Monday, 9 December 2013

Celebrating Notre Dame's 25th anniversary national championship

It’s amazing how time flies, and how small the world can be. Recently the Notre Dame football team celebrated the 25th anniversary of their 1988 national championship. Dozens of former players and coaches returned to share memories and celebrate the successes they achieved.

It was a special day for one person in particular – current wide receiver T.J. Jones. His father Andre Jones played defensive end on that team 25 years ago, but passed away a few years ago. T.J. is the first son of a player from the 1988 team to play for Notre Dame, and Andre was so proud of his son.

That championship season
It was the last time Notre Dame reigned supreme in college football, and what a season it was. The Irish were coming off an 8-4 season that culminated in a 35-10 loss to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. The highlight was Tim Brown winning the Heisman Trophy. They entered the 1988 season ranked number 13 in the country, with expectations not that high.

The Irish opened at home against arch-rival Michigan, who were ranked ninth. Their dream season ended almost before it started as the Notre Dame offence could not generate any points. The sole touchdown came off an 81-yard Ricky Watters punt return. The remainder of the scoring came from field goals, including an 48-yarder by walk-on Reggie Ho to win the game 19-17.

The win moved the Irish up to number eight when they visited the Spartans at Michigan State. The Irish fell behind 3-0 early, but rallied for two field goals to lead 6-3 at halftime. The offence finally got rolling as quarterback Tony Rice scored the offence's first touchdown of the season, and the defence shut out the Spartans the rest of the way en route to a 20-3 victory.

They Irish stalled at number eight, but moved to number five after blowing Purdue out 52-7 to move to 3-0. Notre Dame moved to number five when they hosted Stanford, blowing them out 42-14, to up their record to 4-0, although they remained fifth in the nation. Next up were the Panthers in Pittsburgh. The Irish did not play well, and their hopes of a championship were in doubt again, but they found a way to win. Their record improved to 5-0, they moved up to number four in the rankings, and everything would likely come down to their next game.

Looming on the horizon were the number one, undefeated Miami Hurricanes, winners of 36 straight games. The game is actually on YouTube in its entirety, and I watched it a few months ago. In fact, it is embedded on this blog. Polls have voted it one of the greatest games of all time, and I have to agree. Beyond the drama leading up to the game, the fact it was dubbed "Catholics versus Convicts", and there was a pre-game fight, it was one of the most entertaining games I have ever seen. Given my absolute distaste for Miami, and that Notre Dame ended their 36-game winning streak, made it even sweeter.

Notre Dame took it to them early, but pretty much in the blink of an eye, that high-powered Hurricane offence led by quarterback Steve Walsh brought the team back with 21 points in the second quarter to go into halftime tied 21-21. Notre Dame would go up 31-21 before the Hurricanes again roared back. Leading 31-24, the Irish recovered a Cleveland Gary fumble on their one-yard line keeping Miami out of the endzone. Miami fans believe Gary was down before the fumble, and should have had the ball first and goal. It really did not factor into the final result, as Notre Dame fumbled three plays later giving the ball back to Miami, who would score the possible tying touchdown. However, trailing 31-30 Miami coach Jimmy Johnson went for the win with a two-point conversion attempt. Notre Dame defensive back Pat Terrell knocked away the Walsh pass, preserving Notre Dame's 31-30 victory. It was an incredible game.

Yet the result was not good enough to vault Notre Dame into the number one spot in the country. Instead, they were number two as they beat Air Force 41-13, then Navy 22-7. That win finally put them into the number one spot, where they would remain the rest of the season. They blew out Rice 54-11, then knocked off old rival Penn State by a score of 21-3, to move their record to 10-0.

Looming on the horizon now was another old rival: the undefeated and second-ranked USC Trojans. It was the first time in their history they entered their meeting both undefeated. The Irish were all over the Trojans, winning 27-10 in Los Angeles.

The only thing now standing between them and a national title was number three West Virginia, led by quarterback Major Harris, who were also undefeated. It was a de facto national championship game, and Notre Dame played like champions. Again they took control early and cruised to the 34-21 victory, giving them the school's 11th national championship.

I remember exactly where I was. The Fiesta Bowl was played on January 2 that year, and I returned to res that morning because I had a ton of stuff to do. My buddy Dave was there too, coming back early to watch the bowl games. So we watched that game in the lounge on Fifth Kelsey, and my love for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish was cemented.

The aftermath
The Irish had a lot of great players that I just loved: Tony Rice, Derek Brown, Mike Stonebreaker, Chris Zorich, Jeff Alm, even Rocket Ismail. A few, like Rice and Ismail, ended up in the CFl, and a lot made the NFL. My old friend and mentor Michel Ouellette read a book by Irish coach Lou Holtz, and said he thought every starter on that Notre Dame team played pro ball of some sort.

The drought
The Irish came close in both 1989 and 1993, but came up short for the championship. It was 24 years until they went on that magical run in 2012. Again they went undefeated and finished the season ranked number one. However, they faced a juggernaut in Alabama who was really more like a pro team, and humiliated the Irish so bad, they fell to fourth in the final rankings. Ouch.

Parting thoughts
What made that 2012 championship run so special was that T.J. Jones, the first son of a player from that 1988 team, was playing for the Irish. From the moment he started playing in his freshman year, he has worn the same number as his father.

The young man is so mature, his dad's teammates have said he got them through Andre Jones' death more than they helped T.J. through it.

They celebrated that 1988 championship a few weeks ago, and it was a special night for T.J. A few weeks later he played his final game at Notre Dame Stadium, the end of a storied career of his own.

He may not have won a championship like his dad did, but he brought honour in all he did to his father's memory, his family, and his school.

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