Aug. 9, 2007
By Pete LaFleur
Former Notre Dame football placekicker Harry Oliver – whose game-ending, 51-yard field goal versus Michigan in 1980 still ranks as the fondest memory for thousands of Notre Dame fans – died today in his hometown of Cincinnati, following a battle with cancer. Funeral arrangements for the 47-year-old Oliver are pending and will be added to this release when available.
Oliver’s memorable leftfooted, soccer-style kick remains one of the longest ever by a Notre Dame player (at any point in a game) and represents one of only seven times in the program’s 120-year history that the Irish have won on the final play of regulation. Despite having attempted only one previous field goal in a Notre Dame varsity game, Oliver was up to the task in the waning second versus Michigan and went on to have a record-setting junior season in 1980 that included making 18-of-23 field goals, highlighted by two different games when he sent four through the uprights (tying what then was the Irish single-game record).
Although best remembered for a single kick, Harry Oliver actually set the Notre Dame record for field goals in a season (18) and twice tied the record for field goals in a game (4).
Despite his instantaneous celebrity, Oliver possibly became more respected by the Notre Dame student body and fans at large for his humble attitude and team-first approach. While many players would have been celebrating wildly with “look-at-me” bravado, Oliver spent the moments after his famous kick by simply soaking up the atmosphere on the field with teammates, fellow residents of Grace Hall and other delirious students who had rushed the field. Tears of joy were in his eyes at that moment and they remained there during the postgame interviews, which were delayed until coach Dan Devine’s security guards returned to the field and whisked the diminutive kicker to the locker room (where the media – and his excited parents – were awaiting).
An accomplished student who majored in mechanical engineering, Oliver ultimately became an engineer in the construction business and served since 1988 as a senior estimator/project manager with Cincinnati-based Performance Contracting, in addition to later owning a real estate company. Many of his construction projects were geared towards assisting charitable organizations and schools in southern Ohio.
Oliver – who was born on June 5, 1960 in Louisville, Ky. – died with his brother and two sisters at his side and his beloved coach Gerry Faust not too far away. Faust – who coached Oliver at both Moeller High School and in his final season at Notre Dame (1981) – was in town speaking to a high school football team and arrived at the hospital shortly after Oliver had passed away. Many of Oliver’s former teammates from Moeller and Notre Dame, including his longtime friend Bob Crable, also had been at his side in recent days. A Notre Dame alum studying for the priesthood in the Cincinnati area was alerted to Oliver’s condition and provided a CD of Notre Dame songs that comforted Oliver and his family members during his final hours.
“Harry was a great representative of Moeller and Notre Dame,” says Faust, who took time out of his busy schedule to speak with und.com about one of his favorite former players. “If you want a role model for a person, in the way he conducted his life, Harry was the best. He was very strong in his faith and went to Mass every day. He had his priorities right and was a great example.
“Most coaches approach coaching as if each kid on the squad is like an adopted son. When you lose one, it’s tough because you spend a lot of time with them. You keep in touch with them the rest of their lives and try to help them out with advice and things like that,” adds Faust, who grieved when three of his former Moeller players were killed in the Marshall University airplane crash and most recently consoled the family of former Moeller and Notre Dame player Ricky Gray, who died of a brain tumor.
“I never heard Harry say a bad word about anybody and you never heard anyone say a bad word about Harry Oliver. He loved life and was great with people. He helped take care of his parents until the day they died. This was a tough day, but I know that Harry is with God and he led a great and giving life.”
Oliver was a placekicker and punter for Faust’s powerhouse Moeller teams that went undefeated while winning three straight Ohio state championships from 1975-77. When learning of Oliver’s strong desire to attend Notre Dame, Faust contacted former Irish assistant coach Brian Boulac, who then alerted head coach Dan Devine that Moeller had a kicker that might be worth a look.
Despite heading off to Notre Dame as a scholarship player, Oliver later found himself in the dubious depth-chart position of number-three kicker during his first two seasons – behind a pair of walk-ons, no less (Chuck Male and Joe Unis). Male and Unis played their final seasons in 1979 but Oliver found himself slotted behind two other players the following spring, as rising sophomore Mike Johnston headed into the summer of 1980 with the starting kicker job while safety Steve Cichy had been tabbed to handle kickoffs and long field goals (45-plus yards) for the upcoming 1980 season.
In retrospect, Notre Dame fans can wipe their brow in relief that Oliver did not take the route chosen by many college football players who are frustrated due to lack of playing time. Following a talk with his parents, Oliver decided against transferring and – with two years still remaining – decided to (in his own words) “stick it out” while also taking advantage of the lifelong benefits associated with a Notre Dame education and a place among the university’s alumni network.
A 2000 article in Blue and Gold Illustrated included a quote from Oliver that reflects a simple philosophy that guided him through moments of uncertainty: “There are a lot of undulations in life, and football is a metaphor for it,” he said. “That’s why faith is so important-because it gets you through both the good times and bad.”
