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Notre Dame Football 101: Devine Turbulence

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Notre Dame Football 101: Devine Turbulence

The Irish History lessons continue this week with the Dan Devine Era. 

Q: So Ara Parseghian calls it quits after the 1974 season and Notre Dame has to replace another legend. Who stepped into that unenviable situation?

A: Father Hesburgh and Father Joyce tasked Dan Devine with taking over the football program. He was the head coach of the Green Bay Packers at the time but his heart was always in college football. Prior to his stint in Green Bay he was the head coach at both Arizona State and Missouri. At ASU he compiled a 27-3-1 record, including an undefeated season in 1957.

He then moved on to Mizzou where his success continued, including one undefeated season (1960) and four top 10 finishes in the AP Poll (1960, 1965, 1968, 1969) while rolling up a .715 winning percentage. As a matter of fact, Devine was almost offered the Notre Dame job after the 1963 season before Ara Parseghian accepted the position.

Q: Was he a popular choice among Notre Dame fans?

A: Not particularly. There were rumors flying around that Don Shula was going to leave the NFL and come to coach in South Bend as well as rumblings that Ara was just going to take a year off and then return. When Devine was hired people with those high expectations were let down. Devine was fresh off an unsuccessful stint as Green Bay head coach so memories of his past college accomplishments had faded. He was a fine football coach but could not compare to his predecessor when it came to charisma and presence.

Q: Did the players like Devine?

A: When you read about player reactions you can tell that some of them really didn't like him, most of them respected them, but all of them—especially those who had been recruited before Devine got there—wish that Ara would've been their coach.

Q: Was there immediate success (Terry Brennan style) or a drop-off (Hunk Anderson style)?

A: Devine pieced together a pair of good albeit unspectacular seasons to start his career in South Bend (8-3 in '75, 9-3 in '76 including a smackdown of Penn State in the Gator Bowl). In 1977 Notre Dame was pegged by Sports Illustrated as the preseason No. 1. They were led by future college football Hall of Famers tight end Ken McAfee and defensive end Ross Browner and expectations were understandably sky-high.

After winning the opener against Pitt though, the Irish stumbled against a hapless Ole Miss team and lost 20-13. "Dump Devine" bumper stickers were all over campus and on the cars in the stadium parking lots. The loss combined with the fact that the coach stubbornly and inexplicably refused to play budding star quarterback Joe Montana (even after he'd had so much success as a redshirt freshman in '75) helped create a tidal wave of animosity toward Devine from within Notre Dame Nation.

Q: Why did Devine refuse to play Montana?

A: If you listen to Devine it was a combination of the fact that he didn't think Montana was physically strong enough to go through the rigors of an entire season and his annoyance with Montana playing in Bookstore Basketball in the spring of '77 after he'd missed the entire 1976 football season with a shoulder injury. If you listen to players on the team they thought there was something about Montana that rubbed Devine the wrong way which led to the coach burying Joe on the depth chart.

Q: What's your opinion?

A: If you look at how the other quarterbacks (Rusty Lisch, Rick Slager, etc.) performed (for the most part very poorly) and compare them with how Montana performed when he was given a chance (extremely well, especially under pressure late in games) then I have to call BS on Devine. He was clearly the best quarterback—and it wasn't even close—which leaves no logical reason to keep him on the bench unless there was some sort of personal vendetta.

Going into the 1977 season Montana was relegated to third string quarterback, which was nearly as absurd then as it is now. I'm sure Montana wasn't totally innocent (the Bookstore Basketball incident being one example of the player blowing off what the coach wants), but when push comes to shove it's tough to find any sort of logic in Devine not declaring Montana his starter.

Devine got a lot of unnecessary and unwarranted flack during his time at Notre Dame, but his handling of the Montana situation deserved every bit of criticism it received.

Q: Obviously Montana was eventually inserted in the starting lineup. When was it?

A: After losing to Ole Miss in the second game of the '77 campaign Notre Dame was on its way to losing to Purdue when Devine finally gave Montana his first chance of the season...but only after the first stringer had failed, the second stringer had gotten knocked out by injury, and the first stringer failed again.

The Irish were losing 24-14 with 11 minutes left when Montana entered the game. Three possessions and 17 straight points later Notre Dame was victorious, claiming a 31-24 win. From that point forward the quarterback job was Montana's and he helped spearhead the Green Machine that rolled through the rest of the season.

Q: The Green Machine?

A: Prior to the Southern Cal game that season Devine decided that he needed a mental edge to fire up the players. Notre Dame was a home underdog against the mighty Trojans, who were ranked No. 5 in the country and the biggest obstacle between Notre Dame and a chance at the national title. He had green jerseys made up for the team but told only the captains and Irish basketball coach Digger Phelps of his plans. At the pep rally Friday night Phelps addressed the crowd and said, "TOMORROW WE WILL BE THE GREEN MACHINE!" No one had any clue of what he was talking about.

