Notre Dame’s Beverly connection recall 1988 championship glory
BY TINA AKOURIS Sun-Times Media January 4, 2013 11:02PM
Notre Dame alumni Tom Gorman (from left), Joe Allen and Kevin McShane at Christ the King Church in Chicago, IL, on Sunday, December 9, 2012. They all played on the last national championship team. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 7, 2013 6:02AM
It’s a story that former Notre Dame lineman Tom Gorman has kept close to the vest for nearly a quarter century. He’s not even sure how many people are aware of what happened to one of his teammates during the 1988 national title game at the Fiesta Bowl.
“One of our best players was Frank Stams (a defensive end), and Frank was suffering from the stomach flu before the game and he looked terrible,” said Gorman, a Brother Rice High School graduate.
At the time, the 11-0 Fighting Irish were vying for their first national title since 1977, and they were squaring off against another unbeaten team in West Virginia. To say a lot was on the line is an understatement. Stams could not afford to sit out with an illness, no matter how acute it was.
“I remember one of the trainers went to the concession stands to buy a hot dog for him so he could just eat the bun,” Gorman said. “He just ate the bun. He played so well and was the MVP of the game. It was really something remarkable to watch a guy physically struggle like that and then rise above it all.
“I don’t know if anyone knows that story, but it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Notre Dame went on to beat West Virginia 34-21. Stams was named the game’s co-MVP with quarterback Tony Rice.
Gorman is just one of many Irish players from that team fielding questions about the 1988 season, since this year’s Notre Dame team is playing for the national title for the first time since Gorman’s teammates beat the Mountaineers. The undefeated Irish will face Alabama for the national championship Monday in Miami.
“I think it’s very exciting, and I’m very excited for the players,” Gorman said. “I know what it’s like to be in that situation with the spotlight on you. Those guys have really stepped up and have really played so well this year and played like a team.
“I know it sounds silly, but I’m proud of them.”
Besides Gorman, there are several ex-Irish players from that 1988 team with local ties. Tackle Joe Allen went to St. Rita, defensive end Kevin McShane is a Joliet Catholic product, offensive lineman Tim Grunhard and cornerback Stan Smagala are from St. Laurence, Mirko Jurkovic went to T.F. North, and All-American defensive tackle Chris Zorich went to Chicago Vocational.
Starting defensive tackle Jeff Alm, of Sandburg, killed himself in 1993 after surviving a car accident that claimed the life of his best friend.
Not straying too far
Gorman, Allen and McShane all live within three blocks of each other in Chicago’s Beverly community on the South Side and have moved on nicely with their lives after the 1988 title. The three have children involved in a lot of the same sports and activities in the neighborhood.
“It’s one of the joys of my life, being so close to Joe and Tom,” McShane said. “I see them usually throughout the weekends at games and school activities.”
Gorman is a personal injury lawyer, Allen works for a software company, and McShane is the vice president of a software company.
What McShane learned from then-Irish head coach Lou Holtz most likely served him well in the real world of business.
“I felt like watching Holtz and playing for him was the best business management class you could take,” McShane said. “He took us from an underperforming organization to a title contender in 36 months.”
Allen said that he, like a lot of his former teammates and Notre Dame fans, thought the Irish had been out of the national title game picture for too long. After all, Allen’s team is the most recent Notre Dame squad to play in the ultimate contest.
But the thinking changed after Brian Kelly was hired as head coach.
“When Kelly got on board I was encouraged and thought he was a good teacher,” Allen said. “It’s what a good college team needs. I’ve been proud that they (won) the right way.”
A watershed moment
The 1988 Notre Dame team is considered perhaps the greatest college football team in history, because of its unbeaten record and victories over the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 teams in the nation.
Gorman thinks the benchmark game of that championship season was the Irish’s 31-30 victory over Miami in South Bend, when the Hurricanes were ranked No. 1 and the game was referred to as “Catholics vs. Convicts.”
Both teams went into the game undefeated, but Miami had a 36-game regular-season win streak. And to intensify the drama, there was a pregame fight between the two teams in the stadium’s entrance tunnel.
Gorman knows what it’s like for this year’s team, going from week to week and playing teams whose sole purpose for the season is to beat the Irish.
But he won’t be able to make the trip to Miami, as he is working a trial. Allen also cannot make it to Florida due to a work commitment.
“I don’t think I’ll get to go, but my niece is in the marching band (at Notre Dame), so my sister is going to go,” Gorman said. “She’s so excited, she said (the campus is) just alive and electric with anticipation and excitement.”
Considering Notre Dame went into the season unranked and with low expectations and is emerging with The Associated Press Coach of the Year (Kelly) and the Heisman Trophy runner-up (linebacker Manti Te’o), it is amazing that the Irish are 12-0 and playing for a national championship.
“It’s always more fun to be the underdog when people have no expectations and when you rise consistently through the season week in and week out,” Gorman said. “It’s really gratifying.”
As game day nears, Gorman figures he’s going to get more questions about how the 1988 team compares with the 2012 version. It’s only natural for those of the present to ask those of the past about the Irish’s history.
“Back in ’88 I remember some of the guys from the ’77 team were interviewed about what it was like for them,” Gorman said. “But I imagine no one is talking to them now.”
One last thing
Allen’s takeaway memory of the 1988 national title game didn’t even happen on game day — it was the day before.
“Lou Holtz had us do a walk-through at Sun Devil Stadium and he told us we had to practice how to win,” Allen said. “We did a countdown on the clock and pretended we were up by 10 (points). Holtz assigned the underclassmen to carry off the seniors on their shoulders if we won.
“He wanted to make sure there was a certain kind of experience for the seniors who had a tough experience with (former coach) Gerry Faust.”
Faust went a disappointing 30-26-1 and, despite loud disapproval from Irish fans, stayed for the duration of his five-year contract.
Allen has some advice for the current players as they prepare for the game of their lives.
“When I first came to Notre Dame, the goal was to win our first game, then to have a winning record, go to a bowl game and then win a bowl game,” Allen said. “You’re not there for a party.”