By Dan Flaherty
The University of Notre Dame has been in the news lately and for faithful Catholics, the news has finally been good. Amy Coney Barrett, a product of Notre Dame Law School and devoutly Catholic mother of seven, is President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court. And Lou Holtz, the man who coached Notre Dame football to its last era of continued success addressed the Republican National Convention with a stirring message advocating for the unborn and on behalf of President Trump. Holtz will soon receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom honor. It’s Holtz’s eleven-year tenure as the Notre Dame football coach, from 1986-96, that is the subject of The Last Golden Age.
When you grow up Irish Catholic in the Midwest and love sports, Notre Dame football casts a long cultural shadow. I went to Catholic school through eighth grade and later to CCD instruction, but until I was 28-years-old, I thought of ND football as what made the Catholic Church distinct from other religious institutions.
By the grace of God and his Holy Mother, I eventually learned something about Divine Revelation. But I still look back with fondness of those days rooting on the Fighting Irish. I was fortunate enough to spend three years in college in the state of Indiana when Lou Holtz was coaching and even on the campus of Indiana University, Notre Dame football parties had an electric atmosphere.
The Holtz era was the last time that Notre Dame won a national title. It was the last era when the Irish were in the running for a title virtually every year. It was the last time the program won a major bowl game. Hence, this book’s title The Last Golden Age.
Notre Dame football is still good, still fun to watch and with Brian Kelly at the helm, there’s hope for another run at the top of college football. But it’s not what it was once upon a time. I wrote this book to preserve that era and tell what it was like, from a fan’s perspective, watching it unfold.
To understand the Holtz era, it’s necessary to understand the one that directly preceded it. Gerry Faust arrived to coach Notre Dame five years earlier amidst great fanfare and promise. The Fighting Irish program was in good shape. Faust’s predecessor, Dan Devine, won a national championship as recently as 1977 and seriously contended for another in his swan song of 1980. The typical high expectations that accompany Notre Dame football were firmly in place when Faust arrived as the coach for the 1981 season.
The drama of the new coach’s story and his personal charisma only enhanced it. Gerry Faust grew up in Ohio, a devout Catholic who dreamt of playing football for Notre Dame. As a high school quarterback, the Fighting Irish were beyond his grasp. Faust settled for another Catholic school with a strong devotion to the Lady on the Dome-the University of Dayton. After his playing career Faust went into coaching high school football and eventually got the head job at Moeller High in Cincinnati.
The state of Ohio has more than its share of high school football legends. The most notable was Paul Brown. The future NFL icon was the record-holder for wins by a high school coach. Faust displaced Brown at the top of the list. Moeller High was one of the top high school programs in the entire country. Notre Dame was never far from Faust’s mind and heart. In 1977 he wrote a letter to Father Edmund Joyce, the second-in-command at the university, and expressed his desire to be considered for the coaching job the next time it became available.
When Devine announced his retirement prior to the 1980 season that he would coach, Notre Dame had time to conduct a thorough search. Father Joyce had not forgotten Faust’s letter. Father Joyce and his search team had a wide talent pool to pick from. The resource advantage held by Notre Dame would have made all but a few head coaches realistic targets. But the university decided to give Faust the opportunity.
“The job overwhelmed him,” said legendary reporter and ABC commentator Dick Schaaf. It wasn’t apparent in Faust’s first game-a rout of LSU that vaulted the Irish to #1 in the polls. But the glow started to fade the very next week. Notre Dame lost decisively to Michigan, with veteran Wolverine mentor Bo Schembechler-another Ohio product-determined not to lose to a “high school offense.”
Notre Dame always had a target on its back for opposing players. Now opposing coaches had their own axe to grind, against the notion that someone could just walk in from high school and take over the highest-profile job in college football. The Fighting Irish struggled to a 5-6 season in Faust’s rookie year.
Over the next three years, Notre Dame had their moments. They got a big win over Michigan to start the 1982 season, the first night game ever played in South Bend. Later that season they knocked off Dan Marino’s Pitt at a time the Panthers were ranked #1 in the country. A year later, they knocked off the Boston College team of Doug Flutie in the Liberty Bowl. An Aloha Bowl trip followed in 1984.
But the bowl trips themselves underscored the problem. Notre Dame had previously refused to accept a bid to anything less than the majors on New Year’s Day. Now they were settling. What’s more, their seasons were falling apart in November. Late fades in 1982 and 1983 cost them marquee bowl invitations. The dream was slipping away as he entered the final year of his contract in 1985.
