Sept. 16, 2011
By Lou Somogyi
Notre Dame has won 11 consensus national championships in football, and each had a special distinction.
The 1924 unit featured the Four Horsemen and Seven Mules, with the former immortalized by one of the most famous sports photos ever.
The 1929 champions played all their games on the road, something never again seen.
The 1930 unit was head coach Knute Rockne’s last — and he called it his greatest team.
The 1943 outfit crafted by head coach Frank Leahy beat the three team that finished Nos. 2, 3 and 4 in the country, duplicated only by Nebraska in 1971.
The 1946 champions gave up a paltry 24 points all season, the fewest by a championship team at Notre Dame.
The 1947 group had 42 players that went on to play in the professional ranks, and is sometimes deemed the most talented in college football annals.
The 1949 crew featured a class that never lost in four years at Notre Dame, something no other major college team can say.
The 1973 champs averaged 350.2 yards rushing per game, easily the most by any Notre Dame team.
The 1977 game was saved by a reserve quarterback named Joe Montana, one of the game’s icons.
The 1988 bunch had the best team speed of any Irish unit and was the first to record 12 wins.
And then there was the 1966 national champs, the ones honored today at Notre Dame while commemorating their 45-year reunion.
In his 2008 book, “The Maisel Report,” esteemed college football writer Ivan Maisel, perhaps the dean of his industry, ranked the 1966 Irish as the most overrated team to win a national title.
Granted, it didn’t play all the top teams like the one in 1943, send 42 players to the pros like in 1947 or possess the overall speed of the ’88 unit. It averaged 140 yards less rushing than the ’73 squad, and its backup quarterback, Coley O’Brien, who had to help save the season, wasn’t a Montana.
But the 1966 team was a combination of all the above.
“This is the best balanced offensive and defensive team I’ve ever coached or seen,” said head coach Ara Parseghian at the end of the 1966 campaign.
He had reason to be effusive with praise. The ’66 edition had 12 All-Americans — five more than any other Irish squad before or after.
That group also had a larger average margin of victory (32.4) than any other Notre Dame national champion.
A popular inquiry about the1966 national title is, “How did a 9-0-1 Notre Dame team that didn’t even play in a bowl game get the nod over an Alabama team that finished 11-0 and won the Sugar Bowl, 34-7, over Nebraska?”
In fact, why did the Crimson Tide finish No. 3 behind two teams — Notre Dame and Michigan State — that were only 9-0-1?
There are numerous answers.
First, other than in 1965, national titles were awarded at the end of the regular season until 1968, the year the Associated Press made the decision to vote on the champion after bowl games were played.
Thus, Alabama’s Sugar Bowl win was irrelevant the same way its 21-17 Orange Bowl loss in 1964 to Texas was. Despite that setback, Alabama was still awarded the national title by the AP in 1964.
Second, the South still had some segregationist Jim Crow policies, and it wouldn’t be until 1971 that the SEC would see black football players integrated into its lineup. Notre Dame also had only one black player (All-American defensive end Alan Page) on its roster, but the stronger football in that era was thought to be in the North or Midwest the same way the balance of power now tilts to the SEC or warm-weather schools.
Finally, when it comes to the combination of talent, depth and strength of schedule, Notre Dame easily had the advantage in all three, as did Michigan State, over Alabama. Here’s a closer look on why the 1966 team was not overrated … and if anything, might be underrated:
There is a reason the 1966 game at Michigan State was labeled “The Game of The Century.”
Until Miami and Ohio State met for the national championship in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, football historians generally agree there seldom has been more talent on a college football field than in this 1966 showdown.
Seven of the first 23 players taken in the 1967 NFL Draft were from Michigan State or Notre Dame. The four Spartans were No. 1 (the late defensive end Bubba Smith), No. 2 (quarterback Clint Jones), No. 5 (linebacker George Webster) and No. 8 (receiver Gene Washington). Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s trio of offensive tackle Paul Seiler, defensive end Alan Page and offensive guard Tom Regner followed at 12, 15 and 23, respectively.
Among Notre Dame’s 22 starters on offense and defense in 1966, 11 were among the top 60 picks in the NFL or old AFL, which merged in 1970.
In addition to Seiler, Page and Regner, this group included:
Running back Nick Eddy, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Although he opted to return for his senior campaign in 1966, Eddy was a second-round (No. 24 overall selection) of the Detroit Lions that spring. He also was a first-round selection of the Denver Broncos in the AFL.
Defensive end Kevin Hardy — who also earned monograms in basketball and baseball at Notre Dame — was the No. 7 overall pick in the 1968 draft, after returning for a medical red-shirt year in 1967.
Three-time All-American receiver Jim Seymour was the No. 10 overall selection in 1969, by the Los Angeles Rams.
Defensive tackle Pete Duranko, originally a fullback and then a linebacker for the Irish, was selected in the second round by the Denver Broncos, where he would spend his entire eight-year pro career.
