By Pete LaFleur
Note: This is the third in a series of six stories, highlighting Notre Dame football. It is reprinted from the Notre Dame – USC football game program.
The greatest moments for a college football player – and for his fellow students – are experienced during a national championship season. Many individuals can be lucky to attend a “game of the century” or to play alongside a Heisman Trophy winner, but the experience of a national championship season is like no other for all those involved in such a wonderful journey.
Notre Dame has been treated to more consensus national championships (11) than any other school, spanning three Knute Rockne squads (1924, ’29, ’30), Frank Leahy’s dynasty (’43, ’46, ’47, ’49), Ara Parseghian’s ’66 and ’73 teams, the Dan Devine-led ’77 squad and Lou Holtz’s ’88 unit.
Others have come excruciatingly close – most notably in ’48, ’53, ’64, ’70 and ’93 – but these are the 11 teams who have painted the vivid memories that remain alive in the minds of the Notre Dame faithful:
The 1924 squad – Rockne’s “favorite team” – was led by the mythical “Four Horsemen” backfield of quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, fullback Elmer Layden and halfbacks Jim Crowley and Don Miller, who worked behind a “Seven Mules” line anchored by center Adam Walsh. Sportswriter Grantland Rice penned the famous nickname after the showdown versus Army at Yankee Stadium, with Stuhldreher orchestrating the offense while the others combined for 310 rushing yards in a 13-7 win.
The Irish capped their 10-0 season in a 27-10 Rose Bowl win over Stanford. Rockne took his team to California on a slow train trip to get accustomed to the 90-degree heat. The swift and crafty Notre Dame squad capitalized on eight turnovers and shut down fullback Ernie Nevers while Layden scored on a three-yard run and two long interceptions, with his punting also playing a key role.
Rockne’s 1929 team lifted spirits during the Great Depression, rebounding from a 5-4 season while playing all nine games away from home and adjusting to Rockne’s battle with phlebitis that often limited him to coaching by telephone, wheelchair or loudspeaker.
Three games at Chicago’s Soldier Field included a 13-2 win over USC, witnessed by nearly 113,000 spectators, while fullback Joe Savoldi had dazzling runs to help beat Wisconsin and notched the only score in a 7-0 win over Carnegie Tech. In a final battle versus Army on the frozen Yankee Stadium turf, the Knights appeared ready to score on a Red Cagle pass – but Jack Elder came out of nowhere to snatch the ball, weaving 93 yards for the only score and one of top plays in Notre Dame history.
The 1930 team played inspired ball in its new confines at Notre Dame Stadium and another All-America backfield was on the scene, with quarterback Frank Carideo, halfbacks Marchy Schwartz and Marty Brill and fullback Savoldi leading a 265-74 scoring edge. Six linemen also were All-Americans in 1930 or ’31, led by center Tommy Yarr, guards Nordy Hoffman and Bert Metzger and tackle Joe Kurth.
Notre Dame squeaked out a 7-6 win over Army at rain-swept Soldier Field with Schwartz breaking loose for a 54-yard score. One week later at USC, reserve Bucky O’Connor rumbled for two touchdowns to complete the title season, 27-0.
Leahy had played on the 1929 team and his return as coach of his alma mater helped end Notre Dame’s 12-year title drought, adding four more championships from 1943-49.
The 1943 squad – known for speed, power and deception – faced seven top-15 opponents but won its first nine before a last-minute loss to Great Lakes. With only two returning starters and seven road games, Leahy utilized a new T-formation and moved Angelo Bertelli to quarterback. The 6-0 start included a 261-31 scoring edge, with All-American Creighton Miller averaging 16 yards per play as a record crowd of nearly 86,000 saw the 35-12 win at Michigan.
The top-ranked Irish added a 33-6 win over No. 3 Navy in Cleveland, but Bertelli – who earned the Heisman Trophy, with tackle Jim White among the top votegetters – was called into Marine duty. Sophomore Johnny Lujack stepped forward in a 26-0 win over third-ranked Army, with two touchdown runs and a scoring pass.
The end of World War II brought the return of Leahy and many top players … and losing was not part of their postwar experience. Sports Illustrated labeled that four-year dominance (three national titles, 36-0-2 record) as the nation’s second-best sports dynasty of the 20th century, behind the 1957-69 Boston Celtics.
Lujack led the 1946 Irish into a highly anticipated showdown, with second-ranked Notre Dame looking to rebound from a pair of blowout losses to top-ranked Army. The scoreless tie featured near-identical statistics, with the Knights holding on their four-yard line. Army was led by “Mr. Inside” Doc Blanchard and “Mr. Outside” Glenn Davis, but the big play came when Blanchard sped down the left sideline. A classic radio call painted the picture as 74,000 Yankee Stadium fans rose to their feet: only one player could catch Blanchard … “and Lujack doesn’t miss.” The ankle tackle overshadowed another big play on that drive, when Terry Brennan picked off a pass from Davis near the goalline.
The Irish closed strong to overtake Army in the polls, finishing with the nation’s top-ranked offense (441.3 yards per game) and defense (141.7) and a 271-24 scoring edge.
