Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Honoring Lou

At halftime of Saturday's game against Michigan, Lou Holtz will be honored for his accomplishments as coach of the Irish from 1986-1996. During that time, Lou compiled a record of 100-30-2 (second in victories at ND to only Knute Rockne), won the 1988 national championship (and should have won in 1989 and 1993), consistently brought in top-flight recruiting classes and prepared a generation of young men for life beyond football.
If it sounds like I'm a gushing Lou Holtz partisan it's because, well, I am. My first season as an Irish fan was Lou's first as coach, 1986. I was ten that year and, for the first time, really started paying attention to what it was my father was watching on those Saturday afternoons in the fall.
That first season was unbearably difficult as Notre Dame finished 5-6; with five losses coming by a combined 14 points. Still, there was hope for the future and the next year was much better. An 8-3 regular season led to a berth in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, which I attended. It was my first Notre Dame game and I couldn't have been more excited. That week, I was able to see Tim Brown (the newly crowned Heisman Tropy winner) and was anxious for an Irish victory. Sadly, after jumping out to a 10-0 lead, Notre Dame was swarmed by a tough Texas A&M defense (led by John Roper and coached by Jackie Sherrill) and lost 35-10. After it was over, I cried unashamedly amidst a sea of maroon-and-white-clad "12th men".
Of course, as every Irish fan knows, in 1988 Lou took us to the promised land. Against all odds, a team that was deemed "a year away" shocked everyone and claimed Notre Dame's 11th national championship. Overnight, it seemed, Lou went from good coach to Irish legend.
The next several autumns were absolutely brilliant years to be an Irish fan. Talent poured into South Bend and, each season, Notre Dame was in the thick of the national title hunt. It was an amazing return to glory for a program that, by the end of the Gerry Faust era, had been left for dead. It seemed all was right with the world, thanks to Lou.
Sadly, like all good things, Lou's time as coach of the Irish had to come to an end. In 1996, after 10 years, Lou Holtz left the sideline he'd walked (and picked bare of grass) and into Irish lore.
As each summer comes to an end, and another Notre Dame season draws near, my memory always wanders back to those amazing, dizzying, wonderful seasons that Lou gave us. There will always be something very special about that time for me and I will always be supremely grateful to Lou Holtz for giving me memories to last a lifetime. Thanks, Lou.
As a special tribute to his Notre Dame career, here are my 10 favorite Lou Holtz victories. Believe me, it was tough to whittle it down to ten. Feel free to chime in with your own favorites in the comments section:

1) Notre Dame, 31 - Miami, 30 (October 15, 1988)
This may be the best game I've ever seen at any level. So many amazing moments - Catholics vs. Convicts, the pre-game fight in the tunnel, the Cleveland Gary fumble, Pat Terrell's game-saver and, of course, Lou's classic "save Jimmy Johnson's ass for me" line.
2) Notre Dame, 31 - Florida State, 24 (November 13, 1993)
This was 1993's version of "The Game of the Century". Florida State came in with an offensive juggernaut led by Charlie Ward, who would win the Heisman that year. Notre Dame countered with a balanced offense and solid defense and walked away with a victory that should have propelled them to a national championship were it not for the leg of David Gordon and the whims of AP voters.
3) Notre Dame, 28 - USC, 24 (October 21, 1989)
This was really, really gratifying. Todd Marinovich, USC's freshman QB, is among the most unlikeable villains in Irish history. Throughout the game, he taunted, preened and put his team in a position to knock off the Irish. Luckily, the Irish countered with Tony Rice, Anthony Johnson and an opportunistic defense that kept the Trojans out of the endzone when it counted.
4) Notre Dame, 34 - West Virginia, 21 (January 2, 1989)
This was the game that gave Notre Dame's its 11th national champion. The Irish stormed out of the gate early, battering the Mountaineers' Major Harris and both running and passing all over their defense. This game left absolutely no doubt who the best team in 1988 was.
5) Notre Dame, 27 - USC, 10 (November 26, 1988)
#1 Notre Dame vs. #2 USC in the Coliseum, late in the season - does it get better? Prior to the game, Lou sent Tony Brooks and Ricky Watters home after they showed up late for a team meeting. During the game, it hardly mattered. Tony Rice raced for a 65-yard touchdown, Stan Smagala ran an interception of a Rodney Peete pass back for a 64-yard score and defense took care of the rest.
6) Notre Dame, 17 - Penn State, 16 (November 14, 1992)
"The Snow Bowl". This was the last scheduled game between the ND and Penn State for the foreseeable future (at the time, no one knew it would be resumed in 2006 and 2007) and the winner would have bragging rights for most wins in the series. Going into the final minutes, it looked that winner might be Penn State. That was before Rick Mirer hit Jerome Bettis with a TD pass and Reggie Brooks with a brilliant two-point conversion to give the Irish the 'W'.
7) Notre Dame, 24 - Michigan, 19 (September 16, 1989)
On a rain-soaked field in Ann Arbor, Notre Dame came in and knocked off pre-season #1 Michigan thanks to two kick-off return TDs by "The Rocket".
8) Notre Dame, 34 - Tennessee, 29 (November 10, 1990)
Great runs by both 'Rocket' Ismail and Ricky Watters propelled the Irish to victory over a tough Tennessee team in a tough environment.
9) Notre Dame, 39 - Florida, 28 (January 1, 1992)
"The Cheerios Bowl". A smart-assed waiter provided the Irish all the motivation they would need on the eve of their Sugar Bowl clash with the Gators by offering the immortal, "What's the difference between Notre Dame and Cheerios? Cheerios belong in a bowl". Notre Dame proceeded to prove they belonged by running Jerome Bettis over, around and through the Gator defense.
10) Notre Dame, 38 - USC, 37 (November 29, 1986)
Amazing how many great games ND played against SC during Lou's tenure. This was the season-ending game for the aforementioned trying first season of the Holtz era. Trailing 30-12 in the 3rd quarter, ND came storming back. Late in the 4th quarter, a 56-yard punt return by Tim Brown set up John Carney's winning 19-yard field goal with two seconds left.

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