Oct. 5, 2012
By Jerry Barca
Rick Mirer helped seal Miami’s fate over a plate of breakfast on the morning of the game in 1990.
Head coach Lou Holtz, fullback Rodney Culver and Mirer discussed a freshly drawn up play at the team meal.
“Those things happen once in a while,” Mirer says. “They had a huge pass rush and we wanted to take advantage of it instead of fighting it.”
The sophomore quarterback was making his sixth collegiate start when the Irish faced the Hurricanes. By the time he reached the game, Mirer had shown an unruffled demeanor and flair for comebacks that belied his inexperience.
“I wasn’t afraid of that moment and that pressure,” says the man under center when Notre Dame temporarily closed out the greatest and most galvanizing college football rivalry of the era.
“It’s different than the SC game. It’s different than the Michigan game. It was a little more personal for some reason,” Mirer says.
The Miami Hurricanes claimed three national championships in the 1980s, including two of the last three heading into the clash with Mirer and the Irish. During the Hurricanes’ ascent they came across a down Irish squad. In 1985, Miami throttled Notre Dame in a 58-7 contest, ending the Gerry Faust era.
In 1988, the rivalry reached its legendary status.
Miami came in ranked No. 1, having won 36 consecutive regular-season games and 20 in a row on the road. The Irish held the No. 4 spot in the polls. Notre Dame forced seven turnovers and Pat Terrell’s deflection of a Steve Walsh two-point conversion pass sealed the 31-30 Notre Dame victory.
“That was a huge game,” says Mirer, who watched it as a heavily-recruited high school senior. “You’ve got to get past that game for a national championship to even happen.”
The 12-0 Irish took the national title in `88. The following year Mirer entered Notre Dame. He sat behind quarterback Tony Rice, who became an All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist that season. The Irish win streak reached a school best 23. Undefeated and ranked No. 1, Notre Dame played at No. 7 Miami to finish the regular season. The `Canes prevailed 27-10 and went on to win the national championship.
Now, it was time for the 20-year-old coach’s son from nearby Goshen, Ind., to take the reins. He had been working toward a seamless transition from Rice, who had posted a 28-3 record as a starter. Mirer started studying the offense before he stepped on campus. In the summer before his freshman year he socialized with future teammates Ricky Watters, Derek Brown and others. He studied Rice’s preparation. In the spring of 1990, he played quarterback for both teams in the Blue-Gold game.
“The team had been so successful in previous years they wanted me to be the guy who could fill Tony’s shoes and we wouldn’t miss a beat. That’s what they needed,” says Mirer.
Mirer’s first start proved he could take his place in the Notre Dame quarterback bloodline that included Johnny Lujack, Angelo Bertelli, John Huarte, Joe Theismann and Joe Montana. Ranked No. 1 and down 10 points in the fourth quarter at home, and at night, against No. 4 Michigan, Mirer led the Irish back. He hit Adrian Jarrell for an 18-yard touchdown with 1:40 left on the clock. The following week, under the “Golden Boy” headline, Mirer graced the cover of Sports Illustrated.
He followed up the Michigan win with another thrilling comeback in his second start. With 1:35 left in the game at Michigan State, Mirer rolled to his right and rifled a pass to the two-yard line. It bounced off the chest of Spartan defensive back Todd Murray and into Jarrell’s hands, setting up the winning score.
In his first two games, Mirer had engineered fourth-quarter game-winning drives covering 76 yards against Michigan and 81 yards against Michigan State. He possessed the cool that winning quarterbacks need and he exuded confidence leading a huddle of veterans.
“They just want to see poise and they want to see a leader,” Mirer says. “If you hesitate or look like you’re not convinced you can do it, they sense that.”
His teammates took notice.
“He was calm,” says tight end Derek Brown. “He was definitely in charge, like this was old hat.”
“We were never nervous,” guard Mirko Jurkovic says of playing in tight games with Mirer at the helm.
When Notre Dame and Miami met in the middle of Mirer’s sophomore season the series had garnered so much attention NFL players were caught up talking about who would win. In the midst of an MVP season, Irish icon and three-time Super Bowl MVP Joe Montana sent Mirer a message days before the game.
While Montana prepared the San Francisco 49ers for a game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he wanted Mirer to know the college game was a big topic in the locker room and after the weekend Montana wanted to make sure he had the bragging rights.
“It was an unbelievable gesture. At that time, for me, he was the guy,” says Mirer who wore the same No. 3 Montana wore at Notre Dame.
Miami came into Notre Dame Stadium ranked second. The Irish were ranked sixth. Both teams already had one loss and the loser in this game would be eliminated from national championship contention.
The teams traded leads throughout the first three quarters. Powered by five Craig Hentrich field goals and a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, Notre Dame had a 22-20 lead with less than 10 minutes to play.
Miami quarterback Craig Erickson had already thrown for 320 yards when he crouched under center to face a third down and seven from the Notre Dame 33-yard line. Erickson dropped back to pass. Pressure from Irish nose tackle Chris Zorich forced him out of the pocket. On the run, Erickson floated a ball to the eight-yard line where cornerback Todd Lyght intercepted the pass.
The Irish offense used six straight runs to drive to the Miami 21-yard line. On third down and four, Ismail brought the play to Mirer in the huddle. It was the one they had drawn up at breakfast.
As predicted, Miami sent seven pass rushers on a blitz. Culver feigned a block at the line of scrimmage before releasing over the middle on a delay route. Mirer dropped back 11 yards. Pedaling away from the Hurricane rush, he looked right and then threw to a spot. Culver slid under the ball, catching it and taking off. Aided by a crushing comeback block from halfback Tony Brooks, Culver sped to the end zone, running through an attempted tackle from a Hurricane defender.
The touchdown gave Notre Dame a 29-20 lead. On the ensuing drive Miami drove deep into Irish territory only to have `Canes running back Leonard Conley fumble at the five-yard line. Like it had all game, Notre Dame relied on its running game. This time the Irish used it to chew up the remaining 4:44.
Miami called timeout with 1:42 to go. With the outcome no longer in doubt, the Irish huddled, the offensive line held hands as tears rolled down their faces. They had opened up holes for Notre Dame to rush for 276 yards, more than four times the amount the `Canes had been allowing. Mirer and others smacked the lineman helmets with acknowledgment.
Nowadays, after being the No. 2 overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft and having a 12-year NFL career, Mirer spends most of his time doing philanthropic work through the Mirer Family Foundation. He launched and owns the Mirror Wine Company, which is located in California’s Napa Valley wine region. Mirer uses some wine initiatives to benefit the foundation, which focuses on helping children in the areas of health and education. He maintains an endowment at Notre Dame, which benefits multiple students per year, including 2010 valedictorian Katie Washington, the first black valedictorian in University history.
Playing at Notre Dame, Mirer’s career included big games after the era’s final tilt with the `Canes. The Sugar Bowl upset win against Florida and the 17-16 “Snow Bowl” triumph versus Penn State stand out. But the series with Miami always meant something special.
“There were lots of intimate moments in huddles during tense games. It feels really rewarding to stand together and to achieve together. I miss that feeling,” Mirer says. “It’s hard to explain, but the Miami rivalry brought out the best in us.”
Jerry Barca is the author of a book about Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship team. The book, Unbeatable, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in August 2013.