"This game was won by the Notre Dame spirit." -- Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz after Notre Dame's 31-30 win over Miami, October 15, 1988
Those eight words uttered by Lou Holtz encapsulate so much. In specific terms, it pays homage to the tradition and magic that was a big reason behind Notre Dame's program-changing win over the Hurricanes that day. In a more general sense, it was a warning sign for the failures of every coach since Holtz, all of whom either paid lip service to the Notre Dame spirit (Charlie Weis) or dismissed it entirely (Bob Davie).
(Note: We're still not sure what Tyrone Willingham thought about anything. He wasn't around much.)
I've had the privilege of attending hundreds of sporting events -- Final Fours, baseball playoffs, college and pro football games across the country too numerous to list (and of course four Wrestlemanias). Twenty-two years ago today, I attended the greatest sporting event I've ever been to -- Notre Dame 31, Miami 30.
The hair-trigger reaction nowadays is to dub any exciting or dramatic sporting event as the "greatest this or that ever." Me, I like to let a sporting event marinate over time and assess after watching it again and giving it some thought. I still haven't attended a more important, more exicting, more dramatic live event than "Notre Dame 31, Miami 30, 10/15/88."
This game hit all of the "best ever" hot buttons:
1. Buildup. To understand the significance of this game is to have been on the business end of the teeth-kickings the previous three years. Miami's rise under Howard Schnellenberger and then Jimmy Johnson figuratively marched right through South Bend where Notre Dame, with Gerry Faust as its head coach, was about as equipped to handle the Hurricane onslaught as Mike Tyson in a spelling bee. The 58-7 annihilation of the Irish in Faust's last game may as well have been a giant bag of dog turd splattered on the front door of the admin building (Golden Dome). Add a 24-0 Miami win in Holtz's second year, and if the pride factor wasn't going to kick in at home in 1988, it wasn't ever going to happen.
(Check out minutes 3:00 through 5:00 of the video below for the Miami side)
2. Heroes and Villains. I suppose the "heroes and villains" are in the eye of the beholder. My allegiances are obviously clear, but regardless of which side you fall on, there is no denying that this game included some of the most magnetic and transcendent personalities of that or any era. Start with the two coaches -- Lou Holtz and Jimmy Johnson, two guys whose respective charisma has each of them on television well into their 60s. As for the players, here's a sampling of the players prominently involved in that game -- Ricky Watters, Tony Rice, Rocket Ismail, Chris Zorich, Todd Lyght, Mike Stonebreaker, Steve Walsh, Russell Maryland, Cleveland Gary, Bubba McDowell, Randal Hill....
3. Drama. Notre Dame jumped out to a 21-7 lead on the strength of a power running game and the first handful of what would be seven Miami turnovers before Miami came roaring back to tie the game at 21 at halftime. A lower-scoring second half ensued, and when Miami pulled to within 31-30 on a Steve Walsh to Andre Brown touchdown pass with 45 seconds left, Jimmy Johnson decided to go for the two-point conversion and the win. (Admirable balls move by Johnson because a tie probably would have put Miami into the national championship game that season against either West Virginia or a rematch with the Irish.) Pat Terrell knocked down the two-point attempt, and the rest is history.
4. Re-watchability. The question for a potential "best game ever" is similar to how you evaluate movies -- "Does it hold up over time?" Clearly, this one does. In fact, check out the video below of the introduction to the game and I contend that this is better than any introduction you'll see to a big game this Saturday. (Side bar -- regardless of what you think of Brent Musberger, he was the voice of games like this one back in the day.)
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5. Historical significance. This game signaled the turning point of the Notre Dame football program under Lou Holtz. It jump started the greatest period of Notre Dame football since the early `70's, and the last great period of Notre Dame football to this day. Jimmy Johnson eventually left for the NFL and his final salvo for his players was "Beat Notre Dame."
Above all else, the animosity between these two schools came to such an ultra-violent head that, two years later, both schools agreed to go their separate ways, depriving college football fans everywhere of one of the truly great and real rivalries. (Note: It will have taken 22 years, but the rivalry resumes in 2012 at Soldier Field, although as downtrodden as both programs have been, this has the makings of one of those "legends" pro wrestling matches where two former main eventers hook up as beat up fifty-somethings in the North Jersey Armory in front of 45 toothless garbage men.)
So there you have it. My greatest sporting event ever attended -- Notre Dame 31, Miami 30. Top that (comment below).
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the "Sean & John Show" and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.