Lineman Leon Hart served as co-captain of the 1949 squad and went on to win the Heisman Trophy as a senior.

Fabulous Forties Finale

Aug. 28, 2014 By Lou Somogyi

The number 65 has been classified as retirement age in America. So it is fitting in 2014 to look back 65 years later on the 1949 retirement of college football’s greatest decade-long dynasty, the one at the University of Notre Dame from 1940-49.

Oklahoma followed as the team of the 1950s, highlighted by a 47-game winning streak. Miami changed the college football landscape as the team of the 1980s with three national titles. Nebraska took that mantle in the 1990s with three crowns of its own, Florida and USC each won two national titles in the first decade of the 21st century, and Alabama is in the midst of its own dynasty.

However, college football’s gold standard in one decade remains Notre Dame’s from the 1940s, guided mainly by head coach Frank Leahy, with two years of overseas World War II service in 1944-45:

• From 1940-49, the Fighting Irish were 82-9-6 for a .876 winning percentage.

• In none of those 10 seasons in the 1940s did Notre Dame lose more than two games in a season.

• The four consensus national titles in 1943, 1946, 1947 and 1949 are the most in one decade by any team in college football history. That’s not even including unbeaten campaigns in 1941 (8-0-1) and 1948 (9-0-1) for six unbeaten seasons over those 10 years.

• No other four-year college class at Notre Dame or any other major college football program would experience never seeing defeat during its undergraduate years.

The best came last with the 10-0 ledger in 1949. It marked the first time since Knute Rockne’s final season in 1930 that a Notre Dame team achieved the 10-0 mark, and it would take another 24 years (1973) before another Fighting Irish edition matched it en route to finishing 11-0 during another national title march.

The Last Hurrah

The 1949 season marked the final season of eligibility for student-athletes who had returned from World War II as collegiate freshmen. This included College Football Hall of Fame inductees such as running back Emil “Red” Sitko and end/tackle Jim Martin, who were 23 and 22 years old when they first suited up as Notre Dame freshmen in 1946.

Sitko played on the semi-pro Great Lakes outfit that defeated national title winner Notre Dame 19-14 in 1943 in a game decided in the closing seconds. He enrolled at Notre Dame after the war with four years of eligibility remaining. Instead of signing with the National Football League as a first-round pick, Sitko became the lone back in school history to lead Notre Dame in rushing four straight seasons (1946-49).

Martin, awarded the Bronze Star for his heroics in World War II, became a four-year starter. As a senior two-way player, he led the 1949 squad in minutes played (405) and received the George Gipp Award as the top athlete on the campus. In other words, fellow Notre Dame end, 1949 co-captain and Heisman winner Leon Hart wasn’t even considered the best athlete on his own team.

Ah, yes, Hart, the man-child who enrolled at age 17 in 1946 and who remains the last lineman to be awarded the Heisman Trophy.

No one had a more perfect career in college football history than Hart. Name one other player anywhere who never lost a college football game, won three national titles, was awarded the Heisman and was the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft after his senior year. You can’t.

Two more College Football Hall of Fame members graced the starting lineup in 1949: junior quarterback Bob Williams and linebacker/center Jerry Groom.

Achieved during the 1949 season, Williams’ pass efficiency rating of 161.4 stood for 60 years as the Notre Dame record before Jimmy Clausen edged past him with a 161.42 mark in 2009. Groom served as the team captain as a senior before becoming the No. 6 overall pick in the 1951 NFL Draft.

Supporting Cast

In addition to the five Hall of Fame members, 16 players from the 1946 recruiting haul became starters or regulars in an era when athletes played both sides of the ball.

While Sitko merited the “Six-Yard” sobriquet for his penchant to average six yards per carry, two of his classmates in the 1949 starting backfield — Larry Coutre and Frank Spaniel — also averaged six-yards-plus per carry as 1949 seniors.

Coutre rushed for 645 yards and 6.3 yards per carry, while Spaniel amassed 496 yards and 6.2 yards per carry. They also combined for 29 receptions and 16.7 yards per catch.

