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Unclaimed Glory: The 1953 National Champion Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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Mathematicians, players, coaches agree: Irish were better than “champions” Maryland.

University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish Photo by Notre Dame/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were the only unbeaten team remaining at the end of the 1953 football season. They are the best team to never be recognized as champions by either the Associated Press or Coaches’ Poll.

The Irish were ranked No. 1 in the preseason AP poll and kept that ranking for the first eight weeks of the season. AP voters relegated the Irish to No. 2 after they tied to Iowa Hawkeyes on Nov. 21, and the 10-0 Maryland Terrapins took over the top spot.

The final AP and coaches polls were released Nov. 30, with the Irish yet to play the SMU Mustangs and before any bowl was played. The undefeated Terrapins were No. 1, and the 8-0-1 Irish No. 2.

The Irish dismantled the Mustangs, 41-14, three days after losing the national championship and finished their season 9-0-1. One month later, the No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners beat Maryland, 7-0, in the Orange Bowl.

It wasn’t simply that the Terrapins’ loss left Notre Dame as the only team with a zero in the loss column. It was also that the Irish had beaten those same Sooners, 28-21, on Sept. 26. It was Oklahoma’s only loss of the season.

The Irish were denied a national championship because of unfortunate timing, but also because of some blowback to their poor sportsmanship against Iowa.

In the final AP poll, ten of the 376 writers voted for 5-3-1 Hawkeyes as the best team in college football — which gave Iowa 100 points and helped Maryland secure the top spot over the Irish by 216 points. (The Terps also received more first-place votes — 187 — than the Irish — 141.)

Irish coach Frank Leahy demurred when asked by reporters if a special vote should be taken after Notre Dame throttled SMU.

“Neither myself nor the assistant coaches have given the idea a thought. We merely were striving for an undefeated season,” said Leahy, as quoted by the AP on Dec. 5, 1953.

ARGUMENT FOR MARYLAND

The Terrapins were a defensive stalwart, surrendering just 38 points the entire season. Besides the Sooners, the Terrapins and Irish also played the North Carolina Tar Heels at Keenan Stadium. Maryland blanked the hosts, 26-0, while Notre Dame won, 34-14.

We also shouldn’t assume the Sooners of week one were the same as the Sooners of Orange Bowl, their coach says.

“We have the word of the Sooners’ own coach, Bud Wilkinson, that his club improved vastly between Sept. 26, when it played Notre Dame, and yesterday,” wrote the International News Service’s John Barrington.

Leahy concurred.

“Oklahoma played a better game against Maryland than it did against us,” he told the United Press. “Larry Grigg and the rest of the team got better as the season progressed.”

The United Press Board of Coaches, Associated Press (AP) and INS ranked Maryland No. 1. The Coaches poll was much closer, with Maryland edging Notre Dame among “the 35 leading coaches” by just six points, 326 to 320.

In 2010, Bill Connelly — creator of SP+ — ranked the ‘53 Terps as the 41st best team of the previous 100 years. The irish weren’t ranked.

ARGUMENT FOR NOTRE DAME

“If you’ve wondered now the nation’s No. 1 college team, Notre Dame, might fare against No. 2, Maryland, the best man to ask is assistant coach Bill Edwards of North Carolina,” the Associated Press wrote Nov. 13, 1953. “There’s no hesitancy on his answer.”

“‘It would be Notre Dame,’ he said today. ‘Too much power. They just take the ball and — harumph!’ He made a sign of a tank going through some bramble bushes.”

It was Edwards’ role to scout both teams in advance of the Tar Heels playing them.

“Notre Dame will take the ball and — harumph! They’ll go right down to the goal line in short, vicious stabs — five yards, three yards, four yards at a time,” Edwards told reporters. “Maryland, on the other hand, is tricky and clever. They’ll throw the ball and pull a lot of tricks. Don’t get me wrong. Maryland is a great team. Plenty of speed, and smart. But I just don’t think they could handle a team like Notre Dame, which has two great lines and a powerful running backfield.”

The Billingsley Report, Boand System, DeVold System, Dunkel System, Helms Athletic Foundation, Edward Litkenhous, National Championship Foundation, Poling System, Sagarin, Sagarin (ELO-Chess) and Williamson System declared Notre Dame national champions. Helms was the only pollster to wait until the season was concluded to declare a national champion. Billingsley and NCF were done retroactively.

“The Notre Dame-Maryland subject popped up as expected in the Oklahoma dressing room” following the Orange Bowl, wrote the Associated Press. “Several players felt Notre Dame, which beat Oklahoma, 28-21, in the first game and was voted runner up team of the year, was better than Maryland.”

Oscar Fraley, writing after the Orange Bowl for the United Press, said “Notre Dame belatedly won the national championship while sitting in the living room.”

He added:

“Maryland may contend that its hopes were ruined because quarterback Bernie Faloney was out with an injury and available only a few minutes in the third quarter, but Oklahoma lost quarterback Gene Calame for the second half — and how can a team claim to the best in the land when the loss of one player will throw it completely out of gear?

“Notre Dame had some great backs this year: Johnny Lattner, Neil Worden, Joe Heap and Ralph Guglielmi. It is inconceivable that had one of them been lost, Notre Dame would have stuttered, stalled and fallen apart as Maryland did. This was a ball club with plenty of chances and when you can’t score in four cracks from the two and one-half yard line, you have little right to be called national champions.”

(Four years later, Fraley co-authored “The Untouchables.”)

In 2016, SP+ considered the 1953 Irish to be the fifth best team of the 1950s, and that year’s Maryland team to be the ninth best team. Last December, Jeff Sagarin picked the ‘53 Irish as the 71st best college football team of all time. The ‘53 Maryland team didn’t make the Top 150.

Sports on Earth, using College Football Reference’s Simple Rating System, considered the ‘53 Notre Dame team as the 96th best team of all time (as of 2015).

ARGUMENT AGAINST NOTRE DAME

The Irish overcame two deficits against Iowa by virtue of an official’s injury timeout.

Notre Dame, out of timeouts, advanced to the Iowa 12-yard-line with seconds remaining in the second quarter. Tackle Frank Varrichione “let out a squeal on the field, held his back and began staggering,” prompting an official to call a halt to the action with just one second left. (Umpire Don Elser, a Notre Dame alumnus, said, “I don’t know who made the time out call, but it wasn’t me.”)

“With time for only one play, and with Varrichione duly replaced, Guglielmi spotted end Dan Shannon untended at the Hawk goal line and threw to him for a touchdown,” the AP’s Tom Brannigan wrote following the game.

With time winding down in the fourth quarter and the Irish trailing 14-7, officials stopped the clock again for right tackle Art Hunter’s “injury.” Guglielmi found Shannon again with six seconds left to preserve the tie.

When the Hawkeyes returned to Iowa City, Coach Forest Evashevski told 2,500 students who congregated in the student union:

“When the great scorer comes to write against our name, he won’t write about whether we won or lost — but how come we got gypped at Notre Dame. Don’t celebrate a tie tonight; celebrate a victory. ... I was there, and if ever a team won a victory, this one did.”

While Varrichione was mum about his “injury” immediately following the game, the tackle revealed years later that both he and Hunter had faked their maladies to earn extra timeouts. While Athletic Director Ed “Moose” Krause pointed out that earning an injury timeout was “according to the rules,” the NCAA discourages such behavior by running off 10 seconds of game clock for injury stoppages in the final minute of a half.