Notre Dame can take lessons from past to move past Texas loss
A blueprint for bouncing back
Let’s see if this sounds familiar.
In 1995, Notre Dame entered the season with a top-10 ranking. In the opener, the Irish met Northwestern, a team it had defeated handily the year before. Lou Holtz’s team was favored to win.
“We definitely thought we were going to do big things, and none of us — I can say this with honesty in retrospect — really expected that team that showed up from Northwestern,” said Randy Kinder, a starting running back for Notre Dame in 1995. “We beat up on them the year before. Northwestern was one of those teams that you didn’t really think, ‘OK, they’re going to give us a fight.’ Turned out, it was their best team in history.”
Northwestern, which turned in a 3-7-1 record in 1994, defeated ninth-ranked Notre Dame 17-15 in South Bend, then went on to win 10 games and earn a berth in the Rose Bowl.
The Irish, on the other hand, were suddenly searching for answers.
“A lot of (the players in the locker room) were stunned, not really understanding how that could happen,” Kinder recalled. “We’d lost some games that we should have won the year before, so unfortunately, we’d become a little bit accustomed to that part of it.
“But we had a great camp. We thought we were all on the same page. It was really hard to get our arms around it.”
Added former Irish linebacker Bertrand Berry: “It’s still one of the more stinging losses in my career.”
In this case, the past provides parallels. Like in 1995, the 2016 Irish entered the season with a top-10 ranking. Like in 1995, they met a team they had defeated handily the year before. Like in 1995, Notre Dame was favored to win.
It didn’t. Again.
But luckily for the Irish, the past also provides proof — proof that an unfortunate opener won’t necessarily smother a promising season. Proof that, given the right blend of players and coaches, the calamitous beginning doesn’t have to be the end.
In 1995, Notre Dame rebounded from its season-opening loss to win nine of its next 10 games.
It can be done. But how?
“When you’re on a team that has had historical successes but is going through a tough time, you kind of have to forget everything and rebuild yourself,” Kinder said. “I just remember working really hard that next week, because we knew we were better than what we were showing.
“It absolutely was (difficult to put the loss behind us) … for that Saturday night and Sunday, until we started practice. That’s a function of coach Holtz. He was going to beat the hell out of us. We worked really hard to move on from it.”
But though the Irish may move on, most won’t. The fans won’t. The media won’t.
The critics will multiply, spewing negativity on social media.
“Thank God there was not social media (in 1995), believe me,” Kinder said. “I tried at the time to not read anything. I had friends who would tell me what was written about it.”
Added Berry: “I remember a lot of people taking a lot of joy in watching us fall. I think that’s one thing that really motivated us.
“We knew that, if we were to do something, it was going to be against everybody else. The only people that were going to be with us were our fans, our teammates and coaches, our parents. That’s it. It was basically us against everybody.”
That adversity, though uninvited, served to unite the ’95 Irish. It humbled them. It hardened them.
It set them back, then pushed them forward.
“When you have a loss like that, any of the noise you heard leading up to the season about rankings goes away,” Kinder said. “It focuses the brain. It’s much harder for these guys today with so much media. But for us, it really was, ‘OK, screw everything else. Let’s go.’ We had a pretty (darn) good season after that.”
Holtz’s team won nine of its next 10 games, before falling narrowly in the Orange Bowl to Florida State, 31-26. The season didn’t end with a national championship.
But it didn’t end against Northwestern on Sept. 2, either.
“I’m still the most proud of that team, because after that loss a lot of people wrote us off,” Berry said. “We just refused to give in. We refused to buy into that narrative. It didn’t feel like that was the end. It never felt like our season was over after that game.”
Notre Dame’s 2016 season isn’t over, either. Following a season-opening 50-47 overtime loss at Texas, the Irish host Nevada in their home opener on Saturday. Games against Michigan State, Stanford and USC all loom in the distance.
Kelly’s team still has plenty to play for, and even more to improve.
“They have a good nucleus where I don’t think they’re going to mail it in the rest of the way,” Kinder said. “They have some big games coming up. Not to overlook anybody, but they’ve got some real tests.
“If things go right, the trajectory of the season can change from where it is right now really quickly. This group is smart enough to know that and I’d hope coach Kelly is really putting that into them right now, because anything can happen.”
Last weekend, anything and everything did happen. But that was last weekend.
Irish eyes are set on Nevada.
“When does a fan get over it? Wednesday? Thursday? Our guys have to get back to work,” Kelly said on Tuesday. “They're going to be practicing today. We get 24 hours to think about it, watch the film, grade it and then we move on. Last night we started watching Nevada, so it's a quick turnaround.
“Whether it's a high or a low, there is a routine amongst football programs and this team in particular that we move on pretty quickly.”
The 1995 Irish moved on. They bounced back.
Maybe, in this case, there are more parallels still to come.
“We used that loss to really fuel us the rest of the way,” Berry said. “It was a blessing in disguise.”