Thirty years later, '88 Irish ready to welcome another champion

Frank Stams doesn’t bother saying hello after picking up the phone.

“Thirty years is long enough!” he says right off the bat in a sing-song voice from Ohio.

Is that his comment for this story?

“That’s my comment!” says the gregarious Stams, who was a defensive end the last time Notre Dame won a national title. “Don’t you think we’ve waited long enough?”

Stams’ teammates from that 1988 team have time for a normal greeting, but they quickly get to the same sentiment: They’re eager to hand over the title of last Notre Dame team to win a national championship.

“I don’t want to be part of the last class to win a national championship,” offensive lineman Tim Grunhard says from suburban Kansas City. “I think it’s time once again for Notre Dame to be on top.”

“You don’t want to say it’s been 30 years, but in reality it is,” says defensive lineman Chris Zorich in a conference room at Chicago State University, where he’s the athletic director. “It’s like, ‘C’mon, we have to get our act together.’ ”

A phone call comes in. The caller ID says Orlando, Florida.

“It’s been way overdue,” says Lou Holtz, the architect of the whole thing. “I think it’s the longest we’ve ever gone [between national titles].”

The 81-year-old coach is right. Since Notre Dame won its first national title in 1924, the longest drought between crowns had been the 17 years between the 1949 and 1966 squads.

That run of 11 championships over 64 years is the reason why Holtz told his players in the spring of ‘88 that “you don’t come to Notre Dame to win some of ‘em, you don’t come to Notre Dame to win most of ‘em. You come to Notre Dame to win all of ’em.”

But that was before the current dry spell, an otherwise successful period for Notre Dame that included lucrative national television contracts with NBC Sports, a massive expansion of stadium and facilities, and 152 players drafted to the NFL, including 22 first-rounders.

Notre Dame’s current squad will get a chance to move toward ending the streak when it appears in its first College Football Playoff semifinal, a Saturday afternoon date with second-ranked Clemson at the Cotton Bowl.

Watching from the stands and their living rooms will be members of that legendary ’88 team, a squad that has rallied around Holtz and each other through the triumph and tragedy of the last three decades.

Chris Zorich shows off his 1988 national championship ring. (Yahoo Sports)
Chris Zorich shows off his 1988 national championship ring. (Yahoo Sports)

‘We’re the guys in the funny pants now’

Back when it was in school, the ‘88 team used to see Notre Dame’s past champions walking around campus on fall Saturdays. They hailed from Leahy’s squads in the ’40s and the titles won in the ’60s and ’70s under Parseghian and Devine. They carried themselves proudly, wearing old letter jackets and clutching seat cushions for the thin wooden benches in the pre-renovation stadium.

Like many other older alumni, they sometimes also wore plaid pants, a fashion choice that players in their late teens and early 20s found humorous.

Thirty years later, they tend to identify with those guys a bit more.

“We’re the guys in the funny pants now,” says Zorich.

Zorich, a sophomore in 1988, will turn 50 in March. Classmate Raghib “Rocket” Ismail follows next November. The upperclassmen have already surged past the half-century mark, chasing and achieving success in fields like business, insurance, coaching, administration and media.

The progression of life has been evident for happy reasons. Detroit Lions receiver T.J. Jones, son of the late Andre Jones, played for the Irish earlier this decade. Tim Grunhard’s son, Colin, is an offensive lineman on the current team.

But the team has also shouldered an unfair share of premature death for a group its age. In addition to Jones, eight other members of the ’88 title team have died: Bob Satterfield, Jeff Alm, Rodney Culver, Kenny Spears, Dean Brown, Mirko Jurkovic, Braxston Banks and Justin Hall.

Considering the team has met for far more funerals than official reunions (only two — the 20th and 30th), it has gained perspective on what it achieved in its perfect season. That Notre Dame team beat No. 1-ranked Miami in the “Game of the Century.” It also beat second-ranked USC in Los Angeles and third-ranked West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl to cap its undefeated season.

It’s been the subject of a 30-for-30, a best-selling book (Holtz’s “The Fighting Spirit: A Championship Season at Notre Dame”) and could well take credit for at least part of the NBC deal given the direction Notre Dame had been heading under previous coach Gerry Faust.

But all of those achievements faded to the background when 75 members of the team got together in South Bend for the 30th reunion at last fall’s Michigan game.

“It’s those things that make you realize how special this was,” says Zorich. “You shared something so special and it was only with a handful of guys.

“That’s when you start re-evaluating. Maybe the fact we didn’t win [another] championship wasn’t the important thing. Maybe the important thing was hanging out with your brothers and building those relationships during the years.”

Members of Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship team recently rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. (Courtesy NYSE)
Members of Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship team recently rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. (Courtesy NYSE)

Once a teammate, always a teammate

Last week, a group of Irish players including Stams, Ismail and ’88 captain Ned Bolcar rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. It was an opportunity that linebacker Wes Pritchett arranged through his work in bond sales and a sign that the ’88 Irish still carry plenty of water.

The relationships among the players have stood the test of time, even after 34 players signed with NFL teams after college. They got married, had children and started careers outside of the game.

Zorich is still best friends with his roommate at Notre Dame, Tim Ryan. They bought motorcycles and formed a riding group with quarterback Tony Rice and defensive back Pat Terrell, both of whom also live in the Chicago area. The quartet was featured on ESPN this fall as it made the 90-mile trip to South Bend for a game.

The “Three Amigos” – Stams, Wes Pritchett and Michael Stonebreaker – still keep in touch during games via text chain with other teammates. Stonebreaker can remember throwing his phone during the “Bush Push” game against USC in 2005.

