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Notre Dame Football: Ranking the 25 Most Beloved Figures in Irish History

Matt MattareCorrespondent IIIMarch 30, 2011

Notre Dame Football: Ranking the 25 Most Beloved Figures in Irish History

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    Notre Dame football is steeped in tradition like no other program in college football. Names like Gipp, Rocket, Theismann, Montana and Rudy are forever etched into the lore that makes the school so unique and special. 

    Today we examine the 25 most beloved figures in school history. This isn't necessarily a compilation of "the greatest," it's those that hold a special place in Irish fans' hearts because of the unique way in which they contributed to the fabric of Notre Dame's illustrious history. Most can be identified with a single name like Lou, Brady or Ghost.

    Come along for the ride and then let the debates begin!

25. Rudy Ruettiger

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    Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger is one of the first players people associate with the Irish football program due to the success of the movie of his life story, Rudy. It was an inspiring story that detailed the long odds Ruettiger overcame to fulfill his dream of suiting up for the Fighting Irish. Rudy played only two plays his entire career, which means his fame-to-minutes played ratio is untouchable. 

    While Rudy may be one of the most beloved Irish figures to people outside Notre Dame Nation, there is a contingent of alumni that resent the way in which Ruettiger inaccurately portrayed his college coach Dan Devine. In the movie Devine was pictured as the "bad guy," and his actions were sensationalized for the sake of the storyline. In reality he was the only one who allowed Rudy's dream to come true.

    This "betrayal" has been a major point of contention for some fans, which means despite Rudy's worldwide notoriety, he can't go higher than 25th on this list.

24. Nick Rassas

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    Nick Rassas was a defensive back and returner who played for the Irish from 1963-1965. He walked on to the football team under Joe Kucharich and emerged as a star his junior and senior seasons after Ara Parseghian took the helm. 

    Rassas was a huge fan favorite because of his penchant for vicious hits and big plays. The student body was known to chant "RASSAS, RASSAS, KNOCK'EM ON THEIR @$#%^" after he leveled someone on the opposition. In addition to destroying receivers dumb enough to cross him in the secondary, he was a dynamic returner who set the Notre Dame record for punt return touchdowns in a season when he housed three during his senior campaign.

23. Ken MacAfee

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    Notre Dame has fielded an unbelievable list of Hall of Fame quality tight ends over the years, but perhaps the most productive of them all was Ken MacAfee. A three time All-American from 1975-1977, MacAfee was such a threat and put up such stellar numbers that he actually finished third in the 1977 Heisman Race and won the 1977 Walter Camp Award, the first tight end to ever win the Camp. 

    To this day he still holds the all-time record for receptions by a tight end at Notre Dame with 128. 

22. Allen Pinkett

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    Allen Pinkett was a two-time All American at Notre Dame in the 1980's and the first back in Irish history to rush for over 1,000 yards for three consecutive seasons. By the time he left school after the '85 season, he'd broken the school record for career rushing yards. 

    Pinkett was one of the few enduring bright spots of the Gerry Faust era. He currently stands as the all-time leader in touchdowns scored with 53 (49 rushing) and the No. 2 rusher in school history. 

21. Nick Eddy

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    Nick Eddy was one of the fastest, most dangerous athletes to suit up for Ara Parseghian in the 1960's. He gave the 1966 national championship squad a home run threat on the ground to complement the passing tandem of Terry Hanratty and Jim Seymour. 

    Despite playing much of his senior season banged up with injuries, Eddy was voted an All-American and finished third on the Heisman ballot. 

20. Brady Quinn

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Brady Quinn was undoubtedly the most beloved player of the last 20 years to suit up for the Fighting Irish. A tough, hard-nosed competitor that came up big in the clutch, Quinn took over the starting position early during his freshman season. He endured a beating behind a terrible offensive line, and after two years under Ty Willingham, he seemed doomed for mediocrity.

    Then Charlie Weis stepped in and helped transform Brady into one of the best quarterbacks in the country. During his junior and senior seasons, Quinn rewrote the Irish record books for passing and finished in the top four of the Heisman voting both years. 

