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Top Ten Greatest Notre Dame Football Coaches: #5 Dan Devine

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Take Time to Rethink This Period of Irish Football

OCT 18 1975, 10-22-1975; Devine, Dan - Football Coach, Notre Dome; Photo By Dave Buresh/The Denver Post via Getty Images

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 Irish Football. This will be a ten part series.

5. Dan Devine

Tenure: 1975-1980

Record: 53-16-1

Dan Devine was born in Augusta, Wisconsin on December 22, 1924. As a child, Devine and several of his siblings moved to Minnesota to live with their aunt and uncle. Devine grew up playing a multitude of sports. He particularly excelled at football and was a four year starting quarterback at Proctor High School. Devine played well enough in high school to receive an opportunity to continue his playing career at the University of Minnesota Duluth. However, Devine’s college career was interrupted when he enlisted into the Army Air Corps during World War II. He returned to school following the war and graduated in 1948. Following graduation, Devine jumped right into coaching and landed the head football position at East Jordan High School, which was located in Michigan. Following two undefeated seasons at the school, Devine joined the Michigan State staff in 1950 as an assistant. The Spartans enjoyed a ton of success during Devine’s 5 year stint in East Lansing, which enabled him to land the head coaching position at Arizona State in 1955. Devine helped the Sun Devils to a 27-3-1 during his three year stint in Tempe. His success in the desert garnered attention from big-time programs. Missouri reached out to Devine to offer him their head coaching position in 1958. He enjoyed a large amount of success at Missouri, posting a .704 winning percentage over 13 seasons, winning two Big 8 Championships, and finishing within the Top 20 in the AP Poll an astounding 9 times.

Interestingly, Devine very nearly became Notre Dame’s head coach for the 1963 season. Joe Kuharich, Notre Dame’s head coach, abruptly resigned in March of 1963. Hugh Devore was elevated from assistant to interim head coach for the remainder of the semester. In the summer of 1963, university vice president, Father Joyce, met with Devine to gauge his interest in becoming Notre Dame’s coach for the 1963 season. However, Devine declined the offer citing the fact that he would only have summer camp to prep his team for the season as opposed to an entire offseason. Notre Dame went 2-7 during the 1963 season, which led university president, Father Theodore Hesburgh, and Joyce to begin a search for a new head coach. Joyce was again interested in bringing Devine aboard. However, Hesburgh pursued Northwestern head football coach, Ara Parseghian. Despite the snub, Joyce was rumored to have told Devine that he would receive the first phone call the next time the Notre Dame job became available. Devine resigned from Missouri in early 1971 following his first losing season in Columbia during the 1970 campaign. Devine moved on to become the general manager and head coach of the Green Bay Packers. He was a flop in Green Bay over the course of his 4 year career, going 25-27-4 with 1 playoff appearance. In early December of 1974, Parseghian announced he would be resigning from his position as head football coach at Notre Dame prior to the team’s Orange Bowl contest against #2 Alabama. Coincidentally, Devine, who was likely to be fired at the end of the 1974 NFL season, resigned from the Packers on December 16, 1974. On the same day, Devine accepted a 4 year contract from Notre Dame to finally become their head coach. Upon his hiring, Devine remarked, “I have always respected Notre Dame’s administration and its athletic program. I am tradition and challenge-oriented and have always admired the manner in which Notre Dame has conducted its intercollegiate program. I couldn’t be happier about this opportunity.” After years of courting, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were finally set to have Devine lead the program.

As is the case many places, the successor to a living legend, such as Parseghian, is rarely welcomed with open arms. However, Devine stepped into any extremely volatile environment at Notre Dame. There were rumors at the time that Don Shula was going to leave the Miami Dolphins to come coach at Notre Dame. Additionally, a rumor had begun that Parseghian was only going to take one year off before returning to the Irish sideline. Thus, many fans believed that one of Ara’s assistants would be promoted to head coach. When Notre Dame announced the hiring of Devine, many in the Irish fan base were extremely upset and disappointed. Furthermore, there was talk that Devine had forced Parseghian’s hand in announcing his resignation prior the 1975 Orange Bowl to spare Devine the humiliation of being fired by the Packers prior to accepting the Irish gig. All of this added up to a frosty reception from many Notre Dame fans.

