Sept. 20, 2006
By Lou Somogyi, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Pioneering is neither for the faint of heart nor the limited in ability.
Lewis & Clark had their share of life-threatening adventures during their travels out West, as did Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and Co., during space exploration in the 1960s.
In 1942, Angelo Bertelli’s setbacks as Notre Dame’s original T-formation quarterback weren’t nearly as dramatic, but it made him a pioneer nonetheless. It also helped mold him into Notre Dame’s first of seven Heisman Trophy winners, and began the school’s unparalleled excellence at quarterback for the next 60-plus years. The athletic gifts of Bertelli were evident long before he won the Heisman. At Springfield (Mass.) Cathedral High, Bertelli was talented enough in hockey to be wooed by the NHL’s Boston Bruins and skilled enough in baseball to be courted by the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers.
Yet it was in football where Bertelli – a.k.a. “The Springfield Rifle” – earned the most acclaim. As a resident of Massachusetts, Bertelli appeared destined to sign with burgeoning national power Boston College. Under dynamic new coach Frank Leahy, a 1931 Notre Dame graduate, Boston College finished 9-2 during Bertelli’s senior year in high school – and would follow with an 11-0 mark the ensuing season. However, not even Leahy’s persuasive powers were enough to lure Bertelli away from Notre Dame. One of Bertelli’s neighbors – 1940 Notre Dame captain Milt Piepul – convinced him to ink with the Irish rather than soar with the Eagles. Still, Bertelli was wistful about his decision.
“I wish coaches Leahy and (assistant Ed) McKeever were at Notre Dame instead of Boston College, not that I have anything against Boston College,” Bertelli said after his signing.
In an epic moment in Notre Dame’s football history, Bertelli’s wish was granted during the second semester of his freshman year. Irish head coach Elmer Layden, after a successful seven-year run, resigned his post to become commissioner of the National Football League, and Leahy invoked the “alma mater clause” in his contract to take his dream job at Notre Dame in 1941.
Matching Bertelli with Leahy was as propitious as linking John Huarte with first-year Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian in 1964, uniting Tony Rice with first-year Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz in 1986, and combining Brady Quinn with first-year Irish head coach Charlie Weis in 2005.
One provided the talent, the other the guidance, and in each case the Notre Dame football program underwent a renaissance.
In Leahy’s inaugural campaign, Notre Dame finished No. 3 in the country and Bertelli’s .569 completion percentage led the nation. He also became Notre Dame’s first 1,000-yard passer in a single season. In the 19 previous campaigns, no Irish player threw for more than 483 yards. No one with Bertelli’s passing ability had been seen in the Midwest, and only the Sammy Baughs and Davey O’Briens from the Southwest in the 1930s were comparable.
That same year, Bertelli became the first of five sophomores in college football annals to finish runner-up in the Heisman Trophy balloting, with Army’s Glenn Davis (1944), Georgia’s Herschel Walker (1981), San Diego State’s Marshall Faulk (1992) and Florida’s Rex Grossman (2001) joining him over the next 60 years.
It was Notre Dame’s first unbeaten season in 11 years, or since Knute Rockne’s 10-0 finish in 1930 – yet it wasn’t good enough for Leahy.
Mindful of the future, Leahy refused to stand pat with Rockne’s old box formation that had Harry Wright calling the signals at quarterback and Bertelli serving as the main passer at left halfback, as well as a punter and runner.
By the late 1930s, a football revolution was emerging. Under George Halas, the NFL’s Chicago Bears had implemented the T-formation. The architect of the scheme, which now included the quarterback stationed behind the center, was Clark Shaughnessy, who would be named the head coach at Stanford University.
In 1940, the Bears won the NFL title with a 73-0 dismantling of the Washington Redskins. That same year, first-year Stanford coach Shaughnessy took a team that scored only 54 points during a 1-7-1 campaign in 1939 and transformed it to a unit that finished 10-0, scored 196 points and defeated Nebraska in the Rose Bowl.
