Aug 28, 2013
By Lou Somogyi, Blue & Gold Illustrated
The 2013 football season at Notre Dame also marks the 40th anniversary of former head coach Ara Parseghian’s 1973 national championship team and the 25th of former head coach Lou Holtz’s No. 1 unit.
There have been nine other consensus national champions at Notre Dame — and just as many near misses — but no two football teams in Fighting Irish lore are so intertwined or remarkably linked than those two. An argument can be made that no two champions ever in college football had such eerie parallels the year prior and then during their respective marches to the national championship.
Their backgrounds begin with humiliation to provide inspiration, position changes, freshmen impact, a seemingly invincible nemesis that was finally vanquished, and statistical replication, among many other factors.
It reminds one of the symmetry/coincidence of the United States presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy that have taken on a life of their own in American lore: Lincoln was first elected into Congress in 1846, while Kennedy’s debut in Congress occurred 100 years later in 1946. Lincoln was elected president in 1860; Kennedy 100 years later in 1960. Both were assinated by a gunshot behind the head on a Friday with their wives next to them. Both were succeeded by Southern Democrats named Johnson. Andrew Johnson was born in 1808 and Lyndon Johnson in 1908, another 100-year coincidence. Both tragically lost children through death while in the White House. John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln in a stage theater before later fleeing to a warehouse. Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse (although myriad conspiracy theories dispute this) and escaped to a movie theater. Both assassins were killed before they could be brought to trial. Here are a dozen of the amazing coincidences between those two immortalized Notre Dame teams from 1973 and 1988:
The Dragon That Needed To Be Slain Notre Dame’s 1972 regular season ended with a 22-point loss (45-23) to the team that would finish No.1 (USC). The Trojans were the bane to Notre Dame’s football program while posting a 4-0-2 record aginst the Fighting Irish from 1967-72, with each of the four victories occuring by at least 10 points and averaging 15.8 points
In 1987, the Irish capped the regular season with a 24-point defeat (24-0) to the program that would capture the national title (Miami). The Hurricanes were the new Achilles heel for the Irish while posting a 5-1 record against them since 1981. They had outscored Notre Dame 170-35 in those five victories, or an average of 34-7 per game.
Bowled Over Despite the regular-season pounding to end the regular season, both the 1972 and 1987 teams had already accepted invitations to major bowls — BCS in today’s venacular — and it presented a chance to redeem themselves.
On Jan. 1, 1973, Parseghian suffered his worst loss in what would be his 11 seasons at Notre Dame when Nebraska scored the first 40 points in a 40-6 beating in the Orange Bowl. The Cornhuskers rushed for 300 yards.
On Jan. 1, 1988, Holtz incurred his worst defeat in what would be his 11-year career with the Irish when Texas A&M tallied the final 32 unanswered points in a 35-10 whipping. The Aggies rushed for 294 yards. After the game, a devastated Holtz saw one ray of hope from the drubbing.
“I remember the last the last time Notre Dame didn’t play particularly well in a bowl game,” he said, referencing the 1973 Orange Bowl. “I think they came back and had a pretty good year the next season.”
Seniority Isn’t Everything In 1973, Notre Dame was considered a “year away” from national title contention because it had only five full-time starters on offense and defense who were seniors (tight end Dave Casper, guard Frank Pomarico, cornerback Mike Townsend, nose tackle Gary Potempa and safety Tim Rudnick).
In 1988, Notre Dame was again advertised as “a year away.” Just as in 1973, they started only five seniors regularly on offense and defense (offensive tackle Andy Heck, running back Mark Green, rush end Frank Stams, middle linebacker Wes Pritchett and safety George Streeter).
Three Is A Magic Number In 1973, Notre Dame elected tri-captains for the first time in its football history (Townsend, Casper and Pomarico).
In 1988, Holtz had tri-captains for the first time in his 19 seasons as a head coach (linebacker Ned Bolcar, Green and Heck).
Right Move, Right Time In 1973, a pivotal move for the offensive line was shifting No. 1 senior left tackle Casper to tight end, where he would earn first-team All-America recognition.
In 1988, Holtz moved No. 1 senior tight end Andy Heck to left tackle, where he achieved first-team All-America honors. (The move also allowed Parade magazine National Player of the Year Derek Brown to start as a freshman at tight end.)
Run To Glory The 1973 backfield had extraordinary balance and depth. Including the bowl game, the top three rushers were fullback Wayne Bullock (831 yards), and halfbacks Art Best (745) and Eric Penick (614). The trio combined for 2,190 yards on the ground.
The 1988 backfield was so deep, the staff moved sophomore Ricky Watters to flanker for that season. The three leaders fro the ground attack were quarterback Tony Rice (775), and halbacks Green (708) and Tony Brooks (703). That triumvirate hey amassed 2,186 yards rushing — only four yards less than the top 3 from 1973.
Halfway Home: Slaying The Dragon In the sixth game of 1973, Notre Dame hosted the defending national champs (USC) who had a 23-game unbeaten streak and had not lost to the Irish in six straight meetings. In one of the most emotional games ever in Notre Dame Stadium history, the Irish triumphed, 23-14, and made the ensuing week’s cover of Sports Illustrated.
Again in the sixth game of 1988, Notre Dame entertained the defending national champs (Miami) who owned a 36-game winning streak during the regular season and had not lost to Notre Dame in six years. But in the impassioned showdown that has been voted as the greatest home victory at Notre Dame, the Irish prevailed 31-30, putting them on the next week’s cover of Sports Illustrated.
Increasing the Speed Limit: Part I The 1972 defense was labeled slow, so Parseghian emphasized speed in his recruiting. Three of the first-time starters included two freshmen, end Ross Browner and safety Luther Bradley, along with sophomore defensive end Jim Stock. From game one, they cracked the 1973 lineup and had an immediate impact with their quickness.
The 1987 defense was categorized as snail-paced. Holtz also started recruiting more speed and in 1988 he inserted first-time starters such as sophomore nose guard Chris Zorich, freshman outside linebacker Arnold Ale and junior safety Pat Terrell, who was shifted from offense.
Increasing the Speed Limit: Part II When he signed in 1973, freshman running back/return man Al Hunter (9.3 speed in the 100-yard dash) was considered the fastest football player in school history. His 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was crucial in the one-point win over No. 1-ranked Alabama.
In 1988, Notre Dame inked running back/flanker/return man Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, the swiftest player in school history. His 97 yards receiving were instrumental in the one-point win over No. 1-ranked Miami. Both Hunter and Ismail wore No. 25.
QB Comparison Part I After the 1973 USC game, junior quarterback Tom Clements’ six-game passing stats included 71 attempts for 597 yards.
After the 1988 Miami game, junior quarterback Rice’s six-game passing stats revealed 71 attempts for 596 yards.
QB Comparison Part II In the 1973 national title game against Alabama, Clements rushed for 74 yards and completed seven passes in 12 attempts.
In the 1988 national championship contest with West Virginia, Rice rushed for 75 yards and completed seven passes in 11 attempts.
Working Their Ashes Off After the debacle to conclude the 1972 campaign, the title of the 1973 season in Tom Pagna’s “Era of Ara” book was, “From the Ashes of Disaster.” The Irish went on to finish 11-0 for the first time in school annals.
After falling apart at the end of 1987, the 1988 players donned T-shirts that read “From These Ashes, Notre Dame Will Rise.”
That team was the first in Irish history to post a 12-0 record.
Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?