19. Jim Lynch

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    Jim Lynch anchored the 1966 national championship team from the linebacker position. He was a consensus All-American and a bona fide leader of one of the most dominant defenses in college football history.

    Just how dominant you ask? Over the course of the season, the Irish shut out six of their 10 opponents and allowed a paltry 3.8 points per game. Lynch was the first member of that defense voted in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1992.

18. John Huarte and Jack Snow

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    In 1963 Jack Snow played sparingly as a running back while quarterback John Huarte didn't even earn a monogram. Just one year later, Ara Parseghian transformed them into one of the most prolific quarterback-wide receiver tandems in school history. 

    The duo burst onto the scene in the first game of "Era of Ara." Huarte got the start and passed for 270 yards with Snow reeling in a school-record 217 of them. They spearheaded a revamped aerial attack that doubled the offensive output from the previous season and lifted the Irish to a 9-1 campaign. 

    Snow finished fifth in the Heisman voting while Huarte ultimately took home the award. He is still the only player in college football history to win the prestigious award before receiving his first monogram (the Notre Dame football banquet was days after he won the Heisman). 

17. Ross Browner

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    Ross Browner was the most dominant defensive lineman in Notre Dame history. He stepped in as a freshman in 1973 and played a major role on Ara Parseghian's national championship squad. As a senior, Browner brought home another championship this time for head coach Dan Devine.

    When he had left Notre Dame, Browner was christened a two-time All-American with a trophy case stocked full of honors. In 1976 he won the Outland Trophy as well as the UPI Lineman of the Year Award while in 1977 he added the Maxwell and Lombardi Awards to his stunning list of accomplishments.

16. Joe Theismann

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    The diminutive Joe Theismann took the quarterback job over from Terry Hanratty when Hanratty went down with an injury in 1968 and never let go. He rolled up a 20-3-2 record as a starter and led Notre Dame to its first bowl victory since Rockne's Ramblers won the Rose Bowl after the 1924 season. 

    One of the things Joe is most famous for is the fact he changed the pronunciation of his last name to aid his Heisman campaign. Originally it was pronounced THEEZ-MAN, but he switched it so that it rhymed with the prestigious award. Unfortunately the ploy couldn't quite push him over the edge, and he wound up second to Jim Plunkett in the final voting. 

15. Johnny Lattner

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    Johnny Lattner was an incredibly versatile athlete who led Frank Leahy's final team at Notre Dame. He set the school record for all-purpose yardage thanks to his ability as a runner, receiver and return man.

    In addition to winning the Heisman in 1953, Lattner was voted All-American his junior and senior seasons not only at halfback, but cornerback as well.

14. Tim Brown

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    Tim Brown was the last player from Notre Dame to win the Heisman Trophy, and he did it in grand style. An incredibly explosive athlete, Brown left fans in awe with his strength, speed and elusiveness. 

    Lou Holtz found a variety of different ways to get Brown the ball his senior year, whether it be through the air, on reverses, or kickoff and punt returns. His Heisman campaign took off after a dazzling display against Michigan State in September of 1987 where he returned a pair of punts for touchdowns. 

13. George Connor

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    George Connor was a dominant, rugged offensive lineman for the juggernaut teams Frank Leahy fielded in the mid-40's. He was awarded the first Outland Trophy in 1946, and when writers compiled a list of the best players in Notre Dame history in 1962, he was tied with Leon Hart for the top spot.

    Leahy's squads defined smashmouth football, and Connor's nasty streak, toughness and ability made him a standout among the assembly line of great offensive linemen to file through South Bend in the 40's. 

12. Rocky Bleier

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    Rocky Bleier was a key contributor during his junior season when Notre Dame won the national championship in 1966, and he was a captain the following year. He was admired and beloved for the gritty toughness in which he played the game. 

    But no one knew just how tough he was until after graduation. During his first year playing professionally for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bleier was drafted into the military. While serving his country, he suffered a devastating leg injury after being shot and hit with shrapnel from a grenade.