Everyone in college football knew it was do-or-die time in South Bend. But the season didn’t pan out. Notre Dame was 5-5 entering its season finale at powerful Miami when Faust voluntarily stepped down.
ENTER LOU HOLTZ
The university wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. The man tapped as Faust’s successor was already an accomplished head coach at the collegiate level. Lou Holtz was hired at William & Mary in 1969, coached there for three years, and took the Tribe to the Tangerine Bowl. He also showcased the wit that would become famous when asked what the problem was after his team hadn’t played well-“The problem is we have too many Marys and not enough Williams.”
Holtz eventually moved up to N.C. State and then to Arkansas, with a one-year detour in between where he coached the New York Jets and realized by season’s end he was meant for the college game. In the bowl games that followed the 1977 season, Holtz made his mark on the national stage.
Arkansas produced a 10-1 record in that inaugural 1977 season for Holtz. The only loss was to Texas, then a rival in the old Southwest Conference. The Longhorns had Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell in their backfield, went undefeated, and were ranked #1 in the country going into the bowls. Texas went to the Cotton Bowl to play fifth-ranked Notre Dame. Arkansas got an Orange Bowl bid to face second-ranked Oklahoma.
Oklahoma was significantly more talented than Arkansas and Holtz’s team was an 18-point underdog. Then the suspensions came. Holtz suspended four offensive starters for the game after allegations of sexual assault. One of them was the team’s best running back. Overight, a hopeless cause seemed to get worse. Arkansas was a 24-point underdog by kickoff on New Year’s Night.
Earlier on New Year’s Day, Notre Dame shocked the country by thrashing Texas 38-10. Oklahoma took the field knowing the national title was almost certainly theirs if they simply took care of business. But Arkansas’s backup running back had the night of his life, running for over 200 yards. Arkansas led 24-0 by halftime and won 31-6. In a shocking development, Oklahoma couldn’t have covered that twenty-four-point betting line even had it been reversed.
Notre Dame won the national championship. In an irony no one could have known at the time, Lou Holtz had helped them do it. His star was on the rise.
Arkansas continued to have success the next several years, but when the team had a mediocre campaign in 1983, Holtz was fired. He didn’t stay unemployed long, getting a call from the University of Minnesota and was back on the sideline by the time the 1984 season was underway.
By Holtz’s second year in 1985, his Gophers earned a bowl bid. Earning that bid triggered what soon became known nationally as “The Notre Dame Clause.” It’s not the name of a Tim Allen movie. It was a clause in Holtz’s Minnesota contract that said once the program earned a bowl invite, he was free to take another job offer. But only one particular job–the one that was now opening up in South Bend.
It didn’t take Notre Dame long to act. By the time Faust took the field for his coaching finale at Miami on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the nation knew that Holtz would be his successor. There was no grand farewell for Faust. Miami was too good and too fast.The final score was 58-7. The size and scope of the rout left no one under any illusions about the work that had to be done.
“I am so proud to be at Notre Dame. Not because of me or because I deserve to be here. From the time I grew up I loved this school…I thank God for giving me the opportunity to be here with you. If there’s any way to have great academics-we’ll never sacrifice that-and win the national championship, we’re gonna do it.” -Lou Holtz addressing a student pep rally after his hiring
The Last Golden Age digs deep into the work that Holtz did in South Bend over those next eleven years. You’ll read about the following…
- Holtz’s hard-luck first season, where it was apparent to observers that he was turning the team around, but having difficulty making it apparent in the won-loss column.
- The breakthrough second season, with decisive victories over Michigan and Alabama, and the Heisman Trophy campaign of Tim Brown. The Irish got back on the national stage before the end of the season showed they still had some work to do.
- Third-Year Magic—Notre Dame’s classic 1988 revenge battle with Miami, the “Catholics vs. Convicts” game of college football lore and the drive to a national championship.
- Eight more strong seasons of consistent national championship contention, major bowl victories and notable players up and down the lineup.
It’s all here—the season-opening battles with Michigan, where each one seemed to be more dramatic than the one that came before it.The heated debate of 1993 over the finish with Florida State. Rocket Ismail’s bid for the Heisman Trophy in 1990 that came up just short. Three years with highly touted Rick Mirer at quarterback, with its many highs and occasional lows. The much-publicized arrival of Ron Powlus that didn’t work out the way anyone hoped. And the triumphs over adversity by Tony Rice and Kevin McDougal.