Notre Dame 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 the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. This will be a ten part series.
8. Elmer Layden
The name Elmer Layden should ring familiar to Irish faithful. Layden became a well recognized figure in American society following Grantland Rice’s christening of Layden, Jim Crowley, Don Miller, and Harry Stuhldreher as the “Four Horseman” in October of 1924 after an upset victory over Army. Layden starred under Knute Rockne from 1922-1924, garnering All-American honors his senior season for his exceptional play at fullback. Following a brief professional football career, Elmer Layden began his coaching career at Columbia College in Dubuque, Iowa. After the 1925 and 1926 seasons, Layden had an 8-5-2 record, good enough to receive a contract offer from Duquense University to become their new head coach. Layden spent seven years at Duquense, going 48-16-6. Following Hunk Anderson’s disappointing three year stint as Notre Dame’s head coach, the Irish contacted Layden about returning to his alma mater. Layden happily accepted an offer to become the Notre Dame’s head football coach and athletic director in early 1934.
Layden’s first year at the school coincided with a new president of the university. Father John O’ Hara began his first year as university president by instituting several new policies for the football team. First, every player on the football team was expected to maintain an average of 77 in the classroom, seven points higher than the average student. Surprisingly, no record exists of any player being withheld from competition due to academic violations during Layden’s time. Additionally, Layden had to bring all recruits to campus to sign them as he was not allowed to do any off-campus recruiting. Subjectively, this increased the difficulty of recruiting throughout the duration of his time in South Bend.
On the field, Layden led his first team to a ho-hum 6-3 record during the 1934 season. In a scheduling quirk, Notre Dame played their first four games of the season at home and ended with a five game road swing throughout the country, including stops in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Evanston, the Bronx, and Los Angeles.
A blistering 5-0 start to the season set up a week 6 clash against the Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus. The first ever match-up between the schools would come to be known as the initial “Game of the Century. Despite the ongoing Great Depression, all 81,018 tickets were sold for the game. After the first half of the game Ohio State was leading 13-0. Layden made a line change and decided to start the 2nd team for the beginning of the half, including left halfback Andy Pilney, who would play a pivotal part in the ensuing comeback. Pilney ignited the rally in the third quarter with a thirty-seven yard punt return to the Buckeye thirteen yard line. On the next play Pilney completed a twelve yard pass, which set up the first Notre Dame touchdown. Unfortunately, the extra point was missed and left the Irish trailing 13-6. The ensuing Irish possession ended with a fumble on the one yard line as they were driving for a game-tying score. Notre Dame’s defense forced a punt and the offense took field with the ball on their own twenty-one yard line and three minutes remaining in the game. Pilney helped the Irish move down the field once again. With just under two minutes remaining in the game, Mike Layden, Elmer’s brother, caught a fifteen yard touchdown pass from Pilney. Again, the extra point was missed and the Irish trailed 13-12. An unsuccessful onside kick allowed Ohio State to gain possession of the ball near midfield. The Buckeyes could not run out the clock with kneel-downs. As a result, the Buckeyes took to the ground in an attempt to gain a first down. The first play of the drive ended in a Notre Dame fumble recovery after Pilney, who was playing safety, jarred the ball loose from the Ohio State ball carrier. On the very next play, Pilney dropped back to pass but found no one open and took off running. He weaved his way down the field for a thirty yard gain to the Ohio State nineteen. However, he suffered a gruesome leg injury and had to be carted from the field of play. On the ensuing play, William Shakespeare, an Irish halfback, tossed a nineteen yard touchdown pass to Wayne Millner. The Irish missed another extra point but emerged with an 18-13 victory.
In what would become a hallmark of the Layden years, Notre Dame could not parlay the enormous victory into a national championship. The Irish lost the next week’s game to Northwestern, 14-7 and tied Army, 6-6 in the following week. They closed out the season with a win over USC, to finish the year at 7-1-1. Following the season, Layden was given a five year extension from Father O’ Hara as many felt the program was trending in the direction of a national championship.
