the sidelines.
Stay tuned to find out who ends up at #3 on my list of “Top Ten Greatest Notre Dame Football Head Coaches.” Below are links to the other profiles in the series.