Oct. 14, 2017
By John Heisler
It has been 40 years since Notre Dame won its 10th consensus football national championship in 1977.
It marked the third time in that decade alone that the Irish played an unbeaten and number-one-rated opponent in a postseason bowl game-and won. (A fourth bowl game in the ’70s featured an unbeaten but second-ranked Alabama opponent-and Notre Dame won that one, too.)
Since that time defensive end Ross Browner, tight end Ken MacAfee and head coach Dan Devine from that Irish roster have been selected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Browner (he was on the cover of the Sports Illustrated preseason college football issue that year) and MacAfee were unanimous first-team All-Americans, defensive back Luther Bradley was a consensus first-team pick, while guard Ernie Hughes, middle guard Bob Golic, defensive end Willie Fry and defensive back Ted Burgmeier all won second-team All-America recognition.
MacAfee claimed the Walter Camp Football Foundation player of the year award, while Browner won the Maxwell Award as well as the Lombardi Award.
MacAfee, safety Joe Restic and guard Dave Vinson were first-team Academic All-Americans.
That 1977 Irish squad ranked third nationally in rushing defense (89.2 yards per game), fifth in total offense (440.0), seventh in scoring offense (34.7), 11th in total defense (237.0) and 12th in scoring defense (11.7).
All that success came against a schedule rated the 13th-most difficult in the nation in the first season of those rankings by the NCAA.
The Irish lost their second game of the season on the road at Ole Miss then spent the rest of the fall climbing up the rankings. They dropped as far as 14th in the Associated Press poll three games into the season, then jumped from fifth to first after a convincing victory in the Cotton Bowl over top-rated and unbeaten Texas.
Notre Dame became only the sixth team in the history of the AP poll to end up number one after never holding down that slot during the regular season (the Irish also did that in 1947 and 1973).
It now has happened 19 times, including each of the last three seasons (Clemson after the 2016 regular season, Alabama in 2015, Ohio State in 2014).
Here’s a sampling of what was said by and about that team four decades ago:
Jerome Heavens (right) helped the Irish knock off #5 USC
at midseason to springboard Notre Dame’s national title hopes.
“Pressure comes from within the family. There’s no pressure hanging over our heads. We’ve got this guarded optimism.”
-Head coach Dan Devine during the preseason
“You have to remember that defenses are made on the football field, not in the preseason polls, not in newspaper or magazine articles and not at press conferences.”
-Irish captain Willie Fry
“In 1977, as crazy as it may seem today, Notre Dame football was even bigger than disco.”
“Ken MacAfee was one of a long line of ND tight ends that could knock you on your (butt), step on your chest, grab a quick cuppa joe and still catch an eight-yard out for a first down.”
“The line featured future NFL pros like Tim Foley, Dave Huffman and Ernie Hughes, and believe me, at game time opposing defensive lines resembled pinballs more than pass rushers. When you played ND in 1977, people got hurt.”
“Ross Browner, Willie Fry, Bob Golic and Luther Bradley didn’t just beat you, they made it so scoring wasn’t nearly so important as surviving. Best of all, you didn’t even have to watch that ’77 team hit anybody, you could just close your eyes and listen, and mother was that a sweet sound.”
“If Ross (Browner) was any better, he’d have to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.”
–Notre Dame sports information director Roger Valdiserri
“Notre Dame has a great football team, one deserving of its ranking.”
–Pittsburgh coach Jackie Sherrill after Notre Dame’s season-opening 31-10 victory
“I’m happy with the way we kept our poise on the road after falling behind 9-0.”
–Devine after Pittsburgh game
“We realize now we can come back and win. Coach Devine alluded to the fact that winning the way we did was better than if we won 50-0. It was in their stadium and on national TV, and he said the way we won was the mark of a championship team. He said in the future just try and win it in the first quarter instead of the fourth.”
