Nov. 23, 2015
By Lou Somogyi
There have been many superb achievements in Notre Dame football history that have become overshadowed, if not forgotten, through the years.
Among them …
With 9-0 Army headed toward the 1933 national title and needing only to beat 2-5-1 Notre Dame, the Black Knights squandered a 12-0 lead late and lost 13-12 in Fighting Irish head coach Hunk Anderson’s final game.
That one has become more and more under the radar with the passage of time.
When listing the greatest games in Notre Dame annals, the thrilling 14-13 victory in 1943 by the No. 1 Irish over No. 2 Iowa Pre-Flight (a semi-pro World War II outfit) generally goes unnoticed. That could never happen today.
The opening two games of the 1975 season – road games against Boston College and long-time nemesis Purdue – also fall into that category of often forgotten fetes in Irish annals.
Forty years later, it seems appropriate to remember it.
Similar to this year’s Shamrock Series game against the Boston College Eagles held in Boston’s venerable Fenway Park, the first ever meeting in football between the two schools 40 years ago also was held at a “neutral” site in the city of Boston.
The long anticipated 1975 showdown between the two Catholic schools – the only ones still playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision – was slated to be played in Schaefer Stadium (later Sullivan Stadium and then Foxboro Stadium), opened in 1971 for the NFL’s New England Patriots.
Notre Dame’s national growth in the 1920s under Knute Rockne began on the East Coast, New York City specifically, yet one of the prime metropolitan areas in the east, Boston, had been a mere blip on Notre Dame’s radar despite a strong Irish-Catholic base.
The latter part of the 1930s and into the 1940s was the Golden Age for Catholic schools in college football. In 1937 alone, Fordham, Villanova, Notre Dame and Santa Clara all finished in the Associated Press Top 10, while Holy Cross was No. 14. A few years later, Duquesne and Georgetown also would finish among the top 15.
However, Notre Dame’s own brand was to separate itself as a national school, and thereby focused on a less provincial and denominational schedule.
Fordham was coached by one of Knute Rockne’s “Four Horsemen” from the 1924 consensus national champs, Jim Crowley, and his esteemed line coach was another Notre Dame graduate, Frank Leahy, who also played for Rockne. Leahy coached the Rams’ legendary “Seven Blocks of Granite,” which included future NFL coaching icon Vince Lombardi. Santa Clara was coached by Lawrence “Buck” Shaw, who played for Rockne from 1919-21.
Leahy received his first head coaching post at Boston College – but included an “alma mater clause” in his contract which would make him free to take the Notre Dame job if it opened – in 1939 and instantly made the Eagles into a power. He debuted with a 9-2 ledger that resulted in a No. 11 finish in the AP poll (two spots higher than Notre Dame).
Then in 1940, Leahy’s Eagles finished 11-0 (Notre Dame was unranked), capped by an upset of General Robert Neyland’s Tennessee powerhouse in the Sugar Bowl, to place No. 5 in the final AP poll (back then the final vote came at the end of the regular season, when the Volunteers were No. 4).
When Leahy accepted the Notre Dame post in 1941, all of New England was outraged, which didn’t help Notre Dame-Boston College relations at the time.
The lone appearance for the Fighting Irish in Boston came in 1944, a 64-0 whitewashing of Dartmouth in … Fenway Park.
It would take 31 years before the Fighting Irish would return to Beantown.
The 1975 game with Boston College originally was scheduled to be played on Saturday, Sept. 13. However, just like the previous season, ABC-TV, which was beginning to flourish in its coverage of college football begun in 1966, had it switched to Monday night, Sept. 15. About a $240,000 windfall for that move helped Notre Dame agree to the decision.
This wasn’t unprecedented. A year earlier, ABC-TV was able to coax Notre Dame into moving its November game with Georgia Tech to its first-ever college football telecast on a Monday night, Sept. 9.
The birth of ABC-TV’s NFL Monday Night Football in 1970, and its overwhelming success, prompted the network to feature similar games early in the year in college football. Notre Dame-Georgia Tech in 1974 was the first, and it received enough positive reviews to do the same for Notre Dame-Boston College in 1975.
However, there were several major differences.
One, the 1974 Notre Dame team was laden with veterans from the 1973 national champions, including nine of the 11 starters back on offense for a team expected to challenge for the crown again.
Second, the Fighting Irish program featured 11th-year head coach Ara Parseghian, who would step down at the end of the season with a 95-17-4 career record, two consensus national titles, a portion of a third, and nine Top 10 finishes.
Finally, although the 1974 game was moved to a Monday night, the Irish wouldn’t have to play again until 12 days later, allowing it to rest up for the second game.
In 1975, the situation was a 180-degree reverse.
Notre Dame’s offense would be one of the most inexperienced in school history, with only one starter returning – guard Al Wujciak, whose son Connor stars for this year’s Boston College defense and is on the Outland Watch List.
The Irish also had a new head coach in Dan Devine, who spent the four previous seasons (1971-74) with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, although he did retain several of Parseghian’s assistants, most notably defensive line coach Joe Yonto, linebackers instructor George Kelly and tackles/tight ends mentor Brian Boulac, to maintain continuity.
