Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football has one of the richest histories in the sport of college football. Despite not winning a national championship since 1988, the Irish are firmly entrenched as one of the elites in the sport. With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at the top ten greatest head coaches in the history of Irish Football. This will be a ten part series.
9. Terry Brennan
Terry Brennan’s career at Notre Dame began not as a coach but as a halfback under Frank Leahy from 1945-1948. Following the conclusion of his playing career, Brennan immediately assumed the job of head football coach at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, Illinois. His brief three year career at Mount Carmel yielded three straight city championships. Leahy hired Brennan in 1953 to be the freshman coach for the Irish. Following Leahy’s resignation in early 1954, Terry Brennan was promoted to head coach for the Irish at the ripe age of 25. When asked if he thought he was too young to be a head coach, Brennan reportedly quipped, “Oh, I don’t know. I will be 26 in a few months.”
Notre Dame began their 1954 season as the #2 team in the land. Brennan immediately got off on the right foot with a 21-0 victory over #4 Texas, the first shutout for the Longhorns since 1946. After one game, Brennan was leading the #1 ranked team in the land. Unfortunately, this would be the only week of Brennan’s coaching career in which he led the top ranked team in the country. The #19 Purdue Boilermakers came to town during the second week of the season and upended the Irish 27-14, ending Notre Dame’s winning streak at 13. The Irish would not lose another game the rest of the season, defeating three more ranked foes on their schedule. Brennan’s first year ended with a 9-1 record and #4 rank in the AP Poll. Many felt the Irish had found their next Rockne.
Brennan did little to dissuade those beliefs in his second year. The Irish went 8-2 and finished with a final ranking of #9 in the AP Poll. Both losses were on the road and came against #13 Michigan State and USC. After two years, Brennan sported a .850 winning percentage. However, trouble was lurking for the Irish.
Starting in 1947, Notre Dame had begun to cut back on the number of football scholarships in an effort to de-emphasize the importance of football. In 1952, Frank Leahy convinced university president, Fr. Hesburgh, to allow him to bring in forty-two players for his recruiting class. However, Hesburgh mandated the following year’s recruiting class could only have eighteen players in an effort to average thirty new players per year. In 1953, the university declared football could “only” hand out eighty scholarships over a four year period. This put the Irish at a severe disadvantage as it was not uncommon for top-tier programs to bring up to forty kids per year. Furthermore, Notre Dame instituted a policy in Brennan’s first year which required an acceptable ACT or SAT score in order to gain admission into the school. The only other schools in the country with this requirement were the Ivy League schools during this time period.
The Irish paid dearly for these new policies in 1956 as the minuscule 1953 class grew to be seniors. Do not forget that during this time period freshman were not eligible for varsity play, which further reduced the roster size heading into the season. The Irish posted the worst season in school history, finishing the year at 2-8, their lowest win total since 1933. Notre Dame suffered the following losses: 47-14 against #2 Michigan State, 40-0 against #2 Oklahoma, 33-7 against Navy, and 48-8 against #3 Iowa. Miraculously, Paul Hornung captured the Heisman Trophy that season over the likes of Jim Brown, Johnny Majors, and Jerry Tubbs. His season stats were as follows: 420 yards rushing, 6 rushing touchdowns, 3 receptions for 26 yards, 917 yards passing, 3 passing touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 2 interceptions recorded on defense, 63 yards on punt returns, and 496 yards on kick returns. As an added bonus, he also kicked extra points. He remains the only player to ever have won a Heisman on a losing team.
Following the 1956 season, Fr. Hesburgh awarded Brennan a one year extension, despite recommendations from a faculty board to dismiss him. Hesburgh’s faith seemed to pay off as the Irish returned to their winning ways. The Irish opened the year on a four game winning streak before losing back to back games against #16 Navy and #4 Michigan State. Up next, the Irish were slated to face the #1 Oklahoma Sooners, winners of forty-seven games in a row. Notre Dame entered the contest as an eighteen point underdogs. During the first half it appeared as though Notre Dame would be run off the field. Three separate times Oklahoma had the ball deep in Irish territory but failed to score. The game remained scoreless late in the 4th quarter as the Irish were driving for a potential go-ahead score. Notre Dame found itself facing 4th and goal from the Oklahoma three yard line. Dick Lynch took a pitch from Bob Williams and strolled into the end zone to put the Irish up 7-0. The team then withstood two more drives by Oklahoma, the second of which ended with Williams intercepting an Oklahoma pass in the end zone with under a minute remaining. Not only did the Irish end the forty-seven game winning streak, but they also gave Oklahoma their first shutout in 123 games. Unfortunately, the following week the Irish lost 21-13 against #8 Iowa. The 1957 Irish finished 7-3 and a final ranking of #10 in the AP Poll. Brennan was not yet 30 years old but had guided three of his first four teams to a final ranking in the top ten.
Notre Dame entered the 1958 season with their eyes set on a national title. The sophomores from the disastrous 1956 season were entering their senior season and had shown a large improvement the previous season. A season that began with an abundance of promise lost its luster rapidly. The Irish had two losses within the first month of the season as any chance for a national title quickly fell by the wayside. The Irish finished with a very average 6-4 season and a final ranking of #17 in the AP Poll. Fr. Hesburgh and Fr. Joyce decided the time had come to move onto a new coach. Interestingly, the university did come under heavy fire with the firing off Brennan. Despite the decision to part ways with Brennan in early December, he had asked Fr. Hesburgh to delay the announcement until late December as he did not want to ruin a large Christmas party his wife was putting together. Hesburgh agreed and did not announce the firing until December 21st. The university received a barrage of criticism for failing to show any “Christmas spirit” as many thought a decision had not been reached until the 21st.
Brennan’s tenure at Notre Dame is often looked at with disapproval, mainly because of the stunningly bad 1956 season. Ultimately, Brennan had a .640 winning percentage, good for tenth among Notre Dame coaches who coached after 1913. Brennan is also only one of six coaches at Notre Dame to have led three teams in four seasons to a final ranking of tenth of better in the AP Poll (started in 1936). When considering his age, the recruiting restrictions he faced, and the overall success of his teams, I found it impossible to leave him off my list.
Stay tuned to find out who ends up at #8 on my list of “Top Ten Greatest Notre Dame Football Head Coaches”.