Suddenly, the T-formation was all the rage, and someone with Bertelli’s passing acumen fit it to a tee. In Bertelli’s junior year (1942), Leahy asked for and received permission from the school’s executive vice president, Rev. John J. Cavanaugh C.S.C., to scrap Rockne’s system so he could take the Notre Dame football program to a higher plane. He even hired Bears assistant Robert Snyder to help install the new scheme.
“We started almost as soon as the ’41 season was over,” Bertelli said. “We practiced hours and hours and hours. Every spare minute…With the man in motion and the faking, the backs were running in all directions, and the man with the ball was going into the line without interference.
“It raised some eyebrows that he didn’t have all that mass blocking out in front of him. It was all brand new to us.”
Alas, new expeditions sometimes get derailed by pitfalls. Bertelli, now at quarterback instead of left halfback, struggled with the legerdemain and depth involved in the new attack and the Irish unveiled their new offense with a 7-7 tie against Wisconsin, followed by a 13-6 loss at Georgia Tech. Bertelli had passed for only 150 yards in the two games combined and was overwhelmed by calling the signals and plays. Leahy took responsibility for the downfall, saying the extra 80-to-100 plays he gave Bertelli to study created sensory overload.
“He was very mellow until after the first game,” said Bertelli of Leahy. “After the second, he went to the hospital.”
Leahy was eviscerated by Notre Dame alumni for daring to repair what wasn’t broken, and on the Thursday before the third game, versus Stanford, he collapsed at his desk. Leahy blamed the condition on an old back injury and other ailments, but the Irish coach was particularly suffering from the backlash of a 0-1-1 start.
Although he couldn’t be at the Stanford game, Leahy had implemented a new plan of attack for Bertelli: Wright, who moved from halfback to guard, would call the signals for Bertelli, and he would also get help from halfback Pete Ashbaugh. That way, Bertelli could just concentrate on passing.
Voila! Bertelli completed 14-of-20 passes for 233 yards and a school record four touchdowns in the 27-0 victory over the then-named Indians. He completed 10 consecutive tosses in the contest, another new school standard that lasted 56 years. There were still plenty of snafus during Notre Dame’s 7-2-2 season in 1942, but the bugs were worked out prior to the 1943 national title run. That year the Irish offense was unstoppable, averaging 43.5 points per game in the six games where the runaway Heisman Trophy winner directed the attack.
Notre Dame’s 1943 backfield (from left to right): right halfback Creighton Miller, quarterback Angelo Bertelli, fullback Jim Mello and left halfback Johnny Lujack
Bertelli couldn’t finish the campaign because of World War II obligations (see page 87), but he had set the table for future Notre Dame quarterbacks to prosper. In the 11 seasons under Leahy from 1941-43 and 1946-53, three other Irish quarterbacks would be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame: Heisman winner John Lujack, Bob Williams and Ralph Guglielmi. A fourth, Frank Tripucka, steered the Irish to a 9-0-1 record in 1948. Still, Bertelli was the trailblazer.
“The finest passer Notre Dame ever had,” said Lujack when he learned of Bertelli’s death at age 78 on June 26, 1999.
“Unquestionably the best passer I’ve ever seen,” added Tripucka, who played professionally for 15 years. “He was the blueprint for the T-formation.”
Bertelli left behind his wife of 54 years, Gilda, five children and several grandchildren. After his three-year pro career was truncated by a knee injury, Bertelli ran a beverage distributorship in Clinton, N.J.
His impact was felt beyond just the gridiron. Bob Kelly, an All-American halfback for Notre Dame in 1944, recalled his first nervous day on campus.
“I started across the quad toward the dining hall and this fellow came up to me and asked where I was going,” Kelly began. “I told him I was going to get something to eat and he said he’d go along.