Fullback Larry Conjar was chosen in the second round of the 1967 NFL Draft with the 46th pick overall.
Linebacker Jim Lynch, the 1966 captain who would earn Pro Bowl honors and win a Super Bowl ring with the Kansas City Chiefs, was taken one spot behind Conjar (47th) in the 1967 Draft.
Finally, quarterback Terry Hanratty, who finished 6th in the 1966 Heisman balloting, 9th in 1967 and 3rd in 1968, had his name called in the second round of the 1969 Draft with the 30th overall selection.
The highest selection of all from this team was offensive tackle George Kunz, only a sophomore in 1966 who would miss the last eight games with an injury. Kunz was the No. 2 pick in 1969, behind Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson of USC.
Contrast that with Alabama, which had three players on the 1966 roster who were first- or second-round picks: Les Kelly and Dennis Homan in the first and quarterback Ken Stabler in the second.
Depth Perception And Reality
While the 1966 starting lineups on offense and defense spell out the talent disparity between Notre Dame and Alabama, the Irish depth that year highlights it even more:
When Kunz was injured in the second week of the season and sidelined for the balance of the campaign, sophomore Bob Kuechenberg replaced him. Although he was “only” a fourth-round pick after moving to defensive end in 1967 and 1968, “Kooch” is a Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate at offensive guard. Kunz was a Pro Bowl selection eight times, while Kuechenberg made it six times.
The third-leading rusher for the 1966 champs was Rocky Bleier — a 16th-round pick who become a starter on four Super Bowl champions at Pittsburgh.
John Pergine, whose nine career interceptions are the most ever by an Irish linebacker, was an 11th-round pick who had a strong seven-year NFL career.
How many teams can lose their starting quarterback (Hanratty) in the first quarter of “The Game of The Century,” and then still rally from 10 points down on the road with a sophomore quarterback (Coley O’Brien)? With O’Brien taken the snaps the next week, the Irish won at No. 10 USC, 51-0. Furthermore, the No. 3 quarterback that season for the Irish, Bob Belden, made the Dallas Cowboys roster for two seasons.
Sophomore backup running back Bob Gladieux, who played four years in the NFL, had to replace injured All-American Eddy in the Michigan State game. It was Gladieux who snared a clutch 38-yard touchdown pass from O’Brien against Michigan State before getting injured in the second half.
Rallying from 10 points down on the road against the nation’s No. 2 team without your star quarterback (Hanratty), running back (Eddy) plus center — third-round pick George Goeddeke, who was replaced by Tim Monty — is a feat few teams in history would be able to achieve.
Rounding out the offense was guard Dick Swatland and tight end Don Gmitter, formerly a starter along the all-sophomore defensive line on the 1964 team that shared the national title and also featured Page, Hardy and Regner. When Tom Rhoads emerged at end and Duranko shifted from linebacker to tackle, Regner and Gmitter took their skills to the offense.
In addition to future NFL stars Lynch and Pergine, the linebacking corps in the 4-4-3 alignment for the virtually impregnable defense included Mike McGill, Dave Martin, with John Horney providing a huge help off the bench.
The secondary featured two-time All-America safety Tom Schoen — a former starter at quarterback — plus Tom O’Leary and Jim Smithberger. They were the “SOS” squadron behind a front seven that rivaled any in Notre Dame or college football history.
Strength Of Schedule
Notre Dame was the lone team in the final AP Top 10 in 1966 that played three teams ranked in the top 10 at the time of the game (Purdue, at Oklahoma and at USC).
After falling behind 7-0 against No. 8 Purdue on a 94-yard fumble return by Purdue’s Leroy Keyes (similar to the 2011 Irish opening the season with South Florida returning a fumble for a 96-yard touchdown), Notre Dame out-scored the Rose Bowl champs, led by quarterback Bob Griese, 26-7.
Meanwhile, to crush both the Sooners (38-0) in Norman and USC (51-0) in Los Angeles by a combined 89-0 result is an astounding achievement even though both programs had relatively off years.
Still, USC won its Pacific 8 conference title (and would win the national title the ensuing year) and Oklahoma defeated Nebraska — the team that would be trounced by Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
The Crimson Tide yielded only 37 points that regular season, while Notre Dame `s defense, led by College Football Hall of Fame members Lynch and Page, surrendered 38. However, two of the touchdowns came on Purdue’s fumble return and a blocked punt by Navy when the game was out of reach, meaning the Irish defense actually gave up only 24 points — the same amount of the 1946 national champs
It’s even fewer than Notre Dame’s 1947 national champs (52 points), whom Maisel ranked as the third-most underrated team in college football history, with Frank Leahy the No. 1 most underrated coach.
Who’s truly underrated here?
Lou Somogyi is senior editor for Blue & Gold Illustrated.