SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Remember how the Superdome just went bonkers after Georgia clinched the national championship with a win over Notre Dame on Jan. 1, 1981? Remember how the green, Astroturf-covered floor of the place suddenly morphed into a moving carpet of red when so many thousands of Bulldogs’ fans leapt down from the stands and engulfed their victorious team in unbridled celebration as soon as the final horn sounded?
Yeah, well, John Heisler remembers none of that. And he was there. He was the sports information director for Notre Dame at the time. He, like all the Fighting Irish faithful that day, had a decidedly different feeling after the game had concluded as a 17-10 UGA victory.
“The game itself didn’t go down as a work of art,” he said with a grin. “There was some frustration over some of the turnovers we had, the kickoffs and things. It felt like one of those games where you had some missed opportunities and made some mistakes that really came back to haunt you.”
Heisler is still at Notre Dame. He now carries the rather extraneous title of “senior associate athletic director for media and broadcast relations.” But more than anything he is a storyteller. He’s sort of a resident historian for Notre Dame athletics and for football in particular. Notre Dame, you might know, has just a tad bit of history.
I visited Heisler in his corner office of Joyce Athletic Convocation Center — known as The Jack (JACC) around here — on Tuesday to reminisce about that 1980 matchup against Georgia and to get an idea about how the locals might be feeling about this fall’s rematch against the Bulldogs.
Georgia and Notre Dame on Sept. 9th will play in football for the first time by since that monumental meeting in New Orleans. The teams will reconvene in Athens during the 2019 season.
The schools had not played before or since that game 36 years ago. None of the players on either team were even alive when these teams last met.
For the Bulldogs it represents the greatest accomplishment in the program’s history. For Notre Dame, a program that has captured 11 national championships, it was a lost opportunity in a “what-could-have-been” season.
“That’s not to take anything away from Georgia and Herschel,” Heisler said. “They obviously did what they had to do to win the game. But the fact that they could do it with one pass completion, if you told that to kids now, they wouldn’t believe it.”
That one-completion thing is something that still gets in the craw of Buck Belue, the starting quarterback on Georgia’s undefeated, untied team. Everybody talks about how he had one little seven-yard completion in 12 attempts against the vaunted Fighting Irish defense. They don’t seem to recall the wide-open drop by tight end Norris Brown on what should have been a 65-yard touchdown completion, and the other squandered opportunities there were in the passing game that day.
But the point is it didn’t matter. The Bulldogs were doing what they came there to do that day. That was to “run the football down their throats” with Herschel Walker, one of the greatest freshman running backs ever to play the game.
“We were looking to pound them, that’s what we were looking to do,” Belue said. “When people ask me about Herschel, I tell them he was one of the toughest football players I’ve ever been around. That was the prime example, him playing with that separated shoulder and playing like he did.”
Walker, as many Georgia fans can cite still today, finished with a 150 yards and two touchdowns despite having his shoulder knocked out of socket in the first quarter. Probably forgotten by most now is Walker actually outgained his own team by 23 yards. The Bulldogs managed just 127 yards in total offense that day.
Notre Dame had 328. But the Irish were victimized by four turnovers, a blocked kick and had a goal-line gaffe as well. And Belue completed the only pass that really mattered, a seven-yard completion on third-and-seven at midfield to ice the game with 2:05 to play.
1980 a ‘weird year’ for Notre Dame
The rest is history for Georgia. For Notre Dame, it was end of “a really weird year for us,” Heisler recalls.
The season began with coach Dan Devine announcing his retirement in August. It continued with the Irish hiring his replacement, Gerry Faust, a high school coach from Ohio, midway through. They would also change athletic directors before the year was over.
Still, great things were expected for the Irish, as always. And they arrived in Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country. But they would leave that Nov. 8th appointment with a 3-3 tie. On the same day in Jacksonville, Fla., the No. 2-ranked Bulldogs were making “Belue-to-Scott” a household phrase.
Retrospectively, the Tech tie was almost as important to the Bulldogs’ as the touchdown pass to Lindsay Scott. It further steeled Georgia’s sense of belief.
“It seemed doable just looking at how they struggled that day,” said Belue, who would help the Bulldogs defeat Tech 38-20 to end the regular season. “As I recall, Notre Dame was winning on defense; you had respect for them because of that. But I don’t think anybody worried about their offense lighting you up.”
Even after that Tech debacle, Notre Dame went into Birmingham and beat Alabama 7-0. It was the victory that punched their ticket to New Orleans.
Even after a loss to USC in the regular-season finale, the Irish felt they had a chance against the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs. Their defense that year goes down as one for the ages, led by All-American defensive end Scott Zettek and Hall of Fame linebacker Bob Crable. They’d allowed three or fewer points five times that season, including two shutouts.
But, of course, Georgia had Herschel, and the Irish knew all about him.
“It speaks to how good Herschel Walker was,” Heisler said of the Georgia win. “To do what they did and not throw it more than they did, that’s mind-boggling by itself. But certainly he was a household name as much as you could be back in those days. Publicity was a different deal in that day and age, but everybody knew who he was.”
A lot of good people, from Notre Dame and Georgia, are no longer around to witness this rematch. It was a late-in-coming event in a day and age when games are often scheduled decades out. NBC helped broker the deal with the Bulldogs and Athletic Director Greg McGarity in 2014.
Georgia fans have waited for 37 years
Fans from both sides have eyed this date with anticipation ever since. Especially those donning the red and black.
“You just know up front that these are special games,” said Belue, today a sports-talk, radio host at WCNN-AM 680 The Fan. “I love what Georgia is doing playing some of these games. You need to do these things for you fan base, play these games, visit these places. The fans are coming along for the ride. This will be the most popular game in decades.”
But even the Irish are pretty excited about the Bulldogs’ visit. As an FBS independent, Notre Dame always plays impressive schedule that is occasionally dotted with major opponents visiting Notre Dame for the first time. Virginia Tech had that experience last year and won 34-31 in the 11th game of the season.
Heisler said this particular matchup with Georgia reminds him of when Nebraska came to town in 2000. Visiting South Bend for the first time in 52 years, the Cornhuskers “had a decent amount of red in the stadium” and pulled off a 27-24 win in overtime behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Eric Crouch.
“Without having to say it, when NBC is selecting these games they want to put in primetime, that’s generally a pretty good indication of what their perception is of a marquee game,” Heisler said. “The fact that they’ve never played here before, there will be a lot of fans who had never been here before. I think that aspect of it when it happens, that increases the interest. You’ve got a whole lot of people coming a long ways and the whole experience is a little bit bigger than you’re typical road game. It’s not the same as going to Jacksonville for the Florida game.”
Georgia fans can only hope it goes as well as last time.
Said Belue: “I’ll tell you, beating Notre Dame in that ’80 game just made it perfect. Winning the title and beating the team with the biggest reputation at the time, that was special.”