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Notre Dame Football 1999: Looking Back at the ‘Heads of the Class’

The class of 1999 was remarkably close

Michigan V Notre Dame
Jamie Spencer ran for 185 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries and caught six passes for 54 yards and a score in four games after Mark Edwards’ knee injury in 1996.

After highlighting the Notre Dame Fighting Irish win over Tom Brady and the Michigan Wolverines last week, I thought I’d look a little closer at the class of 1999. I found this fantastic article written by Corey Spinelli, in the 1998 Scholastic Notre Dame Football Review, that I think you all will absolutely love. In February of 1995, 25 high school seniors signed letters of intent to play football for the University of Notre Dame, and their lives would be changed forever.

Heads of the Class

Look in any of the gameday programs sold outside the Stadium on football Saturdays and you will see this year’s seniors cast in an ugly light. The group whose efforts have received nothing but praise from men like Father Malloy to George Steinbrenner have less-than-flattering head shots inside. The pictures were taken in August of 1996 and feature the freshly shaved heads of most of the 23 rookies who had just arrived in South Bend. Oddly enough, the act symbolized the beginning of the bonds of friendship that, four years later, are now unbreakable.

“We knew that the seniors were going to do it eventually, so we just did it ourselves,” fullback Jamie Spencer says. Coach Lou Holtz had decided to move the Irish’s fall camp to Culver Military Academy, and workouts were grueling. These weeks served as the first of many trying times that the heavily lauded recruiting class would endure in their years at Notre Dame. “We had to stick together as a class, because, being freshmen, we were at the bottom rungs of the ladder,” Spencer says. “It might seem weird, but we gelled together instantly, and even though we came in from all over the country, it was as if we had known each other for a long time. We leaned on each other, learned together and suffered together during that time, and decided that no matter what happened in the future, we’d always be there for each other.

The pact would serve them well during their often tumultuous stay under the gaze of the hottest spotlight in college sports. The ‘95 freshman unit included multiple USA Today First-Team All Americans, and every member of the group arrived with suitcases full of accolades. This was the group that was supposed to bring Holtz his second official national championship. In their four years, however, the team would never escape a September undefeated and they would lose Lou Holtz, the man who recruited them, after only three semesters. How they dealt with losses both on and off the field, how they endured a season with six losses and how they rededicated themselves and found success in their final year is what enabled each one of the remaining members of the Class of ‘99 to triumphantly walk off their home turf for the last time with their golden helmets held high.

In ‘95, a veteran-laden squad led the Irish through a 9-2 regular season and into the Orange Bowl. Few members of the class saw action that season, but those that did made an immediate impact. Kory Minor started every game, Hunter Smith handled the punting duties, Bobbie Howard successfully filled in at linebacker in only the second game of the season and a newly-converted tailback named Autry Denson showed flashes of brilliance with the football in his hands.

“There has never been a group of young men who have represented this University, who have shown more heart, more dedication, who have worked harder, who have been more successful and will continue to be successful as they move forward.” Rev. E. William Beauchamp C.S.C.

In ‘96 expectations were high, but an early season loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes thwarted any title hopes before the leaves had even fallen from the trees on campus. An embarrassing loss in the stadium to Air Force and a collapse in the Coliseum against Southern Cal ended the season before December. The Irish finished 8-3, and instead of playing in a major bowl, stayed home for the holidays. Even more damaging to the psyche of the then-sophomore class was the departure of the man many of them had come to Notre Dame to play for. “Coach Holtz was the main reason we came here,” Spencer says. “We saw a stable situation at the top and a program that had been extremely successful for his entire career. He drew us close to him, and made better players and better people out of all of us.”

The question of how to deal with the shakeup in the coaching department was foremost on the minds of the players as they returned from Christmas break. Rumors of multiple transfers permeated the campus. “We all got together and talked about what to do,” Spencer says. “A few players pointed out the fact that we had unfinished business to take care of, and everyone agreed that we’d remain here as a class and stick it out.”

The 7-6 season that followed under the first year of Bob Davie’s reign resulted from a variety of factors. Adapting to a new coaching staff, key injuries at crucial positions, a glaring lack of contributors in the ‘98 senior class and an early season aversion to establishing the running game resulted in a shocking 1-4 start. Notre Dame would win six of its final eight to set a foundation for the following season.

“We realized that this was now our last shot at achieving our goals,” Spencer says. “People were pointing a lot of fingers at why we didn’t win in ‘98, but it ultimately came down to us putting in the work and going out and doing the job on the football field. We recommitted ourselves all over again and followed Coach Marotti’s strength program. The sky was the limit to what we could achieve, so we all put in the maximum hours in the off-season to prepare us for the fall.”

As if the losses in their junior year weren’t bad enough, their program was pelted with criticism from allover the country as they prepared to battle the defending national champion Michigan Wolverines in their home opener. An age discrimination suit brought against Davie and the university by former offensive line coach Joe Moore made the program’s dirty laundry public. Then, a convict named Kim Dunbar was linked to the program and charged with giving valuable gifts to a number of Irish players, both former and current.

With 15 seniors slated as starters as the season opened, it was readily apparent that the success of the ‘98 Fighting Irish rested squarely on the collective shoulders of the class with the great expectations. In their first chance to display their determination to the country, they shocked everyone but themselves and trounced the Maize and Blue. “We worked too long and hard in the off-season not to succeed,’ Spencer says. “Everyone had assumed that the summer incidents had bothered us, but that was never the case. We were clearly focused on our goals and expected to beat Michigan.”

Following a loss the next week in East Lansing, critics wondered if a repeat of ‘97 was in store, when the Irish won their home opener, stumbled the next week and dropped from the rankings not long after. The seniors would not let it happen. Before Jarious Jackson’s injury, the Irish won eight consecutive games, pulling them within one win of both the top 10 and a possible Bowl Championship bid. In other words, they returned Notre Dame to national prominence.

“We had a successful season, exceeded expectations and laid the foundation for the future,” Spencer says. “Our freshman year, the starters left everything out on the field, and we did that this season.” Their coach agrees. “These seniors were unselfish,” Davie said.

“They didn’t concern themselves with personal recognition. They didn’t worry about all-star teams, they didn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about the NFL draft or the combine. This is truly a special senior class, and a pleasure to be around.”

At the 79th annual football banquet, Executive Vice President Rev. E. William Beauchamp took Davie ‘s sentiments a step further. “We have had 100-some football teams at Notre Dame,” Beauchamp said. “There have been national championships and seasons marked by greatness. But I can say that there has never been a group of young men who have represented this university, who have shown more heart, more dedication, who have worked harder, who have been more successful and will continue to be successful as they move forward.”

And how do the Irish seniors feel about their time spent wearing the Blue and Gold? “Admittedly, it is disappointing that we didn’t win a national championship after all that we expected to achieve here,” Spencer says. “But Notre Dame makes you a man, it teaches you how to be accountable for yourself. We all could have gone to the schools with the glitz and the glamour and an easier chance at a ring, but the ring doesn’t do anything for you when you hit the real world. I’d rather go 9-3 with a degree and the experience of Notre Dame.

“As for my teammates, I’ll remember being around quality people every day,” Spencer says. “I’ll remember guys with genuine intentions, different personalities with the same goal in common. We always put the team first, and as a result, there is a bond there that is unbreakable.”

“We leaned on each other, learned tog-ether and suffered together during that time” and decided that no matter what happened in the fulure, we’d always be there for each other.” - Jamie Spencer

If you’d like to read more about the ‘99 seniors, check out more here in the 1998 Scholastic Notre Dame Football Review.

Until next week ...

Cheers & GO IRISH!