The Three Amigos (L-R), Michael Stonebreaker, Defensive Coordinator Barry Alvarez, Frank Stams and Wes Pritchett, circa 2012. (Photo: 247 Sports/Irish Illustrated)
By Lou Holtz’s third season in 1988 he had built a team with a powerful running game, a great running quarterback in Tony Rice and explosive players like Ricky Watters, and Rocket Ismail on offense. On the other side of the ball, the Irish played smothering defense and were led by dominant players like Chris Zorich and the “Three Amigos”, Frank Stams, Michael Stonebreaker, and Wes Pritchett.
At the time Three Amigos was a popular comedy movie starring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short. Notre Dame’s version of the “Three Amigos” earned their nickname, given them by legendary ND sports information director Roger Valdisarri, in large part due to their off the field camaraderie where they ran about almost as a comedy team.
That said, on the field, the Three Amigos played a ferocious brand of football.
Stams, hailed from Akron, Ohio. He started his career as a fullback but Lou Holtz moved him over to the defensive side and he found his home as both a linebacker and defensive end. Stams led the 1988 team with seven sacks. One of his biggest hits was on USC quarterback Rodney Peete, on a play that ended with a 64 yard Stan Smagala interception return. Peete was knocked out of the game, and the 1988 Irish completed an undefeated regular season with a win over the then #1 ranked Trojans. Stams went on to be named a consensus All-American.
A class younger than the other two Amigos, who were both seniors, Stonebreaker was a Louisiana kid and was known as the “quiet amigo”. He finished 1988 with 104 tackles and like Stams, and also earned consensus All-American honors. He missed the 1989 season due to injury, but finished out his eligibility in 1990 with another consensus All-American season. Stonebreaker recently was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, class of 2023.
Wes Pritchett hailed from Atlanta and at 6-6, 251, was a giant of a man in the middle of the Irish defense. He is well remembered for setting the tone of the 1988 National Championship Fiesta Bowl against West Virginia with his explosive hit on QB Major Harris during the first series of the game. Pritchett led the 1988 Irish with 112 tackles for which he earned all-American recognition.
The trio’s fun-loving reputation seems to have been enabled by their defensive coordinator, Barry Alvarez. In contrast to Lou Holtz, Alvarez had an easy-going coaching style. Pritchett and Stams were known to visit with Alvarez in his office at lunch time. More than once while waiting on Alvarez they would help themselves to half of their coach’s lunch and then leave a written note of thanks signed “Michael Stonebreaker”.
One day the fun loving Pritchett decided to further test just how easy going Alvarez was. Esteemed ND journalist Tim Prister became his accomplice.
Prister was on the sidelines observing practice one day and was smoking a cigar. When a play came near him, Pritchett ended up next to Prister and decided to help himself to the cigar. He carried it back to the huddle and started puffing away. Smoke billowed through his facemask. Of course, this was not something commonly seen during a football practice. According to Prister the look on Alvarez’s face was like “he was seeing a Martian!”
Led by the Three Amigos, and with notable assistance from the likes of Zorich and others, ND’s 1988 defense gave up a paltry 12.3 points per game en route to a 12-0 season and the National Championship.
Outstanding play on the field, and personality plus off the field, all three “amigos” went on to NFL careers. Stams, Stonebreaker and Pritchett remain friends, or shall we say, amigos to this day and they are All-Time Irish Heroes.