Sept. 20, 2003
By Pete LaFleur
Note: This is the second in a series of six stories, highlighting Notre Dame football. It is reprinted from the Notre Dame – Michigan State football game program.
A popular saying jokingly claims that the three hardest jobs in America are president of the United States, mayor of New York City and football coach of Notre Dame. While winning football games certainly does not compare with high-pressured governmental jobs, the coaching role at Notre Dame has taken its toll.
Through it all, several have emerged as coaching legends, including five – Jesse Harper, Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine – who have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame (trailing only Stanford’s six) while Lou Holtz is a likely future inductee.
Each of the above, with the exception of Harper, guided Notre Dame to at least one consensus national championship (Michigan and Miami are next with four each) spanning six decades (Michigan has titles in four). Several former Notre Dame players – Gus Dorais, Charlie Bachman, Slip Madigan, Eddie Anderson, Buck Shaw and Frank Thomas – spread the knowledge from the Harper and Rockne era and earned Hall of Fame induction as college head coaches at other schools.
Each of the Notre Dame coaching legends — Harper (Pawpaw, Neb.), Rockne (Chicago), Leahy (O’Neill, Neb; fittingly moved to Winner, S.D.), Parseghian (Akron, Ohio), Devine (Duluth, Minn.) and Holtz (East Liverpool, Ohio) – was a product of the Midwest and several were known for distinctive looks: the balding Rockne, with wide grin and rapid-fire speeches; the well-groomed Leahy with his formal manner of speaking; the highly-energized Parseghian, with trademark sweater and piercing eyes; and the wisecracking Holtz, who would suddenly transform to pace the sidelines like a panther.
They combined to win nearly 83 percent of their games (474-91-22) in 57 seasons at Notre Dame, tutoring 199 All-Americans and winning 11 consensus national titles.
Harper was noted for his keen business acumen while earlier coaching at Alma and Wabash. His first season in 1913 yielded a 35-13 victory at Army that ushered in a new age of college football, as Dorais and Rockne hooked up on several pass plays to stun football traditionalists.
A death in the family forced Harper to bow out in 1917, recommending his assistant Rockne as a replacement. Harper returned to his family’s ranch in Sitka, Kan., and later completed the rare double as an inductee to both the college football and the cowboy halls of fame. He came back to Notre Dame in 1931, filling Rockne’s vacant athletic director’s chair.
Among Notre Dame coaches with five-plus seasons, Harper’s .863 win percentage (34-5-1; 25 shutouts) is second only to Rockne’s .881. He coached six All-Americans, also bringing future legend George Gipp to Notre Dame in 1916. The Sporting News recently listed Rockne – the first athletic coach of any kind to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp – among the 100 most powerful people in sports during the 20th century.
Consistently well ahead of his time, Rockne played a national schedule and mastered media relations by parlaying his charm into a widespread following with national radio broadcasts. He designed uniforms that provided mobility, protection, speed and warmth, also implementing a “shock troops” platoon system and the Notre Dame shift before designing the 1930 construction of Notre Dame Stadium. He was considered a sports psychologist before the term existed and constantly downplayed the merits of his teams … to anyone who would listen.
Rockne helped cultivate the legions of “subway alumni” who saw Notre Dame as a lifeline of hope and symbol for their own struggles. A parade thrown for Notre Dame prior to a game at Yankee Stadium versus Army was billed as New York City’s biggest event outside of the annual New Year’s Eve revelry.
His .881 career winning percentage (105-12-1, from 1918-30) remains the best ever posted in collegiate or pro football history, with five perfect seasons, three national titles (’24, ’29, ’30) and 33 All-Americans.
Any doubt about Rockne’s iconic status was erased following his death. Notre Dame operators answered with one repeated phrase, “Yes, it’s true. Rockne is dead,” and 95 percent of the nation’s 1,700 newspapers featured editorials about the departed legend. Several generations later, ESPN devoted countless resources to a one-hour special centered on a single event: the death of Rockne.
Leahy played for Rockne and went on to be an assistant at Fordham, where he worked for Crowley as coach of the famed Seven Blocks of Granite line that included a young Vince Lombardi. Two successful seasons as head man at Boston College (20-2) preceded his return to Notre Dame in 1941, with a two-year break for military service interrupting 11 total seasons.
A self-avowed perfectionist who would not tolerate the failure to reach one’s potential, Leahy rarely lost but when he did it left him an emotional wreck. To minimize the defeats, he spent hours in film study and often slept in the Notre Dame firehouse. He was a student game who dared to abandon Rockne’s shift for the T-formation, his teams practiced in all elements and he was a stickler for total preparation that now is the game’s standard.
