The 1989 Notre Dame football team was one Lou Holtz believed was the best he had ever coached—better even, than the team that won the national championship the prior year. Holtz had a good point—the ’89 Fighting Irish kept winning against a grueling schedule, but ended up one win short of a repeat title.
Notre Dame was stocked with talent the NFL would like in the following spring’s draft. Three offensive linemen, Tim Grunhard, Dean Brown and Mike Brennan, were picked by the pros. So was defensive tackle Jeff Alm, along with linebacker Ned Bolcar and defensive backs Pat Terrell, Stan Smagala and D’Juan Francisco.
Tony Rice ran the option-oriented offense, and while his passing was erratic, Rice led the team in rushing with 884 yards. Rice had more future pros in his backfield, with Anthony Johnson at fullback and Ricky Watters at halfback. And when it came to sheer explosiveness, no one could match Raghib Ismail, who was the top receiver, along with carrying the ball and being an electric special teams player.
The Irish were ranked #2 to start the season and the college football world was on fire for their September 16 meeting with top-ranked Michigan. ND opened the season in the Kickoff Classic in the Meadowlands and easily dispatched future ACC co-champ Virginia, 36-13.
By the time ND got to Ann Arbor, they had flipped poll positions with the Wolverines and were in the top spot.
Rain pounded Ann Arbor and it left puddles on what was then the artificial turf at the Big House in Michigan. Notre Dame led 7-6 at halftime and then Ismail took over the game. He returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown. Then, with the score 17-12, Ismail returned another kickoff for a touchdown. Notre Dame won 24-19.
The Irish then hosted Michigan State, who would finish the season in the Top 20. ND won 21-13. They took care of bad teams on the road, blowing out Purdue and beating Stanford 27-17. It set the stage for a difficult three-game October run against ranked teams in Air Force, USC and Pitt.
Notre Dame’s visit to Colorado Springs resulted in the first night game in the history of the Air Force Academy. The Falcons were ranked #17, but the Irish dominated from the start. They took a 14-0 lead and then Ismail returned a punt for a touchdown. The final was 41-27 and it really wasn’t that close.
There was chippiness on the field in South Bend the next week when USC came visiting. The Irish players blocked the end zone as the Trojans tried to take the field, a scene reminiscent of Notre Dame instigating a brawl in the tunnel with Miami the prior year.
This one looked like it might backfire—Notre Dame trailed 17-7 at half and 24-21 late in the game, when Rice hit Ismail on a deep pass and the quarterback then ran it in for the winning touchdown.
Pitt was ranked seventh in the country when they came to South Bend the following week. The Panthers got off to a fast start and led 7-0. But the ND defense sacked Pitt quarterback Alex Van Pelt for a safety, and later in the first half, Terrell returned an interception 54 yards for a touchdown. The rout was on and the final was 45-7.
Notre Dame got a brief breather, blowing out bad teams in Navy and SMU by the combined score of 100-6. But the schedule quickly toughened up, with a road game at #17 Penn State. The Irish offensive line was dominant. Rice carried 26 times for 141 yards. Watters piled up 128, and Ismail added 84. The cumulative total was an amazing 425 yards against a very good defense playing at home, and Notre Dame won 34-23.
The bowl matchups were already set in place prior to the last week of the season, as was the norm back in the days when there was no organized coalition of the major bowls. Notre Dame was going to play second-ranked Colorado in the Orange Bowl. The road to a repeat title went through the Orange Bowl in more ways than one—before that 1 vs. 2 matchup could take place, ND had to go to the same stadium to face Miami.
Miami had lost an October game to Florida State and needed help to get back in the national title picture. The Hurricanes also wanted revenge for the 1988 loss in South Bend. Notre Dame simply looked too slow on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Trailing 17-10 in the third quarter, they had Miami backed up and facing 3rd-and-44. Then Terrell and Smagala got mixed up in covering the deep route on Miami’s Randall Hill and the ‘Canes amazingly converted the first down. They drove for a touchdown that all but sealed it and the final was 27-10.
Notre Dame was now #4 in the polls, but they weren’t out of it. They could beat the new #1 team in Colorado head-to-head. Michigan was ranked #3, and if it came down to it, the Irish could vault past the Wolverines based on head-to-head. What Notre Dame really needed was for Miami to lose to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. And short of that, ND had played a significantly better schedule than the Hurricanes, so there was an argument that this could justify overriding head-to-head.
First things first. Notre Dame needed to beat Colorado and for one half, the Buffaloes were the better team. But they didn’t cash in. There was a fumble in the red zone and two blown field goals from short range. The game was scoreless at the half and then ND took over the third quarter. They scored two touchdowns, including a 35-yard reverse by Ismail.
Colorado found the end zone at the end of the third quarter, but a missed extra point was their latest mistake. Notre Dame finished the job with an 82-yard drive that took 17 plays, chewed up nine minutes and sealed the 21-6 win.
“We beat the #1 team in the country by 15 points,” Holtz said in his postgame interview, as he prepared to make his case in light of the fact that Miami was surviving a test from Alabama 33-25. But it was to no avail—the Hurricanes ended up #1 and the Irish finished #2.
I think the voters made the correct decision—the head-to-head victory was simply too decisive to ignore. But the voters should have applied the same logic four years later when Notre Dame had beaten Florida State, while the Seminoles played the tougher schedule. Instead, Notre Dame was shut out in both 1989 and 1993, a level of appalling inconsistency.
Regardless of voter issues, the 1989 Notre Dame football team had beaten the champions of both the Big Ten and Pac-10 (Michigan & USC), the Big Eight (Colorado) the ACC (Virginia), and good teams in Michigan State, Air Force, Pitt and Penn State. It’s easy to see why Holtz considered them his best team.