Nov. 9, 2003
by Craig Chval
Over the years, many teams have been held up as examples of a well-coached football team. But few teams have seen their adherence to coaching have as dramatic an impact on their season as did Notre Dame’s 1953 team.
Head coach Frank Leahy’s final Notre Dame team began the season ranked first in the country. The Irish defeated four ranked teams in their first five games, and were 8-0 still atop the polls by the time Forest Evashevski brought his 20th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes to Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 21.
Notre Dame’s offense sputtered throughout the first half trailing Iowa 7-0 late in the second quarter. The Irish finally got going, but found themselves on the Hawkeye 12-yard line in the waning seconds of the half without any timeouts remaining.
The Notre Dame players knew exactly how to respond.
Irish left tackle Frank Varrichione let out a blood-curdling scream and collapsed to the turf, seemingly suffering a very sudden and mortal injury. Under existing college football rules, the officials were obligated to stop the clock and allow Varrichione to be helped off the field.
The Irish offense took advantage of the stoppage in play to line up, and on the final play of the half, Ralph Guglielmi threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Dan Shannon, tying the score.
Notre Dame trailed Iowa 14-7 in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter. Again, the Irish were driving towards the Hawkeye end zone. Again Notre Dame was out of timeouts.
According to Leahy’s script, this time it was the job of the right tackle to “suffer” an injury. So with six seconds remaining in the game and the ball on Iowa nine, Art Hunter took his turn.
The officials stopped the clock and again, Guglielmi threw to Shannon in the end zone. Don Schaefer’s extra point allowed Notre Dame to escape with a 14-14 tie.
“I thought Forest Evashevski was going to come across the field and kill Leahy,” laughs John Lattner, Notre Dame’s Heisman Trophy-winning halfback that season.
Perhaps it was the missed opportunity to defeat the number-one team in the nation, but in his anger Evashevski seemed to forget that many teams, including Iowa, used a similar play. Or perhaps it was the fact that Notre Dame was good enough to score touchdowns immediately following both feigned injuries. As Guglielmi puts it, “We still had to perform.”
In explaining the Irish “strategy,” Varrichione admits that Notre Dame’s execution against Iowa was good, but not quite perfect.
“Normally, I’d be blocking somebody, and there would be a big pileup at the end of the play, so I’d just lay there and pretend to be injured,” reveals Varrichione.
“But on the previous play, I had made my block and I saw the ball bouncing out of bounds. I thought the official had stopped the clock. We were walking back after the play and Ralph said to me, ‘Why didn’t you fake an injury?’
“We were trying to call a play and I saw the clock ticking down so I knew I had to stop the clock so I just dropped at the line of scrimmage. Just like I dead out fainted.”
Evashevski wasn’t the only person outraged by the Irish ploy, as it turns out.
Although the tactic was legal and widely used, many sportswriters criticized Notre Dame.
As Varrichione puts it, “Notre Dame being Notre Dame, we got a lot of criticism.
“I got letters from hundreds of fans. If they were Catholic, they thought I should be the next Pope. Other people called me every name in the book.”
The controversy brought about two changes. Most immediately, Notre Dame was dropped to second behind Maryland in both the Associated Press and United Press polls and the NCAA eventually modified the rules to prohibit teams from using injuries to stop the clock at the end of each half.
Unfortunately, another 1953 practice no longer in existence today probably cost the ’53 Irish a unanimous national championship. Notre Dame rebounded from the tie against Iowa to finish the season with a 9-0-1 record. Although Notre Dame’s policy prohibited playing in bowl games during that era, Maryland did play in the Orange Bowl. Oklahoma, which Notre Dame had defeated in the season opener, beat the Terrapins 7-6.
But the Associated Press and the United Press still were conducting their final polls before the bowl games were played, so Maryland finished number one in each of those polls, despite finishing its season with a loss. Notre Dame, however, was recognized as the national champion by at least 10 recognized selectors. Among those crowning the ’53 Irish champions was the prestigious Helms Foundation, which picked its national champion after the bowl games were played.
Members of that 1953 Notre Dame national championship team are gathering on campus this weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that season. No less an authority than Frank Leahy himself recognized the greatness of that team, calling the ’53 squad his best-ever college-age team. (Leahy’s most powerful Notre Dame teams of the late 40’s contained a mix of returning World War II veterans and younger players.)
The huge shadow cast by the story of the “Fainting Irish,” as some critics dubbed Notre Dame following the Iowa game, tends to obscure a remarkable season. Not only did the Irish post an undefeated record against top-flight competition, they also had to deal with Leahy’s rapidly-deteriorating health.