“I thought introductions were in order so I said, `I’m Bob Kelly.’ He said, “I’m Angelo Bertelli.’ I couldn’t believe it! Angelo Bertelli was escorting a 17-year-old freshman across the campus. He took me through the line and stayed with me while I ate. That’s the way he was.”
Indeed, Bertelli was a leader, and a pioneer, in Irish lore.
Bud Maloney of San Diego, Calif. also contributed to this story.
Angelo Bertelli By The Numbers
0 Passers at Notre Dame who threw for more than 1,000 yards in a season before the sophomore Bertelli’s 1,027-yard campaign for the 8-0-1 Irish in 1941. From 1922-40, the most passing yards in a season by a Notre Dame player was 483 by Bob Saggau in 1940.
2 Players in college football history who won the Heisman Trophy, a national title and were the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft in the same school year. The first was Bertelli in 1943-44, and the second was Notre Dame’s Leon Hart in 1949-50.
3 Times Bertelli finished in the top 10 of the Heisman Trophy balloting: No. 2 in 1941, No. 6 in 1942 and No. 1 in 1943. The only other Notre Dame player to place three times was Terry Hanratty in 1966 (6th), 1967 (9th) and 1968 (3rd).
8 Interceptions recorded by Bertelli during his junior season in 1942. The only two Irish players to pick off more passes in one season were Tom MacDonald with nine in 1962 and Mike Townsend with 10 in 1972.
10 Consecutive completions tossed by Bertelli during a 28-0 victory against Stanford in 1942. This remained a Notre Dame record until 1997, when Ron Powlus completed 14 straight during a 23-7 loss to Michigan State.
21-2-3 Notre Dame’s record (.865 winning percentage) during Bertelli’s two-and-a-half seasons with the football program from 1941-43, including 6-0 in 1943 before having to leave in mid-season for boot camp to serve in World War II.
28 Touchdown passes tossed by Bertelli during his career – a Notre Dame record for 27 years before Joe Theismann’s 31 surpassed it in 1970. In the 49 years from 1943-92, Theismann was the lone Irish QB to throw more career scoring passes than Bertelli.
41 Extra points kicked by Bertelli (in 56 career attempts) in an era when being a triple threat meant helping the team on offense, defense and special teams. He was Notre Dame’s top kicker in his last two seasons.
258.4 Pass efficiency rating of Bertelli in 1943, when he completed 25 of 36 passes (69.4 percent) for 512 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions. The highest in one season at Notre Dame for a minimum of 50 completions is 161.4 by Bob Williams in 1949.
2,578 Career yards through the air by Bertelli – still the most among Notre Dame’s four quarterbacks who won the Heisman Trophy. Bertelli’s total eclipses those of John Lujack (2,080), Paul Hornung (1,696) and John Huarte (2,543).
Angelo Bertelli (1941)
Memorable Moment: Bertelli’s Final Game
By Lou Somogyi, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Imagine an All-American quarterback today leading his team to a 6-0 record and No. 1 ranking – and then leaving the team and school for military duty.
It was a way of life in 1943 when the United States was in the middle of World War II, and that era made Angelo Bertelli one of the more unique winners of the Heisman Trophy.
Entering his senior year in 1943, Bertelli was aware that he would be called up to join the Marine Corps on Nov. 1. Notre Dame was on a three-semester schedule back then, and the first semester was to end Oct. 30.
“Knowing in advance didn’t make it any easier to go, though,” Bertelli recalled years later.
With Bertelli at the throttle to start the 1943 season, Notre Dame asserted its dominance by outscoring its first five opponents 228-25, beginning with a 41-0 route of Pitt on the road.
After losing at home to Georgia Tech the previous year (13-6), Notre Dame annihilated the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta, 55-13. After losing to Michigan at home in 1942 (32-20), Notre Dame traveled to Ann Arbor in Game 3 of the 1943 campaign and manhandled the No. 2-ranked Wolverines, 35-12.
