All Notre Dame fans know the trend of how Irish head coaches' third season historically are a clear indicator of how successful the coach will ultimately be during his tenure under the Golden Dome. Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Devine and Holtz. They're the five coaches that have won titles for Notre Dame—and all of them won one in year three.
But how have Irish coaches fared in their second seasons at the helm? Was it as accurate an indicator as the third year or could it be deceptive?
Today, we investigate how Notre Dame coaches since World War II have done in their second seasons, analyze exactly where their stock stood at that juncture and whether the overall feeling at the time proved to be an accurate forecast for the rest of their tenure.
First Year Record: 8-0-1* - AP National Championship (1946)
Second Year Record: 9-0* - AP National Championship
Year Two Highlight: Throttled Southern Cal 38-7 in Los Angeles to wrap up an undefeated season and a national championship.
Year Two Lowlight: Tough to find a lowlight when you’re undefeated, consensus national champions. Maybe when Northwestern scored 19 points on them in a 26-19 Irish victory?
* = Leahy’s first season in South Bend was actually 1941, but after winning the national championship in his third season, he left campus to serve his country in World War II for two years. For the sake of this list, we decided to pick up where he left off after the war due to the unique circumstances with which he had to deal.
Leahy returned from World War II and immediately picked up where he left off in South Bend. In his second season after his hiatus, the team he trotted out was a juggernaut in every sense of the word. Seven players ended up in the College Football Hall of Fame, quarterback Johnny Lujack won the Heisman Trophy and only two opponents were able to stay within 21 points of the Irish.
Buy or Sell the Leahy Era after Year Two? HARD BUY
During the four years following the war, Notre Dame fielded some of the most dominant teams in college football history. That stretch saw Leahy’s Lads run up a 36-0-2 record, win three consensus national championships, and bring two Heisman Trophies back to the Golden Dome. He would ultimately leave Notre Dame as the second winningest coach in school—and college football—history with a win percentage of .855, trailing only Knute Rockne.
First Year Record: 9-1 (1954)
Second Year Record: 8-2
Year Two Highlight: Climbed to No. 5 in the polls heading into the final week.
Year Two Lowlight: A 42-20 beating at the hands of Southern Cal to close out the season.
Terry Brennan was just 25 years old when he took over for living legend Frank Leahy before the 1954 Fighting Irish season. He was handed the keys to a well-oiled machine and rode it to a stellar 17-3 record in his first two years at the helm.
In his second season, the Irish sprinted to an 8-1 record and were ranked fifth in the country going into their season finale against unranked Southern Cal. In Steve Delsohn’s book Talking Irish, players talked about how unprepared the team was for that final contest. Team captain Dick Prendergast went so far as to say many viewed it as “a vacation to California.” The result of that lack of focus was the Trojans whipping Notre Dame 42-20.
Buy or Sell the Brennan Era after Year Two? Selling High
While the 17-3 two-year record looked great on the surface, things were crumbling internally. There was division within and many players either inferred or just came out and said that Brennan lost the team’s respect.
The debacle in Los Angeles provided foreshadowing for what was to come in the following years. The following season Notre Dame posted its worst year in school history, a 2-8 disaster where they were outscored 289-130. After more mediocre seasons Brennan was not retained, ending his career with a 32-18 overall record.
First Year Record: 5-5 (1959)
Second Year Record: 2-8
Year Two Highlight: A 17-0 victory over Southern Cal to end an eight-game losing streak.
Year Two Lowlight: A 51-19 shellacking in Notre Dame Stadium at the hands of Purdue which sent the Irish spiraling to a school record eight-game losing streak.
After relieving Terry Brennan from his position after the 1957 campaign, Notre Dame tapped alum and NFL head coach Joe Kucharich to take over. From day one until the day he was fired, it was a complete and utter disaster. The word used most to describe him was “emotionless,” and his teams took on the same persona.
His second season started with a victory over Cal that vaulted Notre Dame to No. 12 in the AP Poll. Unfortunately, the optimism was short-lived, and it took just one week to come crashing back down to Earth. In the next game, Purdue handed the Irish their worst home loss in program history, marking the start of an eight-game losing streak. When the smoke had cleared, Notre Dame had posted a 2-8 record despite having a slew of talent on the team that ended up going on to the NFL.