The situation became a full-blown crisis against Georgia Tech. The Ramblin ‘Wreck arrived at Notre Dame Stadium riding a 31-game unbeaten streak and with a number-four ranking in the polls. The Irish had eeked out a 7-0 halftime lead when Leahy’s health took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse.
But despite what at least one Irish player initially thought, Leahy’s condition wasn’t taken out of the same chapter of the Notre Dame playbook as stopping the clock by faking an injury.
Lattner was a Chicago native and a long-time Notre Dame follower. He was well aware that Leahy had learned well from his mentor Knute Rockne the art of going to great lengths to motivate his players. When Lattner first heard that Leahy had taken ill, he didn’t believe it.
“I thought, ‘He’s pulling a Rockne,'” remembers Lattner.
“I was laughing when somebody told us Leahy had a heart attack.”
Doctors later determined that Leahy had not suffered a heart attack, but instead acute pancreatitis. Nonetheless, Leahy’s condition was so grave that last rites were administered in the Notre Dame lockerroom. His players, properly concerned, defeated Georgia Tech, 27-14.
Leahy was hospitalized, but monitored Notre Dame’s practices from his hospital bed via closed-circuit television. None of his players was surprised.
“Leahy and his staff were great at preparing us for games,” says Guglielmi.
“Our coolness under fire became natural because we had tougher situations during our scrimmages than anything we faced during the games.
To a man, Leahy’s players describe him as a teacher without equal.
Leahy’s doctors did not permit him to accompany the Irish to Los Angeles, where Notre Dame dismantled 20th-ranked Southern California 48-14. Leahy was back on the Notre Dame sidelines two weeks after the attack, directing the Irish to a 40-14 victory over SMU.
Although not even Leahy knew it at the time, it would be the last game he ever coached. His doctors told Leahy he risked his life if he did not take it easy. Leahy knew that his own nature wouldn’t permit easing up as Notre Dame’s head coach, so he resigned.
“He was 47 years old when he left Notre Dame, but he looked like he was 67,” says Lattner.
It may strike some as unfair that such an accomplished team – Lattner and Guglielmi are both members of the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame -is perhaps best remembered for the Iowa game, but the players seem to understand it.
“It was our legacy,” says guard Jack Lee, who is chairing the team’s 50th anniversary.
Most of the players remember the game with laughter. Varrichione notes that Hunter’s faked injury at the end of the second half didn’t draw nearly the attention that Varrichione’s performance did.
“I guess he did a better job of faking than I did,” Varrichione chuckles.
“Sportswriters came up to me and asked if I was really hurt,” he says.
“I said to them, ‘If you looked up and saw Notre Dame losing 7-0, wouldn’t you feel bad?'”
Fifty years later, Guglielmi lists the Iowa game as his single-greatest memory from that season.
“Unfortunately, the game that stands out the most wasn’t a win, but it was a tie,” he says.
“But coming back as we did in that game speaks to what an outstanding team we were.”
It was an outstanding team, a final edition worthy of Leahy’s legacy at Notre Dame. In addition to winning the Heisman Trophy, Lattner was a two-time winner of the Maxwell Award, presented by the Memorial Football Club of Philadelphia to the nation’s best player. Lattner, Hunter and end Don Penza were named All-Americans in ’53. Over 20 members of the ’53 squad played professional football; three players were drafted in the first round of the NFL draft following the ’53 season, and three more were drafted in the first round the following year.
Longtime Notre Dame associate athletic director and sports information director Roger Valdiserri was a classmate of Lattner’s. He considers the ’53 backfield of Guglielmi, Lattner, Neil Worden and Joe Heap (a three-time, first-string Academic All-American) as good as any that Notre Dame has ever fielded.
“Neil Worden was the best back in Notre Dame history not to make All-American,” says Valdiserri.
Lattner echoes that theme.
“Any of those other three guys could have won the Heisman,” he says.
“I don’t know how I got involved.”
Guglielmi, who finished fourth in the voting for the ’54 Heisman Trophy as a senior, returns the compliment.
“It was a privilege to play with Johnny Lattner,” says Guglielmi.
“He made me a better player.”
Those considered it a privilege to play at Notre Dame and for Frank Leahy.
“Notre Dame was the place to play college football in those days,” Guglielmi says.
“It was really something special. Today, you’ve got other programs that can say the same thing.
This weekend, the ’53 Irish will look back and remind each other just how special they were.
“The stories get bigger every time we get together,” says Lattner.
The may indeed get bigger, the as the passage of time dulls the sharp edges of the controversies that surrounded the ’53 team, the record book speaks clearly to the accomplishments of those players.
There is little doubt that the ’53 Irish were the best team in the country that season. There is absolutely no doubt that they were a worthy end to Leahy’s incredible run as Notre Dame’s head coach, and a wonderful reflection on the University of Notre Dame.