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Sunday Brunch: What It Takes to Win at Notre Dame Stadium

Oct. 7, 2017

By John Heisler

Apparently Knute Rockne was right.

At one time, even to some of his most ardent supporters, his notion of building Notre Dame Stadium seemed borderline outlandish.

There were only 3,000 students at the University in those days, and the population of South Bend was just more than 100,000.

But Notre Dame’s head football coach-every bit as good as a marketer of his program as he was at coaching football-convinced the University decision-makers that a new stadium seating more than 50,000 fans was just what the football program and campus needed.

That did not immediately translate into sold-out Saturdays on a weekly basis. Even in Rockne’s only season on the sideline of Notre Dame Stadium-and in a 10-0 national championship season at that-home games against Indiana and Drake attracted crowds of just more than 10,000 fans.

Not until a 1931 home game against USC did a capacity crowd (then listed as 50,731) fill the facility.

Attendance numbers took a major jump in the Frank Leahy years after World War II. During the 1946 national championship season, the Irish averaged more than 54,000 fans for their home games-an average that exceeded the previous season average high by nearly 15,000. And it didn’t hurt that from 1942 through 1950 Notre Dame won 28 consecutive games at Notre Dame Stadium.

But more important than anything, the Irish won big at Notre Dame Stadium, in great part because a series of Hall of Fame coaches-starting with Rockne and then adding Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz to the list-roamed the sidelines, generally with blue-chip teams under their tutelage.

Still, it’s not always easy to win football games at Notre Dame Stadium.

Parseghian and Holtz absolutely appreciated that fact–and they did it more often than anybody else.

With 51 wins apiece in their respective 11-year tenures as University of Notre Dame head football coach, they rank as the all-time leaders in that category.

Leahy is next with 37 victories in his 11 seasons. Current Irish head coach Brian Kelly follows him with 33.

On the other side of the coin, visiting teams have left Notre Dame Stadium victorious only 25.2 percent of the time. Teams playing for the first time in Notre Dame Stadium have won only 20.6 percent of their games. Only 15 teams have been victorious in Notre Dame Stadium on their first stop.

So here’s a statistical analysis of what playing at Notre Dame Stadium has meant over the years, from both ends of the spectrum:

Visitors in South Bend:
Since Notre Dame Stadium opened in what turned out to be Rockne’s final season in 1930, 37 different visiting teams have combined to win 114 games in South Bend.

The leaders in that category? Michigan State and USC both have won 14 times. Pittsburgh and Purdue both have won on 10 occasions.

Irish Ranked Wins:
Since Notre Dame Stadium became home to Irish football games, Notre Dame teams 68 times have defeated opponents ranked in the Associated Press poll.

Of those 68, 37 have been against teams that stood in the top 10. Seventeen came against top-five opponents.

Holtz teams won 15 of those games (10 against top-10 teams and five versus top-five squads). Two of his came against top-rated opponents (Miami in 1988, Florida State in 1993), to go with victories in 1990 over #4 Michigan and #2 Miami and a 1995 win over #5 USC.

Leahy’s squads claimed a dozen conquests of rated opponents-seven against top-10 teams, including victories over second-rated Iowa Pre-Flight in 1943, fourth-ranked Tulane in 1949, fourth-rated Oklahoma and second-ranked USC in 1952 and fourth-ranked Georgia Tech in 1953.

Parseghian and Devine both finished with seven wins over opponents appearing in the AP poll. Ara’s teams defeated fourth-rated USC in 1965 and fifth-ranked Oklahoma in 1968. Devine teams knocked off five top-10 opponents, the most noteworthy being fifth-rated USC in 1977 in the famed green-jersey game.

Here’s the complete list by head coach: (68 total): Holtz 15, Leahy 12, Parseghian 7, Devine 7, Bob Davie 5, Kelly 5, Terry Brennan 4, Elmer Layden 3, Gerry Faust 3, Tyrone Willingham 2, Joe Kuharich 2, Charlie Weis 1, Hugh Devore 1 Ed McKeever 1.

What ranked programs have been the most popular victims at Notre Dame Stadium?

The Irish 11 times have defeated ranked USC teams-with eight of those top-10 Trojan teams and four ranking in the top five (1952, 1965, 1977 and 1995).