Buy or Sell the Kucharich Era after Year Two? SELL, SELL, SELL
Investing in Kucharich after year two would’ve been like investing in The Hindenburg as it was going down in flames. He would coach for four seasons before resigning and never posted a year with a record above .500. His final record stood at 17-23, and to this day, is the only coach in Irish history to finish his career with a losing record.
First Year Record: 2-7
Second Year Record: N/A
Year Two Highlight: N/A
Year Two Lowlight: N/A
Hugh Devore took over in the spring of 1963 after Joe Kucharich’s resignation. The higher-ups at the school thought it was a little too late to bring in a new head coach so they promoted Devore to interim head coach for the next season.
Devore was a Notre Dame grad who’d played for Rockne and bled blue and gold. This was actually the second time he’d been tabbed as interim head coach at his alma mater—he’d also taken the position when Frank Leahy shipped off to World War II.
His second go-around as head coach was a rough one and lasted just one season.
First Year Record: 9-1 (1964)
Second Year Record: 7-2-1
Year Two Highlight: A five-game win streak where ND outscored opponents 198-30.
Year Two Lowlight: A 12-3 loss to Michigan State in the final home game when the Irish were held to three first downs and 12 yards of total offense.
Mired in the darkest time in program history and five years removed from its last winning season, Notre Dame was thought to be on the verge of discontinuing major football like the Ivy League had done. Then the original savior of Notre Dame Football entered the picture.
Ara Parseghian took the reins in 1964 and began a meteoric rise that made the Irish a contender on the national scene again. After a 9-1 opening campaign that was just two minutes from being perfect, Parseghian led the Irish to 7-2-1 in his second season. While it was disappointing considering the heights of the 1964 season, the fact that it was done essentially sans a passing game made it somewhat impressive.
Buy or Sell the Parseghian Era after Year Two? HARD BUY
It was clear right from the start that the Irish were going to be a national powerhouse again as long as Parseghian was head coach. He was a master strategist, an incredible motivator and a charismatic leader that would not accept anything but the best. He never lost back-to-back games over the course of his 11 seasons and had a record of 90-2 when leading in the fourth quarter.
The Era of Ara was one of the most successful in Irish history, and when it had run its course, Notre Dame had won a pair of national titles and compiled a .836 winning percentage.
First Year Record: 8-3 (1975)
Second Year Record: 9-3
Year Two Highlight: A 20-9 victory over Penn State in the Gator Bowl
Year Two Lowlight: A 31-10 drubbing at the hands of Pitt in the opening game.
Dan Devine had the unenviable task of taking over for the legendary Ara Parseghian. He was not well received by alumni or players, and through two seasons, it appeared he was destined to fail. In his first campaign, Notre Dame was eligible for a bowl and had received an invitation for the Cotton Bowl, but the players voted not to participate out of spite for Devine.
Year two was almost a mirror image of the first one. After another 8-3 regular season, the Irish headed to the Gator Bowl and whipped Penn State 20-9. Devine hadn’t done a lot to win over the fans, but the bowl victory combined with the fact that the Irish would be returning 18 starters—including four All-Americans—in 1977 meant there was plenty of hope for the future.
Buy or Sell the Devine Era after Year Two? Buy…but a hesitant buy
Devine was a fine football coach, but from the get-go, it seemed like a “square peg, round hole” relationship bound to fail. After two years, there were signs of life, but not enough to prevent the “DUMP DEVINE” bumper stickers from popping up on campus during the fall of ’77.
Things changed dramatically that next season though. With all that returning talent, Devine led Notre Dame to an 11-1 record and won the national title by stomping the top-ranked Texas Longhorns 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl. Just like every great Irish coach in Notre Dame’s illustrious history, Devine delivered a championship in his third season as head coach.
He was never fully appreciated until long after his tenure at Notre Dame and the biggest reason for that was he was following one of the most beloved figures in Irish History, Ara Parseghian. The statistics don’t lie though: a .764 winning percentage, one national title and three bowl victories mean he was very successful in sports’ most pressure-packed job.
