Former University of Notre Dame all-star Tony Rice remembers the first time he drank a beer in front of former Irish head coach Lou Holtz.
The national championship quarterback was well past the legal drinking age. It was at one of those cocktail receptions. He saw the head coach walk in the room. Holtz made the rounds, saying hello and shaking hands. When Holtz arrived at Rice, Rice put the beer behind his back.
“Tony, what are doing? You can have a drink. You’re a grown man,” Holtz told him.
Rice still won’t call his coach by his first name. It’s always, “Coach Holtz.” When Rice hears teammates refer to him as Lou, Rice knows they don’t mean to be impolite, but he hears it as disrespect.
“He was the person that pointed us in the right direction. We were snot-nosed little kids and we learned from him,” Rice said. “I try to be successful today because I don’t want to let him down.”
Some things, like Rice’s reverence for Holtz, don’t change. Another thing is the bond and accomplishment connecting Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship team.
“I always tell people that if I could to go back and play one more football game, it would be with my guys from the 1988 team,” said Tim Grunhard, a starting guard for the Irish who went on to start 174 games in 11 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Grunhard and many of his teammates will gather on campus this weekend to celebrate the anniversary of the Fighting Irish run to a national title. In retrospect, their championship is viewed like a matter of fact. Of course they won it.
Thirty-four of those players ended up being signed by NFL teams. To Notre Dame fans, their names bring a scent of autumn to the nose and the sound of radio calls by Tony Roberts and Tom Pagna to the ears. Rice, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, Ricky Watters and Ned Bolcar. The Three Amigos: Frank Stams, Wes Pritchett and Michael Stonebreaker. Don’t forget Chris Zorich, that crazed poetry reader with dreams of beheading a quarterback. The freshman tight end, Derek Brown, the national high school player of the year, spurned the Florida schools and left the state to head to Notre Dame. Cornerback and current defensive backs coach Todd Lyght was one of the few players to receive special treatment from Holtz. Lyght was the only player allowed to spat — wrap tape all around — his cleats. He ended up the top NFL draft pick from this era of Notre Dame football, going fifth overall to the Los Angeles Rams and later winning a Super Bowl with the team. A team with all this talent should win it all. Right?
Back then, though, it wasn’t supposed to happen. At best, the Irish were a year away, the pundits said.
“It was a lot of inexperience on that team. And then you had Tony Rice, who really had a lot of doubters. They weren’t sure if this guy could throw the ball. They knew he could run. He caught a lot of flak,” Grunhard said.
Rice never publicly acknowledged the naysayers. He changed the subject in interviews. He smiled and moved on, but he knew what was being said: “I kept that inside. I never wanted to prove people wrong with my words. I wanted to let my actions on the field do that.”
In every big matchup – against No. 1 Miami and Steve Walsh, versus No. 2 USC and Rodney Peete and facing No. 3 West Virginia and Major Harris – Rice outplayed his counterparts.
When Holtz looks back at the 1988 season his thoughts go to how rare it is to go undefeated. He points to the incredible run by Nick Saban at Alabama and mentions that only of one of Saban’s teams has gone undefeated.
“You’ve got to be lucky to an extent,” Holtz said.
Three ingredients jump out at him about the ’88 team. “They liked each other; they loved football, and they were willing to move positions.”
Stams, a former fullback, made his first start on defense in the season opener against Michigan. He became an All-American that year. Zorich was a middle linebacker who moved to nose tackle. Ricky Watters would rush for more than 10,000 yards in the NFL, but he lined up at flanker. Andy Heck moved from tight end to tackle and became the lone first-round draft pick from Notre Dame in 1989. Pat Terrell bounced from quarterback to wide receiver before he landed at free safety.
“We had so many great players, but we had so many great teammates,” Terrell said of the players’ willingness to set their egos aside and take on a role to serve the team.
The players still keep in touch with each other. They have emails chains and text threads. Nothing gets shared beyond the men included in those groups. Terrell goes to fullback Anthony Johnson for spiritual guidance. He talks to flanker Pat Eilers about business. He rides Harley Davidson motorcycles with Rice, Zorich, Tim Ryan and Stan Smagala. Terrell tries to hang out with Mark Green, Corny Southall, George Streeter and D’Juan Francisco. That foursome gets together for golf trips. Terrell is always texting them, even asking if he can fill out an application to go on the trip. They give him the Heisman, not the trophy.
A couple weeks ago, in the New York City area, Rice, Watters, Stams, Stonebreaker, Zorich and Holtz were together signing autographs.
