The highs of the Leahy and Holtz to the lows of Faust and Weis
Graduates and subway alums alike may say anytime is a great time to be a Notre Dame fan. And that’s what is so infuriating for fans of other teams. Face it, the superiority complex for the Notre Dame faithful is justly earned.
Through the course of college football history, rooting for Notre Dame has been a worthwhile cause, from the underdog days when Knute Rockne took over through the revival under Brian Kelly.
Touchdown Jesus has overlooked seven Heisman winners, Hall of Fame coaches, 13 national championships, legendary games and a few dynasties.
Our series looking at the best and worst eras for college football fandom continues today with the Irish. From the Four Horsemen to Faust, from Leahy to Weis, these were the best times and worst times to be a Notre Dame fan.
Other best times/worst times:
BEST TIMES TO BE A NOTRE DAME FAN
Coach: Frank Leahy
National championships: 3
Notable players: John Lujack, Leon Hart, Jim Martin, George Connor, Bill Fischer, Emil Sitko
The late Beano Cook routinely said Frank Leahy was the most underrated coach of all time and this is a good reason why: Leahy supervised the best stretch at one of the top programs in college football history, yet he doesn't get the fanfare perhaps of Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian or Lou Holtz. Freshmen at Notre Dame in 1946 never saw their team lose when they graduated in 1949 as the Irish emerged from the postwar era with three national titles in four seasons, two Heisman winners (Lujack and Hart) and a 21-game win streak. Other highlights of the era: the 1946 team outscored opponents 247-24, and the 1947 team produced 42 professional players.
Coach: Lou Holtz
National championships: 1
Notable players: Raghib Ismail, Tony Rice, Jerome Bettis, Chris Zorich, Todd Lyght, Michael Stonebreaker, Aaron Taylor
Ending a decade-long title drought, Holtz brought Notre Dame back to national-championship status after the Irish stumbled under Gerry Faust. The ’88 season feature the famous Catholics vs. Convicts game against Miami and a win over undefeated West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame finished in the top 10 three more times during this period and wouldn’t enjoy this level of success until 2012.
Coach: Ara Parseghian
National championships: 2
Notable players: John Huarte, Dave Casper, Alan Page, Jim Lynch
Notre Dame endured five consecutive non-winning seasons before Parseghian arrived, including 2-7 in 1963. The following year, a heartbreaking loss to USC in the final two minutes prevented the Irish from winning the most unlikely national title in college football history, but Parseghian would have several more opportunities to redeem himself. The 1966 season featured the “Game of the Century” between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State, which ended in a 10-10 tie the Irish ran down the clock in their own territory. Parseghian was second-guessed ever since. Notre Dame won the AP title that year and finished in the top five for five consecutive seasons. From there, the Irish won the 1973 title in a classic showdown against an undefeated Bear Bryant-led Alabama team in the Sugar Bowl, which Notre Dame won on a gutsy deep pass on third and 8 to tight end Robin Weber to seal a first down and a 24-23 win.
Coach: Knute Rockne
National championships: 4
Notable players: George Gipp, the Four Horsemen (Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, Elmer Layden), Hunk Anderson, Adam Walsh, Frank Carideo
This is the period that established Notre Dame as the premier college football team in the country, and thanks to Rockne’s “barnstorming” approach to scheduling, Notre Dame built a fanbase nationwide. In the pre-Heisman, pre-AP poll era, Notre Dame went undefeated five times and won four national titles by various wire services. Irish fans at the time watched one of the game’s greatest innovators at work as Rockne was one of the first to embrace the forward pass and liberal substitutions. Domers are still fans of this era thanks to the Gipper and Grantland Rice’s legendary Four Horsemen piece.
WORST TIMES TO BE A NOTRE DAME FAN
Coach: Charlie Weis
Hopes were high after for Weis the failed tenures of Bob Davie and Ty Willingham, especially when the Super Bowl-champion offensive coordinator and Notre Dame alum raised the bar with BCS appearances in his first two seasons. Opposing fans used to call Notre Dame overrated, but now Notre Dame was just plain bad. The Irish went 3-9 in 2007 for their worst season since 1963. A sampling of the losses during these three seasons: Navy twice (ending a 43-game win streak), Georgia Tech, Air Force, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Connecticut. On the bright side, Notre Dame ended its nine-game bowl losing streak in 2007, but they had to beat Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl to do it.
Coaches: Bob Davie/Tyrone Willingham
Holtz’s defensive coordinator, Davie, oversaw a slide into mediocrity that didn’t end until last season. The lowlights for Davie included a 41-9 Fiesta Bowl loss to Oregon State after the 2000 season and losing years in 1999 and 2001. Willingham started 10-1 but went 13-15 thereafter.
Coaches: Gerry Faust/Lou Holtz
Imagine Alabama hiring the Hoover High coach. Or LSU hiring the John Curtis coach. That’s essentially what Notre Dame did when it hired Gerry Faust. The Irish were near the height of their powers, four years removed from a national title under Dan Devine, when they hired Faust from Cincinnati Moeller. The experiment was, of course, a disaster as Faust went 30-26-1. Notre Dame started every season under Faust ranked (including three times in the top 10) and finished every year unranked. After Faust's five-year tenure, Holtz went 5-6 in his first season but rebuilt around Heisman winner Tim Brown in 1987.
IT WASN’T SO BAD WHEN...
Coach: Charlie Weis
Weis gets a bad rap, but it wasn’t always that bad at Notre Dame. Led by Heisman finalist Brady Quinn, the Irish went 9-3 and 10-3 in his first two seasons with a pair of anticipated matchups against USC (both losses, one via the Bush Push). Notre Dame reached two BCS games, but it was clear the Irish weren’t ready for the primetime, losing 34-20 to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl and 41-14 to LSU in the Sugar Bowl. We say it wasn’t so bad because it wasn’t about to get worse, so much worse.
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