    Doctors said he would never play football again, but through sheer will and determination, he not only played again but starred for the Steelers during their late 70's dynasty. 

11. Johnny Lujack

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    Johnny Lujack's career at Notre Dame was defined by superlatives. He was one of the most productive, greatest and most beloved players to ever suit up for the Irish. 

    Lujack started at quarterback for three seasons at Notre Dame (1943, 1946 and 1947) and led the Irish to national championships in each of them (though it should be noted Angelo Bertelli started at quarterback ahead of Lujack in '43 before being sent off to war). He won the 1947 Heisman Trophy but is perhaps most famously remembered for his game-saving tackle on Army's Doc Blanchard that preserved a 0-0 tie in "The Game of the Century."

10. Frank Leahy

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    Frank Leahy was one of the greatest coaches in college football history and without question the second-greatest coach in Notre Dame history. He racked up four national championships as the leader of the Irish, coached four Heisman winners and oversaw one of the most dominant stretches in college football history once he returned from serving in World War II. 

    From 1946 through 1949, his teams never lost a game, compiling a staggering 36-0-2 record. Unfortunately, he burned out at the young age of 45, but his career record in South Bend was staggering nonetheless. He piled up 87 total victories at Notre Dame and his winning percentage was .864, second only to Knute Rockne in college football history. 

9. Paul Hornung

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    Paul Hornung, a.k.a "The Golden Boy," became Notre Dame's fifth Heisman Trophy winner in 1956 despite the fact that the Irish won only two games. While many contend that award belonged to Jim Brown, there's no denying how impressive Hornung's season turned out to be. 

    During the '56 campaign, Hornung led the team in passing, rushing, scoring, kickoff returns, punt returns and punting. On the defensive side of the ball, he paced the Irish in passes broken up and was second in tackles and interceptions. He was one of the most prolific all-around players in Irish history.

8. Joe Montana

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    It was a long and winding road that Joe Montana took to finally entrenching himself as starting quarterback at Notre Dame, but once he arrived, there was no disputing his greatness.

    Personality and philosophical clashes with head coach Dan Devine landed Montana a recurring role as benchwarmer throughout his first two healthy seasons (he was injured his entire sophomore year). Consistently, Montana would be listed as second string, then be sent in the game in the second half to pull victory from the jaws of defeat. With each thrilling victory his legend grew, but the next week Joe always found himself back on the bench.

    Devine finally relented during the 1977 campaign and handed the reins over to Montana for good. The result? A national championship. He completed his collegiate career with one of the most dramatic comebacks in school history against Houston in the Cotton Bowl. Montana fell ill with hypothermia during the game and doctors tried raising his body temperature by feeding him bowls of chicken soup.

    When he finally was deemed fit to play, there was only 7:37 left in the game and the Irish trailed 34-12. Montana rallied the Irish and threw a touchdown on the game's ultimate play to give the Irish an unbelievable 35-34 victory. 

7. Four Horsemen

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    In 1924 famed writer Grantland Rice penned the following paragraph describing the Notre Dame backfield:

    "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below."

    Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley and Elmer Layden were from that point forward the most famous backfield in college football history and etched in Notre Dame lore forever. They went on to smash Pop Warner and the Stanford Cardinal in the Rose Bowl and claimed the 1924 national championship.

6. Rocket Ismail

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    You know a player is truly loved when all that's needed to identify him is a single word, a word that instantly brings a wistful, almost giddy smile to the face of any Irish fan that hears it. Such is the case with "Rocket."

    Rocket Ismail was an electrifying athlete with speed, speed and more speed. He changed games out of the backfield, split out wide or as a returner. Some people exaggerate when they describe players as threats to take the ball to the end zone every time they touch it. That was no exaggeration with Rocket. 

    Lou Holtz used Ismail much like he used Tim Brown, thinking up a slew of creative ways to get the ball in his hands each game. The biggest impact though came in the return game, when teams were foolish enough to test him. In the video above, Bo Schembechler makes the mistake of giving Rocket two chances to burn the Wolverines. Both times Rocket made them pay.

