Unbeatable: Notre Dame's 1988 Championship and the Last Great College Football Season

Unbeatable: Notre Dame's 1988 Championship and the Last Great College Football Season

by Jerry Barca


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Perhaps the best undefeated team in the history of college football—the dramatic true story of the 1988 Notre Dame Fighting Irish and their incredible unbeaten season

They were an unlikely crew tasked with a seemingly impossible mission: restore Notre Dame's place as a college football power. In 1988, led by a scrawny, bespectacled coach who spoke with a lisp, a black Baptist quarterback from South Carolina, and a ferocious defense, they returned Notre Dame to the top.

Before Lou Holtz's arrive, the one-storied program of Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, and George Gipp and the Four Horsemen had become at best mediocre and, even worse, mentally and physically soft. The downward drift culminated in a 58-7 bashing on national TV against the University of Miami, a flashy upstart that stormed its way to the top spot in college football.

This is the first in-depth look at the players, the coaches, the campus, and the season that returned Notre Dame to its glory.

Throughout all of Notre Dame's lore, no Fighting Irish team has had more characters than the '88 squad. The starting linebackers, nicknamed the Three Amigos, were known for crazed antics such as leaving game tickets for Elvis Presley or smoking a reporter's cigar during practice. The five-foot-nothing walk-on kicker used visualization and a sort of voodoo jazz-hands to ready himself for field goals. Tony Rice, the against-the-odds quarterback, was mocked because of his high school academic credentials and continually questioned by the media about whether he could ever truly succeed as a quarterback for Notre Dame. The team was also stacked with future NFL talent, including Ricky Watters and Raghib "Rocket" Ismail.

In a thrilling twist of fate, the season's schedule served as a national championship elimination tournament. No game was bigger—or more hyped—than the matchup with No. 1-ranked Miami. In a game dubbed "Catholics vs. Convicts," the Irish won in the final seconds by a single point.

With original reporting, interviews with everyone from the players to the coaches, detailed research, and access to the Notre Dame archives, Jerry Barca tells the gripping story of an unbelievable season and a team that became legendary. More than a Notre Dame book, Unbeatable is the compelling narrative of one of the most incredible sports stories of the last century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250048653
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/05/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 390,056
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

JERRY BARCA's writing has appeared on SI.com and in The Star-Ledger, Asbury Park Press, Home News Tribune, The Post-Standard (Syracuse, New York), and the Herald News. He has made regular appearances on SiriusXM's Ron and Fez Show. He is a 1999 graduate of Notre Dame. He lives in New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt




There is an appointed time for everything,

and a time for every affair under the heavens …

A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time of war, and a time of peace.

—Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8

Shrieks and frenzied screams ricocheted off the locker room walls in a cacophony of rage and excitement. Tears rolled down some of the young men’s faces, an uncontrolled emotional response after launching into battle.

The days of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish playing the role of the nice weakling had ended.

Leaving the field after pregame warm-ups, the Miami Hurricanes chose to go through a line of Notre Dame players, rather than go around them. Miami met an unflinching Irish squad.

The Hurricanes, the No. 1 team in the country and the best program of the era, had been the chief tormentor of the Irish in recent years. In the schools’ previous two meetings Miami humbled Notre Dame by a total score of 82–7. Flashy on-field celebrations deepened the embarrassment doled out by the ’Canes.

Now Miami had traveled to Notre Dame Stadium, and the showy, bullying antics would not be tolerated. When the ’Canes breached the Notre Dame warm-up line, a fight exploded on the ground separating the end zone and the stadium’s lone tunnel.

“It was a melee. It wasn’t like guys fighting in a bar where they want someone to break it up. We did not care if someone broke it up. We wanted to take them there,” Notre Dame starting strong safety George Streeter said years later. “Quite frankly, for me, I wasn’t paying attention to the score. I wanted to win the fight.”

Stadium security and law enforcement officers stepped in to end it.

Both teams withdrew to their locker rooms.

Fifth-year senior Wes Pritchett, the middle linebacker who called the plays in the Irish defensive huddle, threw his helmet across the room.

Spit flew from Frank Stams’s mouth as the outside linebacker pumped up the defense that had gathered around him.

Blood rushed to the hands of quarterback Tony Rice, who had just been throwing punches in the clash.

Joe Moore, Notre Dame’s grizzled offensive line coach, who had graduated summa cum laude from football’s old school, cracked a green slate chalkboard with a kick.

“The whole thing put me in a fighting mood,” said Andy Heck, a quiet team captain and the starting offensive tackle.

The room grew quiet when head coach Lou Holtz addressed the team. The words that came out of his mouth were unexpected, a character departure, and they recharged the enraged atmosphere that had been subdued by his presence.

The skirmish with Miami made the statement that Notre Dame would no longer be pushed around. At the time, the Fighting Irish had not even reached the midpoint of the season.

By the end of the 1988 campaign, this Notre Dame squad would leave a path of battered All-American quarterbacks in its wake, give birth to legends, restore the school’s stature in the game, win a national title, and accomplish something no other team in the history of college football has done.


Copyright © 2013 by Jerry Barca

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Unflinching

Chapter 2: The Ashes

Chapter 3: In Lou We Trust

Chapter 4: Waking Up the Roster

Chapter 5: The Quarterback

Chapter 6: Readying for the Rise

Chapter 7: Demanding Perfection

Chapter 8: New School Athlete, Old School Football and the Asian Kicker

Chapter 9: Freaks

Chapter 10: Throwing Darts

Chapter 11: The Triple Fumble

Chapter 12: Prelude to a Brawl

Chapter 13: Catholic vs. Convicts

Chapter 14: Weekday Wars & Visualization

Chapter 15: Backers & Zorro

Chapter 16: TV Revolution & The Renegade Bowl

Chapter 17: Suspensions & Hollywood Underdogs

Chapter 18: Carrying Them Off


Author's Note


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