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Tony Rice had a decision to make, and he had to make it in a hurry. Should he pitch the ball to tailback Mark Green, or should he hold on to it himself?
USC safety Mark Carrier had made the move to stop the option play, but now the All-America safety had his own decision to make. Should he take the pitch man, Green, or should he attempt to make the tackle on Rice? Carrier hesitated and left himself in no man’s land. Rice made him pay the ultimate price.
“He played cat and mouse, and I was always taught — since the fourth grade — that if you play cat and mouse with the option, and he sticks his arms out there, you take it on and run right through it,” says Rice, reflecting back on his 65-yard touchdown run in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Thanksgiving weekend back in 1988 that led to a 27–10 victory over the Trojans and keyed Notre Dame’s last national title.
From the moment Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz saw Rice on the high school football fields in South Carolina, he knew he had found the man to run the option-based offense that would lead Notre Dame to the 1988 national title and a 23-game winning streak.
For nine weeks in ’88 and the entire 13-game season in ’89, Notre Dame never slipped out of the nation’s top five, thanks in great part to the man taking the snaps. He didn’t have the strongest throwing arm, and to be sure, he was not the most accurate passer in Notre Dame history. In fact, that was always the rap against him. If the Irish ever fell behind by a sizeable margin, they wouldn’t be able to make a comeback through the air with Rice at the controls.
So Rice did what a great runner with winning characteristics should do: He made sure that they were always ahead on the scoreboard. During the final two seasons of Rice’s career, the Irish knocked off No. 1 Miami, No. 2 USC, No. 3 West Virginia (Fiesta Bowl) and No. 9 Michigan in ’88, and then defeated No. 1 Colorado (Orange Bowl), No. 2 Michigan, No. 7 Pittsburgh, No. 9 USC, and two No. 17s, Air Force and Penn State, in ’89. The victory over West Virginia once again proved that slapping stereotypes on Rice only motivated him further. In the national championship game against the Mountaineers, Rice completed 7-of-11 passes for 213 yards (30.4 per completion) and two touchdowns.
“Anytime you throw a ball five yards and the receiver runs it 40, it’s going to help your statistics,” laughs Rice, 43, now living in Granger, Ind., just north of South Bend. “West Virginia was playing man-to-man. I was kind of surprised they stayed with it. We picked them apart. That’s one of the best passing games I ever had. That was my mom’s birthday.”
Rice’s family played a significant role in his decision to attend Notre Dame. After his banner career at Woodruff (S.C.) High School, Rice’s family entrusted the next four years of his life to Holtz, who used a little hocus pocus to make sure he got his man. “My grandmother didn’t know what school he was from,” Rice says. “All she knew was that I was being recruited to play football. She sat down with him and he did a magic trick. All she said to me was, ‘You’re going to follow that little man,’ and it was that magic trick (that) sold it. He did a rope trick where he cuts it and puts it back together, and she was amazed. I was watching closely. I don’t know how he did it.”
Holtz offered more than sleight of hand. “Coach Holtz told me I was family, that I’d get a good education, and the family would take care of me, which they did, even though there were some blocks in the road,” Rice says.
One of those roadblocks delayed his collegiate debut by a year. Proposition 48, which required a minimum SAT score and grade-point average to be eligible for participation as a freshman, sidelined Rice in 1986. He needed 700 on his SAT; he scored 690. It seemed like the end of the world to Rice at the time. “It was a burden,” says Rice of the Prop 48 ruling. “You’re mad at the time because everyone is like, ‘Okay, you can’t cut the mustard. You don’t have the SAT scores.’ But maybe that was the best thing for me at the time, because it gave me a chance to mingle with the other students. I heard people say, ‘He’s not smart enough.’ It motivates you to go out there and prove them wrong.
“I had to give up football for a year, but it was the best thing for me. There’s no way I would change anything.”
Rice wasn’t the only one to take heat after he failed to meet the Prop 48 requirements. He remembers Holtz taking some grief as well. “People told him that he was lowering the Notre Dame standards by recruiting me,” Rice says. “But he never wavered. He showed confidence in me, but he made sure I understood what needed to be done. … Coach Holtz was of the opinion that if you give a guy a chance, he will overcome.”
Rice split time with Terry Andrysiak at quarterback in ’87, helping lead the Irish to a Cotton Bowl berth. In ’88, he took the reins and never looked back. After a perfect 11–0 regular season, including the dramatic 31–30 victory over Jimmy Johnson’s then-No. 1-ranked Miami squad in mid-October, Notre Dame headed to the Fiesta Bowl needing only a victory over No. 3 West Virginia to win the national title. The Irish toyed with the Mountaineers the majority of the afternoon en route to a 34–21 victory. “The key to our 1988-89 teams, obviously, was a tremendous amount of talent,” says Rice, rattling off names such as Rocket Ismail, Ricky Watters, Chris Zorich and Todd Lyght. “But more importantly, it was about what it says on our national championship rings. It was about trust, love and commitment.”
Rice’s option game didn’t translate nearly as well to the professional level. Undrafted by the NFL, he chose a more lucrative offer from the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders over a free agent shot with the Cincinnati Bengals. He also spent some time in Barcelona with the Dragons of the World League.
In 1992, Rice decided to hang up the cleats and focus on raising a family with his wife Felicia. So he put his psychology degree to work, taking a job working at Jordan Industries. After giving football one last shot — a season with the Munich Thunder of the Football League of Europe — Rice then took a job as a salesman with DePuy Orthopaedics, a global leader in orthopaedic supplies, before joining the staff of Blue & Gold Illustrated, a newspaper covering Notre Dame football, in the public relations department.
Rice, a father of five, is now working in the health insurance business with ’83 Notre Dame alum Bob Bradley. He also has a keen eye on his sons, Anthony, 16, and Michael 14, who are football players at Mishawaka (Ind.) Marian High School.
Rice can’t help but occasionally look back longingly on the glory days at Notre Dame. He and his teammates made winning look fun and easy.
“You really don’t appreciate the Notre Dame experience until you leave,” Rice says. “… I still stand back sometimes and think about attending school there, and it’s like, ‘Wow!’ It’s a great institution with a great football program. The longer you’re away from it, the more you realize how tight-knit of a family it really is.”