Nonetheless, Devine had to prepare for the 1975 season. As he readied for the season, Devine found the cupboard well stocked from Parseghian. On offense, Ken MacAfee began his sophomore campaign as starting tight end. Joe Montana entered his sophomore year as Rick Slager’s backup. Devine made the decision prior to the season that Montana was not physically strong enough to become the starting quarterback. On defense, Ross Browner and Luther Bradley returned from a season-long suspension in 1974 to pair with defensive tackle Steve Niehuas. Notre Dame began the season ranked #10 in the AP Poll. Wins against unranked Boston College, Purdue, and Northwestern moved Notre Dame up to #8. Devine suffered his first loss in week 4 of the season against a Michigan State team that would only go on to win 7 games during the 1975 season.

Though he was not starting at the time, Montana played a key role in a victory over 2-3 North Carolina. Montana was inserted into the game with 5:11 left, and Notre Dame trailing 14-6. Miraculously, he only played a total of a minute and two seconds but helped to rally the Irish to a 21-14 win. The following week against Air Force, Devine watched his team fall behind 30-10 in the 4th quarter. After Montana was inserted, the Irish went on a 21-0 run to squeak out a 31-30 victory. Moose Krause referred to the game as, “the greatest comeback I’ve ever seen.” Despite Montana’s magic, Slager remained the starting quarterback. Despite not starting, Montana did see relief duty in 7 games. He often had to come in to relieve an injured Slager, who battled several injuries throughout the course of the season.

Standing at 5-1, the Irish were slated to take on #3 USC following the victory over Air Force. Unfortunately for Devine, USC recorded a 24-17 victory. Following the win over Notre Dame, USC proceeded to lose its last 4 games of the regular season. Notre Dame rebounded to defeat Navy and Georgia Tech, a game which has lived on an Irish lore thanks to senior Rudy Ruettigner’s sack of Georgia Tech’s quarterback as time expired. The two game win streak helped Notre Dame to move back up to #9 in the AP Poll, despite having 0 wins against a ranked team. Next, Notre Dame traveled to play Pittsburgh. Junior Tony Dorsett helped to power the Panthers past the Irish as they won 34-20. With three losses on the year, Notre Dame stuck to its policy of not accepting a bowl bid to a lower-tier bowl game. Thus, the 1975 season concluded with a 32-9 victory over a 2-8 Miami (FL) team. Devine ended his first season in South Bend with an 8-3 record and a final ranking of #17 in the AP Poll.

Seeking to put the chaos of 1975 behind him, Devine turned his gaze to the 1976 season. Prior to the season, Joe Montana suffered a separated shoulder that ended his season before it even began. This meant that Rick Slager would retain the starting quarterback position. The #11 Irish opened the season against #9 Pittsburgh, looking to avenge last season’s loss. Instead, Tony Dorsett terrorized the Irish, racking up 181 yards rushing and 1 touchdown as the Panthers rolled to a 31-10 victory. As a side note, Pittsburgh would go on to have an undefeated season and win the National Championship. After the opening loss, Notre Dame rolled to 6 consecutive victories, highlighted by defeating #19 South Carolina on the road. In the six victories, Devine’s squad outscored their opponents 176-33 and rose to #11 in the country.

During the first weekend of November, Notre Dame traveled to take on a 3-4-1 Georgia Tech team in Atlanta. What should have been a seemingly easy victory turned into a disaster. Notre Dame entered halftime up 14-10. However, the Yellow Jacket would score the only 13 points of the second half, winning 23-14. Astoundingly, Georgia Tech was able to win without completing a single pass. Following a sack by Ross Browner in the 1st quarter, Yellow Jacket coach, Pepper Rodgers, reportedly said, “We may not win this game, but that’s the last time they’re {Browner and Willie Frye} going to strut on our field. From this point on, they’re going to play against the option.” Georgia Tech stuck with the option the remainder of the game. Humiliated, many Notre Dame fans were calling for Devine’s job after the embarrassing loss.