Yet another halfback from that class, Ernie Zalejski, a fifth-round pick in the NFL Draft, averaged 5.9 yards per rushing attempt as a senior in ’49, and his five pass receptions averaged 30.2 yards — with four of them resulting in touchdowns. Then there was a fifth halfback, Mike Swistowicz, who started on defense and also was a fifth-round NFL selection.

Prolific depth on the 1949 team was evident not only in the backfield but in the trenches.

End Bill Wightkin was blessed with enough ability to shift Martin, a three-year starter at end from 1946-48, to tackle. Wightkin went on to snare 17 passes for a team-high 309 yards (18.2 yards per catch) in `49.

In the shadows of Hart and Martin, tackle Ralph McGehee quietly put together a stellar football career as a two-way starter on the undefeated 1948-49 units.

Bob Lally and Rodney Johnson started at guard, yet backup linemen such as Gus Cifelli, Ed Hudak, and Ray Espenan were all talented enough to be drafted by the NFL. (Tragically, in February of 1950, Espenan died in a freak gymnasium accident.) Walt Grothaus was good enough to play ahead of Groom, who starred at middle linebacker, at center.

Unlike the unbeaten teams from 1946-48, not every starter on offense also played defense, or vice versa. Talented sophomores such as defensive lineman Bob Toneff or safety John Petitbon were therefore able to crack the starting lineup on defense.

During its 10-0 run in 1949, Notre Dame played only four home games, highlighted by a 46-7 demolition of No. 4-ranked Tulane and a 32-0 rout of No. 17-ranked USC.

The Irish had their tightest outings at No. 10-ranked Michigan State, a 34-21 triumph, and a 27-20 thriller in the season finale versus SMU in Dallas that clinched the national title.

After the 1946 recruits — whether returning from World War II or just out of high school — picked up their diplomas in the spring of 1950, Leahy’s dynasty fell to 4-4-1 that autumn and finished out of the Top 20 in 1951 as well before prospering again.

The 1940s remain an era by which any other 10-year reign of excellence is measured, with the best record saved for last.

The Best For Last

Notre Dame’s final game of the Fabulous Forties also happened to be the most exciting one in head coach Frank Leahy’s 11-year reign.

On Dec. 3, 1949, in front of 75,457 fans at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Notre Dame was gunning for an unprecedented fourth straight unbeaten campaign and third national title in four years. The opponent was SMU, which had finished No. 3 and No. 10 in the Associated Press poll the two previous years and featured 1948 Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker.

When Walker was forced to sit out the Notre Dame game, the Irish were made multiple touchdown favorites after having already outscored their previous nine foes by a 333-66 count.

The contest went as expected for 30 minutes, with the Irish taking a 13-0 halftime lead while also making a goal-line stand. In the second half, though, Walker’s replacement, sophomore Kyle Rote, put on a scintillating show, finishing with 115 yards rushing, 146 passing and three TDs to help knot the score at 20 in the fourth quarter, with only a blocked PAT by Groom preventing the Mustangs from taking the lead.

“For the first time all fall we had only a few minutes to prove we were really a championship team,” said Leahy years later.

Notre Dame answered with a 54-yard drive in 10 plays capped by Bill Barrett’s five-yard TD run with 8:37 remaining for a 27-20 lead.

Nevertheless, a second goal line stand was needed when Rote drove SMU 66 yards to the Irish five before he had to be taken out for two plays because of injury. On fourth down, Groom picked off Rote’s pass into the end zone, with an assist from Lally, to help secure another national title.

Twenty-five years later, Notre Dame’s 1949 national champs made Rote an “honorary member” of their team to salute his sterling efforts.

“I never saw more excitement in a game in my life,” Leahy said afterwards.

And college football has never seen such a four-year unbeaten run.

1949 Notre Dame Football Schedule
Sept. 24: vs. Indiana W 49-6
Oct. 1: at Washington W 27-7
Oct. 8: at Purdue W 35-12
Oct. 15: vs. Tulane W 49-6
Oct. 29: vs. Navy W 49-6
Nov. 5: at Michigan State W 34-21
Nov. 12: vs. North Carolina W 42-6
Nov. 19: vs. Iowa W 28-7
Nov. 26: vs. USC W 32-0
Dec. 3: at SMU W 27-20