–Ken MacAfee after the come-from-behind victory at Pittsburgh
“When you beat Notre Dame, everyone in the world knows it,”
–Ole Miss quarterback Tim Ellis after the Rebels defeated Notre Dame 20-13
“We just didn’t come up with the big plays.”
–Irish captain Terry Eurick after the loss at Ole Miss
“When we arrived as freshmen, we told each other we would all have a national championship ring before we left Notre Dame. Now it was gut check time. We looked to ourselves and we knew that we were a lot better than we had been playing.”
–Special teams captain Steve Orsini after the loss at Ole Miss
“When Joe (Montana) stepped in, it made all the difference in the world.”
–Irish All-America cornerback Luther Bradley.
“Forget what you’ve been reading these last couple of months about the relief efforts of Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Sparky Lyle, Bill Campbell and the rest. This is football season, folks, and possibly the best relief arm in the business belongs to Notre Dame junior Joe Montana.”
–Inside Irish after Notre Dame’s come-from-behind win at Purdue
“We got together on the sidelines when we trailed 24-14 and we just started remembering those comeback victories. And when Joe came in (with just under two minutes left in the third quarter) we reminded him about them and told him he could do it here.”
–MacAfee after Purdue game
“When you come off the bench something is usually going wrong. There’s no time for pressure.”
–Irish quarterback Joe Montana
“It means you’re in trouble. Joe Montana’s in the game.”
–Valdiserri after his Purdue counterpart asked why a big roar had come from the Irish fans in West Lafayette
“Celebrate? No way, man. We’ve got our toughest game coming up.”
–Jerome Heavens looking to USC matchup after his 200 rushing yards in a 24-0 win over Army
“The night before (Irish head basketball coach) Digger Phelps said, ‘Tomorrow, we’ll be known as the green machine.’ We go warm up in the blue, and then we come into the locker room and see these green jerseys hanging in the lockers. It was electric. I still get goosebumps thinking of it.”
–Irish offensive tackle Tim Foley
“By Wednesday we knew we were going to win, but we did not know how or who was going to do it.”
–Devine on USC game
“It was like we had just won the game.”
–Orsini on the locker room scene just prior to the USC game
“It was a stroke of genius. And it was a shock . . . wow.”
“It was like Christmas morning. Some guys were literally ripping their shirts off when they saw the green jerseys.”
— Irish defensive line coach Joe Yonto
“You take all that and then go and kick some butt on the field . . . .”
“Everyone was screaming and yelling in the locker room. Sometimes it takes a little spark to get you going, and that’s what it was. It was something to get us a little more hyped for something we really didn’t need to be more hyped for. It worked out well.”
–Montana on USC pregame scene
“It was better than any pep talk any coach ever gave in the history of the game.”
–Irish running back Nick DiCicco on the green jerseys
“You could feel the noise on your face.”
–USC head coach John Robinson on the scene when the Irish took the field in green jerseys
“That’s the first touchdown for me since grade school. It’s like a dream come true. I was lying awake in the seminary last night thinking of the possibilities of something like this happening. But when you’re a defensive tackle, they usually stay dreams.”
–Irish defensive tackle Jay Case after he picked up a blocked USC punt and ran it 30 yards into the end zone
“I’ve never seen Jay (Case) run so fast. He’ll probably want to play fullback next game.”
–Irish linebacker Bob Golic after he blocked that USC punt
“I wish it could be champagne.”
–An unidentified Irish player after Devine was drenched with Coca-Cola after the USC game
“Let’s get underneath them. There’s an awful lot of heart under those jerseys.”
“We were just outcoached and outplayed. We got the hell beat out of us.”
“And the football coach is Devine and the halfback came down from the Heavens. Now, what chance did these heathens from Hollywood have against these massed divinities?”
–Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times after Notre Dame’s win over USC
“On Game Day, the Irish came out for pregame warmups innocently enough in their blue jerseys. Then, they went back in the locker room and when they came out-ta-da! Finian’s Rainbow. A green so bright it hurt the eyes. A whole squad of 6 foot 6 leprechauns.”