Oliver’s persistence paid immediate dividends when he pulled even with Johnston in preseason drills. During pregame warm-ups for the season opener with Purdue, the Irish coaches were impressed with Oliver’s production (most notably a 66-yard field goal that he sailed through the uprights). His position coach Gene Smith – a former Notre Dame player and currently the athletics director at Ohio State – informed Oliver shortly before the start of the Purdue game that he would be handling all extra points and short-range field goals.
Just months after he had toyed with the eye of departing Notre Dame, Oliver found himself as key player in the showdown between the 11th-ranked Irish and 9th-ranked Boilermakers. He converted all four PATs and also nailed a 36-yard field goal, helping send the Notre Dame Stadium faithful home with a satisfying 31-10 victory.
With the Michigan game on the horizon, Oliver still had yet to make a field goal of longer than 38 yards in an official game, not at Moeller and certainly not in his limited action at Notre Dame – which included the field goal versus Purdue and only two other converted kicks, a 27- and 38-yarder in a 1979 junior-varsity game with Wisconsin.
The date was Sept. 20, 1980, and another top-20 opponent was in town as 14th-ranked Michigan prepared to take on a Notre Dame team that had risen to eighth in the nation. Oliver entered this game knowing that he was the top option for all kicking duties, as Cichy had suffered a season-ending injury early in the Purdue game (which did not require any long-range field goals, Cichy’s specialty). All of the big kicks in the game would rest on Oliver’s trusty left foot.
The fast-paced and hard-hitting showdown saw Notre Dame open a 14-0 lead, thanks to a pair of time-consuming drives and tactical use of its kicking game to avoid dangerous return man Anthony Carter. But the Wolverines replaced quarterback Rich Hewlett with John Wangler and were able to forge a 14-14 halftime tie before seizing second-half momentum when Carter returned a kickoff for a 67-yard touchdown.
Both teams then seemingly won the game in the final minutes. Notre Dame’s Phil Carter smashed over from four yards for his second touchdown of the game, giving the Irish a 26-21 lead that should have been 28-21 (if not for a missed PAT by Oliver and later a failed two-point try).
Michigan had its own player who was looking to atone for a mistake, as Butch Woolfolk’s fumble had helped set up the go-ahead score by Carter. Woolfolk answered on the next drive with a pair of draw plays that gained 57 yards and the Wolverines went on to crack the end zone with just 41 ticks left on the clock (27-26). Wangler’s pass went off Woolfolk and settled into the hands of Craig Dunaway, who never had caught a pass for Michigan but was in line to be the unlikely hero.
Oliver was ready to match Woolfolk’s atonement and Dunaway’s surprising play – but nobody expected the level of surprise and disbelief that was forthcoming on the game’s final play.
With the ball on the Notre Dame 20-yard line, Devine opted for a quarterback change and replaced veteran Mike Courey with ultra-confident freshman Blair Kiel. To say that Kiel appeared to be a little rusty in his first college snaps would be an understatement, as his first three passes were well off-target and left little time for a miracle finish. Lost in the euphoria of Oliver’s kick were the plays that preceded it, a sequence that somehow put the Irish in position for the desperation try.
Kiel opened the drive in the shotgun but sent a fluttering throw in the direction of 6-foot-5 Tony Hunter and full escort pf three Michigan defenders. A ball that could have been intercepted instead resulted in a fortuitous interference call, with the 32-yard penalty advancing the ball a couple yards past midfield.
Linebacker Jeff Reeves nearly picked off the next throw (with smooth sailing to the endzone) and the ensuing toss from Kiel was bobbled and dropped by tight end Dean Masztak. Back in the shotgun for the next play, Kiel connected with Carter for nine crucial yards and the next pass to Hunter tacked on five more, leaving the ball on the Michigan 34-yard line with only 0:04 remaining on the clock.
All of the drama up to that point – the various near-misses and subplots – was more than enough to provide the most fantastic of finishes. But it’s always better when Mother Nature gets involved. In this case, Oliver took the field with a brisk 15 mile-an-hour wind in his face as he eyed the goalposts in the south endzone.
“I just remember thinking this wind is very strong and half-thinking I don’t have a chance in heck of making this thing,” Oliver would later say, in a 2004 interview with Irish Sports Report.
With one soccer-style swing of his left leg, Harry Oliver became a Notre Dame legend.
But then, the unthinkable happened – starting with a metrological shift in which many observers claim that the wind suddenly stepped aside to complement the hushed tone amidst a crowd of nearly 60,000.
A classic black-and-white photograph captured Oliver’s textbook form and follow-through on the kick, as Michigan’s outside rushers crashed in for the attempted block. One of those players knocked Oliver down and he never saw the ball clear the crossbar (by inches), although holder Tim Koegel was providing a unique play-by-play that preceded a thunderous roar that many believe has been unmatched in the history of Notre Dame Stadium.
Buried under a pile of his ecstatic teammates, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Oliver eventually emerged to gaze upon the final score of 29-27. And everywhere he went during the next 27 years of his life – throughout the country and even overseas – people repeatedly would relate their memories of “The Kick.”
