Nov. 3, 1999
by Craig Chval
One of the best ways to start a lively discussion among Notre Dame football fans is to try to decide on the greatest quarterback in Irish history. And, if you want to get the people who were on your side in that argument to turn on you real fast, chances are that a debate over the greatest Notre Dame running back ever will do the trick.
When the discussion turns to defensive lineman, many Notre Dame fans will bring up the name of Ross Browner. It’s a crowded and talented field of candidates that also includes George Connor, Leon Hart, Alan Page, Kevin Hardy, Mike McCoy, Walt Patulski, Greg Marx, Steve Niehaus, Chris Zorich, and Frank Stams
But from his very first scrimmage in August 1973, Browner provided something Notre Dame had never seen before – and hasn’t seen since. Browner’s Notre Dame career, beginning with a start in the first game of his freshman year (he blocked a Northwestern punt while breaking the punter’s leg) to the final game of his senior season (he led a defense that shackled Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell and routed No. 1 Texas) was one long highlight film. This year, the National Football Foundation has honored Browner by electing him to its College Hall of Fame.
Browner becomes the 37th Notre Dame player, the most of any school, elected to the Hall of Fame. Indeed, among the Irish players he joins are 16 linemen. That list includes Page, who was a three-year starter at defensive end and now is a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, and 15 players from the single-platoon era, including 1947 Outland Trophy winner Connor and 1949 Heisman Trophy winner Hart.
Browner is being honored on campus this weekend by Notre Dame and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this December in ceremonies in New York City and next August in South Bend.
“I don’t know of anybody more deserving of election to the Hall of Fame,” says former Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian of Browner. Parseghian, who brought Browner to Notre Dame as part of a freshman class that included Luther Bradley, Willie Fry and Al Hunter, was impressed from the outset.
“We had lost a number of players to injury that we had expected to start for us that season,” Parseghian recalls. “We were in desperate need of two defensive ends, a defensive back and a running back.
“Ross had just arrived on campus, but he played like he had been there for years. It was very apparent that this guy was going to be something special.”
Tom Pagna had played for Parseghian at Miami of Ohio and coached under him at Northwestern. He had accompanied Parseghian from Northwestern to Notre Dame, and was Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator.
Before two-a-day drills even began, Pagna also knew that the Irish might have a once-in-a-lifetime player on their hands.
“Ross had all the tools – size, agility, speed and toughness,” remembers Pagna. “He was a prototype defensive end.”
But they didn’t know for certain until the helmets and pads went on.
“The one area that you can’t evaluate on film is a player’s movement or quickness,” Pagna explains. “That’s the biggest reason kids can’t play at the collegiate level – it’s not a lack of speed, it’s a lack of quickness.”
Fortunately for the Irish, Browner had plenty of both, and it didn’t take long to become obvious.
“We had some really good players on offense, but in the first scrimmage, they couldn’t move the ball against us too much,” recalls Browner. “Afterwards, the coaches were saying, ?We’ve got to move some of these young guys up.'”
Browner’s recollection is free of exaggeration or immodesty. Frank Pomarico, an Irish tri-captain and three-year starter at guard, could barely believe what he was seeing.
“It becomes pretty obvious,” Pomarico chuckles, “when you try to block a guy, but can’t, and he’s making tackles all over the field. You know these guys aren’t out there because somebody promised them a starting job.”
Pomarico was correct on that count. If somebody had promised Browner a starting job, he certainly didn’t seem to know about it.
“It was kind of funny,” Browner recalls. “We had just arrived on campus and I remember feeling so small. I remember hoping that I could just get a chance to play on special teams, so I could get on the field and maybe make a tackle.”
As Browner was making a huge impact on the practice field, the coaching staff saw beyond his unique combination of size and quickness.
“His dream was to be as good as possible so he could support his mother and the rest of his family,” says Pagna.
Those intangible qualities that he recognized in Browner must have looked quite familiar to Pagna, who has authored a delightful book describing his own family. In Petals From a Rose, Pagna shares the story of how his mother, Rose, as the central figure in the family, nurtured in Pagna and his siblings a strong will to succeed.
“Ross was raised pretty much by his mother, and she instilled a very strong character in Ross and his brothers,” says Pagna. “As a result, he was full of that desire.”