“Who needs the Gipper? Just give us The Green!”
“At the start of the season we all knew we had the talent. But we just hadn’t jelled as a team. It takes more than strong individual players. Now we’re a complete team doing a true team job.””
–Irish cornerback Ted Burgmeier after Navy game
“There’s no question that Notre Dame is a better team than last year. Last year, we were able to sneak up on them, but this year they were ready.”
–Navy coach George Welsh after Notre Dame’s 43-10 victory over the Middies
Terry Eurick ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated
for his efforts against #1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
“Last year they made a lot of comments indicating we were out of shape. I did not have to say a word about it all week. A lot of players had the stories taped right on their lockers. This was an easy game to prepare for.”
–Devine after 69-14 win over Georgia Tech
“We proved today we weren’t too big, too fat and too slow.”
–Irish All-America defensive end Ross Browner after defeat of Georgia Tech
“I just do not know what to say after a loss like this except that Notre Dame is the best team we have played this year.”
–Georgia Tech coach Pepper Rodgers
“Notre Dame has as fine a group of athletes as I’ve ever seen on a football team.”
–Clemson coach Charley Pell after Notre Dame overcame a 10-point deficit to beat Tigers 21-17
“Our bowl policy always has been to play the best possible competition. Hopefully we can be playing for the national championship.”
–Notre Dame athletics director Moose Krause after Notre Dame’s 49-0 win over Air Force earned the Irish a Cotton Bowl invitation to meet top-rated Texas
“I doubt if there are five teams in the country better than Notre Dame.”
–Air Force coach Ben Martin
“It was the kind of performance which sent Irish fans home with thoughts of dusting off those 10-gallon hats last worn at the 1971 Cotton Bowl when Notre Dame played then top-ranked and unbeaten Texas. Y’all don’t have to be reminded what happened in that one.”
–Inside Irish after the win over Air Force
“Maybe he’s some ethereal messenger sent back by the Gipper, who dissolves into the Saturday night air only to reappear again the next time the Notre Dame football teams finds itself in desperate need.”
–Furman Bisher, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist, on Joe Montana
“We gave them a game for a half, but when they drove so easily for their first touchdown in the third quarter, it took the starch out of us.”
–Miami coach Lou Saban after Notre Dame’s 48-10 win in regular-season finale
“This puts us where Texas was, number one. We earned it on the field. We played number one, and we beat them. At this point I do not think there is anybody that could beat our football team.”
“I don’t like to say it was easy, but . . . well, the way we played today, we could have dominated any line in the country.”
-Foley on the Irish win over top-rated Texas
“Down in Texas we were told we shouldn’t even show up because Texas was the largest state in the whole USA. Everything in Texas is big, and Texas is No. 1 in everything. Every place we went, people just said, ‘You’re Notre Dame. You guys are Catholic, you’re small, you need to go back home.’ They didn’t know who they were messing with … Coach (Dan) Devine didn’t have to give a pep talk or anything because we were ready to tear out the door.”
“Coach Devine had won over the players who had been recruited by coach (Ara) Parseghian, and then he trusted us enough to let us straighten things out.”
“The coaches told us that if Texas runs the wishbone, they’re not going to be able to score on us.”
–Bradley told his father
“They (Texas) forgot one little detail. They had to play the game.”
” Dan Devine did a great job of keeping that team together. And you’ve got to give people like Steve Orsini, Ross Browner, Terry Eurick and Willie Fry a lot of credit. They’re the ones who turned things around.”
“At least the team that beat us was a good one. Everyone can’t say that.”
–Fred Akers, Texas head coach
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
–Yonto noting a phrase on the Cotton Bowl locker room chalkboard
Nearly 80 members of the 1977 Notre Dame national championship squad will return to campus this weekend for the team’s 40th anniversary reunion–and they will be honored on the field Saturday night during the Notre Dame-USC football game.