Notre Dame eight times has knocked off rated Michigan teams-six of those Wolverine units rated in the top 10 and two in the top five (1990 and 1998).

Irish teams on five occasions beat ranked Pittsburgh squads, including top-10 wins in 1978 and 1989.

The Notre Dame teams to beat three ranked teams at home in a single season were the 1953 unit (victories over 15th-ranked Pittsburgh, fourth-rated Georgia Tech and 20th-ranked Navy) and the 1980 squad-thanks to wins over ninth-ranked Purdue, 14th-rated Michigan and 13th-ranked Miami. Irish squads to win two of those games in a season did it in 1938, 1949, 1952, 1954, 1982, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1995, 2000 and 2012.

Six of Holtz’s 11 Notre Dame teams won two games in a year over rated opponents.

In both 1952 (Oklahoma and USC) and 1990 (Michigan and Miami) the Irish defeated two top-five foes. Notre Dame defeated multiple opponents ranked in the top 10 in 1952, 1988, 1989 and 1990.

Those sorts of top-drawer visiting teams helped many Holtz teams rank highly in the NCAA Toughest Schedule standings-first in 1987, 1989 and 1995, third in 1986 and fourth in 1990.

Among the best Notre Dame victories in Notre Dame Stadium in seasons before the AP poll began were these:

  • a 20-14 win on Oct. 4, 1930, over an SMU team that finished 6-3-1
  • a 25-12 win on Oct. 24, 1931, over a Pittsburgh team that finished 8-1
  • a 49-0 win on Nov. 7, 1931, over a Pennsylvania team that finished 6-3
  • a 9-6 win on Oct. 19, 1935, over a Pittsburgh team that finished 7-1-2

How Opposing Coaches Fared:
No opposing head coach has won more games at Notre Dame Stadium than the five by Purdue’s Jack Mollenkopf in 1956, 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1968.

Here are those with at least three Notre Dame Stadium success stories on their resume:
–Jack Mollenkopf (5-2 record with Purdue)
–Pete Carroll (4-1 with USC)
–Duffy Daugherty (4-5 with Michigan State)
–Howard Jones (3-2 with USC)
–John McKay (3-4-1 with USC)
–Tom O’Brien (3-2 with Boston College)
–Joe Paterno (3-4 with Penn State)
–John Robinson (3-3 with USC)

It’s worth noting that Mollenkopf, Daugherty, Jones, McKay, Paterno and Robinson all are members of the College Football Hall of Fame.

It’s also worth noting that Hall of Famers Daugherty (Michigan State), Fisher DeBerry Air Force), McKay (USC), Paterno (Penn State) and Bo Schembechler (Michigan) all had losing career records in South Bend.

Who has coached the most games at Notre Dame Stadium among visiting coaches? That list is led by Daugherty (4-5 in his nine games), McKay (3-4-1), Mollenkopf (5-2) and Paterno (3-4).

The high water mark for losses by opposing coaches at Notre Dame Stadium equals a five-way tie: Alex Agase (1-5 at Northwestern), George Perles (1-5 at Michigan State), Joe Tiller (1-5 at Purdue), Pappy Waldorf (1-5 at Northwestern) and George Welsh (0-5 at Navy).

Apparently Rockne was right.

And his successors have ensured that over the years Notre Dame Stadium has remained a place where Irish teams prosper and even the best coaches in the college game have struggled to leave South Bend victorious.

Hall of Famers Fare Poorly in South Bend
Forty-nine College Football Hall of Fame coaches have done business at Notre Dame Stadium one or more times. But their combined record is only 47-85-2 (.358) against Irish teams:

William Alexander 1-3 at Georgia Tech
Eddie Anderson 1-2 at Iowa
Chris Ault 0-1 at Nevada
Matty Bell 0-1 at SMU
Bernie Bierman 0-2 at Minnesota and Iowa Pre-Flight
Earl “Red” Blaik 1-1 at Army
Bobby Bowden 2-1 at Florida State
Bear Bryant 0-1 at Alabama
Lloyd Carr 1-3 at Michigan
Len Casanova 0-1 at Pittsburgh

