Unbeatable: Demanding Perfection

Author: Jerry Barca '99

Editor’s Note: These are a collection of excerpts from chapter seven of Unbeatable by Jerry Barca ‘99 (St. Martin’s Press) about Notre Dame’s 1988 championship season.

[In 1988] Holtz retooled the coaching staff when he returned to the States [from Japan], but on that flight to Japan he couldn’t shake the image of Zorich crying in the Cotton Bowl locker room.

“He didn’t even play,” Holtz said. “I decided then that we were going to put people out on that field who really wanted to play. I came back and that was the whole thing. The attitude was going to be right.”

He scheduled a meeting to speak to the team at the end of winter conditioning. Holtz stood before them, a one-man demand for perfection. As he had done the first time he met with the team, he mapped out the necessary elements for achievement.

“We are going to practice strict loyalty to one another. We are going to be loyal to the University of Notre Dame, the administration, coaches, and teammates,” he said. “We cannot be a good, close-knit football team without showing respect and concern for one another.”

Holtz put a ban on negative comments from players and coaches.

As with any leader looking to accomplish anything, these were directives, but at the same time Holtz’s choice of language grouped everyone—including himself—together in this endeavor. Team togetherness functioned as a prerequisite in playing for a purpose beyond one’s self.

“When we do what is right, we bring glory and honor to Notre Dame. When we win in football, we help this university,” he told them.

Holtz found great inspiration in the school’s history and the unfaltering determination of the twenty-eight-year-old French priest Fr. Edward Sorin, who founded it in 1842 to honor Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mother of Christ. In 1879, a fire consumed the main building, which housed nearly everything at the university. Sorin stood undaunted. “I came here as a young man and dreamed of building a great university in honor of Our Lady,” he said. “But I built it too small, and she had to burn it to the ground to make the point. So, tomorrow, as soon as the bricks cool, we will rebuild it, bigger and better than ever.”

Since childhood, Holtz had a strong spiritual relationship with Mary. He remembers singing songs and placing flowers on her pale-blue-robed statue back at St. Aloysius. He loved the month of May, which Catholic grammar schools, like the one he attended, devoted to her.

He spoke to the team about Mary and the school’s “special mystique.” He wasn’t talking about the Four Horsemen or other sporting lore. Holtz believed in the spirit of Notre Dame.

He reiterated the team prohibition on in-season alcohol consumption. “Our coaches will frequent the favorite hangouts. If you can’t control yourself or exercise self-discipline, you aren’t going to be successful anyway.”

Practices would have the same rigor, and they would need to yield greater improvement than the previous year.

Holtz credited the athletic directors, Corrigan and Rosenthal, with expressing to him the ideal that the team belonged to students, the alumni, and the fans. He embraced that and forwarded it to the players, telling them they should feel a sense of obligation to the legions of Irish fans.

He expressed his thoughts about the upcoming season and the future. This was not the quick-witted, jovial Holtz who worked the media and produced chuckles at luncheons.

I’m here to win football games for the University of Notre Dame. Not some of our games, and not most of our games; I’m here to win all of our games. Every doggone one of them. We aren’t here to come close. We are here to win every single football game we ever play at the University of Notre Dame from this point forward…

I don’t ever expect to lose another football game as long as I’m at Notre Dame, and I sure don’t expect to lose one this year…

We’re going to write another chapter in Notre Dame football history. We’re going to seek perfection in football in the same manner as the University seeks perfection in every facet of the school…

We are not asking for perfection—we are going to demand it. Please don’t expect us to lower our standards to satisfy people who are looking for mediocrity, because this won’t happen.

Toward the close he spoke about the team’s identity. “It is going to be tough. It is going to be physical. It is going to be relentless,” he said. “It’s going to be one that performs best when it faces adversity. We will look adversity in the eye and we will turn it into success.”

After the meeting, he sent every player a letter highlighting points he wanted the team to retain.

“That was from the heart, and we had that whole attitude through the season,” Holtz said.

Holtz flirted with the idea of moving Andy Heck from tight end to tackle. Joe Moore was a bit more Joe Moore about it.

“You know, you’re not a very good tight end, Andy,” Moore told him, immediately grabbing Heck’s attention. “Would you like to play in the NFL?”

“Yeah, that’s what I want to do,” Heck said.

“Well, you ought to come with me, then. You ought to switch over to the offensive line.”

Heck had played tight end for the Irish since his freshman year. He studied film of Mark Bavaro, a former Notre Dame tight end, who had become a defender-carrying Pro Bowl selection for the New York Giants. In the comeback win against USC in ’86, Heck caught a touchdown pass and a 2-point conversion. In ’87, he was the only player other than Tim Brown to make a touchdown grab.

Heck’s average-to-slow speed at tight end equaled quickness at tackle. Plus, the Irish signed a tight end out of Florida, Derek Brown, the Parade magazine Player of the Year. After the conversation with Moore, Heck went to equipment manager Eugene O’Neill and turned in his number 88 jersey for number 66. He attended Moore’s position meetings, but Heck had between 235 and 245 pounds on his 6’ 7" frame. To push people around in the trenches he needed to put on weight.