In February, Holtz, Rice and Zorich found themselves in Celina, Texas, at a campaign event for Patrick Fallon. The Fallon name doesn’t quite pop like the others. He’s a member of the ’88 squad, a walk-on transfer wide receiver from the University of Massachusetts. He ran in the Republican primary for the Texas state senate. The party affiliation didn’t matter to Rice, Zorich and Holtz — that Fallon was a player on their team did.
“It doesn’t matter how good you were, how many yards you had, you’re part of our team,” Holtz said of his visit to support Fallon.
It’s not the first time Holtz has shown up to support a former player and it won’t be the last. He took one of Rice’s business clients out for a round of golf at Augusta National. “I told them, ‘Do what I ask for four years and I’ll do what you ask for the next 40.'”
Fallon won the primary in a landslide. He text-messaged Holtz with the results and thanks. Like a football coach watching game film of the next opponent, Holtz texted Fallon back, telling the candidate to get ready for the general election.
It’s like the response Holtz and the team had when they won the ’88 title. They went 12-0, winning 10 of those games by 10 points or more. In the history of the Associated Press poll, Notre Dame’s 1988 edition remains the only team to beat four of the top seven teams in the final poll. And when they beat West Virginia 34-21 in the Fiesta Bowl, they didn’t truly grasp what they had accomplished. Players said they celebrated the win, but they viewed it mostly as another game. Holtz started looking ahead, “It really didn’t register. I worried about ’89.”
The night of the Fiesta Bowl, Terrell and Lyght showered up and headed out for the evening. For the occasion, Terrell and Lyght’s fathers rented them a limousine. As the dads closed the car door and waved good-bye they said something their sons heard, but couldn’t really hear.
“You guys, what you’ve just accomplished, you won’t understand it for years.”
Today, Terrell knows his father was right. He understands it now. “It feels so special to have played a major role in our incredible history,” he said. “It’s not that the University had never accomplished this before. It’s that we were able to cement ourselves into that legacy.”
Ho’s Heroics Against Michigan Set Stage For ’88 Championship
Something shifted for Reggie Ho between his junior and senior years at the University of Notre Dame. The tiny walk-on kicker from Hawaii went from being happy to have made the team to realizing the enormous responsibility that came with his new role.
In 1987, Ho earned a spot on the Irish roster. The super-quiet pre-med major with a 3.77 grade-point average saw a brief bit of game action that season, making an extra point in the 56-13 win against Navy. If his football career had ended there, he would’ve been satisfied. He had done it. After failing to make head coach Lou Holtz’s squad in 1986, Ho returned to tryouts, succeeded and kicked his way into the scorebook, forever holding a one-point place in the history of the program.
The following year, Ho’s happy-to-be-there moment passed. In preseason practices, he kicked the ball so consistently he beat out Billy Hackett for field-goal kicking duties from 40 yards and closer.
This is when the realization struck him. He could make a season or doom it. He could be responsible for a win or worse, way worse, he could be responsible for a loss. Under the lights of a primetime national TV broadcast, Ho would stand on the dividing line between success and failure when Notre Dame opened its 1988 season.
Before that moment, though, Ho put in extra work. He was familiar with that. After Ho had failed to make the team during Holtz’s first year, he didn’t quit on his goal. Ho practiced kicking field goals in the winter snow. During spring break, he spent about six hours a day kicking. Ho worked on his mental strength, too. “If you don’t have it, you’re not going to make it,” he said.
Ho visualized himself making field goals. He sought the counsel of Peter Kim, a Korean-born kicker who attended Kaiser High School in Honolulu and played for Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama in the early ’80s. Ho did all of this just to make the team. Now, Ho would practice more and he’d do it with long snapper Tim Grunhard and holder Peter Graham.
Graham came to Notre Dame as a quarterback under head coach Gerry Faust. When the coaching change occurred and Holtz brought in the veer option offense, Graham saw his chances of playing diminish — that is until Holtz became frustrated with his special teams unit a few weeks into the 1986 season.
“I was going to put kids on the field who cared about how well we did,” Holtz had said in the past. Graham was in that group. He turned in his quarterback shoulder pads for a bigger set, the kind better suited to block on kicks and kick returns. Graham took pride in his new role. “It was my opportunity to get on the field, to get on the bus, get on the plane.”
Grunhard was part of Holtz’s first recruiting class. Grunhard would play 11 NFL seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs, but coming out of St. Laurence High School he hadn’t even made an all-area team in Chicago. By 1988, he had become a starting guard on the offensive line.
Leaving the field, drenched in sweat after practicing under the scrutiny of Holtz, Grunhard spotted Ho headed his way. Grunhard knew Ho wanted to get extras reps kicking. The lineman wanted none of it.
“You’re tired and you just got done lifting and running and practicing and Reggie came up and asked you, and he was such a genuine person, such a great guy, it was hard to say ‘no’ to Reggie really for anything. He killed us with kindness,” Grunhard said. “We also knew that this was his job. His name was going on that kick.”
