Sept. 21, 2012
By Lou Somogyi, Blue & Gold Illustrated
In 1977, the popular rock band Queen released one of its most famous hits: “We Are The Champions.”
By the end of the football season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were able to use it as their anthem, particularly identifying with the lines, “It’s been no bed of roses. No pleasure cruise.”
The Irish were a popular preseason national title favorite, including Sports Illustrated, for several reasons:
– The defense returned all 11 starters from a unit that set a school record in 1976 by not allowing a touchdown through 21 straight quarters. Headlining the crew was end Ross Browner, the ’76 Outland Trophy winner.
– The offense was highlighted by the return of two-time All-American tight end Ken MacAfee, a veteran offensive line, junior quarterback Rusty Lisch had game experience after replacing an injured Rick Slager in ’76, and rising sophomore star Vagas Ferguson, who rushed for 107 yards in a 21-18 victory versus Alabama his freshman year. Furthermore, the unit regained the services of fullback Jerome Heavens (756 yards rushing and 5.9 yards per carry as a 1975 freshman) and senior quarterback Joe Montana, both of whom were sidelined in 1976 with injuries.
– The Irish finished strong in ’76 by defeating Alabama in November, winning the Gator Bowl against Penn State (20-9) and giving No. 2 USC a good battle before falling 17-13 in the regular season finale at the Los Angeles Coliseum. In ’77, the Trojans would have to travel to South Bend.
– It was head coach Dan Devine’s third season. Predecessors Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian either were undefeated or won a national title in Year 3, if not both.
Five pivotal and fortuitous moments defined the championship drive:
A Fortunate “Break”
The Irish opened the season at defending national champion Pitt. Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett was no longer with the Panthers, but quarterback Matt Cavanaugh was still part of a top-10 outfit.
In the first quarter, Cavanaugh staked Pitt to a 7-0 lead on a 12-yard touchdown pass to Gordon Jones, and the Panthers would extend the margin to 9-0 on a safety. On the touchdown, though, Irish defensive end Willie Fry drilled Cavanaugh right as he released the ball, and the weight of the crash landing for Fry and Cavanaugh fell on the quarterback’s left wrist, which broke upon impact.
Sans Cavanaugh, the Pitt offense was rendered anemic, as two different quarterbacks fumbled the center snap nearly a dozen times. From the time of Cavanaugh’s injury with 1:28 left in the first quarter until the end of the game, Pitt had more turnovers (seven) and penalties (seven) than total offense (six yards).
Notre Dame put together a scoring drive right before halftime, and in the second half two field goals by Dave Reeve and a touchdown by Terry Eurick were set up by Panther lost fumbles at their 16 twice, and 11 once. The Irish managed to record only three first downs in the second half, but Pitt gift-wrapped the game.
A Star Is Reborn
One year earlier, on Sept. 1, 1976, Fry had inadvertently separated No. 2 quarterback Joe Montana’s practice during a team practice. Montana received a medical redshirt that season, and during the spring and preseason workouts, he fell to No. 3 on the depth chart, behind junior Rusty Lisch and senior Gary Forystek.
Lisch, who would play five seasons in the NFL, struggled in the opening-game victory at Pitt, and the next week the malaise continued during a 20-13 loss at Mississippi.
In Week 3, Forystek replaced Lisch with the Irish trailing 10-0 in the first quarter and he had the Irish on the move…until an earth-rattling hit by Purdue linebacker Fred Arrington during a Forystek scramble ended the No. 2 quarterback’s college football career.
Lisch returned and threw a couple of TD passes, but when the offense bogged down again in the third quarter and Purdue led 24-14, Montana was inserted late in the third quarter…and his first play resulted in a lost fumble deep in Irish territory.
Purdue missed a short field goal on that ensuing possession, and then Montana’s first pass in two years went right into the teeth of coverage…and was dropped by the Boilermakers, a play that might have been returned for a score.
Montana then settled in and finished 9 of 14 for 154 yards and one touchdown, and Dave Mitchell scored from five yards out with 1:39 left in the 31-24 white-knuckler.
Dressed To Kill
Even with Montana at the throttle, the offense was not hitting on all cylinders. He threw three interceptions in a hard fought 16-6 victory against Michigan State, and the Irish followed with a 24-0 win versus scrappy Army, with Heavens rushing for a school record 200 yards, No. 5-ranked USC was next for the 4-1 and 11th ranked Irish. The Trojan were 7-1-2 against Notre Dame in the 10 previous meetings, and the Irish senior class had yet to defeat them.
