Sept. 22, 2002
by Craig Chval
After Notre Dame manhandled Penn State in the Gator Bowl to close the 1976 football season, expectations were sky-high as the Irish embarked on their 1977 schedule. Sports Illustrated predicted a national championship, and Notre Dame was ranked third by the Associated Press when the Irish traveled to Pittsburgh for the season-opener against the defending national champion Panthers.
The optimism seemed well-founded. Notre Dame returned all 11 starters on defense. And while head coach Dan Devine and his staff had to replace six starters on offense, there was no shortage of experienced and talented players ready to step up and play.
Not surprisingly, the defense carried the Irish in the early going. Minus departed Heisman Trophy winner and Notre Dame nemesis Tony Dorsett, seventh-ranked Pitt struggled on offense. But the Irish weren’t much better. Notre Dame’s 19-9 victory wasn’t secured until Panther quarterback Matt Cavanaugh suffered a broken wrist when tackled by Notre Dame’s All-America defensive end Willie Fry.
The following week, Notre Dame’s defense wasn’t enough to carry the sputtering offense against unranked and unheralded Mississippi. A stifling heat in Jackson, Miss., finally took its toll, as the Irish gave up a late touchdown for a shocking 20-13 Ole Miss victory.
Nearly every Notre Dame fan knows this story has a happy ending. The Irish bounced back from the upset loss to reel off 10 straight wins and earn their 10th national championship. The remarkable turnabout was fueled by one of the most famous games in Notre Dame history, in which the green-clad Irish pummeled fifth-ranked Southern California 49-19, and was capped by a 38-10 pounding of top-ranked Texas in the 1978 Cotton Bowl.
Devine is justifiably remembered alongside the all-time Irish coaching greats for picking the perfect time and the perfect opponent to unleash Notre Dame’s “Green Machine” against archrival USC. As the vanquished Irish trudged off the field in Oxford, Miss., on Sept. 17, 1977, Devine wasn’t thinking about green jerseys and national championships. Instead, he was faced with the challenge of his hall-of-fame coaching career.
Not only were Devine’s Irish a disappointing 1-1, but all of the ingredients were in place for a total meltdown.
For starters, although the defense was not quite at the top of its game, defensive coordinator Joe Yonto’s crew was playing much better than Notre Dame’s offense. In two games, the Irish offense averaged 16.0 points per game failing to score 20 points in either game. Notre Dame would not have been the first football team to split right down the middle, with defensive players pointing fingers at an offense that was not pulling its weight.
On top of that, Devine was facing a quarterback controversy. When Rusty Lisch came off the bench to lead the Irish to a 21-18 victory over Alabama in November 1976, most observers believed he would be more than ready to fill the shoes of the graduating starter Rick Slager.
But with the ’77 Irish offense struggling to get untracked, attention began to turn to the quarterback position. Joe Montana had also proven his ability to rally the Irish from behind, leading Notre Dame to comeback wins over North Carolina and Air Force as a sophomore in 1975. A shoulder injury kept Montana out of action in 1976, and the ongoing rehabilitation of his throwing shoulder found Montana as Notre Dame’s third quarterback in September 1977, behind Lisch and senior Gary Forystek.
The three-way competition for the starting quarterback position perfectly illustrated yet another potential headache for Devine. Both Montana and Forystek were recruited to Notre Dame by Devine’s legendary predecessor, Ara Parseghian. Lisch, on the other hand, was a member of Devine’s first recruiting class, along with a host of key players – center David Huffman, linebacker Bob Golic and running back Jerome Heavens to name just a few. As Devine fought to hold the ’77 Irish together in the face of their early struggles, the possibility of fault lines forming between the old and new regimes was something he could hardly ignore.
Fortunately, Devine demonstrated he was plenty shrewd enough to navigate the Irish through the minefield. A key piece of his strategy for rallying the Irish following their disheartening loss to Mississippi was to rely upon the leaders he inherited from Parseghian. The first order of business was a players-only meeting, called not by Devine, but by his four captains – Fry, Ross Browner, Terry Eurick and Steve Orsini.
Orsini, an unsung contributor at running back and on special teams, remembers the urgency.
“When we arrived as freshman, we told each other we would all have a national championship ring before we left Notre Dame,” says Orsini.
“Now it was gut check time. We looked to ourselves and we knew that we were a lot better than we had been playing.”
The meeting steadied the Irish, but they still were not out of the woods. The offense continued to misfire the following week against Purdue, while Boilermaker freshman quarterback Mark Herrmann was giving the Irish defense fits. Devine replaced Lisch with Forystek, who sparked the offense before his season and Notre Dame career were ended by a crushing hit by Purdue’s Fred Arrington.
Lisch re-entered the game, but the Irish were trailing 24-14 late in the third quarter when Devine turned to Montana.
“When Joe stepped in, it made all the difference in the world,” explains Irish All-America cornerback Luther Bradley.
Montana and All-America tight end Ken MacAfee led the Irish to two fourth-quarter touchdowns, allowing Notre Dame to escape with a 31-24 victory.