To make matters worse, #10 Alabama was set to travel to South Bend for the school’s first regular season contest. Both teams had two losses on the season and were desperate to stave off a crushing third loss. After a scoreless 1st quarter, Notre Dame poured in 21 points in the 2nd quarter to take a 21-7 lead into halftime. Despite the lead, many fans were anxious about a Crimson Tide comeback due to Notre Dame’s conservative play calling. For context, the previous three games had seen the Irish go into a shell in the 2nd half. Fans had seen near losses to South Carolina and Navy, and experienced the setback against Georgia Tech. The fans’ fears soon came to fruition as Alabama scored the next 11 points of the game, closing the score to 21-18. Fortunately, the defense forced an interception and a turnover on downs during Alabama’s last two drives of the game. This allowed Notre Dame to sneak out with a 21-18 victory. Notre Dame defeated Miami (FL) the following week to set up a massive regular season finale against #3 USC.

Entering the game, Devine had a massive promise to keep to his team. After losing the previous season to USC, Devine promised his returning players that they would not lose to USC over the course of the next three seasons. In hindsight, Devine should not have made such a promise as Notre Dame fell 17-13 to the Trojans. Devine, who rarely criticized the officials, had some choice words following the game. He stated, “I’d like to comment on the officiating, but I don’t think I should. It’s one of the toughest things to do, to hold inside my feelings, and one of the toughest things I have to do in life. When a team fights its guts out, then the officials should fight their guts out too and should be right a hell of a lot more times on calls than they are wrong.” The calls that drew Devine’s ire both came in the 4th quarter against Luther Bradley. Bradley was flagged for pass interference on a 3rd down play which extended the Trojan drive and resulted in a field goal. Bradley was again flagged for pass interference on the Trojan’s next possession which negated an Irish interception. Despite 3 losses on the season, Notre Dame accepted a bid to play in the Gator Bowl on December 27th, 1976 against #20 Penn State. The Irish emerged from the game with a 20-9 victory. Devine remarked after the game, “It was good to finish with a win and makes for a good start for next season.” Notre Dame ended the season with a 9-3 mark and a #12 ranking in the AP Poll. Devine had produced two remarkably similar campaigns in his first two years in South Bend, losing to Pittsburgh, USC, and an unranked team in both seasons.

Despite two lackluster seasons, expectations were extremely high heading into the 1977 season. Notre Dame returned all 11 starters on defense, including Luther Bradley, Willie Frye, All-American linebacker Bob Golic, and the 1976 Outland Trophy winner in Ross Browner. Though the offense had to replace several starters, they returned All-American tight end Ken MacAfee, Vargas Ferguson, Jerome Heavens, and Joe Montana.

In a bit of a head-scratcher, Montana was buried on the depth chart behind redshirt sophomore Rusty Lisch and senior Gary Forystek. Several theories exist as to why Devine never seemed to give Montana a fair shot at the starting quarterback position. First, Lisch was part of Devine’s initial recruiting class, while Montana had been brought in by Parseghian. Additionally, Lisch had come on in relief during the 1976 victory over Alabama when Rick Slager was injured. He helped defeat Miami (FL) and played extensively in the season finale against USC. One could argue he had the recency bias working for him, whereas Montana missed the entire season due to injury. Furthermore, Montana went against Devine’s wishes of playing in the annual Bookstore Basketball Tournament during the spring of 1977. Lastly, there was a certain belief amongst the players that Montana’s overall behavior irritated Devine, which resulted in him essentially refusing to play him on several occasions. Looking at overall performance, Montana clearly had been more productive than Lisch during his limited opportunities. Nonetheless, the Irish entered the season with Lisch behind center.

