Notre Dame playing in tonight’s national championship game is about as unlikely as it was 24 years ago.
The current Irish were unranked in preseason polls and, with five opponents ranked in the Top 20, a record of 7-5, 8-4 or 9-3 was forecast by most experts.
Head coach Brian Kelly and his staff have pushed all the right buttons and the Irish have responded by playing good in clutch situations, being lucky at times and taking a 12-0 record into tonight’s game against Alabama.
The Notre Dame team of 1988 also had modest expectations with just three starters returning on offense and four on defense.
They did have a seasoned quarterback in junior Tony Rice, the perfect player for head coach Lou Holtz’s option-oriented offense. And, there was the emergence of freshman return specialist and receiver Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, the most electrifying player in Irish history.
The defense was a dominating unit, led by end Frank Stams who was a phenomenal performer in big victories over Miami, Southern California and West Virginia.
ND held seven of its opponents to a touchdown or less.
Signature wins were over No. 9 Michigan 19-17, then No. 1 Miami 31-30, No. 2 Southern California 27-10 and No. 3 West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl 34-21.
Veteran followers of the Irish remember the 1969 season when Notre Dame made its first bowl appearance in 45 years.
Administrators had kept ND from bowl games due to the academic schedule at the school and the distance needed to travel to games during those years. The Irish and other teams journeyed by train in those days.
The 1969 Irish drew No. 1 Texas as a Cotton Bowl opponent and dropped a 21-17 heartbreaker with the Longhorns scoring the winning touchdown with 1:08 to play.
There was a rematch the following year and senior quarterback Joe Theismann led Notre Dame to a 24-11 victory over another No. 1 Texas squad, ending a long winning streak for the Longhorns.
Notre Dame clinched national championships with a 24-23 Sugar Bowl conqest of No. 1 Alabama in 1973 and a 38-10 Cotton Bowl thumping of No. 1 Texas in 1977.
Tom Clements in 1973 and Joe Montana in 1977 were the Irish championship quarterbacks.
Rick Mirer of Goshen had a 2-1 bowl record as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback from 1990-92.
In Mirer’s sophomore year, the Irish dropped a 10-9 Orange Bowl thriller to No. 1 Colorado.
An Ismail punt return for an apparent winning touchdown late in the game was wiped out by a controversial clipping penalty.
No. 18 Notre Dame was a big underdog to No. 3 Florida, coached by Steve Spurrier, in the Sugar Bowl following the 1991 season.
The Gators dominated early and led, 16-7.
But with Mirer throwing two touchdown passes and fullback Jerome Bettis bulldozing the Gators, the Irish enjoyed a 32-12 scoring command the rest of the way to win, 39-28.
Mirer’s final game in an Irish uniform was a 28-3 rout of No. 4 Texas A & M in the 1992 Cotton Bowl. A & M’s defensive coordinator was Bob Davie who would eventually succeed Lou Holtz as ND coach.
Mirer’s performance earned him most valuable player honors in Dallas 20 years ago last week.
Two decades have passed since Notre Dame was a serious national championship contender, so the 2012 season has been quite a revival for long-time Irish fans and a history education for younger ones.
Alabama is favored and deservedly so for tonight’s championship game, but magical moments have often occurred in Notre Dame history and the time is overdue for another one.
The future continues to look bright for both the Irish and Crimson Tide with Notre Dame, Alabama, Southern California and Texas A&M having the top recruiting classes for 2013.
Irish fans will be staying up late tonight, hoping their favorites can put a fitting finish to a dream season.