After warming up in their normal blue jerseys, the players came back to the locker room to find the green jerseys. The team erupted and when they burst onto the field behind a huge wooden Trojan Horse that the students had constructed the stadium went absolutely crazy. The tide of emotion carried the day as the underdog Irish destroyed Southern Cal 49-19. This victory spurred them on to run the table and clinch a berth in the Cotton Bowl against Texas.

Q: Was the Cotton Bowl a No. 1 vs No. 2 sort of deal?

A: No. Texas was led by Heisman winner Earl Campbell and ranked No. 1 but Notre Dame was only ranked No. 5. The thought was that in order for Notre Dame to leapfrog the four teams in front of them they'd need to beat the Longhorns convincingly and hope for some help. A future Notre Dame legend Lou Holtz provided the first bit of help when his Arkansas Razorbacks squashed No. 2 Oklahoma 31-6. Next Washington upset No. 4 Michigan in the yearly Bo Schembechler Rose Bowl chokejob. The table was set for a title if the Irish could deliver against Texas...and deliver they did.

Notre Dame was essentially playing a road game against the Longhorns since the game was played in the Cotton Bowl, but the Irish dominated both sides of the ball in a 38-10 rout. The thrashing of Texas in their own backyard was enough for voters to place the Irish atop their ballots and Notre Dame was national champion once again.

Q: Was that the beginning of a great run for Devine?

A: Unfortunately no. Notre Dame opened the next year 0-2 and suddenly the Devine haters were out in full force again. After another few good but not great seasons Devine retired in 1980. His final record at Notre Dame was 53-16-1 (.764 win percentage) and he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame just five years later.

Not many Irish fans appreciated him while he was the coach, but now looking back they tend to tip their cap to his contributions. He brought in a national title, wrote an entire chapter in Notre Dame lore with the unveiling of the green jerseys, and managed to do about as good a job as possible in filling the giant shoes of a legend like Ara Parseghian.

Q: Would you call him as under-appreciated as Leahy is today?

A: Well they're totally different scenarios. An appreciation of Leahy's true greatness has slipped through the cracks in modern times, but he was never under-appreciated when he was head coach. He built Notre Dame into a juggernaut that rivaled and probably even surpassed the teams Rockne fielded. He won four national titles, coached four Heisman winners, and lifted the Irish program to new heights.

Devine was the complete opposite. He was never beloved by the Notre Dame fan base and it seemed from day one most people were looking forward to when Devine would ultimately be replaced. As time passed people began to have a much more profound appreciation for his achievements on the field at Notre Dame. He stepped into the most pressure-packed job in college football and had to deal with one of the toughest situations in all of sports (replacing a legend). When you look at his body of work even the most anti-Devine people have to admit he did a fine job in spite of difficult circumstances.

Q: So the unpopular coach finally leaves town. Who did they bring in?

A: A high school coach by the name of Gerry Faust.

Q: Wait, didn't Notre Dame hire a coach whose only head coaching experience was high school before in Terry Brennan?

A: Yes.

Q: Didn't that fail miserably?

A: Yes.

Q: How'd round two with a high school coach turn out?

A: I believe midway through Faust's tenure Father Hesburgh channeled his inner Gob Bluthe and uttered, "I've made a huge mistake...again."

**************************************

This Week's CliffNotes

* Dan Devine left his head coaching position with the Green Bay Packers and took over for Ara Parseghian in 1975.
* Devine wasn't a particularly popular choice among fans or players. He lacked the charisma and panache that Parseghian had.
* After some initial bumps in the road he helped lead the Irish to a national championship in 1977. Notre Dame jumped from No. 5 to the top of the polls after dismantling No. 1 Texas 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl.
* During that '77 season he unveiled the famous Notre Dame green jerseys, a psychological ploy that helped galvanize the underdog Irish to a 49-19 beating of Southern Cal.
* Devine and Joe Montana never got along for some reason. Montana was forced to sit on the bench for most of his redshirt freshman year and the beginning of his junior year in spite of the fact that he clearly outplayed those ahead of him on the depth chart.
* After leading Notre Dame to a comeback victory against Purdue in the third game of the '77 season Montana kept the job for good and led the team to the national championship.
* Devine could not keep the momentum going and experienced marginal success his remaining three seasons. He announced before the the 1980 season that he would be retiring at the end of the season. After losing to No. 1 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl he left with a .754 career win percentage at Notre Dame.
* In 1985 Devine was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
* Gerry Faust, a high school coach from Cincinnati, was hired to takeover for Devine. This was the second time they went the route of hiring a high school coach with no college head coaching experience. This is the second time it was a huge mistake.

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