Notre Dame’s 1947 team still is considered among the best in college football history. Lujack won the Heisman and tackle George Connor the Outland Trophy, leading a team that never trailed and owned a 291-52 scoring edge. Forty-two players from ’47 went on to play professional football and six are College Hall of Famers: Lujack, Connor, end Leon Hart, halfback Emil Sitko and linemen Bill Fischer and Ziggy Czarobski.
Brennan’s 97-yard kickoff return highlighted a 27-7 win over No. 8 Army while third-ranked USC went down by a 38-7 score. The Boston Herald proclaimed Notre Dame’s third string “could whip most varsities” and Rice simply stated “college football never before has known a team so big, so fast and so experienced.”
Heisman winner Hart led the 1949 title team, with other stars including Sitko, halfback Larry Coutre and tackle Jim Martin while quarterback Bob Williams emerged as a key leader. The Irish wrapped up the title versus SMU (27-20), with Kyle Rote sparking the Mustangs minus injured star Doak Walker. A punishing ground attack gave produced the final go-ahead score and Jerry Groom clinched the title by intercepting Rote.
Legendary football great Red Grange was as impressed as Rice had been in ’48, dubbing the ’49 Irish as “the greatest college team I’ve ever seen.”
Notre Dame’s 1966 season included dominating defense, veteran runners Nick Eddy, Larry Conjar and Rocky Bleier, and the debut of the sophomore-passing tandem of Terry Hanratty to Jim Seymour. Seymour had a record-setting day (13 catches for 276 yards and 3 TDs) versus Rose Bowl-bound Purdue in the 26-14 opener – but the biggest test came when second-ranked Notre Dame played at top-ranked Michigan State.
The latest “game of the century” lived up to its billing, with backup Coley O’Brien rallying the Irish to a 10-10 tie on a 34-yard scoring strike to Bob Gladieux (subbing for the injured Eddy) and Joe Azzaro’s 28-yard field goal. Linebackers Jim Lynch and Jim Horney helped ground the MSU rushing attack, with Lynch later proclaiming, “The Super Bowl was not as big as that Michigan State-Notre Dame game.”
A 51-0 rout of USC completed Notre Dame’s first national title in 17 years, with 12 All-Americans led by Eddy, Lynch, Hanratty, guard Tom Regner, defensive end Alan Page and defensive back Tom Schoen.
The 1973 team, holding its reunion today, was led by quarterback Tom Clements, the backfield trio of Wayne Bullock, Art Best and Eric Pennick, All-America tight end Dave Casper and clutch receiver Pete Demmerle, with All-America defensive back Mike Townsend headlining the defense.
Pennick erupted for 118 yards in a 23-14 victory that snapped USC’s 23-game winning streak, with the Irish limiting the impact of Anthony Davis (who scored six times in the ’72 matchup).
The lead changed times six times in the Sugar Bowl showdown versus Alabama, highlighted by Tony Hunter’s 93-yard kickoff return, key catches from Casper and Demmerle and a Bob Thomas 19-yard field goal (24-23). An Alabama punt pinned Notre Dame on its one-yard line but Parseghian’s gutsy call resulted in Clements’ clinching 38-yard pass to Robin Weber.
The 1977 team vaulted No. 1 after knocking off top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl, 38-10. Defensive stars included Outland Trophy winner Ross Browner, bookend partner Willie Fry and two more All-Americans in linebacker Bob Golic and defensive back Luther Bradley. “Comeback Kid” Joe Montana quarterbacked a resurgent offense, alongside tailbacks Jerome Heavens and Vagas Ferguson and All-America tight end Ken MacAfee.
Montana’s heroics and Heavens’ big games positioned the title run while the 49-19 win over USC saw the Irish warm up in blue uniforms before emerging for the kickoff clad in green. The fifth-ranked Irish then cashed in five Texas turnovers while holding star runner Earl Campbell in check. Both Irish backs had 100-plus rushing yards, with Ferguson scoring three times as offensive MVP while defensive MVP Golic made 17 tackles and blocked a field goal.
Leahy, Parseghian and Devine each coached championship teams in their third seasons and Holtz extended that trend in 1988.
The opener versus No. 9 Michigan (19-17) included Ricky Watters’ 81-yard punt return and four Reggie Ho field goals while one of the most highly-anticipated games in Notre Dame Stadium history saw the fourth-ranked Irish end Miami’s 36-game, regular-season winning streak (31-30). Frank Stams helped force four of Miami’s seven turnovers, including the tip on Pat Terrell’s 60-yard interception (Terrell was the final hero, tipping away a two-point try).
The top-ranked Irish were an underdog at No. 2 USC but won 27-10, minus two suspended starters. Tony Rice skirted around left end for a 65-yard scoring run, Stams harassed USC signalcaller Rodney Peete and Stan Smagala’s 64-yard interception sealed the win.
Rice’s 213 passing yards, the steadiness of fullback Anthony Johnson and more smothering defense produced the 34-21 Fiesta Bowl win over third-ranked West Virginia. Stams was one of four defensive players to earn All-America, as were tackle Chris Zorich and linebackers Mike Stonebreaker and Wes Pritchett (plus Watters and offensive lineman Andy Heck) – with 21 starters going on to play in the NFL.