Years later, Leahy proclaimed that “no teams were ever better prepared” … and few could argue.
Leahy reportedly gained a better appreciation for his players while serving in World War II but most did not fully appreciate his greatness and impact on their lives until later in life. He often required each player to address his teammates in a speech, with even Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack admitting that such an exercise proved valuable in the real world.
A weary Leahy retired in ’53 with an .864 winning percentage (107-13-9; 87-11-9 with the Irish) that ranks second behind Rockne in college football history (min. 10 seasons). His teams posted four national titles (’43, ’46, ’47, ’49), 11 unbeaten seasons (including a 39-game unbeaten streak) and produced 37 All-Americans, led by Heisman winners Angelo Bertelli, Lujack, Leon Hart and Johnny Lattner.
Parseghian restored glory to the program after impressive stints at Miami of Ohio and Northwestern. His perfectionist approach planned for everything, whether it be throwing his cap at a kicker to simulate in-game distractions or adjusting the kicking strategy due to a height difference between the goal posts at an opponent’s field. Rocky Bleier credited Parseghian with engraining the fundamentals that landed him a blocking-back role with the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty.
Leahy’s hatred for losing was reborn in Parseghian but Ara’s public persona closer resembled Rockne’s, endearing himself to others with a keen sense of humor and charismatic sense of community.
His first team, coming off a 2-7 season in 1963, nearly won the national title in ’64 but championships followed in 1966 and ’73 while his 55 All-Americans included an eye-popping 12 from the ’66 team and elite quarterbacks such as Heisman winner John Huarte, Terry Hanratty, Joe Theismann and Tom Clements.
The press conference announcing Parseghian’s retirement in 1973 included longtime athletic director Moose Krause, dabbing away tears, as the Irish bid farewell to another legend. His coaching career included a 170-58-6 record (.739) and the third-most wins in Notre Dame history (95-17-4, from ’64-’74).
Devine, who enjoyed success at Arizona State and Missouri, was a top recruiter who was driven by the same intense – but inward – competitiveness that was the standard of the Irish legends. His third season produced the 1977 national title, highlighted by the 49-19 win over fifth-ranked USC when the Irish warmed up in their traditional blue and reappeared prior to kickoff in green jerseys that were worn for the remainder of the Devine era (including the 38-10 Cotton Bowl win over Texas). The ’78 season produced another classic moment, as Devine and quarterback Joe Montana helped engineer a stunning Cotton Bowl comeback versus Houston, rallying from a 34-12 deficit. Devine posted a 173-56-3 career record (53-16-1 at Notre Dame, from ’75-’80) and his 23 All-Americans include Hall of Famers Ross Browner and Ken MacAfee.
Despite his accomplishments, Devine’s image is skewed for many casual fans whose primary source is the motion picture “Rudy.” Those close to Devine, who passed away in 2002, point out that many scenes made for great Hollywood but did not represent actual events (including the player protest in which jerseys are placed on the coach’s desk). Such is the fate for a Notre Dame football coach, obscured by the legendary status of the program as a whole.
Holtz – now head coach at South Carolina – joined the Notre Dame elite with a simple plan to outwork and outthink the opponent, something the Irish did with great success from 1986-96. The wiry leader had a public persona and use of psychology to rival Rockne, the competitive drive that fueled Leahy and the shrewd strategy of Parseghian – while vigorously continuing the practice of poormouthing his team’s chances.
After restoring the players’ belief in themselves, Holtz followed Leahy, Parseghian and Devine by winning the title in his third season. The signature moments in ’88 included a thrilling 31-30 win over Miami and the 27-10 victory at USC. Prior to that No. 1 vs. 2 showdown, Holtz sent two top players back to campus for repeated tardiness, galvanizing the team for the final stages of the national-title season.
Holtz has coached the most games in Notre Dame history (100-30-2) while his Irish teams played the nation’s toughest schedule three times and appeared in nine straight New Year’s Day bowl games. He coached 45 All-Americans and many future NFL stars, with all but one of the 22 starters from the ’88 team going on to play in the NFL.
The small town of Scott, La., dedicated Frank Leahy Street and Knute Rockne Road when the subdivision was built in 1959. The developer, Joseph Gossen, had been a longtime listener of the Notre Dame radio broadcasts. If urban sprawl ever should invade the town, the names of more Notre Dame legends can fill the street signs. Harper and Holtz crisscrossing Highways. Parseghian Parkway. Devine Drive.
It would seem almost surreal. … Or would it?