Father Theodore Hesburgh was a Holy Cross priest, a leader in civil rights, a friend of the pope and a president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987.
Were he alive today, “Fr. Ted” would have celebrated his 100th birthday on Thursday. He is also the subject of a new book by former Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball coach Digger Phelps: “Father Ted Hesburgh: He Coached Me.”
Phelps joined WSBT’s Weekday Sportsbeat on Tuesday and recounted a conversation with Hesburgh that he reproduced in his book.
He asked the legendary leader -- who had traveled throughout the world and met extraordinary people — to pick five people who had the greatest impact on his life.
Hesbugh’s “starting lineup” was Pope Paul VI, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Father Edmund “Ned” Joyce, longtime secretary Helen Hosinski and former Notre Dame football coach Frank Leahy.
As Phelps noted, Hesburgh’s choice of Leahy is a surprise since the president ultimately fired him following the 1953 season. When the coach mentioned this to the former president, Hesburgh told him a story about butting heads with Leahy, but ultimately growing closer to the coach as a result.
You can listen to Phelps tell the story here or buy a copy of his book. But here’s the same story, as recounted in Hesburgh’s “God, Country, Notre Dame” autobiography with a little contemporary newspaper accounts spliced in between.
“The critical new statute that I knew would send the football coach up the wall was the one that stated we would abide by the Big Ten Conference rule governing the number of players on the traveling squad. The number was 38. Supposedly we were following the rule, but there was no way to know for sure.
“So I specified that the coach would submit to the executive vice president the names of all the players chosen to make each trip. The executive vice president would then instruct the registrar to give those players excused cuts in their classes.
“I did this for two reasons. I did not want our players traveling if they were in academic trouble. Secondly, I wanted to make sure that we were not exceeding the 38 player limit.
“Our first away game that year (1949) was against the University of Washington in Seattle. Because it was so far from South Bend, our team was scheduled to depart Wednesday out of Chicago. I would be traveling with them to represent the university, a fairly common practice in those days.
“By Tuesday, when I had not yet received the list of players who were going, I telephoned Herb Jones, the business manager of the athletics department. ‘How many players,’ I asked, ‘were on the list?’ Forty-four. I told him 44 players were not going to Seattle. Only 38 were going and that he had better go and find Leahy, wherever he was, and tell him.
“Leahy was out on the practice field, he told me. That was another thing I was against, but I would handle that later. The players were going to miss a week of school as it was, and I did not think they should be out practicing when they were supposed to be in classes. But at the moment, all I wanted was the travel list from Leahy. That crucial. Jones said he’d go find him.
“‘He says he’s too busy to get you the list. He’s getting ready for a big game,’ Jones reported back.
“‘I’ll give you a shorter message for him,’ I shot back. ‘Just tell him to give me the names of the six players who are going to reduce that number to 38. Because if he does take all 44, the six extra players are going to be out of school for good because they will have missed classes without excused cuts. I’m approving only 38 for excuses.’
“Before I left to catch the train out of Chicago, I stopped by (university president Fr. John) Cavanaugh’s office to warn of the showdown I had predicted in June. ‘If he takes 44 players, you’re going to have a nice choice to make,’ I said. ‘You’re either going to get a new coach or a new executive vice president.’
“Cavanaugh grinned at me. ‘Oh, that’s easy,’ he said. ‘We’ll get a new coach.’
“Boarding the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, I ran into Jones and asked him how many players were making the trip. He said, ‘Thirty-eight, but Frank is very angry. He’s ready to explode.’
“I did not see Leahy on the train. It could have been he was avoiding me, or simply chance. I was traveling with John Kiley, president of the railroad, in his presidential car, and when he invited me to dine on pheasant, I asked him to extend the invitation to Frank Leahy. He came, but was cold and uncommunicative, which made everybody uncomfortable, especially me.
“The game itself is one I would very much like to forget. It was the only time I ever saw the officials deliberately try to do us in. The first half was especially tough. When we watched the films back at Notre Dame, it was plain to see that on practically every play where Notre Dame had the ball, one of the officials pulled his penalty flag out of his back pocket, ready to throw it before our center even snapped the ball. Every time he pulled out his flag, no matter how early, he threw it. We won the game anyway.
The officials called 11 penalties for 135 yards on Notre Dame, including for holding, clipping, unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct.
Following the game, Leahy told reporters, “How could it be a good game when we had to play four extra men?”
“The officials today, all four of them, tried their best to even up a football game,” the coach said, according to a Oct. 3, 1949 UPI account. “Not one of them, none of four, ever will officiate another game for Notre Dame as long as I am associated with the school.”
Reporters caught up with Leahy again on Sunday, and the coach still hadn’t cooled off.
“The officials did their best to protect Coast Conference football,” he was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, before adding that he was “tired of accepting incompetence politely and without comment.”
The following day — Monday — the Associated Press rekindled Leahy’s resentment. W.H. Frazer, the head linesman of the Washington-Notre Dame game, told the wire service that he and his fellow officials had watched game film of the previous year’s Huskies-Irish matchup “not too long” before taking the field that Saturday.
“Frazer said Washington Coach Howie O’Dell was at the showing and ‘the purpose was to point out what they (Washington) thought about holding by Notre Dame players,’” the AP story said. A Notre Dame representative was not invited to the pre-game meeting. University officials only learned of it afterward.
Upon learning of this Leahy told the AP: “I believe the entire procedure tended to send the officials into Saturday’s game with a supercriticial attitude. It was quite irregular. I don’t know of this ever being done before.”
Leahy later said he regretted blasting the officials publicly.
“I’ve never made any public complaints about officiating before, but I felt I had to speak out about this one to protect the reputation of Notre Dame,” he told the AP.
Back to Hesburgh:
“Frank really gave a great deal of lip to the Seattle officials that day, and they deserved it. Some of his wrath might have been due to my cutting his traveling team. But, in any event, his criticism of the officiating at the game generated an adverse reaction from both the press and much of the public. I received a bushel basket full of mail on the subject, and it took us a long time to assuage feelings out West. I staunchly defended our team and Leahy, because they had been badly wronged, and that brought Frank and me closer together. We made peace with each other, and it lasted.”
(Phelps asked Hesburgh what he did with the mail: “I burned it,” the former president said.)
“One bright side to that long, grueling trip to Washington was that it later helped me persuade Cavanaugh that the team ought to fly to its away games. ... Traveling to Seattle, playing one game, and returning by train took up a whole week. Today, flying to away games, the team leaves on Friday night, plays Saturday afternoon and is back on campus in time to do some studying and participate in the usual Saturday night festivities on campus.”
The Huskies and the Irish would not play again until 1995. By that time, there were few left to remember the hard feelings. Both university presidents, the Irish’s athletic director and the Irish’s head football coach from 1949 were dead by time the Huskies returned to South Bend. The Huskies’ coach was still alive, but his interests had moved from blocking to ballroom dancing.