Notre Dame opened the season ranked #3 and traveled to face #7 Pittsburgh. Though they no longer had Tony Dorsett, Pittsburgh’s quarterback, Matt Cavanaugh, was a preseason Heisman candidate. He held a 3-0 record against Notre Dame and was looking to finish his career unbeaten against the Irish. However, on a 1st quarter touchdown pass, Willie Frye landed on Cavanaugh and broke his wrist, which forced him out of the game. With Notre Dame’s offense largely ineffective, the Panthers entered halftime up 9-6. Neither team was able to accomplish anything in the 3rd quarter as both offenses struggled to sustain a drive. Fortunately, the Irish defense was able to force two turnovers in the 4th quarter that led to two field goals. Notre Dame added a late touchdown to make the final 19-9 as Devine secured his first win against the Panthers. Despite their heroic effort in week 1, the Irish defense could not prevent disaster in the second week of the season against Ole Miss. Lisch tossed two interceptions and continued his ineffective play as the Irish suffered a 20-13 loss. The season appeared to be headed off the rails. During the week, the team’s four captains, Ross Browner, Willie Frye, Terry Eurick, and Steve Orsini held a players-only meeting in attempt to refocus everybody. Devine came under fire again from the fan base as many voiced their displeasure with his effectiveness. The offense had clearly been the issue the first two weeks of the season, but Devine stubbornly stuck with Lisch as his starting quarterback heading into the Purdue game. To the surprise of no one, the first half of the Purdue game followed a familiar pattern. The offense struggled to move the ball while Purdue’s freshman quarterback, Mark Herrmann, carved up Irish defense. The Boilermakers entered halftime up 24-14. Devine finally decided to make a change at the quarterback position, inserting Gary Forystek to replace Lisch. However, Forystek did not last long, suffering a broken collarbone on a hit in the 3rd quarter. Instead of turning to Montana, Devine went back to Lisch, who continued his futile play. Finally, with around 11 minutes remaining in the game, Montana was given his chance. He proved to be the catalyst the offense needed and helped lead the team to 17 points in the 4th quarter. The defense rebounded to hold Purdue without a point in the second half, and Notre Dame captured a 31-24 victory. Thankfully, Devine stuck with Montana as his starter the following week as Notre Dame defeated Michigan State 16-6. After the Irish defeated Army 24-0, the entire gaze of the program shifted to the upcoming battle against #5 USC.

Entering the pivotal match-up, Notre Dame was riding a 3 game losing streak to the Trojans. There was plenty of skepticism heading into the game about Devine’s ability to win such a big game. However, Devine had been holding back a secret from most everybody in the program. As a motivational tactic, Devine had ordered green jerseys he planned to deploy against USC. The first anybody knew about it was the Tuesday of game week when Devine told the captains and a few assistant coaches. The plan was for the team to warm up in the customary blue jerseys. Then, after warm-ups, the team would come back into the locker room to find the green jerseys hanging in their lockers. Thus, the captains had to calm several players down on game day who were complaining about having to wear white socks with green stripes. The players complained about how stupid they would look on national television. The captains assured them they would look fine and tried to refocus everybody on the game. After warm-ups, the team headed back to the locker room to find the green jerseys. Instantly, the locker room turned to chaos. As the team emerged from the tunnel, the entire stadium roared in approval. Years later, several USC coaches and players admitted they knew right then and there that they had lost. They were spot on, as Notre Dame destroyed the Trojans, 49-14. The “Green Jersey Game” was a success and helped Devine to his first and only win over the hated rivals from California.

The win over USC helped the Irish jump to #5 in the country. The team continued to gel as they plowed through 4 of their final 5 games. Notre Dame’s closest call the rest of the season was a 21-17 victory against #15 Clemson, a game in which Joe Montana continued his heroics by rallying the team from a 10 point 4th quarter deficit. Notre Dame secured an invite to the 1978 Cotton Bowl against #1 Texas. Texas was led by their Heisman Trophy winning running back, Earl Campbell. The entire week Notre Dame had to listen to the national media, as well as the Dallas locals tell them how easy of a game it would be for Texas. In those days, Texas ran a wishbone-style offense that came many teams fits. However, many people had forgotten that Notre Dame had succeeded in containing the same Texas offense in the 1970 and 1971 Cotton Bowl. The reason for such success was due to a defense scheme drawn up by defensive line coach, Joe Yonto. Devine had retained Yonto on his staff when he took over in South Bend and had promoted him to defensive coordinator from in 1976. Despite being given very little chance to win, Notre Dame rolled in a blowout. The Irish held a 28-10 halftime edge and won the game by the final of 38-10. Now that Notre Dame had defeated the #1 in the country, it needed a large miracle to capture the national title. Miraculously, that miracle occurred. #13 Washington defeated #4 Michigan 27-20 in the Rose Bowl. Later in the day, the Lou Holtz-led #6 Arkansas Razorbacks defeated #2 Oklahoma 31-6 in the Orange Bowl. #3 Alabama did defeat #9 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. This left Notre Dame, Alabama, Arkansas, Penn State, Texas, and Kentucky as one loss teams. Based on the strength of the defeating the #1 team in the country, Notre Dame edged Alabama and Arkansas in the AP voting for the 1977 National Championship. Notre Dame received 37.33 votes, Alabama 19.33 votes, and Arkansas 5.33 votes. After innumerable calls for his job, Devine had climbed the mountain top and etched himself into the history books. Though he had made it harder on himself with the handling of the quarterback position, Devine deserved credit pushing the right buttons in the USC game, which helped to start the team on an unstoppable roll. Now that he had captured a championship, many Irish fans begrudgingly accepted Devine as their coach.