Victories over Michigan State and Army set the stage for the most famous coaching ploy of Devine’s career – and one of the most spectacular in long and storied Notre Dame tradition. But had Devine not righted the Irish ship, it’s almost certain he never would have had the chance to shock his players, the 59,075 in Notre Dame Stadium and the entire college football world by dressing the Irish in green uniforms for the first time in nine years.
“Coach Devine had won over the players who had been recruited by Coach Parseghian, and then he trusted us enough to let us straighten things out,” explains Orsini.
While Devine’s handling of the early-season crisis was subtle and low-key, his strategy for the Trojans was anything but quiet.
To maximize the impact of the green jerseys, which he ordered four months in advance, Devine informed only a handful of coaches and his four captains. Devine swore the captains to secrecy, and the plot worked to perfection.
A few players may have done a double-take at the Friday night pep rally when students were urged to wear green to the game. And a few more were distraught to find their white game socks trimmed in green, rather than blue when they dressed for pregame warm-ups (many players had their ankles taped over their socks and shoes, making a wholesale, last-minute change of socks virtually impossible).
But it was clear when the Irish returned to their locker room following pregame warm-ups to find green jerseys hanging in their lockers that nobody saw this one coming.
Orsini tries to describe the scene as the Irish returned to the lockerroom.
“It was like we had just won the game,” he remembers.
“It was a stroke of genius. And it was a shock …. wow,” laughs Bradley.
Yonto, who played under Irish head coach Frank Leahy and coached with Parseghian, Devine and Holtz, admits to being surprised at the level of the players’ emotion.
“It was like Christmas morning,” Yonto says.
“Some guys were literally ripping their shirts off when they saw the green jerseys.”
As Bradley put it, “You take all that and then go and kick some butt on the field ….”
That the Irish did. They completely dominated the shell-shocked Trojans, defeating them for the first time in four years.
From there, only 15th-ranked Clemson provided Notre Dame with a challenge, as Montana led the Irish back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to a 21-17 victory in Death Valley. All that was left for the Irish was top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl – and the Longhorns never stood a chance.
Notre Dame’s transformation was complete. The fifth-ranked team that arrived in Dallas to prepare for the Cotton Bowl no more resembled the Irish team that crawled out of Jackson, Miss., with its tail between its legs than a steer resembles a poodle.
It probably mattered not that every prognosticator in the country predicted that Texas and its Heisman Trophy-winning halfback Earl Campbell would steamroll Notre Dame. It probably made no difference that every single man, woman and child in Dallas made a point of telling anybody with a Notre Dame sweatshirt that the Irish were in for the whipping of their lives. And it most likely didn’t mean a darn thing that officials had already prepared a painted football and a cake for the Texas governor, commemorating the national championship the Longhorns would claim with their Cotton Bowl win over Notre Dame.
But it sure made things a whole lot sweeter.
The Irish didn’t need to play with a Texas-sized chip on their shoulder — they were good enough to win without it. But the sight of Texas fans streaming for the exits of the Cotton Bowl before the third quarter of Notre Dame’s 38-10 victory was the most beautiful sight since …. well, since all those Notre Dame players came storming out of the tunnel wearing green jerseys against Southern California in October.
Bradley shared a secret with his father during the week leading up to the Cotton Bowl.
“The coaches told us that if Texas runs the wishbone, they’re not going to be able to score on us,” Bradley told his father.
Their bold prediction was nearly right on the money. Again, it was a behind-the-scenes coaching move by Devine that set up the Irish.
In both 1970 and 1971, Parseghian’s Irish faced top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl. After narrowly missing their upset bid in ’70, the Irish came back to throttle the No. 1 Longhorns in the ’71 Cotton Bowl, ending their 30-game winning streak. One of the keys to Notre Dame’s 24-11 victory was a defense specially designed to neutralize the vaunted Texas wishbone. That Notre Dame defense was designed by none other than Joe Yonto. So when the ’77 Irish faced another top-ranked Texas wishbone offense, they had the original architect of that defense, thanks to Devine’s decision to retain Yonto and several other assistants from Parseghian’s staff.
Notre Dame’s defense made good on Bradley’s boast to his dad. The Irish forced six turnovers and made Campbell grind out every one of his 116 yards on 29 carries. Meanwhile, Irish backs Vagas Ferguson and Heavens each cracked the century mark on the ground. Ferguson scored three times and Eurick added two touchdowns as Notre Dame streaked to a 24-3 second-quarter lead and never looked back.
“They forgot one little detail,” chuckles Yonto of the Longhorns.
“They had to play the game.”
The Cotton Bowl victory vaulted Notre Dame atop the polls, crowning a remarkable season.
“Dan Devine did a great job of keeping that team together,” says Yonto.
“And you’ve got to give people like Steve Orsini, Ross Browner, Terry Eurick and Willie Fry a lot of credit. They’re the ones who turned things around.”
Yonto remembers a simple phrase, written on a chalkboard in Notre Dame’s Cotton Bowl lockerroom:
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
Craig Chval is an ’81 Notre Dame graduate and former student assistant in the Irish sports information office. He is currently an attorney and freelance writer living in Vienna, Va.