The Lou Holtz era had begun in South Bend ten years earlier, and the 1996 Notre Dame football would be Holtz’s last hurrah on campus. It would prove to an up-and-down year that looked poised for an appropriate finish—in a major bowl game—before the rug was ripped out from under the team at the very end.
Notre Dame came into the 1996 season off a year that had been good—they won nine games and made the Orange Bowl in 1995—but nor it had it been great. The Irish had been out of the national title picture early and ultimately lost the bowl showdown with Florida State.
It had been 1993 since Holtz had produced a truly outstanding team, and with quarterback Ron Powlus entering his third year as starter in 1996, this team had the usual high expectations of the era, ranked sixth in preseason polls.
Notre Dame made a rare Thursday night appearance to open the season at lowly Vanderbilt, and it quickly became apparent that expecting greatness from this team would be to ask too much. The Irish struggled to a 14-7 win over and were dropped to #9 in the polls.
There was a brief time of hope, when Notre Dame thrashed Purdue and then won a big game on the road at sixth-ranked Texas. After trailing 14-3 early and 24-17 late, the Irish rallied with ten points in the final three minutes. Autry Denson, the back who would rush for over 1,100 yards by season’s end, scored with 2:54 left. Then the defense held, Powlus got the ball back on his own 43-yard line and led a drive for a last-play 39-yard field goal by Jim Sanson.
Notre Dame had outrushed Texas 292-135, giving hope that the traditional power ground attack by Holtz could find its rhythm. But those hopes were quickly dashed one week later in a home game with Ohio State.
The Buckeyes dominated the trenches on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame ran for only 44 yards, while Ohio State running back Pepe Pearson went for 173. Powlus went 13/30 for 154 yards. The Irish trailed 29-16 and there was a brief moment of hope, when Denson brought a punt back 90 yards for a touchdown. But the return was called back for holding, and the game ended a 13-point defeat that didn’t seem that close.
Notre Dame slipped out of the Top 10 and was ranked #11 when they blew out a ranked opponent in Washington, 54-20. It was the kind of offensive explosiveness that the Irish would show just often enough to tease in this season. But one week later, any lingering hopes of a title run took their death blow. Powlus lost four fumbles against Air Force, the final one in overtime and the Falcons pulled a 20-17 upset.
The season was in danger of slipping away, but a two-loss Notre Dame team could still make a major bowl game. They took a week off and then went to Ireland to play the Shamrock Classic against Navy. This was a good Navy team, one that would go 9-2 in the regular season. The Irish dropped 54 points on the Middies and won easily.
It spurred an offensive outburst. Notre Dame scored 170 points in sweeping three games against Boston College, Pitt and Rutgers. While none of these teams had winning records, the points explosion at least underscored how much progress Notre Dame had made since sputtering against Vanderbilt.
All that was left was to go to Los Angeles and defeat USC, and the Irish would likely be chosen for one of the major bowl games. The Trojans were 5-6 coming into the game and Holtz was 9-0-1 against one the school’s biggest rivals. When Notre Dame, leading 14-12, scored an early fourth quarter touchdown, it looked like they were heading back to college football’s biggest stage.
Then, in the blink of an eye, it came undone and immediately after the fourth quarter touchdown. Sanson missed the extra point, keeping the score at 20-12. USC drove 67 yards for a touchdown, and converted the two-point play to tie the game. 1996 was the first year of overtime in college football and that’s where we were headed. USC scored a touchdown on their possession then stopped Notre Dame and the Irish season—and the Holtz era was stunningly over.
Of course it didn’t have to be over, but Notre Dame declined the chance to play in a minor bowl game. Holtz stepped down, amid rumors he was either being directly forced out or, at the very least, leaving because he no longer had a good relationship with the athletic department.
Holtz would later coach South Carolina, rebuild that program from the ashes and hand it over to Steve Spurrier. Time heals all wounds, and as Holtz became an ESPN studio analyst, his affection for Notre Dame is very obvious. But while the coach recovered from the sad ending to 1996, the school has not. Going into the 2020 season, the Irish have yet to win a major bowl game in the post-Holtz era.