In Game 4, Frank Leahy’s juggernaut crushed Wisconsin (50-0), a team that tied the Irish (7-7) in the 1942 opener.
In Game 5, the Illinois program that barely lost to Notre Dame in 1942 (21-14) was whipped 47-0.
The Irish were the nation’s premier college team, but their on-field leader would no longer be with them after the Oct. 30 showdown with No. 3 Navy at Cleveland. The Midshipmen would finish No. 4 in the country that year, and Notre Dame was installed as only a 10-to-9 favorite prior to the clash.
Working in Notre Dame’s favor was an overwhelming will to “Win One For Bert.”
The day before the team left for Cleveland, the South Bend Tribune reported: “So great is the blond Italian’s (Bertelli) popularity among his teammates that the latter have literally whipped themselves into a lather over the desire to win the game for him as their final `present’ against his departure for marine corps officer training on Monday.” Bertelli may have saved his best for last while playing in front of a capacity crowd of 77,900 in Municipal Stadium.
Staking the Irish to a 13-6 halftime lead, Bertelli connected on a 49-yard touchdown pass down the sideline to Julian Rykovich and a 52-yard scoring toss across the middle to Creighton Miller. By the end of the third quarter, Bertelli tossed his third touchdown pass, to John Yonakor on 4th-and-goal from the two, and added his third PAT after directing another TD drive.
In the fourth quarter, Bertelli’s backup, sophomore John Lujack was inserted, but after the understudy directed the Irish to the Navy one, Bertelli was sent in to score his final Notre Dame touchdown, earning a thunderous ovation from the overflowing crowd in the 33-6 conquest.
Bertelli finished the day 5-of-9 passing for 115 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for a fourth score. For the season, he was 25-of-36 (69.4 percent) for 512 yards and a Notre Dame record 10 TDs.
“How difficult would it be to leave for boot camp?” Bertelli was asked.
“Well, the Marines have never been beaten, either, so I figure I’m just going from unbeatn team to another,” Bertelli replied.
Although he would not play in the final four games while training in Parris Island, S.C., Bertelli was still the overwhelming winner of the Heisman, finishing with 648 points to runner-up Bob O’Dell’s (Penn) 177. In third place was Northwestern’s Otto Graham with 140.
Notre Dame lost to the semi-pro Great Lakes Seahawks on a 46-yard “Hail Mary” touchdown pass with 33 seconds left in the Nov. 27 regular-season finale, but because the Irish had defeated the teams that finished No. 2 (Iowa Pre-Flight), No. 3 (Michigan) and No. 4 (Navy) – as well as No. 9 Northwestern, No. 11 Army and No. 13 Georgia Tech – they were the easy pick to win the 1943 national crown.
Ironically, Notre Dame lost to Great Lakes on the same day – Nov. 27 – Bertelli received the telegram that he had won the Heisman.
“There were about five of us from Notre Dame listening to the game on the radio,” Bertelli recalled. “I was just coming out of a Quonset Hut after the game ended when somebody handed me a telegram telling me I’d won the Heisman. I didn’t know how to feel that night.”
When the Downtown Athletic Club requested Bertelli’s presence in New York City for the presentation, it received a terse wire in return from his military branch:
“Regret to advise you impractical to grant request for presence of Pvt. Angelo Bertelli at Downtown Athletic Club. Bertelli now undergoing training at Parris Island…any absence for even limited time materially affects his chances for selection (into officer candidates school)…in view of which it is necessary to disapprove request…”
It was a different era, but Bertelli’s stature as the epitome of an All-American never changed.
Bud Maloney of San Diego, Calif. also contributed to this story.
The Next Cycle of QB Excellence?
By Lou Somogyi, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Among Notre Dame’s 13 non-interim head coaches since 1918 (Knute Rockne’s first year), Charlie Weis’ debut in 2005 was among the three best. No. 2 was Frank Leahy’s 8-0-1 campaign in 1941, and No. 1 was Ara Parseghian’s memorable 9-1 Cinderella introduction in 1964 on the heels of a 2-7 Irish finish a year earlier.