“It was our last shot, and we wanted them bad,” recalled running back Terry Eurick, one of four captains on the squad. “They were our benchmark in the `70s — like Miami was in the `80s and Florida State in the `90s.”
Two days before the game, Devine asked to meet with Eurick, Fry and the other two captains, Ross Browner and Steve Orsini, after practice in a closed meeting room. He showed them the emerald green jerseys he had ordered back in August for the USC game. The only other people who know were equipment manager Gene O’Neill, Devine’s wife, Jo, and basketball coach Digger Phelps.
When Devine was hired in 1975, Phelps had recommended to Devine to don green as a way to establish his own identity in the program. The week of the 1977 USC game, Devine let Phelps in on the confidential information, and asked him to be the guest speaker at the pep rally and tell the crowd to wear green the next day…without spilling the secret.
“It was exciting,” Eurick said of the clandestine meeting. “We weren’t really down as a team, but when you are looking to beat a foe that had been nearly invincible against Notre Dame…you reach for whatever you can.”
Devine swore the four players to secrecy.
“If the captains didn’t like them, we weren’t going to use them,” Devine said. “All four were enthusiastic. We really needed some kind of spark. It was a gamble because if we had lost…it would have been atrocious.”
After warming up in their traditional blue, the Irish players were stunned to discover the new green jerseys hanging from their lockers in Christmas-morning fashion upon their return to the locker room.
They were “dressed to kill,” and destroyed USC, 49-19, with Montana throwing to MacAfee for two scores and sneaking in for two others. The stunning conquest vaulted the Irish six spots to No. 5.
Tho’ I Walk In The Valley of Death…
LSU isn’t the only home field nicknamed “Death Valley.” In the three weeks prior to visiting No. 15 Clemson, Notre Dame had dismantled USC, Navy (43-10) and Georgia Tech (69-14).
Yet in the second half at Clemson, the Irish found themselves trailing 17-7, and the Tigers had the ball at the Irish 16 late in the third quarter. A recovered Tiger fumble by Mike Calhoun set up an 84-yard drive in which Notre Dame overcame 3rd-and-29 and 4th-and-2 situations to score a touchdown.
Later, when the Tigers were mounting another drive, Calhoun recovered another fumble that set up Notre Dame’s game-winning drive in the 21-17 victory.
It is one of the most underrated conquests in Notre Dame history.
Seizing The Day
In today’s Bowl Championship Series format, the 1977 Irish team probably never would have been able to play for the national title. At the end of the regular season, the rankings had 11-0 Texas at No. 1, followed by 10-1 Oklahoma at No. 2, 10-1 Alabama at No. 3, 10-1 Michigan at No. 4, and 10-1 Notre Dame at No. 5.
Back then, 1) each conference champ had a bowl affiliation and 2) bowl matchups could be made a couple of weeks before the end of the regular season.
Today, No. 1 Texas would have met No. 2 Oklahoma in a rematch from a regular-season outing won by the Longhorns, 13-6. Or maybe No. 3 Alabama would have been ranked ahead of Oklahoma to avoid a rematch.
Back then, though, Big 8 champ Oklahoma was confined to the Orange Bowl against Southwest Conference runner-up Arkansas, 10-1 and coached by Lou Holtz, SEC champ Alabama played in the Sugar Bowl versus Big Ten runner-up Ohio State, and Big Ten champion Michigan had to be matched up against Pac 10 champ and 7-4 Washington in the Rose Bowl.
Thus, the Cotton Bowl was set with No. 1 Texas and No. 5 Notre Dame. To have a chance to ascend to No. 1, the Irish not only had to win, they probably would have to vanquish Texas by at least two or three touchdowns to impress the voters.
Voila! Heavens and Ferguson romped for 101 and 100 yards, respectively, and Notre Dame forced six Texas turnovers (the Irish had only one) en route to an amazing 38-10 triumph.
No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 4 Michigan were both upset, and Alabama’s 35-6 conquest of No. 8 Ohio State didn’t carry nearly the same weight as Notre Dame’s domination of the Longhorns in their own state.
What if the BCS had been in place 35 years ago?
It took some good fortune, but especially a lot of skill, but in the end the Irish could finally say, “We Are The Champions.”
1977 National Champions By The Numbers
2 Teams in Notre Dame history that averaged at least 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same season. The first was the Joe Theismann-led 1970 edition (257.8 rushing, 252.7 passing), and the other was the 1977 crew engineered by Joe Montana (231.9 rushing, 208.1 passing).