John Cooper 1-0 at Ohio State
Fritz Crisler 1-0 at Michigan
Duffy Daugherty 4-5 at Michigan State
Fisher DeBerry 2-5 at Air Force
William Dietz 0-1 at Haskell
Bobby Dodd 1-1 at Georgia Tech
Lavell Edwards 1-1 at BYU
Forest Evashevski 2-1-1 at Iowa
Don Faurot 0-1 at Iowa Pre-Flight
Danny Ford 1-0 at Clemson

Phillip Fullmer 1-1 at Tennessee
Wayne Hardin 2-1 at Navy
Harvey Harman 0-1 at Pennsylvania
Bill Ingram 0-1 at Navy
Jimmy Johnson 1-1 at Miami
Howard Jones 3-2 at USC
Bill McCartney 0-1 at Colorado
Charlie McClendon 0-1 at LSU
John McKay 3-4-1 at USC
Jack Mollenkopf 5-2 at Purdue

Ray Morrison 0-1 at SMU
Biggie Munn 1-1 at Michigan State
Bill Murray 0-1 at Duke
Don Nehlen 0-1 at West Virginia
Ara Parseghian 2-0 at Northwestern
Joe Paterno 3-4 at Penn State
John Ralston 0-1 at Stanford
John Robinson 3-3 at USC
Bo Schembechler 2-3 at Michigan
Frances Schmidt 0-1 at Ohio State

Ben Schwartzwalder 0-1 at Syracuse
R.C. Slocum 0-1 at Texas A&M
Amos Alonzo Stagg 0-1 at Pacific
Jim Tatum 0-2 at North Carolina
Pappy Waldorf 1-5 at Northwestern
George Welsh 0-5 at Navy
Bud Wilkinson 1-2 at Oklahoma
Jim Young 0-3 at Purdue
Bob Zuppke 0-2 at Illinois

Notre Dame Wins Over AP Ranked Opponents at Notre Dame Stadium
The Associated Press poll began in 1936.

1936 #1 Northwestern
1938 #13 Carnegie Tech
#12 Minnesota
1943 #2 Iowa Pre-Flight
1944 #12 Great Lakes
1946 #16 USC
1947 #9 Army
1948 #8 Northwestern
1949 #4 Tulane
#17 USC
1950 #20 North Carolina
1952 #4 Oklahoma
#2 USC
1953 #15 Pittsburgh
#4 Georgia Tech
#20 Navy
1954 #4 Texas
#17 USC
1955 #4 Navy
1958 #11 North Carolina
1959 #7 USC
1961 #10 Syracuse
1963 #7 USC
1965 #4 USC
1966 #8 Purdue
1968 #5 Oklahoma
1969 #14 Michigan State
1970 #7 LSU
1973 #6 USC
1974 #17 Pittsburgh
1976 #10 Alabama
1977 #5 USC
1978 #9 Pittsburgh
1979 #7 Michigan State
1980 #9 Purdue
#14 Michigan
#13 Miami
1982 #10 Michigan
#17 Miami
1985 #19 Army
1987 #17 Michigan State
#10 Alabama
1988 #9 Michigan
#1 Miami
1989 #9 USC
#7 Pittsburgh
1990 #4 Michigan
#2 Miami
1991 #12 Pittsburgh
1992 #9 Boston College
#22 Penn State
1993 #1 Florida State
1995 #12 Texas
#5 USC
1996 #16 Washington
1997 #22 West Virginia
1998 #5 Michigan
1999 #23 Oklahoma
2000 #23 Texas A&M
#13 Purdue
2002 #7 Michigan
2004 #8 Michigan
2006 #19 Penn State
2011 #15 Michigan State
2012 #18 Michigan
#17 Stanford
2014 #14 Stanford
2015 #14 Georgia Tech

By Head Coach (68 total): Lou Holtz 15, Frank Leahy 12, Ara Parseghian 7, Dan Devine 7, Bob Davie 5, Brian Kelly 5, Terry Brennan 4, Elmer Layden 3, Gerry Faust 3, Tyrone Willingham 2, Joe Kuharich 2, Charlie Weis 1, Hugh Devore 1 Ed McKeever 1