The 1936 and 1937 seasons were nearly carbon copies of each other. Both seasons the Irish finished with a 6-2-1 record. During the 1936 season Layden led Notre Dame to a victory over #1 Northwestern in late November but already had losses to #9 Pittsburgh and Navy. The AP Poll debuted that season and Notre Dame finished with a final ranking of #8 in the country. After beginning the 1937 season with a 2-1-1 start, Notre Dame defeated #4 Minnesota by the score of 7-6 to secure their best victory of the season. Despite the Irish finishing with a final ranking of #9 in the AP Poll, dissatisfaction from many Irish fans started to spread during the 1937 season. Many griped about the lack of scoring from the Irish, and they had a point. The 1937 unit averaged a paltry 8.5 points per game. In fact, in the four losses between the 1936-1937 seasons, the Irish scored a combined thirteen points.
The outcries for his job did not deter Layden heading into the 1938 season. In fact, the Irish put themselves squarely in the driver’s seat to claim a national championship. Notre Dame rolled to an 8-0 start. The Irish defense pitched five shutouts and held the other three opponents to seven points or less. Along the way Notre Dame defeated #13 Carnegie Tech, #12 Minnesota, and #16 Northwestern. The Irish were ranked #1 heading into the final contest of the year against #8 USC, a team Layden had not lost to during his time at Notre Dame. Alas, the Irish could not close the deal on a national championship as the Los Angeles Coliseum claimed one of its earliest victims in the 1938 team. Notre Dame appeared out of sorts throughout the entire contest. Two major gaffes paved the way for a Trojan victory. With the score 0-0 and thirty-five seconds remaining in the half, Notre Dame faced a fourth and twenty-three from their own thirty yard line. Notre Dame quarterback, Steve Sitko, faked a punt but failed to convert. The Trojans managed to score a touchdown just prior to halftime. USC also scored a touchdown following an Irish fumble early in the 4th quarter, cementing a 13-0 triumph. The loss sent the Irish tumbling down to a final ranking of #5 in the AP Poll, as the angst continued to grow among Irish faithful.
Much like the 1936 and 1937 season, the 1939 and 1940 seasons painfully mirrored each other. Notre Dame began both years with a 6-0 record before losing to unranked Iowa teams in week seven of the season. The Irish lost to the Hawkeyes 7-6 in 1939 and 7-0 in 1940. To cap the 1939 season, Notre Dame lost 20-12 against #4 USC and finished with a 7-2 record and #13 national ranking in the AP Poll. The 1940 season saw the Irish lose in the week following the Iowa game against #10 Northwestern by the score of 20-0. Notre Dame again finished with a 7-2 record but was not ranked in the final AP Poll.
Layden’s contract expired after the 1940 season. Father Hugh O’ Donnell, the new university president, only offered him a one year contract for the 1941 season. Per O’ Donnell, this would be standard operating procedure for all lay employees at the school moving forward. Layden was less than thrilled with the offer. At the same time, the NFL came knocking and offered Layden the chance to become the commissioner of the NFL. He jumped at the chance and was given a five year deal, which averaged $20,000 per year, nearly double what he had been making at Notre Dame.
Layden left behind a somewhat complicated legacy at Notre Dame. On one hand, he won at an extremely high clip, averaging nearly seven wins per season in a nine game schedule. On the other hand, he was never able to get Notre Dame over the hump. The 1935, 1938, 1939, and 1940 seasons all had strong potential to end with national championships. However, in three of those four seasons a loss to an unranked team derailed those title aspirations. Ultimately, he finished his seven year career with a .770 winning percentage and never had a losing season. He left the program in an extremely healthy state, which allowed Frank Leahy to come in and return the program to its glory years under Rockne. While never having won a national championship hurts his standing, he is definitely one of the best coaches in Irish history.
Stay tuned to find out who ends up at #7 on my list of “Top Ten Greatest Notre Dame Football Head Coaches”.