5. George Gipp

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    George Gipp was one of the best players in Notre Dame history, but in reality he's probably known better for the speech his old coach gave about him than his play on the field.

    Gipp was an extraordinary talent that led the Irish in both passing and rushing his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. He averaged a staggering 8.1 yards per carry for his career, and his all-time rushing record stood for nearly 60 years. 

    What he's most famous for though is being the subject of a dramatic speech Knute Rockne gave to inspire his team seven years after Gipp's death. Notre Dame was a heavy underdog against the vaunted Army Cadets, and before the game, he told his men the story of what George Gipp told him on his deathbed. 

    "I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy."

    Notre Dame upset Army 12-6 that day, and yet another chapter of Notre Dame lore was written.

4. Moose Krause

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    Moose Krause was an elite athlete during his time as a student at Notre Dame, excelling in both football (All-American) and basketball (three time All-American). He returned to his alma mater under Frank Leahy as an assistant coach on the football team in 1942 while also taking on the role of head basketball coach.

    He eventually took on the position of athletic director in 1949, a position he would maintain for over 30 years. Krause was a Notre Dame man in every sense of the term. He was truly devoted to the school and his popularity among players, alumni and fans at large was the stuff of legends.

    A statue of Krause sitting on a bench puffing his trademark cigar is located directly across from Notre Dame Stadium.

3. Lou Holtz

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    You want beloved? Click play on the video and watch the first minute to see the reception Lou Holtz gets in his first return to a Notre Dame pep rally since his retirement as coach of the Fighting Irish.

    Holtz resurrected the program from some of its darkest days and helped bring a national championship back to South Bend in 1988. A master strategist and motivator, Lou's teams consistently delivered in the biggest games on the biggest stages. He left a beloved figure and that feeling has only grown stronger as the Irish have struggled in the ensuing years. 

    While he's become somewhat of a caricature on ESPN, there's a large contingent of Notre Dame fans that are convinced he can walk on the water of St. Mary's Lake.

2. Ara Parseghian

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    While Lou Holtz is the savior of one generation of Notre Dame football, Ara Parseghian was the original messiah. He took over the team before the 1964 season and transformed a floundering doormat into a national power in the blink of an eye. 

    The darkest days in program history came in the early 1960's when Notre Dame was struggling mightily under Joe Kucharich. Years removed from being in contention for a national title, there was talk that Notre Dame may remove itself from major college football and go the route of the Ivy League. Parseghian's instant turnaround squashed that thought.

    He inherited a squad that had gone 2-7 in 1963 and turned it into an instant title contender. The Irish reeled off nine consecutive victories to start Ara's tenure before a controversial loss in the final game cost Notre Dame a perfect season and a national championship. 

    Parseghian record was remarkable. He finished his tenure at Notre Dame with an .836 winning percentage and never lost back-to-back games over the course of his 11 seasons.

    While Lou Holtz is just as beloved, Ara is even more revered. 

1. Knute Rockne

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    Knute Rockne put Notre Dame football on the map and set it on the path to becoming a national power. 

    As the program began its meteoric rise in the mid-to-late 1910's, the Western Athletic Conference (which eventually evolved into the Big Ten) blackballed Notre Dame and refused to schedule the budding power.

    This collusion forced Rockne to take his troops on unprecedented road trips across the country to find opponents. The scrappy underdogs from South Bend took on any and all challengers—from Army in the east to Southern Cal in the West—and quickly become one of the best teams in all the land. Thanks to these coast-to-coast road trips, Notre Dame received unparalleled national exposure, and as the victories piled up, they won legions of fans across the nation. 

    Rockne was tragically killed in a plane crash after winning back-to-back championships in 1929 and 1930. He had a winning percentage of .881 (still the best of all time), completed five undefeated seasons and won three consensus national championships. He was the greatest coach in college football history and his efforts and vision put Notre Dame football on the map.

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