It is one of those timeless moments from which so many of the Notre Dame faithful remember exactly where they were as Oliver’s kick tumbled over the south endzone. It is a memory tied to moments with family and classmates, one that caused grown men to be crying in the stands or in their couch at home. Many household items surely were broken that day, in bursts of celebration – such is the widereaching impact of the Harry Oliver story.
Faust – who notes that former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler “claimed until the day he died that the wind stopped right before Harry’s kick” – is most proud of the way in which Oliver handled his newfound celebrity. “It was not a big ego thing for Harry,” says Faust. “He has glad he helped the team win but he wouldn’t go around telling people who he is or bragging about the kick. He was a very modest kid and just felt that he was going out and doing what he was supposed to do.”
The proud coach counts himself among those who clearly remember where they were as they watched the 1980 ND-Michigan game. Faust and his Moeller team were in Canton preparing for a game and they took a visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “We were all set to look around the museum but they had the Notre Dame-Michigan game on the TV, so all of our players and coaches watched the game rather than touring the displays,” remembers Faust. “When Harry hit the kick, you should have seen how crazy our players went, screaming and yelling. It was quite a moment and I’m glad I was able to see it live like that.”
With a major confidence boost from his big kick, Oliver needed just seven games to break Chuck Male’s team record for field goals in a season (13) and ultimately finished with 18, a mark that has been bested by only Johnston (19, in 1982) and John Carney (21, in ’86). He also tied Male’s record for field goals in a game, with four versus Michigan State and again versus Miami during that special 1980 season. Oliver remains one of only three Notre Dame kickers ever to make four-plus field goals in multiple games during their careers, joining Carney (two 4-FG games) and Nick Setta (two 5-FG games) in that distinction – with Notre Dame kickers having combined to make four or more field goals in only 10 games during the program’s history.
Oliver’s other 1980 highlights included a 47-yarder with 4:44 remaining that secured a 3-3 final score with Georgia Tech and another long kick versus a team from the peach state, as he sent home a 50-yarder in the Sugar Bowl loss to the Herschel Walker-led Georgia Bulldogs. The Irish had been unbeaten in their first 10 games (9-0-1) and held the number-two spot in the national polls before ending the regular season with a loss to 17th-ranked USC.
After ranking third in the nation during the 1980 season with 1.64 field goals made per game, Oliver returned in 1981 to make six of his 13 attempts during Faust’s first season. He departed Notre Dame ranked second in career field goals with 24 (now 8th) – but it is the kick versus Michigan that remains unique in Irish football history, both for its length and game-ending drama.
Although the Notre Dame media guide and record supplements do not include complete listings for the longest field goals in the program’s history, there are nine different kickers listed among the top-12 leaders for single-season field goals and none of them ever recorded a boot of more than 51 yards (Setta and Dave Reeve each had a long of 51). And when looking at the six other Notre Dame games that have ended with a win on the final play of regulation, the longest kick was the 41-yarder by Joe Perkowski to beat Syracuse in 1961 (17-15).
The other four kickers who have won Notre Dame games as the final whistle sounded include: Carney (19-yarder at USC in 1986; 38-37); Jim Sanson (38-yarder at Texas in 1996; 27-24); Setta (38-yarder at home vs. Purdue in 2000; 23-21); and D.J. Fitzpatrick (40-yarder vs. Navy in 2003; 27-24). Carney and Setta’s kicks both came with the Irish trailing while Sanson and Fitzpatrick lined up their kicks with a tie score on the board. The only other Notre Dame win on the final play was in the Cotton Bowl following the 1978 season, when Joe Montana’s eight-yard pass to Kris Haines and the ensuing extra point from Unis capped a furious 35-34 comeback.
There are 53 documented games in which Notre Dame scored the ultimate winning or tying points in the final 5:00 but very few of them covered at least half of the field, as did Oliver’s kick. In fact, only three other fantastic finishes in Notre Dame history have seen the clinching late play cover more than 50 yards: the 80-yard pass play between Joe Montana and Ted Burgmeier in the 1975 win over North Carolina (1:03 left; 21-14); a similar 67-yard run-and-catch involving Carlyle Holiday and Omar Jenkins, vs. Navy (2:08; 30-23); and the short slant pass from Pat Dillingham to Arnaz Battle that turned into a 60-yard touchdown for the decisive points in the 2002 win at Michigan State (1;15; 21-17).
Once again, the length of Oliver’s play coupled with the fact that his team was trailing at the time makes the feat even more unique – as two of the moments described above (Montanta-to-Burgmeier and Holiday-to-Jenkins) came with the score tied. Thus, Oliver and the Dillingham-Battle combination represent the only times in Notre Dame history that the winning play came in the final 5:00 and covered more than 50 yards. (The Brady Quinn-Jeff Samardzija pass play that beat UCLA in 2006 went for 45 yards and gave the Irish a 20-17 lead with 0:27 left to play.)