Finally, unlike the previous year, the Irish had to play on Monday night – and then play on the road again five days later at Purdue, where better Irish teams than this one had lost on four of their last six trips their. Plus, the Boilermakers ended Notre Dame’s 13-game winning streak a year earlier with a 31-20 victory at Notre Dame Stadium.
Boston College was a challenge in itself because it finished the previous year on a seven-game winning streak and featured quarterback Mike Kruczek, a backup to Terry Bradshaw for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1976-79 while capturing two Super Bowl titles. The Eagles were installed as only a six-point underdog. Following up with Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium five days later would become even a taller order.
It would be the first time in 50 years that a Notre Dame team would play two games in five days. In 1925, Rockne’s Irish defeated Northwestern at home (13-10) on a Saturday, and then five days later – Thanksgiving Day – lost 17-0 at Nebraska. Even then, the games were the final two at the end of the season, not at the beginning with a long road still ahead.
Even though America’s Bicentennial was still a year away, the Notre Dame-Boston College clash was trumpeted as the “Bicentennial Game” because of Boston’s deep roots to the Revolutionary War that eventually led to United States independence in 1776.
The game program featured a drawing of two men with what was described by Boston Journal-Bulletin sports editor Gene Buonaccorsi as “bearing the appearance of Irishmen wearing Colonial costumes.”
It was publicized as the biggest football game in Boston’s history, and it showed when the capacity audience of 61,501 was the largest ever for a game at Schaefer Stadium. One vendor reported to the Journal-Bulletin that Notre Dame pennants outsold Boston College’s by a three-to-one count, thereby reaffirming the “neutral site” status.
An ABC-TV national audience estimated at 35 million saw the Irish wear down the Eagles in the second half in a 17-3 victory after the two teams battled to a 3-3 halftime stalemate.
Headlining the evening was Notre Dame’s Browner brothers, Ross and Jim, who were awarded the game balls. Sophomore Ross, who sat out the 1974 season because of a suspension, was named the Defensive Player of the Game in a dominant effort that limited the Eagles to 207 yards total offense.
Meanwhile, freshman Jim, recruited as a linebacker/safety, received the starting nod at fullback – where he succeeded the graduated Wayne “The Train” Bullock – and was immediately thrown into the deep end of the pool with 24 carries for 95 yards. His 10-yard scoring run in the third quarter gave Notre Dame the lead for good, and sophomore Al Hunter added an insurance touchdown in the fourth quarter for the final margin of victory.
It was a blue-collar, methodical win, with new quarterback Rick Slager, known more for his tennis prowess as the school’s top singles player, was asked to throw only 12 times, completing seven for 72 yards.
The bigger struggles still were ahead that evening and week for the Notre Dame team.
The late start was compounded with horrible traffic delays afterwards, including with the Notre Dame team bus.
“The game started late because it took time to get the crowd into the stadium,” Devine recalled vividly in an interview 10 years after the game. “We finally got back to our hotel rooms about four in the morning. We let them sleep in on Tuesday and didn’t arrive at Notre Dame until late Tuesday.”
The Tuesday and Wednesday practice sessions are the most crucial in a week for contact work and game planning, but the Irish cancelled Tuesday’s practice and had more of a walk-through on Wednesday.
“For the remainder of the week, we never put on pads,” Devine said. “The kids were drained and we really didn’t have much time to prepare for Purdue.”
Cornerback Luther Bradley said the pressure became equally intense in the classroom.
“That was a really rough week,” Bradley said. “We didn’t practice on Tuesday and the coaches had to put in the game plan in a hurry. We had a lot of information to digest – plus we had to catch up in our classes because we missed all day Monday and Tuesday. But they expected us to do it and we did.
“I don’t think that will ever happen again where Notre Dame plays two games in five days.”
Top 10 Parseghian teams had lost at Purdue three straight in 1965, 1967 and 1969, and needed an 11th-hour blocked punt and two-point conversion in 1971 to prevail 8-7. The 1973 champs also trailed at Purdue before posting a hard fought 20-7 win.
The game at Purdue was becoming a carbon copy of the Boston College contest, with Notre Dame clinging to a 3-0 lead in the fourth quarter before the Boilermakers drove inside the Irish five. From there, Purdue attempted some razzle-dazzle with a halfback pass across the field. But Bradley sniffed out the play and timed his break perfectly to record an interception that he returned for a school record 99-yard touchdown.
Just like at Boston College, the Irish then added a late insurance touchdown for a 17-0 conquest. There is not greater requirement on the road in college football than packing a stout defense, and the unit led by Browner, Bradley and senior tackle Steve Niehaus propelled the victories while the young offense, which included No. 2 sophomore quarterback Joe Montana, was trying to find itself.
The two victories in five days led Sports Illustrated to put Slager on the cover. With Devine in an inset photo, it prompted the cover headline “Devine Week For Notre Dame.”
Two years later, the plethora of sophomore and freshmen stars on that team would lead Notre Dame to the national title, greatly overshadowing the 8-3 season in 1975 where the Irish would finish outside the AP Top 20 for the first time in 12 years.
Yet in those five days in Boston and West Lafayette, Ind., the foundation of constructing a champion was in full operation.
“I don’t think that team ever got enough credit for what it accomplished,” said Devine of the first two games in his Notre Dame career. Forty years later, it can be more appreciated with another clash on a neutral Boston field.