4 Ranked teams defeated by the Irish: No. 7 Pitt (19-9), No. 5 USC (49-19), No. 15 Clemson (21-17) and No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl (38-10). All four also finished in the AP Top 20 — and Notre Dame was the lone team in 1977 to topple four ranked foes.
7 All-Americans honored at the end of the season. Only the 1966 national champs with 12 had more in school history. Ken MacAfee and Ross Browner were consensus picks, while cornerback Luther Bradley was first team UPI and second team AP. Four others who were second-team All-Americans by at least one recognized outlet were guard Ernie Hughes, linebacker/middle guard Bob Golic, defensive end Willie Fry and cornerback Ted Burgmeier.
29 Interceptions recorded, breaking the school record of 26 shared by the 1943 and 1966 national champs. That doesn’t even include three more interceptions in the Cotton Bowl. No Irish team has come close to breaking the standard. Free safety Joe Restic paced the squad with six, while cornerbacks Bradley and Burgmeier had five and four, respectively. Linebackers Bobby Leopold (4) and Golic (3) also had more than one.
45.3 Points averaged over the final seven games, beginning with the 49-19 rout over No. 5 USC and 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl victory versus No. 1 Texas. Since 1913, it is the most prolific scoring output at Notre Dame in any seven-game stretch (317 points).
54 Receptions by Ken MacAfee for 797 yards and six touchdowns, the three highest single-season marks by a Notre Dame tight end., until Tyler Eifert eclipsed the first two marks in 2011. MacAfee’s pass-catching acumen and blocking prowess earned him the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award in 1977.
77 Tackles for loss recorded in his career by All-America end Browner, 18 of them during the 1977 national title run. A distant second-place on the all-time Notre Dame list is Kory Minor, who had 43.5 from 1995-98. Browner also holds the standard for most career tackles by an Irish lineman (340).
994 Yards rushing by running back Jerome Heavens, who actually reached 1,000 yards in the season finale at Miami before getting thrown for lost yardage on the final play. He added 101 yards in the Cotton Bowl — but back then bowl games were not included as they are today in the final statistics.
10 More Facts & Figures
– Tight end Ken MacAfee and defensive end Ross Browner. MacAfee placed third in the 1977 Heisman race, won by Texas’ Earl Campbell, and Browner was fifth. The only other season two Irish players finished in the top 5 was 1943: Angelo Bertelli (1st) and Creighton Miller (4th).
– Defensive back Luther Bradley is still the all-time leader in interceptions with 17. Tied for third with him is teammate Joe Restic (13).
– Linebackers Bob Golic and Steve Heimkreiter are second and third on the career tackles chart with 479 and 398, respectively. Only Bob Crable (1978-81) has more (521). The third starter in 1977, Doug Becker, totaled 254 career stops.
– Strong safety Jim Browner, a former starting fullback, led the team in fumbles recovered with five.
– Four tackles rotated on defense – Ken Dike, Mike Calhoun, Jeff Weston and Jay Case and they combined for a remarkable 250 tackles.
– The depth was so replete with quality, sophomore second-team defensive end Scott Zettek, a future All-American, finished with more tackles (51) and tackles for loss (10) than second-team All-American Willie Fry (47, four for loss), who missed part of the year with an injury.
– The starting backfield of tailback Vagas Ferguson and Jerome Heavens would finish their careers 1-2 on the all-time rushing chart, and they still rank third (Ferguson with 3,472 yards) and sixth (Heavens with 2,682). Ferguson also was injured for half of the 1977 season, but David Mitchell and Terry Eurick ably filled in and combined for 594 yards rushing, 185 receiving and 12 touchdowns. In the Cotton Bowl, Heavens rushed for 101 yards and Ferguson 100, and Eurick scored twice.
– MacAfee was the go-to target for Montana, who finished with 1,604 yards passing. But split end Kris Haines’ career yards per catch of 21.5 is second only to Raghib “Rocket” Ismail’s 22.0, and flanker Dave Waymer became an NFL first-round pick – as a defensive back.
– Three offensive linemen from the 1977 unit – guard Ernie Hughes, center Dave Huffman and tackle Tim Foley – would earn first-team All-America notice in their careers, and guard Dave Vinson joined MacAfee and safety Joe Restic as Academic All-Americans in 1977. Guard Ted Horansky and Steve McDaniels rounded out the starting corps.
– Kicker Dave Reeve is still fifth on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list with 247 points.