'88 champs hold special spot in ND lore

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

Superlatives can be tolerated, even encouraged, when trying to quantify the impact of Notre Dame’s 1988 national champions on college football.

A swagger that knew no bounds. Personalities as colorful as a rainbow. Chemistry that sealed any possible cracks.

From head coach Lou Holtz on down, these guys were bigger than life.

“It was a perfect storm,” said Frank Stams, a defensive end on that team who now lives in Akron, Ohio. “It was a chemistry experiment with a mad scientist named Lou Holtz that succeeded.

“It was the people that made that team special.

“That year doesn’t happen without Lou Holtz. He was the maestro. He took ahold of that team right away. It was a team that needed to be taken ahold of.

“The personalities on that team ran the gamut. They were anything but homogenous. Even the coaches’ personalities were really unique.”

That special combination and amazing run to what still is Notre Dame’s most recent national championship — a quarter-century ago — will be celebrated this weekend. Before, during and after Saturday’s game with Southern Cal, those heroes from ‘88 will command center stage.

“We had an unbelievable amount of talent,” said running back and co-captain Mark Green, who lives in Chicago. “When you consider the 11 starters on offense and 11 on defense, we had 21 of them picked in the NFL draft. That’s amazing.”

“Everybody put the team before individual goals,” said flanker Pat Eilers, who also lives in Chicago. “There was so much selflessness.

“Look at a guy like (safety) Corny Southall, the nicest guy on the planet. He played a lot the year before. They moved Pat Terrell over (from offense) that season and (as a senior) Corny didn’t get a lot of playing time. He was still positive and did what he could. That attitude permeated through the team.”

That championship season was defined by three games: A hard-fought defensive struggle over Michigan (19-17); the knock-down, drag-out war against Miami (31-30); and the win at Southern Cal (27-10), when Holtz shipped home offensive weapons Tony Brooks and Ricky Watters for violating team rules.

Ironically, the 34-21 Fiesta Bowl win over West Virginia was more of a given than a showdown.

“Coming into the Fiesta Bowl, we’re playing for a national championship, and Lou Holtz and his staff put in some new plays,” said Green. “In practice, guys were open by 10-15 yards. We said there would be no way that would work in a game. He said, ‘Trust me, they can’t stop it.’

“We barely threw all season. The staff put the pass in as part of the scheme and it worked.”

Quarterback Tony Rice completed only seven passes, but averaged more than 30 yards a completion.

“Those were huge plays,” Green said. “We had confidence how it would happen.”

Confidence was a big part of what made that team great, separating it from the others that were just good.

“We knew we had a good defense,” said linebacker Wes Pritchett, who lives in Atlanta. “We felt we were better than everybody else. I don’t know if it was a cocky arrogance, but that was our attitude. We didn’t have 11 personalities, we had a bond. I like to think I had something to do with it.

“We just played hard. Everybody (at Notre Dame) is Mr. Clean now. We were nasty. We played by the rules, but we weren’t afraid to throw dirt in your face. We had a real attitude.”

That attitude was established early in the season. The Irish stood their ground against Michigan and started a special run.

“Everybody talks about the Miami and the SC games being the most important of that season,” said Stams. “In my mind, it was Michigan. That game defined who we were. It got the ball rolling. It was just tough, hard-nosed, between-the-tackles, football.

“(Offensive line) coach (Joe) Moore rarely talked to anyone but his own guys. If he said something to someone who wasn’t an offensive lineman, it was either a compliment or ‘get your (butt) in gear.’

“After the Michigan game, he came over and complimented me on such a tough, physical game. That meant so much to me.”

“It all started in the offseason,” said linebacker Michael Stonebreaker, who is living back home in New Orleans. “Linebackers wanted to jump on the blocks (in conditioning drills) as high as defensive backs. Offensive linemen wanted to run as fast as running backs.

“That’s where the confidence started to build, with competition. There was a willingness to get along. We were all there for a common goal.

“Coach Holtz had some hard practices. If we were on Period 17 (5-minute periods, usually 20 or so in a practice), and he didn’t like what he saw, we’d go back to Period 8, and do it all over again.

“That’s when you started to see the dedication. We were all sacrificing and putting in the effort.

“I’m sure we were the underdogs going into the Michigan game. We’d hit their running backs on every play; we’d hit their receivers; we’d put a helmet in their mouths. Guys get worn out when you beat on them all day.

“That showed the impact we wanted to make.”

The impact reached a crescendo at midseason minutes before the game with Miami at Notre Dame Stadium. The Hurricanes rattled the cage, and the Irish came out fighting.

A pre-game skirmish in the tunnel set the tone for the rest of the game.

