Oct. 21, 2011
By Lou Somogyi, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Better late than never might be a theme in 2011 for Notre Dame’s football program. All six Notre Dame home games will kick off no earlier than 3:30 p.m. Most notably, tonight’s showdown with archrival USC marks the first time in 21 years, or since the start of NBC’s exclusive deal since 1991 to telecast Irish home games, that the school will host a night game.
The five night games scheduled so far this season (the Nov. 5 kickoff time at Wake Forest is still to be determined) already eclipses the Notre Dame regular season record in a season of four in 2001, 2009 and 2010.
“It’s dictated by television based on the opponent’s contract with television,” says Notre Dame senior associate athletics director John Heisler of the growing trend toward night games. “All our road opponents this year are awarded to and dictated by ABC/ESPN. Generally we try to work with all the networks the best that we can, but it has been shown that later kickoffs draw better ratings. There are lots of games on air during noon, so the ones on prime time stand out more because there are less of them.”
The home night game with USC will be more of an exception than rule.
“NBC had known that we’re not interested in playing home games at night week after week, but we all kind of felt that the night games we’ve had in the past, many had an unforgettable feel,” Heisler says. “The time was right to do one again, but that doesn’t mean it’s something we will do regularly.”
Entering today’s USC game, the Irish have played 97 night games overall and own a 61-34-2 (.639) record, with a 6-1 ledger at home from 1982-90.
Let There Be Light
In the spring of 1982, ABC-TV approached Notre Dame with a novelty for the Irish opener at home versus Michigan. It proposed a prime time slot for the contest, courtesy of Iowa’s Musco Portable Lighting Company. Several trucks would be stationed along the corners of Notre Dame Stadium with the portable lights hanging above it to illuminate the field.
“We weren’t excited about it because we had a number of fears,” recalls Roger Valdiserri, Notre Dame’s sports information director from 1966-95 who also was an associate athletics director.
“The traffic and safety factors, people having more hours to drink — and then driving at night — nearby out-of-town people needing to scramble for hotel rooms to stay the night …
“And portable lighting was such a new thing. We were nervous about safety. Suppose one came crashing down into the stands?”
One by one, the University evaluated and tackled each concern before giving the lights the green light. On the Thursday night before the Sept. 18, 1982 opener versus Michigan, the Notre Dame football team under second-year head coach Gerry Faust worked out in the stadium for the first time with the lights on.
“The atmosphere was so exciting, especially when you could see the excitement in the players during that practice,” Valdiserri says.
Per usual, the ebullient Faust led the bandwagon of enthusiasm, but he had one reservation.
“In college football, night games make the day so long,” said Faust, whose Cincinnati Moeller High School teams played almost exclusively on Friday nights. “In high school, you go to school until about 2:30, go home to eat and then play on Friday night. You keep active.”
To fill some of that void, Faust gathered the team a couple of hours before the game to view “Wake Up The Echoes” for the first time. It was a documentary, released a few weeks earlier, that detailed the unparalleled tradition of the school’s football history.
“You can’t imagine how inspiring the film was,” remembers 1982 linebacker/tri-captain Mark Zavagnin.
An unbeatable combination was in place at Notre Dame that night. The Irish team was focused to make amends from the previous year’s 25-7 whipping at Michigan that knocked it from the No. 1 spot, and the crowd was at its festive peak for the historic night game.
Notre Dame dominated most of the evening and owned a 23-7 lead before Michigan staged a late rally in its 23-17 defeat. The Irish victory elevated Notre Dame from No. 20 to No. 10 and propelled it to a 4-0 start, the best in Faust’s five-year reign from 1981-85.
“People were saying, `We should do this more often,’ ” says Valdiserri of the first Notre Dame home night game.
After that 1982 victory at Michigan, Notre Dame had six more night games at home prior to its 1991 contract with NBC. The lone defeat occurred Oct. 6, 1984, when the No. 17 Irish lost to No. 14 and defending national champ Miami, 31-13.
On Sept. 21, 1985, unranked Notre Dame defeated Michigan State, 27-10.
Notre Dame senior Tim Brown established himself as the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy in 1987 with his Sept. 19 performance during a 31-8 victory against Michigan State.
During the 1988 march to the national title, the Irish played two night games at home for the first and only time in its history. They won a white-knuckle opener, 19-17, against No. 9 Michigan (Sept. 10). Three weeks later as the No. 5 team, Notre Dame defeated Stanford 42-14 (Oct. 1).
Finally, on Sept. 15, 1990, wideout Adrian Jarrell’s game-winning 18-yard touchdown reception from Rick Mirer with 1:40 left highlighted the most recent Notre Dame home night game, a 28-24 triumph by the No. 1 Irish versus No. 4 Michigan.
In the seven Irish home games at night from 1982-90, who were the most memorable single-game Notre Dame performers? Here’s are top 5:
1. Tim Brown (1985, 1987 Michigan State) — In the 27-10 Irish victory over the Spartans in 1985, Brown returned the second half kickoff for a 93-yard touchdown and caught four passes for 88 yards. In ’87 against that year’s Rose Bowl champs, he had first-quarter punt returns for 66- and 71-yard scores, and added four receptions for 72 yards.
Three of Brown’s six career kick or punt returns for scores came in these two games, and his eight catches averaged 20 yards.
2. Reggie Ho (1988 Michigan) — His four field goals in as many attempts against Michigan, the last with 1:13 left, propelled the 19-17 victory that began the national title run. The 5-5, 131-pound pre-med major became an instant folk hero as a walk-on who didn’t just want to be known as a “study geek.”