Each of those three inaugural seasons ushered in a new milestone for Irish passers en route to making Notre Dame “Quarterback U.”
Angelo Bertelli (1941)
New Coach: Notre Dame graduate Frank Leahy was hired at his alma mater in 1941 after leading Boston College to a 20-2 mark in two seasons, 11-0 in 1940.
New Milestone: Only a sophomore, Bertelli became the first Notre Dame quarterback to eclipse 1,000 yards passing in a season, completing 70 of 123 (.569) for 1,027 yards in nine games.
A New Passing Fancy: No Irish player from 1922 through 1940 had reached even 500 yards passing in one season, never mind 1,000.
Team Upgrade: Notre Dame finished No. 3 and unbeaten (8-0-1) for the first time in 11 years, or since Knute Rockne’s final campaign in 1930.
Heisman Hype: Bertelli placed second in the 1941 balloting (highest ever by an Irish sophomore), sixth in 1942 and won the award in 1943, becoming the first Notre Dame player to capture the honor.
The Future: Leahy’s 11-year run of quarterbacks is unparalleled in college football annals. In addition to Bertelli, he coached another Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Lujack, two others who are enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame – Bob Williams and Ralph Guglielmi – and another pair who played in the pros, George Ratterman and Frank Tripucka. In Leahy’s final season (1953), he signed Paul Hornung.
John Huarte (1964)
John Huarte (1964)
New Coach: Northwestern’s Ara Parseghian was hired in December of 1963 after leading the Wildcats to a 4-0 record versus the Irish from 1959-62.
New Milestone: After attempting only 50 passes in his first two seasons (1962-63), Huarte became the first Notre Dame quarterback to reach 2,000 yards passing in one season (2,062).
A New Passing Fancy: From 1955-63, only one Irish QB threw for more than 1,000 yards in a season. The leader in 1963 had only 239 yards passing, but Huarte had 270 alone in the 1964 opener.
Team Upgrade: The Irish were 34-45 from 1956-63 (2-7 in 1963), but Huarte engineered a 9-1 charge and a No. 3 finish – the program’s best placement in 11 years.
Heisman Hype: Huarte became the only player in history to win the Heisman before receiving his first varsity monogram.
The Future: In Parseghian’s 11 seasons from 1964-74, he would coach three more first-team All-Americans who would finish in the top 5 of the Heisman balloting: Terry Hanratty (1966-68), Joe Theismann (1968-70) and Tom Clements (1972-74). Huarte and Theismann are both enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. Just as Leahy recruited Hornung in his final season, Parseghian’s staff reeled in Joe Montana in their final campaign (1974).
Brady Quinn (2005)
Brady Quinn (2005)
New Coach: Notre Dame graduate and New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis came aboard after helping Bill Belichick’s crew to three Super Bowl titles in four years.
New Milestone: Quinn became the first Irish QB to reach 3,000 yards passing in a season, and finished the campaign with 3,919.
A New Passing Fancy: No Notre Dame passer had ever thrown more than 19 TD passes in a season. Quinn finished with 32. Team Upgrade: For the first time in 12 years, Notre Dame finished in the Top 10, placing No. 9 in the AP poll.
Heisman Hype: Quinn finished fourth as a junior, the first Notre Dame player to place in the top 10 since tailback Reggie Brooks in 1992 (fifth). Quinn also is the first Irish gridder since Hornung in 1956 to return for his senior year after finishing in the top 5 of the Heisman balloting the previous season.
The Future: Just as Bertelli with Leahy, and Huarte with Parseghian, Quinn begins a new cycle of potential quarterback excellence under Weis. In February of 2006, Weis signed two high school All-American quarterbacks (Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones), and two months later he received a commitment from Jimmy Clausen, generally regarded as the nation’s top quarterback prospect this year.