Sept. 19, 1999
by Craig Chval
For the Master, this one was almost too easy.
Notre Dame’s legendary head coach Frank Leahy earned that nickname, in part, due to his unmatched ability to motivate his players. Regardless of circumstance, no matter how talented his team happened to be, no matter how inferior the rest of the world deemed his upcoming opponent to be, Leahy had an uncanny ability to get the most out of his players.
As the 1949 season opened, however, it seemed as though Leahy could have left his motivational responsibilities to a mere amateur. After all, only a 14-14 tie in the final game of the season at USC had stood between the ’48 Irish and a third straight perfect season. Led by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Leon Hart, the ’49 Irish talent cupboard was typically overstocked. It appeared to nearly everyone that Notre Dame had the means, the motive and the opportunity to reclaim its accustomed spot atop the college football world.
Even Leahy seemed to believe the Irish were poised for a third national title in four seasons. Leahy was so confident, in fact, that he shared his opinion with the team’s seniors as the season drew near, much to the shock of those players.
“At the start of the season, Leahy called all the seniors in for a meeting,” recalls Jack Connor, one of more than 40 members of the 1949 squad back at Notre Dame this weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that season. “I had never been in a meeting like that with Leahy before.
“He went through the entire season and told us here’s how it’s going to go. Leahy said that if we beat Tulane we would win the national championship. I was absolutely blown away.”
If Leahy’s strategy was to build his players to a fever pitch for Tulane, it worked to perfection. The Irish breezed past their first three opponents Indiana, Washington and Purdue by a combined 111-25 score. When fourth-ranked Tulane came to Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, the Irish were ready. Notre Dame led 27-0 after the first quarter, on its way to a 46-7 thrashing of the Green Wave.
Years later while in the military, Connor crossed paths with a member of Tulane’s starting team.
“He told me that they were determined to come up to Notre Dame and show us that they were the best team in the country,” says Connor. “As they lined up for the opening kickoff, they heard this strange noise from the Notre Dame players running down the field to cover the kick”
According to Connor, the strange noise was Notre Dame’s starting team (there were no special teams at the time, starters were on the field for all kicking plays) releasing the emotion that Leahy had stoked in them for weeks in an unrehearsed war scream as they raced downfield under the kickoff.
Two games later the Irish traveled to East Lansing to face 10th-ranked Michigan State. Quarterback Bob Williams threw for two touchdowns and the Irish withstood two late scores to defeat the Spartans 34-21. The following week in Yankee Stadium, Notre Dame broke open a 6-6 halftime tie with 36 unanswered second-half points to defeat North Carolina 42-6.
Following lopsided victories over Iowa and Southern California, all that stood between Notre Dame and another national championship was a final game at SMU. The contest gave every appearance of being a mismatch when Doak Walker, SMU’s 1948 Heisman Trophy winner was forced to miss the game due to injury.
After three quarters, Notre Dame appeared to be in command, leading 20-7. But SMU’s Kyle Rote, capping a brilliant game, scored twice early in the fourth period to tie the score. A Frank Spaniel kick return gave the Irish the ball near midfield. From there, a smash-mouth rushing game, featuring Emil Sitko, Billy Barrett and All-American end Hart at the fullback position, put Notre Dame back in front 27-20. An interception by Jerry Groom in the Irish end zone preserved the game, the perfect season and Notre Dame’s third national championship in four seasons.
A half century later, Rote’s performance still lives large among Irish players. “It was one of the greatest games I ever saw anybody play,” says Connor. “Rote was utterly fantastic. It was a heroic effort.”
The Irish were so impressed that when they gathered in 1974 to mark the 25th anniversary of the ’49 championship season, they invited Rote and made him the first opposing player included in Leahy’s Lads.
Derived from one of Leahy’s kinder terms for his players, Leahy’s Lads have met every year since their glory days on the gridiron. In addition to sharing tales and refreshments and playing a little golf, the Lads presented the University with the seven-foot bronze statue of Leahy that graces the northeast corner of Notre Dame Stadium, directly across from the Joyce Center. Along with the statue, the Lads, who have grown over the years to include latter-day Irish players as well as opponents, have endowed a series of non-athletic scholarships in Leahy’s honor.
Leahy produced four national championships during the 1940s, including three between 1946 and 1949, when the Irish posted a 36-0-2 record. No other team can boast a four-year record to match. Even more, Leahy instilled within his players a love for each other and for Notre Dame that lives on to this day. * * *
The Frank Leahy Memorial Scholarship Fund endows scholarships for Notre Dame students, selected by the University. All funds are maintained by the University and are not athletic scholarships. Contributions are tax-deductible as permitted by law. Alumni and friends of Notre Dame who wish to contribute to the fund may make checks payable to the University of Notre Dame and mail to the University in care of the Frank Leahy Memorial Scholarship Fund or to Jack Connor, 10601 South California Avenue, Chicago, IL 60655.