Notre Dame Football 101: The Forgotten Glory Days

Matt MattareCorrespondent IIIMay 20, 2011

We move on to the second installment of Irish Football 101. This week we'll concentrate on the Frank Leahy Era. It was one of the most successful eras in college football history but is often overlooked, even within Notre Dame circles. 

Q: So Knute Rockne died in a plane crash after the 1930 season. Was there a drop-off when he left?

A: Inevitably there was a bit of a drop-off from the ridiculous clip that Rockne was winning games, but it wasn't a free-fall. The two coaches who replaced him for the next decade were former Notre Dame players Rockne had coached: Hunk Anderson and Elmer Layden (of Four Horsemen fame).

Anderson coached from '31-'33 and posted a respectable .630 win percentage, while Layden took the helm for the next seven years and had the most successful run in the program's history that didn't result in a national championship for the Irish (.770 win percentage).

Eleven years after Rockne's death, Notre Dame's ascension back to the college football summit truly started, though, when they hired a young coach by the name of Frank Leahy.

Q: Frank Leahy? What's his backstory?

A: He had played at Notre Dame under Rockne and went into coaching shortly thereafter. He was the line coach for Fordham's famous "Seven Blocks of Granite" offensive line (which included Vince Lombardi) before accepting the head coaching job at Boston College.

After leading BC to their best season in school history (and it's still the best season in their history to this day), he jumped at the chance to go back to his alma mater and coach the Irish.

Q: Wait, why would he leave Boston College if he was having so much success there?

A: Well Leahy was a Notre Dame alum, but really it's simple: Notre Dame's a better football program. Always has been, always will be.

Q: Couldn't he have made BC into a powerhouse and rewritten history though?

A: He could've, but my guess is he didn't see much potential for anything more than a mid-level program in Chestnut Hill. Seventy years later, his choice proved correct because while Boston College has experienced some success in recent years, it is still a job used by coaches as a stepping stone to more attractive situations...like North Carolina State!

Q: Okay, back to Leahy. What'd he do on the field to get Notre Dame back to Rockne-esque levels of success?

A: Leahy's coaching tenure spanned from 1941-1953 (with a two-year break in 1944-45 when he served as a lieutenant in the Navy during WWII).

His teams amassed three consensus national championships, six undefeated seasons, and a win percentage of .855 (his career winning percentage of .864 is second best all-time in college football history behind Knute Rockne).

He referred to all his players as "lads," so over time, his teams became known as "Leahy's Lads."

Q: Rockne had the Four Horsemen and the Gipper. What are some of the names worth knowing from the Leahy Era?

A: Amazingly, Leahy coached FOUR Heisman Trophy winners over the course of his 11 seasons in South Bend (the most ever by one coach). Notre Dame's first Heisman winner came in his third year when "The Springfield Rifle," Angelo Bertelli, took home the award in 1943.

Bertelli only had the opportunity to play six games in '43 before leaving to serve in the Marine Corps in WWII, but in those six games, he engineered a deadly offense that averaged almost 44 points per contest en route to Notre Dame's first national championship since Rockne was coach.

Leahy's second Heisman winner came four years later when Johnny Lujack won the award in his senior season in 1947. Lujack is thought by many people to be the best player in Notre Dame's illustrious history.

He was a phenomenal two-way star who quarterbacked the Irish to back-to-back undefeated national championships his junior and senior seasons.

Paul Zimmerman wrote an article for Sports Illustrated about the greatest college football team ever...and the only debate was whether it was the '46 or '47 Notre Dame squad.

For all his exploits on the offensive side of the ball, Lujack is better known for his open-field, touchdown-saving tackle of Heisman Trophy winner Doc Blanchard in the 1946 Notre Dame-Army showdown.

The third in line was defensive end Leon Hart in 1949. Over the course of his four seasons Hart never experienced defeat at Notre Dame (36-0-2 record). He was the last lineman to win the Heisman Trophy and was a three-time first team All-American.

The last of the four Leahy Heisman winners was Johnny Lattner in 1953. He had the distinction of receiving All-American honors his junior and senior seasons not only as a running back, but as a defensive back as well.

Q: It seemed like there were a lot of players who had their careers interrupted in some way by military service in World War II. Were there any noteworthy stories of players' time in battle?

A: In 2003 Sports Illustrated ran the story of Notre Dame fullback Motts Tonelli. It is an incredibly powerful and moving story...one that truly makes you appreciate the power of human will and how such a silly game of football can have such a far-reaching impact.