After basking in the championship glow, fans soon realized that the 1978 squad would need to replace several impact players. The Irish lost a wealth of talent to the NFL Draft as Ken McAfee (pick 7), Ross Browner (pick 8), Luther Bradley (pick 11) were all selected in the 1st round of the draft. Additionally, 5 other players from the 1977 team were selected throughout the draft. Joe Montana did return for his 5th season and was named the starter by Devine. Additionally, Notre Dame returned Vargas Ferguson and Jerome Heavens in the backfield. Heading into the season, many felt the strength of this team would be its ability to score points. That notion was quickly shattered in the first game of the season as #5 Notre Dame lost 3-0 to Missouri. It was the first time the Irish had been shutout since 1965, a span of 132 games. Devine came under fire for eschewing field goal attempts twice inside the 20 yard line. A third time Notre Dame moved within the 20 yard line but a bobbled snap foiled the only field goal attempt of the afternoon. Dropping down to #14, Notre Dame welcomed #5 Michigan to Notre Dame Stadium in the teams’ first match-up since 1943. Both teams were 0-1. Michigan was looking to avoid its first non-conference loss since 1969. The contest was a back and forth affair with the score knotted at 14 heading into the 4th quarter. Unfortunately, Michigan outscored Notre Dame 14-0 in the final quarter and walked away with a 28-14 win. 1977 this was not. Filled with outrage, fans returned voicing their desire for the university to part ways with Devine.

Following the 0-2 start, Notre Dame reeled off 8 consecutive victories, defeating #9 Pittsburgh, #11 Navy, and #20 Georgia Tech along the way. To conclude the regular season, #8 Notre Dame were set to face #3 USC. The Trojans had spent an entire season preparing to avenge their loss in 1977. They spent the first 3 quarters exacting that revenge, racing out to a 24-6 lead heading into the 4th quarter. However, Joe Montana wasn’t ready to concede defeat. Montana threw a 57 yard touchdown pass early in the 4th quarter to close the gap to 24-12. With 6:56 left in the game, the Irish found themselves at their own 2 yard line following a USC punt. Montana again led them on a touchdown march, narrowing the margin to 24-19. The Irish defense quickly forced a three and out, which allowed the offense to take possession of the ball on the Trojan 43 yard line with 1:35 left in the game. They rapidly moved down the field, and Montana tossed a 2 yard touchdown with 46 seconds left in the game. Devine called for a two-point conversion which was unsuccessful. The kickoff saw the Trojans move to their own 30 yard line. A 10 yard USC pass moved them to their own 40 yard line. On the next play, chaos ensued. Trojan quarterback, Paul McDonald, dropped back to pass. As he did so, Jeff Weston broke through the line. McDonald pumped faked and tucked the ball under his arm. As he did this the ball popped out, and Weston fell on it. Notre Dame stormed the field, believing they had secured a win. However, the referee ruled that it was an incomplete pass. On the very next play, the Trojans hit a 35 yard pass to move to the Irish 25 yard line with 12 seconds left. A 5 yard run moved the ball to the Irish 20 with 6 seconds remaining. This allowed USC to kick a 37 yard field goal, and secure a controversial 27-25 victory.

The Irish again finished the regular season with 3 losses but received an invite to play #9 Houston in the Cotton Bowl. The night before the game, a large ice storm hit the Dallas area. 50,000 people were left without power as a result. The game time temperature was listed at 18 degrees with the wind chill making it feel like -6 degrees. The official attendance for the game was listed at 32,500 in a stadium that routinely held 72,000 or more people. Notre Dame jumped out to an early 12-0 lead. However, Houston answered with 20 points in a row to hold a 20-12 lead at halftime.