First Year Record: 5-6 (1981)
Second Year Record: 6-4-1
Year Two Highlight: A 31-16 road victory over No. 1 ranked Pittsburgh
Year Two Lowlight: A three-game losing streak to end the season
The man tasked with replacing Dan Devine was one of the most successful coaches in the country: Gerry Faust. Unfortunately, that success had all come at the high school level in Cincinnati, Ohio. He energized a fanbase that had been less than enamored with Dan Devine—Notre Dame Nation had come down with a serious case of Faust Fever.
That fever had broken by the end of year two. A thrilling comeback victory over top-ranked Pitt rocketed the Irish and their 6-1-1 record to No. 13 in the polls. Just when it appeared Faust was ready to make the next step the Irish fell flat on their face. Then, in what became a common occurrence in the Faust Era, Notre Dame fell flat on its face. Three straight losses later the Irish were headed home for another bowl-less postseason.
Buy or Sell the Faust Era after Year Two? SELL
By the end of Faust’s second year, the Notre Dame Faithful knew hiring the high school coach had been a huge mistake. The “rah, rah” attitude that had been so effective in reaching young teenagers fell on deaf ears with the young men in college and he was consistently overmatched when matched up against capable coaches.
He held on for three more seasons, but in that time, all that happened was Notre Dame sunk to deeper and deeper depths. He announced his resignation just days before the final game he’d coach, a 58-7 dismantling at the hands of Jimmy Johnson and the Miami Hurricanes.
First Year Record: 5-6 (1986)
Second Year Record: 8-4
Year Two Highlight: An 8-1 start that landed Notre Dame in the Top 10.
Year Two Lowlight: Notre Dame was spanked 35-10 by Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
Lou Holtz was the Notre Dame Football’s second savior, stepping into the mess Gerry Faust had left behind. He immediately went to work replacing the rotting foundation he found upon his arrival in South Bend. His opening campaign wasn’t much better than what Faust had mustered, but the Irish were Fighting again, and that was progress.
In his second season, Holtz had Notre Dame in the thick of the national title hunt in November after whipping Alabama 37-8. The Irish faltered down the stretch though with back-to-back losses to Penn State and Miami to end the regular season and a 35-10 beating at the hands of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. That sent mixed signals as to where the Irish were headed under Holtz, but Lou’s track record and the talent he was pumping into the program gave true cause for optimism.
Buy or Sell the Holtz Era after Year Two? BUY
The seeds for success were planted in that 1987 season despite the disappointing finish. Just one season later, the Irish toppled their nemesis Miami en route to a national championship. Holtz would go on to win 100 games during his 11-year tenure, appear in nine consecutive major bowl games and leave school as one of the most beloved figures in school history.
First Year Record: 7-6 (1997)
Second Year Record: 9-3
Year Two Highlight: Defeating defending champion Michigan 36-20 in the season opener.
Year Two Lowlight: Getting railroaded by Michigan State 42-20 the following week.
Bob Davie had the unenviable task of replacing one of the legends on Notre Dame’s Coaching Mount Rushmore. After a shaky 1-4 start to his career, Davie’s team hit its stride at the end of his first season and kept the momentum rolling into his second year with 14 wins in 16 games.
During his second year, Notre Dame sprinted to a 9-1 record and was poised to clinch a BCS bowl berth. Unfortunately, an injury to starting quarterback Jarious Jackson in the home finale against LSU crippled the Irish offense and Notre Dame lost an ugly 10-0 game at Southern Cal the next week. The loss cost them a major bowl bid.
Notre Dame followed that up with another disappointing loss in the Gator Bowl—this time to Georgia Tech—but both of them were partially excused due to Jackson’s freak injury. With a slew of starters returning and the historical trend of Notre Dame coaches winning a championship in their third season, fans were optimistic about where things seemed to be heading.
Buy or Sell the Davie Era after Year Two? Buy
The arrow appeared to be headed in the right direction under Davie through his second year. His defenses were always tenacious, and in the offseason, he hired Kevin Rogers away from Syracuse to transform the offense and turn Jarious Jackson into the second coming of Donovan McNabb.
