Once Upon A Time At Notre Dame …

With 20-0 and No. 1 Syracuse visiting Notre Dame this Saturday (6 p.m. ESPN), long-time Irish followers will inevitably wax nostalgic about an unprecedented NCAA era that occurred in the school’s athletics history.

Scenes like this after ending No. 1 UCLA's 88-game winning streak in 1974 used to be commonplace in Notre Dame football and basketball.

In an amazing 22-year stretch from Jan. 1, 1971 through Nov. 13, 1993, Notre Dame defeated a No. 1-ranked football team seven times and a No. 1-ranked men’s basketball team seven times (although an eighth should be included in both sports, which we’ll explain later).

It has achieved neither in the 18 years hence, but has a chance to this weekend.

Since defeating Florida State 31-24 on Nov. 13, 1993, the Irish football team has played No. 1 only three times. Two of them were 11th hour losses. The first was a 27-24 overtime defeat at home to Nebraska in the second game of 2000. To many, that was a signal that “Notre Dame was back,” and helped procure a five-year contract extension for head coach Bob Davie through the 2005 season. Davie was fired a year later (2001).

Another was the 34-31 loss to USC in 2005, a game that so reflected that “Notre Dame is back,” it landed first-year Irish head coach Charlie Weis a 10-year contract extension through 2015. Weis lasted until the end of 2009. (In between, the 2004 Irish lost 41-10 at No. 1 USC, ending the Tyrone Willingham regime after three seasons.)

Joy, validation and affirmation these days are taken in coming close, whereas once upon a time it was virtually a given that a meeting by a No. 1 team against Notre Dame was a ticket to the graveyard.

As for basketball, this Feb. 1 marks the Silver Anniversary of the last time the Irish defeated No. 1, a 60-58 victory against North Carolina in 1987. It was a form of a last hurrah for Irish head coach Digger Phelps.

The first time Phelps defeated No. 1 was the most memorable, the epic 71-70 conquest of UCLA on Jan. 19, 1974 that snapped the Bruins’ NCAA record 88-game winning streak. Over the next 13 years he and the Irish would do it five more times.

Since the 1987 victory versus North Carolina, Notre Dame men’s basketball is 0-for-5 against No. 1 teams, with three losses to Duke, one to North Carolina and one to Connecticut.

Each of the three head coaches after Phelps did defeat a No. 2: John MacLeod 84-71 versus UCLA in 1992, Matt Doherty 75-70 at UConn in 2000, and Mike Brey 98-92 versus Texas in December 2002. On Feb. 8, 2005, Brey and Co. also vanquished 20-0 and No. 4-ranked Boston College, 68-65, at the Joyce Center.

Here are some notables about Notre Dame and No. 1 in football and basketball:

• According to the NCAA, Miami has the most football victories against No. 1 with nine, while Notre Dame is second with eight. However, not included is Notre Dame’s 13-11 victory over 11-0 Alabama in the 1975 Orange Bowl. The NCAA seems to include only AP rankings, and at the end of the 1974 season 11-0 Oklahoma was No. 1 in the AP. However, the Sooners were on probation and could not go to a bowl, so Alabama was No. 1 in the UPI poll because Oklahoma was omitted from it due to its probation.

• It’s also interesting to note that even though Oklahoma had an NCAA record 47-game winning streak in 1957 and won the national title in 1955 and 1956, it was ranked No. 2 when the Irish stunned them 7-0 in Norman to snap the string.

• Notre Dame’s nine victories over No. 1 in basketball, starting with Kentucky on Feb. 2, 1948 and also including an NCAA Tournament upset of No. 1 Indiana in 1954, is second only to UCLA. However, not included is a 1980 victory at Kentucky, which was No. 2 in the AP — but No. 1 in the UPI (similar to Alabama in football in 1974).

• Phelps’ six victories (or seven if including Kentucky in 1980) against No. 1 is an NCAA record by a head coach, with North Carolina’s Dean Smith in second place with five.

• The Joyce Center has been the home of six defeats of No. 1. That is second place all-time to Maryland’s former Cole Field House, which witnessed seven such victories (one of them against Notre Dame in 1979). A win over Syracuse would tie the Irish for No. 1.

Here are those six victories against No. 1 in the Joyce Center:

Jan. 23, 1971 Notre Dame 89, UCLA 82
In head coach John Dee’s final season, Austin Carr’s 46 points are the most ever against a John Wooden-coached team. All-America Sidney Wicks is assigned to guard Carr in the second half and after he fouls out in the closing minute, Wicks heads to the bench and chides Wooden by saying, “I told you not to put me on him!” UCLA would not lose again until …

Jan. 19, 1974 Notre Dame 71, UCLA 70
In a showdown between No. 1 versus No. 2, the Irish trail 70-59 with only 3:32 left, with no shot clock nor three-point line in those days. Unbelievably, they string together a 12-0 run, with Dwight Clay drilling the go-ahead basket with 29 seconds left and the Bruins missing four shots at the end. For the first time ever, Notre Dame vaults to No. 1 in men’s basketball.

March 5, 1977 Notre Dame 93, San Francisco 82
The 19-6 but unranked Irish need a victory over 29-0 and No. 1 Dons led by center Bill Cartwright, to clinch a bid to the then 32-team NCAA Tournament. An hour before the game, the Notre Dame student body chants in loud, rhythmic fashion “29, (clap, clap) and 1 (clap, clap)! 29 (clap, clap) and 1 (clap, clap)…” while San Francisco warms up. It continues throughout the game. Five Irish players finish with double-digit scoring, led by Duck Williams’ 25, but in an unprecedented move, NBC-TV awards the “Game MVP” to the Irish student body for the raucous and nearly deafening atmosphere created.

Feb. 26, 1978 Notre Dame 65, Marquette 59
Against the defending national champs, freshman Kelly Tripucka scores all 15 of his points in the second half and sophomore Bill Hanzlik puts the clamps on All-America guard Butch Lee. Notre Dame rallies from a 17-point deficit to post the victory.

Feb. 27, 1980 Notre Dame 76, DePaul 74
In perhaps the greatest back-and-forth game played in the ACC — with nearly a dozen future NBA players participating — the Irish win in double overtime. Two Tracy Jackson free throws force the first OT, a Rich Branning jumper sends it into a second, and Orlando Woolridge’s two free throws with 19 seconds left give the Irish the final margin of victory. Tripucka leads the effort with 28 points.

Feb. 1, 1987 Notre Dame 60, North Carolina 58
Notre Dame rallies from a 32-16 first-half deficit to help Phelps record his sixth win against a No. 1 team. Juniors David Rivers and Gary Voce propel the dramatic conquest.

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