“The longer you’re away from the game, the better you were in your own mind,” jokes Stonebreaker, owner of the popular “N.O. Brew Coffee” in New Orleans. “It’s tough out there for [teams that followed]. We can be a tough crowd.”

Then-defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez remains a confidant for many, even long after he parlayed his performance at Notre Dame into Wisconsin football sainthood. Stonebreaker made sure he was at Alvarez’s first game in Madison with teammate Todd Lyght in 1990.

He also made sure to be at Alvarez’s final game in 2005 with Stams.

“We’ve always been there for everyone in good times and in bad times,” Stams says.

‘4 for the next 40’

At the center of it all is still Holtz, who famously instructed his players to do whatever he asked for the next four years and he’d do whatever they asked for “the next 40.”

“Thank god those 40 years are almost up,” Holtz cracked at the 30th reunion.

The joke should be interpreted as more of a comment on the team’s advancing age rather than Holtz’s. Even though he’ll turn 82 the day before this year’s national championship game, Holtz remains as active as ever, fulfilling speaking engagements, doing a podcast with old ESPN teammate Mark May and appearing at the occasional Donald Trump rally.

Holtz estimates that he hears from at least three ex-players per week and says he’s happy to fulfill his 40-year promise any way he can. He’s written countless letters of recommendation, made phone calls to medical specialists and said yes to as many charity appearances as possible.

His best contributions, however, have come in the large and small bits of advice that few players have been hesitant to seek from their master motivator. Stams says he recently wrote Holtz a letter asking for pointers about starting an anti-bullying project.

Tim Grunhard, meanwhile, remembers a time early in his career with the Kansas City Chiefs when he was struggling. Holtz came to town for a speaking engagement and was able to identify the fundamental mistakes that Grunhard was making and couldn’t see himself.

Years later, when Charlie Weis was recruiting Grunhard to his coaching staff at Notre Dame, Grunhard called Holtz for advice on whether he should take the job.

“He gave me a good piece of advice that I try to remember,” Grunhard recalls. “He said, ‘Is your wife happy with where you’re at? How about your kids? Are they happy?’ ”

Grunhard replied that, yes, both his wife and kids were happy in Kansas City.

“Don’t mess with happy,” Holtz said simply.

Grunhard didn’t end up taking the job and Weis left Notre Dame soon after. Later, when Weis was hired at Kansas, Grunhard made the move to Lawrence because it didn’t require his family to move. They were happy.

“He’s different than any other coach,” Grunhard says. “I’ve been a coach at the high school and college level. One of the things I’ve always wanted to do was keep in touch with your players and try to help them out. And the reality is that you just lose track, it’s really hard to keep.

“[Holtz] does a really good job of connecting with people and then keeping that connection going for years and years. That’s not an easy thing to do.”

Of course, it also helps to have a membership at Augusta at your disposal. Holtz has used his spot in the exclusive club to treat his players to a once-in-a-lifetime round.

“I’m not sure if we’re supposed to say we’ve golfed there with him, but we have,” Wes Pritchett says.

Grunhard got his turn after attending an event with Holtz at tiny Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. After learning that his college coach would soon be visiting Rome with his grandchildren, Grunhard and former player Tom Freeman posed a question to Holtz.

If they got him an audience with Pope Benedict, would he let them play at Augusta?

Holtz hemmed and hawed, but eventually agreed. Grunhard walked across the room to a visiting bishop and made the request.

“Sure,” he was told. “No problem.”

Holtz met the pope with his family and the next year, Grunhard, Freeman and Dave Butler flew down to Georgia with their golf clubs.

“Even as adults, he was coaching us,” Grunhard says. “Here are these 45-, 50-year-old men and he’s teaching us like we’re in college again. You know like, ‘Make sure you pick up those tees, we don’t leave tees on the ground here.’

“We were looking at each other like, ‘Does he still think we’re 20 years old?” But that’s the way he looks at us. He still looks at us as his players.”

Lou Holtz hosted Tom Freeman (left), Tim Grunhard (middle) and Dave Butler (far right) at Augusta National. (Courtesy of Tim Grunhard)
Lou Holtz hosted Tom Freeman (left), Tim Grunhard (middle) and Dave Butler (far right) at Augusta National. (Courtesy of Tim Grunhard)

‘Lou’s Lads’

The old guys who used to putter around campus in those plaid pants might have elicited laughter back in ’88, but they did leave a positive impression.

No, the ’88 team isn’t walking around in literal plaid pants these days. But they are trying to fill their shoes when it comes to charity and promoting the school.

Many of those old guys wearing plaid played under Frank Leahy in the ‘40s, winning four national titles. After graduating, they started calling each other “Leahy’s Lads” and would help raise money for the school and other causes.

In 2008, many of Holtz’s players noticed that Leahy’s Lads were no longer around and saw an opportunity to fill the void. The result? Lou’s Lads, an organization made up of Holtz’s former players at Notre Dame. The group traditionally meets at the second home game of every season and raises money for both an endowed scholarship fund and food banks.

The ’88 team has also pledged to help put the children of their late teammates through college and started a fund to get that done.

For Holtz, seeing the interactions between members of his most famous squad remind him of how close the squad was throughout the championship season.

“Every player on that team was so special,” says Holtz. “I told them before the season that we’re not going to win until we all love each other. And they did that early.”

Still, the ’88 players are hoping this year’s team can beat Clemson and then Alabama or Oklahoma to experience what they experienced.

If that happens, they’d no longer be the “last Notre Dame team to win a national championship.”

That’s completely fine.

“It’s a distinction we’re all very proud of,” says Grunhard. “But it’s a distinction we’d like to pass on to the next generation. Why not this year?”

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