Notre Dame played in its first College Football Playoff game last year and hope to make playoff appearances a regular occurrence in the years moving forward. But the search for a national championship continues on into its third decade in South Bend. The last time Notre Dame was crowned champion of the college football world was 1988 with Lou Holtz in his third season as head coach of the Fighting Irish.
Of course, the highlight of Notre Dame’s national championship season was their matchup with No. 1 Miami. Catholics vs. Convicts in South Bend was the ultimate clash of college football’s old school history and tradition against the new brash ways of the dominant Hurricanes. It became a game that inspired documentaries about it and took the college football world by storm. It was a magical time for the sport of college football with two national powers colliding with the stakes as high as they can get.
Only a couple of teams were capable of going toe-to-toe with Miami that season. No. 1 Florida State was dismantled in the opener, 31-0. No. 15 Michigan (after losing to the Irish, lost by one in Ann Arbor. No. 8 Arkansas kept it within two points. But only Notre Dame could send Miami home with a loss, even if it was with some controversy that is disputed to this day.
Notre Dame went on to take down No. 3 West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl to put a cap on their national title run. With Barry Alvarez as the defensive coordinator, Tony Rice at quarterback, Ricky Waters at running back, Michael Stonebreaker at linebacker, Chris Zordich at defensive tackle, the Irish had a memorable run. Little did anyone know it would be the last time Notre Dame won it all.
Here’s what else was going down in 1988 as the Irish were on their way to their most recent national title…
Last National Championship: 1988 (31 years and counting)
Who was President?
Ronald Reagan was in his final year in the White House, wrapping up the last full year of his second term in office as President of the United States. His Vice President, George H.W. Bush would run for president and win the 1988 election with Dan Quayle as his running mate.
In 1988, current President Donald J. Trump was watching his first wife, Ivana Winklmayr become a naturalized United States citizen.
What was on TV?
There were some big debuts on the various networks in 1988. Roseanne, The Wonder Years, and Murphy Brown all made their debuts. Another show that made its debut on Disney Channel was Good Morning, Miss Bliss. That show would go on to evolve into Saved By The Bell, a fan favorite for a generation.
The year also saw some iconic shows come to an end, including St. Elsewhere, Magnum P.I. and The Facts of Life.
What movies were hot?
The big winner at the box office in 1988 wasn’t “Big” (that was No. 4 in the box office earnings), but “Rain Man” starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. The Academy Award-winning film beat out “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” for the top spot in the box office charts that year, with Eddie Murphy and “Coming to America” coming in third.
But 1988 was also the year one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time was released in theaters, with Bruce Willis starring in “Die Hard.”
Tim Burton also directed one of his more iconic films, “Beetlejuice.” Meanwhile, Ron Howard bombed with “Willow.”
Baseball fans also got a couple of movies to soak in with “Bull Durham” and “Eight Men Out.”
What else happened in 1988?
Notre Dame defeated two conference champions in the 1988 season with victories over Michigan (Big Ten) and USC (Pac-10) book-ending the regular season. Other conference champions in 1988 included Clemson (ACC), Nebraska (Big Eight), Arkansas (Southwest), and Auburn and LSU splitting the SEC title in the pre-SEC Championship Game era.
Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders ran away with the Heisman Trophy after rushing for 2,628 yards and scoring 37 rushing touchdowns in just 11 games (bowl game stats were not included in official records at this time). Current Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy was the starting quarterback for the Cowboys that season.
Current Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was just a few years into his coaching career that would eventually lead him to South Bend. In 1988, Kelly was a graduate assistant and defensive backs coach for Grand Valley State. In just a few more years he would become the head coach of the program and lead them to Division 2 dominance as a national title contender.
For the first time ever, a night game is played in Wrigley Field between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets. Kirk Gibson and the Los Angeles Dodgers push past Jose Conseco and the Oakland Athletics in the World Series later that season.
The San Francisco 49ers would go 10-6 in the regular season but go on to win the first of back-to-back Super Bowls with a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Former Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana continued to be among the best players in the NFL you did not want to bet against.
The Bad Boy Detroit Pistons won the first of back-to-back NBA titles a couple of years before Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls finally broke through for their title runs. The Calgary Flames would go on to defeat the Montreal Canadiens in the 1988-89 season. It remains the most recent time two teams from Canada played for the Stanley Cup.
How close are the Irish to a title now?
Notre Dame has had their chances to grab another national championship over the past three decades. Most recently, the Irish played in the College Football Playoff last season, only to be run over by eventual national champion Clemson. And the Irish played in one of the final BCS championship games, getting steamrolled by Alabama at the end of the 2012 season. But you have to go back to the years closer to the last national title in 1988 to find when Notre Dame had a shot at the national championship.
The Irish ended the 1989 season ranked No. 2 after ending the season with a 21-6 victory over No. 1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl. As fate would have it, Miami ended the year ranked No. 1 with an 11-1 record that included a regular season-ending victory over the previously No. 1 Irish. A promising 1990 season saw the Irish start at No. 2 in the AP poll and move to No. 1 before a home loss to Penn State in November brought a run to a possible national title to a halt. A bumpy end to the 1991 season ensured a national title shot for the Irish, who had been no higher than No. 5, would remain out of reach. In 1992, a 33-16 loss to Stanford would be enough to prevent Notre Dame from sniffing a national title shot.
The 1993 season had promise as the Irish climbed to No. 2 going down the stretch of the regular season. A major showdown with No. 1 Florida State in Notre Dame Stadium was dubbed the Game of the Centruty. It was so big at the time that ESPN took its signature College GameDay show on the road for the very first time.
A wild 31-24 victory over the Seminoles bumped the Irish to No. 1 in the AP poll with just one final regular season game to be played.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, that one game came against No. 17 Boston College, and the Eagles clipped the Irish in South Bend by a final score of 41-39.
Notre Dame could do nothing but watch as Florida State claimed the national championship with a victory over No. 2 Nebraska.
Today, Notre Dame is in a good situation even with all of the craziness that has happened through the realignment changes. The Irish are a program that will flirt with a national title shot every now and then, so winning one shouldn’t be out of the question. But their two most recent national title shots have left a stain that is impossible for many to forget about. But how much should Notre Dame be at fault for going up against two programs in Alabama and Clemson during times when they have been two of the most dominant programs the sport has seen in some time?
Notre Dame may one day celebrate a national championship, and it may even happen in the next few years. But this is certainly not the 1980s and 1990s anymore for Notre Dame. There are challenges that exist today that were not as inhibiting decades ago.