Heck asked the team doctors the best way to gain. They told him to eat as many meals as he could, and they developed a 1,000-calorie shake for him. The drink combined a cup of powdered milk, a cup of Tang, and a cup of vanilla pudding mixed with a banana. Heck crammed down peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. He became a regular at Shoney’s. Like a character from the 1950s nostalgia scene Heck loved, he would get in his black ’51 Pontiac Chieftain four-door sedan and drive to Bonnie Doon to order malts.1 He noshed on snacks in the Oak Room, an on-campus spot open after the dining halls closed. Each night, he set his alarm clock for 1:30 A.M. He would wake and drive to Bob’s Big Boy to ingest his fifth full meal of the day.

“It got to the point where I got sick of eating,” Heck told the Chicago Tribune.

Heck had never played tackle before, but the move—in his final year of eligibility—fulfilled two Holtz philosophies: put the best players on the field and be fast. Holtz’s assistant coaches praised his ability to find the right spot to get the most out of an athlete.

Pat Terrell had already moved from quarterback to split end. Now, going into his junior year, Terrell moved to free safety. D’Juan Francisco moved from running back to cornerback. Zorich had already moved from linebacker to nose tackle, and Frank Stams, who started at fullback earlier in his college career, lined up at rush end on the defensive side of the ball.

“It’s not complicated. The first thing you do is you look for players that like the game. They’re good with their teammates. They like to compete, but their speed is a liability. They never can be real great. They have all the other qualities you want in a player. But they just aren’t fast enough at that position,” Holtz said. “Now, where would that speed be an asset? All of a sudden, he’s slow for a fullback, but he’s very fast for a defensive end. He’s got mediocre speed at tight end, but boy, what great quickness he has at tackle. Not fast enough as a linebacker, but boy, how good would he be at middle guard.

“So that’s all you do. It isn’t like all of sudden you’re making him into a player. He was a player before. He wasn’t a great player, but it was because of his speed. It wasn’t anything else.”

Tony Rice had won the starting quarterback job in spring practice. Ten days before the team reported for preseason camp, on the Friday summer classes ended, Mitch Henck of WSBT, South Bend’s CBS affiliate, reported that Rice would be academically ineligible for the season.

Holtz heard the news in Vail, Colorado, where he and his wife spent two days golfing with the Rosenthals. Rice found out in the Greenville-Spartanburg Jetport when a friend told him about the report as he arrived in South Carolina for a few days at home. Rice didn’t believe him, but then he grabbed a newspaper and read the rumor.

Rice needed a 2.0 grade point average to play at Notre Dame. The news report shocked Rice because he knew he had made the grades. “What people say doesn’t bother me,” Rice told The Spartanburg Herald-Journal. “You know where you stand, so it shouldn’t bother you. You can’t always listen to what you hear.”

The grades did not become official until the registrar’s office certified them on Monday, which gave the rumors a weekend to swirl. Rice wasn’t the only Irish player to attend summer classes, but the quarterback with the Prop 48 scarlet letter drew the most attention. The Chicago Tribune reported the subjects he studied: sociology, computer science, and art. His girlfriend told a reporter his grades: A, A−, and B.

On Monday, the certified grades vindicated Rice. The TV station apologized to Rice and the university in all four of its newscasts. Henck never revealed his source, but he immediately resigned.

August heat welcomed the team to its two-a-day practices. During the workouts temperatures ranged from the mid-80s to near 100 degrees.

Chuck Heater, the new secondary coach, focused on technique until the players got it right. Each player’s knees had to bend properly in a defensive stance before the unit progressed to its next drill.

“We trusted the coaches,” said safety George Streeter. “We had no regard for our bodies.”

Heater told the group when it was playtime and when it was time to turn it up, and this was a time to turn it up and get meticulous about fundamentals.

“We were trying to give that to him, and we just didn’t drink enough water in the process,” Streeter said.

Almost the entire secondary spent time in the infirmary. Streeter, D’Juan Francisco, Corny Southall, and Stan Smagala all spent nights at the on-campus health care center.

Players left these practices bruised and exhausted, and all the news they heard about their upcoming season was how they were a year away from competing for a national championship. It was a logical sports analysis. The first No. 1 recruiting class would be juniors a year later, and Cerrato and Co. had reeled in another No. 1 class to provide depth.

Privately, the seniors grew intolerant of the predictions. This group had been through losing seasons with Faust and Holtz and wanted nothing to do with the “they’re a year away” conversations.

A punt’s length off campus, in their summer housing at the Turtle Creek Apartments, they had numerous conversations about the season.

“Hey, enough of this talk that we’re building for a year down the road after we would be gone. Why not now? Let’s do the work. Let’s come together. Let’s win a national championship,” said Heck, who, along with running back Mark Green and linebacker Ned Bolcar, had been named a team captain.

Toward the end of August, Holtz picked up a team flaw watching films of practice. About two weeks before the Irish hosted Michigan, Holtz stood at practice and noticed the mistake in a live-action scrimmage.

No one finished plays. Holtz and the other coaches didn’t blow a whistle to stop the play, yet the players stopped on their own. Unacceptable.

“The snap of the ball starts a play. The whistle stops it. You didn’t hear a whistle, you look to hit somebody,” Holtz said.

The offense and defense lined up for the next play. The coaches put their whistles in their pockets. Something sort of resembling football ensued. Players chased each other up the sidelines and all over the field. Three consecutive plays lasted about two minutes each before a whistle sounded.

“It was mayhem. I mean everybody is piling on one another. They’re cheap-shotting one another. It was like a free-for-all and I just stood there,” Holtz said.

They learned to play through the whistle in what became an identity-cementing practice.

“It was a knock-down, drag-out thing. That’s where we really took off,” said sophomore linebacker Scott Kowalkowski.