But in ‘99, the wheels quickly came off the Davie Bandwagon. A very talented team lost a pair of games in September due in large part to the head coach’s inability to manage the clock. The final result was a 5-7 campaign that lost him serious support. After a positive 2000 season bought him a stay of execution, he was relieved when Notre Dame slipped back below .500 again in 2001.
First Year Record: N/A
Second Year Record: N/A
Year Two Highlight: N/A
Year Two Lowlight: N/A
George O’Leary was forced to resign just five days after accepting the position when it was found he falsified his resume. This deserves noting because it means athletic director Kevin White botched not two, but three coaching searches.
First Year Record: 10-3 (2002)
Second Year Record: 5-7
Year Two Highlight: Upsetting No. 15 Pitt 20-14 on the road.
Year Two Lowlight: A 37-0 drubbing at the hands of Florida State at ND Stadium.
Ty Willingham had a Parseghian-esque start to his tenure, winning his first eight games and leading the Irish to a top-five ranking. Things quickly unraveled though and Notre Dame lost three of their last five, including a pair of humiliating defeats to close out the year.
In the opening game of Willingham’s second campaign, it appeared he’d recaptured the magic as Notre Dame stormed back in the second half to defeat Washington State in overtime. That hope died quickly though, and the Willingham Honeymoon officially came to a close as Notre Dame was destroyed at Michigan 38-0 the very next week. Two humiliating home losses at the hands of Southern Cal and Florida State raised serious eyebrows. By the time Syracuse spanked the Irish in the final game of the season, the mob had already turned on Ty and many were already calling for his head.
Buy or Sell the Willingham Era after Year Two? SELL
By the end of his second season, Willingham’s regime was faltering on and off the field. The recruiting well dried up quickly after initial success as the humiliating losses piled up. By the end of his second season, he’d suffered more three touchdown losses than Parseghian, and Holtz had in their entire careers—combined.
After one more season full of disappointments and embarrassing losses, Willingham was fired two years before his contract was set to expire. The result was a media firestorm from all angles, but in actuality, it was worth it because it saved the program from sinking to even lower depths.
First Year Record: 9-3
Second Year Record: 10-3
Year Two Highlight: A dramatic 40-37 comeback victory at Michigan State.
Year Two Lowlight: Back-to-back big losses to Southern Cal and LSU to end the year.
Charlie Weis was not Notre Dame’s first choice for head coach, but midway through his opening campaign, Irish fans were ready to put a statue of him on campus. His 9-3 debut on the field and stellar recruiting effort signaled that Notre Dame was on the verge of being a major player once again on the national scene.
Expectations were through the roof entering his second season and the pollsters responded by placing Notre Dame squarely in the top five of each poll. After a pair of victories over Georgia Tech and Penn State to open the year, the Irish came crashing back to earth with a devastating 47-21 home defeat to Michigan.
Notre Dame recovered and reeled off eight straight victories to re-enter the national title discussion before Southern Cal squashed those dreams in the season finale. Another lopsided defeat in the Sugar Bowl to LSU perhaps provided foreshadowing that Weis wasn’t ready to hang with the big boys.
Buy or Sell the Weis Era after Year Two? Buy
In hindsight, there were some very clear signs that Weis wasn’t the savior Notre Dame hoped for after his second season, but there were also plenty of positives that led people to believe he was—mainly his back-to-back BCS berths and his successes on the recruiting trail. The bottom fell out quickly though and in year three Notre Dame hit rock bottom with a dismal 3-9 campaign.
Some dismissed and forgave the debacle, blaming it on the barren cupboard of talent Ty’s recruiting left behind. But the majority of fans quickly turned on the man who just two years earlier landed on a coaching Mount Rushmore on “The Shirt” created by students.
Weis followed 2007 with back-to-back disappointing seasons that both fizzled in November. The atmosphere around the program was toxic, and Notre Dame once again had become a punchline in the national media. After a late loss to Stanford in the season finale, Charlie Weis was fired despite having five years remaining on his contract.