I can’t remember ever attending a game that had a more electric atmosphere than at Notre Dame Stadium on that October Saturday. The game then lived up to its hype, with Miami’s missed two-point conversion at the end sealing the Irish’s 31-30 victory. The thrilling finish left everyone spent, not just the players.
It’s all recounted in a new book, Unbeatable, by Jerry Barca. Barca, who attended that game as an 11-year-old tells the complete story of Notre Dame’s 1988 national title team. It will serve as an early Christmas present for Irish fans.
As someone who covered most of its games that year, including Notre Dame’s win over West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl, it was a chance to relive some old memories.
It’s hard to believe 25 years have flown by. Here’s my Q/A with Barca.
How did this book come about?
I was helping produce the documentary film Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself when I met with literary agent Scott Gould. I was asking him if any of his clients had been influenced by Plimpton’s sports writing. As the conversation splintered into different tangents, I told him I was surprised no one had gone back and revisited Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship team. He didn’t believe it. At that point, the thought was that if I could gain access to the archives, and the former players and coaches, this idea could become a book. The next day, I was on the phone to the Notre Dame Sports Information Department and work began that day in late 2011.
How much time did you spend with Lou Holtz? What memories stood out for him after 25 years?
I spent about two and a half hours with him in New York City. Since there was a lot of source material on him, including two books he wrote, I wanted to know details about games from ’88, and specifically what it takes to win a championship at Notre Dame and how it was different than other places where he had coached.
There were a lot memories that stood out for him: visiting the Notre Dame dorms to talk to students; scrutinizing his quarterbacks in practice; the players who weren’t stars, but great character guys.
Among many others, two other memories stand out and they have to do with the No. 1-versus-No. 2 matchup to end the regular season at USC. I found it funny that both he and Tony Rice talk about Notre Dame’s first offensive play from scrimmage – a play action bomb to Raghib “Rocket” Ismail with Notre Dame backed up to its one-yard-line – and without prompting they both remember ABC play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson misstating that Rice had stepped out of the back of the end zone. The other memory was of Rice’s 65-yard touchdown run. Holtz actually ended up using my notebook to draw up the play. He specifically designed this reverse option to get a half step on the USC middle linebackers and spring Rice for a big play.
Besides Holtz, the other compelling character in the book was Tony Rice. What memories stood out for him?
He has a very detailed memory of how Lou Holtz coached him in practice and that Holtz did not even call him by his name until his junior year. Instead, Holtz called him Rickey, as in Rickey Foggy, an option quarterback out of South Carolina who played for Holtz at Minnesota.
I covered that Miami game, and it is in my top 3 for favorite events I attended. For those who weren’t there, what was the atmosphere like in Notre Dame Stadium?
The atmosphere, it wasn’t just the stadium. It was the campus. It was the months, weeks and days leading up to it. Ever since Miami put that 58-7 pasting on the Irish at the end of the ’85 season Notre Dame fans had the game in ’88 marked on the calendar because it would be the first time the ‘Canes would visit South Bend since that thrashing. It was really as if nothing else was going on in the world.
Loud is probably an understatement to describe the fans inside the stadium. They wanted the win so bad, maybe even more than the players, if that’s possible. I was in the corner of the student section in the 59th row of what was then a 60-row stadium. When Pat Terrell returned an interception for a TD to put the Irish up 21-7 I remember my older brother having to quickly grab me and move me out of the way as this mass of bodies piled on each other in celebration.
As a sporting event, it was the perfect combination of storylines. Miami was the elite program of the era and Notre Dame was resurgent. The revenge factor from ’85 played a role and of course the flashiness of Miami and its pro-style attack countered the veer-option run-first style of Notre Dame. But let’s be honest, the student-made bootleg T-shirt dubbing the game “Catholics vs. Convicts” took the game and the series to an unmatched, galvanizing level.
Besides what people already know about that team, what surprises did you learn while researching the book?
How much the hypocrisy of NCAA and the battles about big-time college football haven’t changed all that much. The particulars might be different, but the fights for TV rights, and, more pointedly, money, along with the questionable fulfillment of the “student-athlete” ideal were as ever-present then as they are now. 1988 provides a great snapshot in time just before the full-on explosion of college football that we have today.
Talk about the legacy of that team?
I think it gets overlooked. While talking to Notre Dame and college football historians during my research, they were quick to tell me, “You know, this wasn’t Notre Dame’s best team.” But people forget this is the group that started and accounts for more than half of the longest winning streak in school history. The ’88 roster had 34 guys who went on to sign NFL contracts. Then the gauntlet of teams they went through, beating the No. 1, 2, and 3 teams throughout the year, winning 10 of 12 games by a double-digit margin. That’s a pretty good legacy to leave.
As someone with close ties to Notre Dame, are you surprised they have gone 25 years without winning a national title?
In 1988, I think if somebody offered you a bet that it would take Notre Dame at least 25 years to win another national title, you’d think the person offering it was crazy. Back then, not winning another title for this long was inconceivable. But things changed and in the post-Holtz era it has taken a while for Notre Dame to find the right guy at the helm. It seems like now they have that type of a leader in Brian Kelly.