“I never felt the kind of a buzz (in Notre Dame Stadium) like there was for the Miami game,” Pritchett said. “I had a lot of hatred for Miami. When they ran through our (pre-game) drill, that was enough. We had a full-blown fight in the tunnel. Once we got to the locker room, I threw my helmet. A coach broke a chalk board.

“I broke my hand three or four plays into the game and never felt it. I made 15 tackles in the game with a hand that was broken in the first quarter. That’s how locked in I was.”

“(The Hurricanes) were known as a bunch of trash talkers,” said Stonebreaker. “They were not going to disrespect us. There wasn’t a lot of trash talking going on during the game. We just hit them every chance we had and never let up.”

Nothing said more about the collective character of that team than the win at Southern Cal. The night before the game, Holtz called a meeting with the seniors and starters to explain the situation with Brooks and Watters. Each player was given a vote.

“I was sitting directly to (Holtz’s) left,” said Stams. “Going through my mind, I was thinking, ‘Man, that’s an awful lot of production; we’re playing for a national championship.’ The offensive guys were sitting to coach Holtz’s right. He started (asking for a vote) to his right. They all gave thumbs down. By the time it got to me, I gave a thumbs down. I’m glad it didn’t start with me, I might have said, ‘Well, let’s talk about this a little more...’

“Is chemistry something you coach or recruit? I believe you recruit it. That situation showed coach Holtz’s leadership. He never wavered from his consistency.

“Then Mark Green steps into the role and is as solid as a rock.”

“Everything that happened at USC showed there was nothing more important than the team,” Eilers said. “The team made the decision.

“What I remember is (Stams) standing up in front of everyone saying, ‘All of you can go home to South Bend. I’ll kick USC’s (butt) all by myself.’ Once Frank sat down, it was over. Nobody was going to beat us.

“I was the backup punt returner (behind Watters). I hadn’t fielded a punt since early in the fall. Before the game, I told coach (Holtz), ‘Don’t worry about the punt returns.’ He said, ‘I won’t.’

“To me, a fair catch was like waving a white flag to surrender. I was a rock head. I wouldn’t do it. There was one I should have called against USC, but didn’t. I heard about it, but it was OK.”

“There was a somber mood in that meeting,” Stonebreaker said. “Coach Holtz talked to us about his expectations to follow the rules. There were no excuses not to do the right thing.

“We’re losing two productive running backs for the biggest game of the year. I remember (Stams) standing up and saying some things: He respected the decision, and we were going to kick (USC’s butt) anyway.

“The atmosphere in that room rivaled the atmosphere in the locker room after the fight in the tunnel before the Miami game. If someone could bottle that, they could make a million dollars.”

“The seniors met and we decided to send the guys home,” Pritchett said. “That wasn’t the attitude we were looking for. There wasn’t much discussion. It was like a Braveheart kind of meeting. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.”

“I remember what (New England Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady said before his third Super Bowl,” said Green, who shouldered most of the ground-game chores against SC that day. “Someone asked him if he was nervous. He said, ‘I would be if I weren’t so well prepared.’ That’s how I felt (before the Southern Cal game). I had started at tailback for three years. I just allowed my instincts to take over.”

The impact of that amazing season goes well beyond those 12 victories. Twenty-five years later, those men still embrace the lessons born from adversity and success.

“A journey like that taught me that if you work hard and want something bad enough to sacrifice, you can accomplish a lot,” said Pritchett. “It’s all about being driven.

“I called the defense. I’d look into 10 sets of eyes and I knew we were alright. Nobody was going to beat us.”

“I learned (from the USC situation) that there are things you’ll face in life that aren’t what we expect them to be,” said Stonebreaker. “You’ll get a curve ball. You have to learn and grow. You can’t dwell on it.

“Twenty-five years later, I understand how significant that season was. I understand what it takes to achieve the pinnacle. There are building blocks for everything that you can’t cheat. Life outside of football has been easier because of the lessons I’ve learned.”

“When you gain momentum, along with confidence, it’s amazing what you can accomplish,” said Green. “No matter who we played, we thought we could beat the (stuffing) out of everybody.

“Then, at one point in time, for one day, we were the best the United States of America had to offer in college football.

“No great feat can be accomplished without adversity. We survived that. We just had a bunch of winners.”

Perfect storm. Perfect season.

Certainly worth celebrating.

574-235-6318 ALesar@SBTinfo.com

West Virginia quarterback Major Harris runs away from Notre Dame's Wes Pritchett (34), Flash Gordon (38) and Chris Zorich (50) during the 1989 Fiesta Bowl. (SBT File Photo)