By Richard Urban
After West Virginia’s last-ditch onside kick attempt failed in the waning minutes of the 1989 Sunkist Fiesta Bowl, top-ranked Notre Dame ran off two more running plays as time ran out. Players poured onto the Sun Devil Stadium turf in celebration, and just as they had practiced during the week before the game, underclassmen hoisted seniors and coach Lou Holtz atop their shoulders as they converged on the Fiesta Bowl logo at the center of the field.
Ever the motivator, Holtz wanted to show his team that while the seniors got them there, it was the underclassmen who would carry the team. “I had each underclassman assigned a senior to carry off the field after we won,” Holtz said. “We practiced that to show them this is what you do when you win. We weren’t arrogant, but we were extremely confident.”
As Holtz was lowered, clutching his navy-blue cap bearing the gold ND logo, the wild celebration continued at midfield. “We didn’t have police all around us or security like they have these days,” Holtz said. “This guy came up and grabbed my hat and ran off. I took after him and chased him down and grabbed my hat back. I met the guy 20 years later, and he told me he couldn’t believe I’d run after him through all those people.
“The reason was that after every win, I’d take the hat I wore and write on it,” he explained. “The score, the team, the date. Then when a charity would ask for something to auction, I’d send them a hat. That one would have been exceptionally valuable for a charity, so that’s why I went and got it.”
For Holtz and his team, it was just a formality that the Irish would be voted national champions for the 11th time. Two years earlier, college football’s then-mythical national championship also was decided in Tempe in only the 16th Fiesta Bowl game ever played, after Penn State beat Miami.
As the season began, Holtz thought his team was still a year away from contending. But as the weeks passed and the wins accumulated, including a midseason win in the “Catholics versus Convicts” game against then No. 1 Miami and a season-ending victory over No. 2 Southern California, Holtz knew that he had something special.
The bowl bids had gone out in early December, with the Fiesta inviting the country’s two remaining undefeated teams, Notre Dame and No. 3 West Virginia. As independents, neither was tied to another major bowl. With its midseason loss to Notre Dame, Miami, also an independent, was ranked second, but if there was talk of inviting the top two teams for a rematch, Holtz wasn’t aware of it. “We voted at the beginning of the season whether to accept a bowl bid,” Holtz said. “There was no thought given to a rematch. Well, maybe the AD did. But the Fiesta Bowl bid came in, and we accepted.”
Holtz later admitted in a post-game news conference that Notre Dame versus Miami “would be a tremendous matchup,” but it would be another decade before the Bowl Championship Series title game would be staged between the top two teams in the polls.
The team had begun re-assembling in the Valley right after Christmas, having left the South Bend, Indiana, campus a two days earlier to spend the holiday with family.
“We had kids from all over the country, not like a lot of teams who draw from their state and region,” Holtz explained. “So, it wasn’t like we’d all come back [to South Bend] after Christmas.” They all made their way to Tempe on their own for the final week of preparation and activities before the game.
For Holtz, it was his third trip to Sun Devil Stadium. His North Carolina State team beat Arizona State in Tempe in 1974. Four years later, his Arkansas Razorbacks played UCLA to a 10-10 tie in the 1978 Fiesta Bowl.
The week was filled with activities, and Holtz fondly recalls the yellow-jacketed volunteers who made the team’s stay special. But for the most part, he said, they were there for just one purpose — to win a football game and a national championship.
Holtz’s approach to preparations was simple. “We had to treat this like a one-game season, so the first three weeks were like spring practice,” Holtz said. “Lower classmen got a lot of looks.” Besides, recruiting was underway, and he needed to know what he had for the ’89 season and where he needed to fill in.
The game plan went in after the third week, and after scrimmaging on Dec. 22, the team reviewed the tape the next morning before the players headed home for Christmas with instructions to be in Tempe by the morning of Dec. 26.
While the pregame buildup focused on West Virginia quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Major Harris and his huge offensive line, Holtz said he was more concerned about the Mountaineers’ defense. “They had a very good defensive end in Renaldo [Turnbull]. But we had good speed on defense, too. We wore black shoes and didn’t look very fast on film, but we were pretty fast.”
Even so, the Notre Dame coaches made sure the team was loose. After their last walk-through at the stadium on a typically sunny day in Tempe, the players set themselves up on the field where they would line up for the game. They took pictures and went over their post-game assignments.
Finally, as they milled about the sidelines, the coaches took the field for a final game of touch. “I did everything I wouldn’t let the players do,” Holtz remembered. “Tape shoes. Spike the ball. Just showboating.”
If the team was tight in anticipation of the national championship game, they weren’t by the time they boarded buses for the trip back to the hotel.
Finally, on Jan. 2, 1989, it was time to get serious.
Only three plays into the game, two Notre Dame defensive linemen met atop Harris, injuring the quarterback’s shoulder. Holtz says he never realized the quarterback was hurt. “He played the whole game, didn’t he?” But it was clear Harris was not as effective the remainder of the game.
The Irish scored early and built a 23-6 halftime lead. “I told the team in the locker room that we needed to win the third quarter,” Holtz said. As the second half began, Notre Dame scored first, hitting a 32-yard field goal, but West Virginia actually won the third quarter on a touchdown pass from Harris. The teams exchanged touchdowns in the fourth quarter and Notre Dame won 34-21 for a perfect 12-0 record and the national championship.
And just as they practiced, the seniors and Holtz were carried off the field in wild celebration.