Well, of course, we wouldn't have won the national championship in 1988, right? That's what my gut told me, and I'm guessing it's the first thought that came into your head as well. But is it a sure thing? Before we get to that question, let's look at what we definitely know wouldn't have happened.
We would never have gotten to see the two magnificent touchdown runs in the 1988 and 1989 Southern Cal games, both of which were pivotal plays in classic rivalry games. We would never have seen what is indisputably the most dangerous backfield in the history of Notre Dame football, with Rice, Anthony Johnson, Rodney Culver, Mark Green, Tony Brooks, Ricky Watters, and a sprinkling of Raghib Ismail. We would never have thought that eighteen pass attempts was "airing it out." We would probably all agree that Jamelle Holieway was the best option quarterback to ever to play the game, and we would have missed the opportunity to watch a proud kid, whose career began in controversy, become a champion and a Notre Dame man in full.
Jay's retrospective on Rice is definitive, so I won't go into the history so much, but it's important to look back to the state of the program before Rice's arrival if you want to gauge his impact on its arc. After the malaise of the first half of the 80s, Lou Holtz arrived in South Bend in 1986 to get ND back on track, and one of his first blue-chip recruits was Tony Rice. Unfortunately for Rice and Notre Dame, 1986 was also the year that the NCAA began enforcing Proposition 48, a collection of academic mandates designed to force NCAA athletes to meet minimum academic benchmarks in order to earn their freshman eligibility. Rice failed to achieve a 700 on his SAT and became ND's first Prop 48 casualty, losing his first year of eligibility and sitting out the 1986 season. Rice's admission by the Dome was pointed to by many in the anti-ND media as yet another sign of Notre Dame's surrender of principle in pursuit of football glory, a timeworn cliche of sports reporting now in its fifth decade.
Rice, his eligibility restored, failed to win the starting job in 1987, and Terry Andrysiak succeeded Steve Beuerlein as the Irish signal-caller. It was anything but clear at the time that Rice would eventually become the starter, and achieve the distinction as Notre Dame's first full-time black starting quarterback. It seems incomprehensible now, after McDougal, Jackson, Battle, and Holiday; but it was a big deal then, when the quarterback at Notre Dame had always been a white guy with the inside track to the Heisman Trophy. Rice was Lou Holtz's first big risk, one that hadn't panned out as of the beginning of the 1988 season. The eventual selection of Rice as the starter set the course of the Notre Dame offense for the next decade.
What if Rice had never qualified?
Had Rice not been admitted, the 1987 season would have started with a depth chart of Andrysiak, Kent Graham, and Pete Graham. When Andrysiak broke his collarbone against Pitt, he'd have been replaced by Kent Graham, who would have had the opportunity to start 7 games that year until Andrysiak's return against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Graham would almost certainly have been named the starter in spring practice, and Notre Dame would have prepared to open the '88 campaign against Michigan with Graham at the helm.
Here's where it gets tricky. What would have happened in that game with Graham at QB? Is it a given that ND wouldn't have scored the 19 points (on four Reggie Ho field goals and a Watters punt return) it took to beat the Wolverines that day? Is that really a foregone conclusion? Given Graham's steady career at OSU and the fact that he became an NFL starter, I'm not willing to say that without Rice we would have lost that game.
So, let's say we beat UM in the opener. What then? Here's what the next ten wins looked like with Rice at QB:
- Michigan State (unranked), 20-3
- Purdue (unranked), 52-7
- Stanford (unranked), 42-14
- Pittsburgh (unranked), 30-20
- Miami (#1), 31-30
- Air Force (unranked), 41-13
- Navy (unranked), 22-7
- Rice (unranked), 54-11
- Penn State (unranked), 21-3
- Southern Cal (#2), 27-10
- West Virginia (#3), 34-21
Of the two signature games in that stretch, Miami and USC, only the USC game strikes me as a "Tony Rice Game." Granted, my memory is not what it used to be, but the Miami game, the best college football game ever played, was an exciting collection of big plays, turnovers, and epic shifts in momentum; although he ran for a touchdown and threw for another, Rice was just one facet of a total team effort in that game. There's no accounting for Rice's leadership, of course, which was cool and easy, and it's possible that Graham may have thrown five interceptions against the Hurricanes. But even in the USC game, a Rice classic, the foundation for the win was the Irish defense and their relentless pounding of Rodney Peete.
Notre Dame dominated the 1988 season on the lines and with a ferocious crew of fullbacks and fleet runners. Might Graham have been able to manage the team, if less spectacularly than Rice, to a win in the Fiesta Bowl? When I set out to write this piece, it never crossed my mind that the answer could be "yes." The whole notion seemed disrespectful of Rice, who may be my favorite Notre Dame player of all time. But the more I think about it, the more I think it would have happened. I'd put the probability at 80%.
The meta-question, and maybe the more important one, is "what would have happened next?" With the slow-footed Graham returning as the quarterback of the defending national champions, would Holtz have ditched the option? Would the interception-prone Graham have been able to navigate a murderous 1989 slate that included 7 of 13 games against top 20 opponents, and five against the top 10? Had Holtz accomodated Graham and Notre Dame switched to a dropback style in 1989, might they have finished 8-4 and played in a lesser bowl? Might Holtz have lost some of the top players who were swayed by the 23 game winning streak? Would Kevin McDougal have ended up at ND?
There are a thousand such questions, and they all seem to me to point in one direction: that Lou Holtz's gamble on Rice is what made his legacy. It's not too hard to imagine Rice's absence pushing up the date of Holtz' eventual departure, especially if you consider that the 1989 season could have been the precursor to the Ron Powlus era, where system and player collided and the coach never recovered. If 1994 were moved up to 1989, might Holtz have been finished at Notre Dame by 1991? It's fanciful, but I don't think it's impossible, or even improbable. In my opinion, it solidifies Rice's position as the keystone of Notre Dame's resurgence, one which lasted for four seasons after he left.