Browner’s character manifested itself in more than one way during his rookie season. Rather than relying solely on his considerable physical gifts, Browner was a thinking man’s player. He recounts spending lots of time in high school in his native Warren, Ohio, working to understand blocking angles and offensive schemes.
Those kinds of insights might not have been obvious to fans who remember Browner running Pittsburgh’s Tony Dorsett down from behind. But they were obvious to the Irish coaches.
“Every great athlete in every sport has a vivid mental image of what they’re trying to do,” Pagna explains. “That mental image you carry around with yourself is often the difference between a good player and a great player.
“You see it all the time in college, that for instance a great high school running back will have a certain sense of awe when he starts to play at the college level, because the game is played at a much greater speed. As a result, the player isn’t able to react instinctively until he gets comfortable with the speed of the game and that awe goes away. Ross had a lot less of that awe than most players.”
Beyond that, Parseghian doesn’t underestimate the importance of how Browner dealt with his rapid ascent to the starting lineup.
“What’s very important for a football team is to have a chemistry to bond the players together,” he says. “Some teams have an abundance of it, while some other teams are a little short in that department. As a result of his talent and his personality, Ross was able to make a remarkable contribution to that ?73 team.”
During his career at Notre Dame, Browner progressed from being the new kid on the block to becoming a big brother figure – both figuratively and literally.
Two of his brothers – Jim and Willard – followed Ross to Notre Dame. By the 1976 season, Jim had joined Ross in the starting lineup at strong safety and Willard was seeing extensive playing time at fullback.
“That was a great thrill to be able to play alongside my brothers at Notre Dame,” says Browner. “I was very proud of my brothers, especially since I was the oldest.”
By the time Browner was a senior, he was a leader to the entire team. And unlike in 1973, when the Irish snuck up on the nation (despite a 10-0 record, they were ranked No. 5 heading into their Sugar Bowl matchup with Alabama), the ?77 squad was on everybody’s hit list.
Browner, after winning the Outland Trophy as a junior, found himself on the cover of the Sports Illustrated preseason issue, as the Irish were tabbed number one heading into the season. And for a while, it looked as though the dreaded Sports Illustrated cover jinx would claim the Irish as another victim.
After escaping defending national champion Pitt in the season opener, Notre Dame traveled to Mississippi as a heavy favorite. All Browner remembers was oppressive heat and humidity and a quick Rebel backfield. Ole Miss stunned the Irish 20-13, and Notre Dame had its back to the wall.
“We had some great players on that team,” says Browner, who was one of the Irish captains. “And we just pulled everybody together and kept them all pumped up. We knew what we had to do.”
And they did it. Dan Devine, who had become Notre Dame’s head coach when Parseghian retired following the 1974 season, led the Irish to nine straight wins to close out the season. Pivotal in that stretch was a 49-19 slaughter of USC in the famous green jersey game.
Just as in 1973, Notre Dame entered its bowl game ranked No. 5. And just as they did in ?73, the Irish knocked off the nation’s No. 1 team. This time it was Texas by a 38-10 count in the Cotton Bowl, and again, Browner and the Irish wore the national championship crown.
It was a banner season for Browner individually as well. A consensus All-American for the second straight season (one of 16 Notre Dame players with that distinction), he received the Lombardi Trophy as the nation’s best lineman and won the Maxwell Award as the top player in the country. Browner also finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
Today, 22 seasons after last suiting up for the Irish, Browner still holds Notre Dame records for: career tackles by a defensive lineman (340), career tackles for loss (77), single-season tackles for loss (28), and career fumble recoveries (12).
Parseghian, who coached Page, Browner and five other first-team all-American defensive lineman in his 11 seasons at Notre Dame, diplomatically puts Browner “at the top or right near the top of the list.” Pagna, who has provided expert analysis as Tony Roberts’ sidekick on Notre Dame radio broadcasts for Westwood One the last 15 seasons, sees Browner as the standard against whom Irish linemen are measured.
Browner was a first-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals and played 10 seasons in the National Football League. He currently heads Browner Productions, a multi-faceted business. Among the many endeavors of the business, Browner most enjoys giving motivational speeches and trying to provide youngsters with conflict resolution skills.
From many perspectives, Browner succeeded in resolving one conflict 22 years ago – who’s the best of the best among Notre Dame’s defensive linemen.