Read the story, it's not something that can be done justice in a summary.

Q: So why did Leahy resign after the 1953 season? He was only 45 years old and fresh off another undefeated season.

A: At his resignation news conference, it was stated that he was resigning at the advice of his doctor. Earlier that year, he'd collapsed in the locker room during a game due to pancreatitis, and the stress of 11 seasons on the job had taken a definite toll on his health.

Some people think he was forced to resign by school president Father Hesburgh, but both Hesburgh and AD Father Joyce insist that they suggested his resignation for his own good.

In the book "Talking Irish," multiple players (including Heisman winner Johnny Lattner) agreed with Hesburgh and Joyce's assessment. Leahy had become so wound up by his final season that it was just a matter of time before he totally cracked.

If there's one thing history shows, it's that you can't expect someone to last more than 11 seasons in the high-stress pressure cooker that is the world of the Notre Dame Football Coach.

Q: His record shows he was one of the best coaches in college football history, he was an alum who played under Rockne, he loved the school...but when you hear people talk about the best ND coaches he seems to be an afterthought compared to Rockne, Parseghian, and Holtz.

In fact, on the Mount Rushmore of ND Coaches that appear on the 2006 Shirt they included Charlie Weis instead of Leahy. Why do you think he doesn't quite get the same publicity or love as those other three?

A: That's a great question. I think it's very clear why Rockne is placed atop the pedestal; he's basically the father of Notre Dame football and overcame great odds to turn a fledgling program into a national powerhouse.

For the reason as to why Parseghian and Holtz hold a "higher place" in Notre Dame fans' eyes than Leahy, I think it comes down to the state of the program when each coach took over.

When Leahy arrived, it had been 11 years since Notre Dame's last national title, but ND was still one of the top programs in the country, winning 77 percent of their games from '34-'40. That's a stark contrast from the situations Ara and Lou walked into.

In 1964, Parseghian inherited a squad that had gone 2-7 and lost to Navy the year before he arrived. Critics of the time suggested Notre Dame should go the way of the Ivies and give up major college football to maintain academic integrity.

Those that wanted to see Notre Dame ascend back to the top of the college football world were desperate for a savior. Ara proved to be just that and in his third season led them to a national championship.

In 1986, Holtz inherited a squad that had been completely eviscerated and embarrassed by Miami on national television in the final game of a 5-6 campaign.

Once again, critics questioned whether Notre Dame could ever be relevant again in a new, fast-paced world of college football ruled by irreverent teams like Miami and Florida State.

Like Parseghian, Lou proved to be exactly what the program needed and three years later the Irish completed a 12-0 national championship season.

Leahy's not mentioned in the same breath as Parseghian and Holtz (when he should be placed ahead of both on the proverbial totem pole) because of one thing: Ara and Lou resurrected the program from its darkest days while Leahy took a great program and made it the greatest program.

While Leahy's feat may have been more difficult to achieve, Ara and Lou's feats were more dramatic. Playing the role of savior wins a special place in fans' hearts.

It's the reason people were so quick to place Weis on a pedestal after the '05 season and why Brian Kelly will probably leapfrog Leahy and become the fourth member of the casual fan's Irish Mount Rushmore should he ultimately bring the Irish back to prominence.

Frank Leahy was one of the greatest coaches in college football history and without question the second greatest coach in Notre Dame history.

But he was not a program savior like Ara and Lou were, and therein lies the main reason he doesn't get the pub or love he deserves.

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This week's CliffNotes:

* Notre Dame didn't drop off the map after Rockne's death, but the next two coaches both failed to win a national title.
* Frank Leahy left Boston College in 1941 to become Notre Dame's coach because he realized BC's program ceiling was (and is) lower than the ceiling on Snooki's career as a veterinarian.
* Frank Leahy was the second-best coach in Notre Dame history, winning three national titles, completing six undefeated seasons, and coaching a record four Heisman Trophy winners.
* The four Heisman winners in the Leahy era were Angelo Bertelli ('43), Johnny Lujack ('47), Leon Hart ('49), and Johnny Lattner ('53).
* The Motts Tonelli story is one that every Notre Dame fan needs to know.
* Leahy resigned after 11 seasons at age 45 due to health concerns. At one point in his final season, he actually collapsed and received Last Rites in the locker room.
* Leahy doesn't get the same love or acclaim as Ara Parseghian or Lou Holtz (in spite of the fact that he had a superior record) because he wasn't a "savior" of the program the way Ara and Lou were. He took ND from great to greatest, while the other two took it from bad to great.


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