Sept. 24, 2004
by Pete LaFleur
John Huarte was the toast of Notre Dame Stadium for just five games in his college football career, as an unheralded quarterback who burst onto the scene to become the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for Ara Parseghian’s first team in 1964. So perhaps it’s only fitting that nearly a half-century has passed before Huarte returns today to center-stage on the field – or, in his own words, “that hallowed ground” – to be formally recognized by the Notre Dame Stadium faithful as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of his unlikely, but truly inspiring, Heisman Trophy season.
Huarte’s final season at Notre Dame coincided with Parseghian’s first and the prospects for the 1964 campaign were not high, with the Irish coming off a rough 2-7 season in 1963. In essence, Huarte’s final season was really his first. He had yet to earn a varsity monogram and had completed just 24 passes in his first two seasons with the varsity unit (’62 and ’63).
That all changed in 1964, when Parseghian declared Huarte was his starter. The Irish rolled to a 9-0 start (a feat nearly matched 28 years later in the first season of the Tyrone Willingham era) before losing a controversial game in the season finale, 20-17 at USC (Notre Dame did not play in bowl games at that time and finished No. 3 in the national polls).
Huarte – now a successful businessman as owner of Arizona Tile, the largest importer of granite in North America – set 12 Notre Dame records in his Heisman season, completing 114 of 205 passes for 2,062 yards, 16 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. His passing yardage blew away the previous Notre Dame record (1,374; by Bob Williams in 1949) and Huarte still holds a handful of Irish records, including the highest passing-efficiency rating in a season (155.1) plus passing yards per attempt (10.1) and per completion (18.1) in a season.
As he looks back on 1964, four decades removed from those days of glory, Huarte actually points to a short stretch of spring practice as one of his most memorable moments. It did not involve him passing … or running … or handing off. In fact, he wasn’t even on the offensive side of the ball.
At that particular moment, he was watching from the sidelines when the coaches yelled out, “Huarte, get in there at middle linebacker.” He never had played linebacker before but sensed the moment was important in proving himself to a coaching staff that was searching for the quarterback that would lead the team the following fall.
“It was a goal-line drill and they wanted to see if I would hit,” recalls Huarte, who labels the experience an “interesting moment.”
“I hit as good as I could and then they said, `Huarte get out of there.’ It was terrific. They wanted to find out if the quarterback could hit and if I was a coach, I’d do the same thing.”
Huarte then delivered plenty of knockout punches the following fall, starting with the season-opening upset of Wisconsin. He completed 15 passes for 270 yards that day, with both touchdown passes going to another unheralded player (Jack Snow) who had been shifted from fullback to split end prior to the ’64 season. Huarte had five more games with multiple touchdown passes, including three versus Navy and Michigan State. He also threw for 300 yards versus Stanford and set a still-standing Notre Dame record with 27.4 yards per completion (10 for 274) in the Navy game.
“I was not thinking about personal awards at all. The first six games, I was just concentrating on execution and being fundamentally sound, not coughing up the ball when I got sacked or throwing a lot of interceptions,” says Huarte, who finished third in the nation with 2,069 yards in total offense.
“There were certain things you could control, your own technique and skills. And then sometimes a little luck helps you out.
The Heisman Trophy was sealed in at USC but luck went against the Irish in a heartbreaking loss, with Huarte completing 18 of 29 passes for 272 yards and one touchdown. Shortly thereafter, the voters had selected Huarte for the nation’s top collegiate football honor – over the likes of Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, Craig Morton, Roger Staubach and Joe Namath.
Huarte had an uneventful 10-year career in professional football, playing with six NFL teams before spending his final two seasons with the Memphis Showboats of the World Football League. But he had plenty of post-graduate successes off the field, including his 39-year marriage to Eileen Devine (a former elevator operator at New York’s Shea Stadium), their five children and many grandchildren. He travels extensively on an international scale as Arizona Tile, which he founded in 1978, continues to expand to South America (including 14 employees in Brazil), Europe and China, with the primary product line including tile, marble and granite countertops.
Huarte’s unconventional path to the Heisman Trophy included playing just five minutes as a sophomore (with just eight attempts) and he was relegated to third-string duty in 1963. Prior to his breakthrough 1964 season, he had thrown just 50 passes with the Irish covering 281 yards and a single touchdown.
“I played a lot of football at Notre Dame before that 1964 season,” jokes Huarte. “It was just on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I did a lot of scrimmaging.”
Huarte dismisses the accounts that attribute his lack of earlier playing time to injuries. “Most of my injuries were to my feelings,” he says. “Physical injuries never really kept me out of a game.”
The right combination of factors arrived in 1964, with a large piece of the puzzle centering on Parseghian’s coaching style.
“From a psychological standpoint, Ara was very smart in how he handled the players,” says Huarte. “In my case, he told me just go out there and play and if I made mistakes they were going to stick with me.
“He also was very good at using players in areas where they were good – keeping them in the scope of their skill levels. If you have a quarterback who can run, you structure your offense around that. He wouldn’t send his big back on sideways runs. He just was outstanding in developing his offensive scheme to maximize the personnel.”
Huarte naturally credits his teammates – along with Parseghian and assistant coach Tom Pagna – in helping produce his major award. The starting halfbacks included Nick Eddy and Boll Wolski while Joe Farrell and Joe Kantor shared the fullback duties. Huarte’s primary targets included Snow (a fellow California native and longtime L.A. Rams radio announcer) and tight end Phil Sheridan.
Several members of that 1964 team went on to earn All-America honors, including three (linebacker Jim Carroll, defensive back Tony Carey and defensive tackle Kevin Hardy) who earned national acclaim after the ’64 season (DB Nick Rassas then was an All-American in ’65). The 1966 national championship team included a number of All-America performers whose careers were sparked by the magical 1964 season: Eddy, Hardy, linebacker Jim Lynch, defensive end Alan Page and two reserve offensive linemen from the ’64 squad (tackle Paul Seiler and center George Goeddeke).
“The defense gave us the ball, we had a great offensive line and the running back and receivers made great plays,” says Huarte. “We did exactly what Ara wanted and we were very hungry for success.”
Huarte’s NFL career, extensive business travel an Southern California roots (he and Eileen reside in Pacific Palisades, Calif.) has limited his visits back to Notre Dame over the past 40 years. But he has a strong family tie to the athletic department, as his brother Jim’s daughter Laura, an Irish junior, won the BIG EAST outdoor pole vault title last spring (clearing a height of 12 feet, 3.5 inches). And Laura’s sister Sarah won the 2004 NCAA golf title as a senior at the University of California, finishing with a 10-under 278 at the Grand National Lake Course in Opelika, Ala.
“I am so proud of both those girls and it’s wonderful to have another Huarte going to Notre Dame, Laura is a great athlete and great kid,” says the beaming uncle.
“Being back on the field at Notre Dame Stadium will be very exciting and I look forward to seeing a lot of old friends. That stadium always will feel like home. It’s hallowed ground.”