Monday is the 30th anniversary of one of the greatest coaching victories in football history.
On Oct. 3, 1992, unbeaten Notre Dame was a 16-point favorite in South Bend against Stanford.
Twenty-two players who started for Notre Dame that year were drafted into the NFL, highlighted by eight first-rounders – Jerome Bettis, Rick Mirer, Aaron Taylor, Irv Smith Sr., Bryant Young, Renaldo Wynn, Jeff Burris and Tom Carter – plus five second-rounders.
Only 10 Stanford players would be drafted, among them one first-round choice (CB Darrien Gordon) and one second-rounder (RB Glyn Milburn).
Bill Walsh was in his first year back at Stanford after three seasons with NBC Sports, including several Notre Dame broadcasts. Irish coach Lou Holtz complained to confidants that Walsh had “embarrassed” him with critical commentary in the prior season.
Privately, Walsh laughed about Holtz’s paranoia. He’d been absolutely deferential on the air. If Holtz only knew what he really thought.
Pre-game warmup was tense. Head coaches normally meet for a quick greeting. Walsh and Holtz stayed far apart, turning their backs on each other.
Bill Walsh Vs. Lou Holtz
On the first play of the game, Notre Dame strip-sacked the Stanford quarterback for a safety. The Irish followed with two fearsome touchdown drives, their massive offensive line enveloping the smallish Cardinal defense.
Trailing 16-0, Walsh began an offensive clinic that rolled back the calendar to his 1980s San Francisco 49ers.
He deployed split backs, just as he had with Wendell Tyler and Roger Craig. He motioned to a wing formation, creating an array of WR/TE combination routes, just as he had for Dwight Clark and Russ Francis.
Walsh was a master of the sweep. It’s commonly forgotten that, in the 1981 NFC Championship against Dallas, clinched by Clark’s famous catch, 41 of 89 yards on the winning drive were gained on three sweeps and a sweep-action reverse.
Walsh’s variation was the “BOB sweep” – back on ’backer. His fullback led with a cut-block on the near linebacker, paving a path for his pulling guards.
Notre Dame’s defense was bewildered. As Walsh would later describe, “It looked like they’d never seen the BOB sweep before.”
In the third quarter, when the Irish began to adjust, Walsh broke their keys on the biggest play of the game. He pulled his guards and faked a sweep handoff. But the fullback, instead of leading, went the opposite direction to catch a 20-yard touchdown pass. That gave Stanford its first lead, 20-16.
The Cardinal defense was led by safety John Lynch, now general manager of the 49ers. Lynch suffered a concussion in the first quarter, but somehow talked his way back into the game. He caused two critical second-half turnovers, blasting the ball loose from Bettis and intercepting Mirer in the Cardinal endzone.
Walsh: ‘One Of The Biggest Wins Of My Life’
From that 16-0 deficit, Stanford scored 33 unanswered points for a 33-16 victory. Going off the field, Walsh told a television interviewer, “It’s one of the biggest wins of my life, including Super Bowls. Outgunned all the way, we outplayed Notre Dame in South Bend. It’s just a marvelous feeling.”
In the locker room, his jubilant players hushed for a moment to hear from their legendary coach. Walsh dissolved in emotion, unable to speak.
Lou Holtz, meanwhile, blamed the loss on practicing his team too hard, failing to recognize the stress of Notre Dame’s midterm exam week.
When Walsh read that comment, he finally let loose. In the book Rough Magic: Bill Walsh’s Return to Stanford Football, he is quoted as telling his assistant coaches:
“It’s sort of humorous in a way. Lou Holtz is just a brat. Very bright, outstanding coach, but he’s a little spoiled brat.”
Terry O’Neil is a former Executive Producer of CBS Sports and NBC Sports, and former Senior Vice President of the New Orleans Saints.