The trio practiced regularly, but it was Ho who initiated the extra work. “The alpha was probably that five-foot-three, 135-pound kicker,” said Grunhard who weighed more than double Ho and stood about a foot higher.
During their extra work they set up games within the drills, namely how many times in a row could Grunhard get the ball back to Graham with the laces out.
“Nine times out of 10 the laces would hit me right in the hands where they needed to be. All I needed to do was put the ball down,” Graham said.
When special teams coach George Stewart hawked over their work he always held a stopwatch in hands. He clocked the time from the snap to when Graham placed it down. To avoid a block this had to happen in 1.4 seconds or less.
Ho had his own set of needs. “Kickers can be an odd breed,” Graham said.
Ho wanted the ball straight up and down. No slight tilt in any direction. “There’s less chance of any variables affecting the ball, I guess in a physics kind of way,” Ho said, giving a little laugh at his cerebral take on the hold.
Ho’s deliberate approach included a slight twist in his body, extending his arms out to his right, away from his body, and waving his fingers. Something Ho called his “special voodoo” fingers back then.
In practices with the full team, Holtz set up the field goal unit and had the rest of the team watch from the sidelines. He wanted to put game-like pressure on Ho. Holtz announced to everyone if Ho missed the kick, they’d all be running sprints. If he made it, they didn’t have to run.
The big test for all of Ho, Graham and Grunhard’s work came at the start of the season. Thirteenth-rated Notre Dame hosted the ninth-ranked Michigan Wolverines. CBS broadcasted the game nationally. Today, the players still mention the Musco portable lights being brought in as a sign of the game’s enormity. Back then night games were a rarity and the Sept. 10 clash was just the fifth time the Fighting Irish had kicked off at home under a moonlit sky.
The game is a classic. Notre Dame took a 7-0 lead on an 81-yard punt return by Ricky Watters. With 35 seconds left in the first quarter, Ho lined up for a 31-yard field goal attempt. He went through his routine and made the kick. Then he did something he had never done before. He jumped into Graham’s arms. Graham didn’t know what to make of the soft-spoken kicker’s reaction. “Oh, my God, this kid is fired up,” Graham said.
Grunhard made his way back to Ho and they came together on a missed high-five that almost looked like Grunhard smothering Ho had the kicker not bounced out of the away and back to the sidelines.
Ho remembers the first kick, but not the next two. “The game was fast. It went by so quickly,” he said.
“Reggie was in the zone that night. His kicks were clean,” Grunhard said.
Down 17-16 in fourth quarter, Ho watched from the sideline as the Irish drove down the field. Time kept dripping away. Tony Rice connected with Tony Brooks on an 18-yard pass to the Michigan 25-yard line. Ho moved closer to the sideline, knowing he could be called upon. With 1:18 on the clock, the Notre Dame drive stalled at the Michigan nine-yard line. Ho would have his chance to give his team the lead.
He took the field and Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler called timeout. Schembechler wanted Ho to think about the magnitude of the kick. Schembechler wanted to get inside Ho’s head. “I remember getting upset,” Ho said. “As much as I respect Coach Schembechler, I’m not going to let anybody beat me psychologically.”
Notre Dame players started to gather around Ho. The kicker didn’t want that. Senior safety Corny Southall backed them off.
Holtz said he wasn’t concerned. He had watched Ho earn the right to take this kick. “He wasn’t overwhelmed. He knew ‘This is what I’ve got to do.'”
After the timeout, Grunhard drilled the snap back. Graham placed it down and Ho put the ball between the uprights, tying a Notre Dame record of four field goals in a game. The kick gave Notre Dame the 19-17 lead. The Irish held on for the win when a Michigan field-goal attempt missed as time expired.
After the game Ho became a cult hero. In the weeks to come, his class schedule and grade-point average appeared in newspapers and on TV. Magazines from Sports Illustrated to Asian World wrote about him. That night, though, he went back to his dorm room, studied and fell asleep.
In that moment, there’s no way Ho, Grunhard and Graham could possibly have known how significant those kicks were. Notre Dame ran the table, halting No. 1 Miami, beating No. 2 USC, pounding West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl and claiming the national title. That night against Michigan started Notre Dame’s longest winning streak. A bad snap, a botched hold or a shanked kick on opening night and all that would’ve changed.
“The soft-spoken kid from Hawaii, who really stole the show that night, put us on the road to win a national championship,” Grunhard said.
Notre Dame graduate Jerry Barca in 2013 wrote “Unbeatable: Notre Dame’s 1988 Championship and the Last Great College Football Season.”