3. Tony Rice (1988 Stanford) — The junior began to develop as a more complete quarterback in this 42-14 romp, completing 11 of his 14 passes for 129 yards and a score, and adding 107 yards on 14 carries with two more touchdowns. He also directed the game-winning drive in the aforementioned victory against Michigan three weeks earlier.
4. Rick Mirer (1990 Michigan) — In his first career start, the sophomore quarterback made the cover of Sports Illustrated. He opened the game with a touchdown run off the option, and then led the game-winning 76-yard touchdown march, capped with the scoring toss to Jarrell. He finished 14 of 23 passing for 165 yards and one interception along with the TD pass.
5. Larry Moriarty (1982 Michigan) — Entering Notre Dame’s first ever night contest at home, the senior fullback had carried only 23 times in his career. Against the Wolverines, his 16 carries netted 116 yards, highlighted by a 24-yard scoring burst in the 23-17 victory.
NIGHT GAME COACHING RECORDS Notre Dame’s night history can almost be divided into two eras — the 35-year pre-Lou Holtz era from 1951-85, and the 25 years since Holtz took the reins in 1986.
It was under Holtz that multiple night games in a season became standard at Notre Dame to woo a prime time audience, especially on growing cable outlets, eventually prompting the exclusive NBC contract for home games that began with the 1991 season. In the 35 years from 1951-86, Notre Dame was 21-6-1 (.768) in night games. In the 11 years under Holtz alone (1986-96), the Irish were an almost identical 20-6-1 (.759). Here’s a breakdown of each Notre Dame head coach’s record at night.
Frank Leahy — 1-0 This year marks the 60th anniversary of Notre Dame’s first night game, a 40-6 Irish victory against Detroit on Oct. 5, 1951 in Briggs Stadium.
Terry Brennan — 1-1 The Irish won at Miami in 1955 but lost the 1956 opener at SMU, 19-13, the start of a 2-8 season.
Joe Kuharich — 0-1 During another 2-8 season in 1960, the Irish lost 28-21 at Miami.
Ara Parseghian — 10-2-1 The greatest Notre Dame night game — or perhaps any game — was the 24-23 victory against No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on Dec. 31, 1973, to capture the national title. The Irish also upset No. 1 Alabama in the Orange Bowl the following year, 13-11, in Parseghian’s final game.
Dan Devine — 5-0 His Irish career began with a 17-3 Monday night prime time victory at Boston College in 1975.
Gerry Faust — 4-2 The 1982 campaign commenced with a 23-17 victory at home versus No. 10 Michigan on Sept. 18, the first ever night game held at Notre Dame.
Lou Holtz — 20-6-1 Among the highlights were defeating No. 1 Colorado (21-6) in the 1990 Orange Bowl, and No. 3 Florida (39-28) in the 1992 Sugar Bowl. The 1988 national title campaign began with a pulsating 19-17 win versus Michigan at home, and in 1990 the Irish began regularly playing USC at night in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Bob Davie — 2-9 Davie won his first night game, 23-22 at Hawaii on Nov. 29, 1997, and his last, 24-18 at Purdue on Dec. 1, 2001, the day before he was fired. In between he lost a school record nine in a row.
Ty Willingham — 5-3 Willingham, whose Irish debut was a 22-0 victory versus Maryland at night in the Kickoff Classic, was 5-3.
Kent Baer — 0-1 The 2004 finale, a 38-21 loss to Oregon State in the Insight.com Bowl, had defensive coordinator Kent Baer as the interim coach after Willingham had been fired Nov. 30.
Charlie Weis — 9-7 Like Devine and Willingham, Weis opened his Notre Dame career with a road victory at night, at Pitt (42-21) on Sept. 3, 2005. Weis began 4-0 at night, but closed 5-7 — with his finale also coming at night, a 45-38 loss at Stanford on Nov. 28, 2009. Like Willingham, his career began and ended with a night game.
Brian Kelly — 4-2 Both of the losses under the current boss came when the Irish took a late lead — 31-28 at overtime at Michigan State in 2010 and 35-31 with 30 seconds remaining at Michigan this year. Michigan State won 34-31 on a fake field goal attempt that went for a touchdown, and the Wolverines this year scored on a touchdown pass with two second left.
Irish Night Game Facts & Figures
Notre Dame’s longest winning streak in night games is 11, beginning with an Oct. 13, 1973 win at Rice and concluding with a Sept. 24, 1983 shutout at Miami (20-0), which won its first national title.
The longest losing streak is nine under Davie, from Dec. 28, 1997 (Independence Bowl) through a 17-3 defeat at Stanford (coached by Tyrone Willingham) on Nov. 24, 2001.
The largest margin of victory at night was 57-7 at Stanford on Nov. 29, 2004, when Willingham poured it on his former employer.
The largest margin of defeat was 38-3 at USC on Nov. 29, 2008, eking out the Jan. 1, 1973 Orange Bowl to Nebraska (40-6) — which would inspire the Irish to win the national title the next year under Parseghian.
Notre Dame is 6-7 at night in bowls, where it has a five-game losing streak and has not won since the 39-28 conquest of Florida in the 1992 Sugar Bowl.
Notre Dame has played three night games in a row four times: 1) The last two games of 1973 and the 1974 opener; 2) the last two games of 1989 and the 1990 opener; 3) the last two games of 1995 and the 1996 opener; and 4) the last two games of 2001 and the 2002 opener.
The opponent Notre Dame has played most at night is Miami with 11 contests, 10 of them in Miami. The Irish are 6-4-1 versus the Hurricanes, with the lone loss at home at night occurring in 1984 (31-13). The Irish have played USC at night 10 times, all in Los Angeles, and are 3-6-1.