Coming out of halftime, Devine inserted Tim Kogel into the game. Was Devine up to his old tricks with Montana again? It was not until midway through the 3rd quarter that the broadcast crew reported that Montana was in the locker room with a below normal body temperature and chills. The audience was led to believe that he had come down with the flu. Despite the television reports, players on the Irish sideline knew the real story. Joe Montana was suffering from hypothermia. While Irish fans were trying to piece all of this together, Houston added two more touchdowns in the 3rd quarter, extending their lead to 34-12. As Houston wrapped up their second touchdown drive of the quarter, Montana slowly emerged from the locker room. With 1:41 left in the quarter, Montana trotted back onto the field. Immediately, he found trouble as he threw an interception into the wind, seemingly ending the slim chance for a comeback.

With 7:37 left in the game, and the score 34-12, Houston lined up to punt. The Irish broke through the line and blocked the punt, allowing Steve Cichy to pick up the loose ball and return it for a 33 yard touchdown. The Irish converted a two point conversion after Montana hit Vargas Ferguson for a 2 yard pass, leaving the score at 34-20. The defense forced a three and out. This time Montana took over on his own 40 yard line. He completed 3 consecutive passes for 58 yards and capped the touchdown drive with a 2 yard run. The Irish converted another two-point play with a Montana pass to Kris Haines. The score now stood at 34-28 with 4:15 remaining in the game. The defense again forced a punt, and Montana came back onto the field. This time though, the Irish did not turn in a scoring drive. Instead, Montana fumbled the ball at the end of a 16 yard run with 1:50 left in the game. The fumble was Montana’s 6th turnover of the game. At this point, all hope was surely lost. Instead, the defense stiffened yet again and forced a punt on 4th and 6 from the Cougar 24 yard line. Not looking to make things easy, the Irish jumped offsides. Houston accepted the penalty to make it 4th and 1 from their own 29 yard line. Not wanting to have another punt blocked, Houston decided to attempt a run to convert the 4th down. On the pivotal play, freshman defensive end, Joe Gramke stoned the Cougar ball carrier in his tracks, forcing a turnover on downs. The Irish took over on the Houston 29 yard line with 28 seconds left. On the first play of the drive, Montana ran for 11 yards. Next, he hit Haines for a 10 yard gain. After an incomplete pass, Notre Dame stood at the 8 yard line with 2 seconds remaining. On the final play of the game, Montana hit a diving Haines in the corner of the end zone for the game-tying touchdown. All that was left to do was kick the extra point to secure the victory. Of course, nothing was going according to plan during this game. Notre Dame kicker, Joe Unis, came on to the field after not having kicked in over 4 hours. This was due to Notre Dame having a different player handling kickoffs, and Notre Dame furiously attempting two-point conversions to get back into the game. Unis calmly hit the extra point, but Notre Dame was flagged for an illegal procedure. This penalty pushed the ball back and turned a chip shot into a 25 yard attempt. Unis was unbothered by the distance, nailing the kick and capping one of the most dramatic comebacks in college football history. Despite a 13/34 passing performance and 6 turnovers in the final game of his career, Montana emerged victorious in his final collegiate game. The Comeback Kid saved his gutsiest performance for last. The win gave the Irish a 9-3 record and a #7 ranking in the AP Poll. Although not quite the follow-up act many fans envisioned, Notre Dame ended the season on a high note following the improbable victory.

Heading into the 1979 season, Rusty Lisch was set to reclaim his starting role after Joe Montana moved onto the NFL. Along with Montana, stalwarts Bob Golic and Jerome Heavens joined Montana in the NFL as the Irish sent 10 players to the NFL in the 1979 draft. Notre Dame opened the season as the #9 team in the country and faced off against #6 Michigan in the opener. The Irish prevailed in a tense thriller by the score of 12-10. The victory was secured after Bob Crable leapt onto the back of Michigan’s center to block the game-winning field goal attempt. The heart-stopping victory did not generate much momentum as Notre Dame went on to lose 28-22 against #17 Purdue the following week. However, Notre Dame rebounded to win their next three games, including defeating #7 Michigan State 27-3. In what had become an annual ritual, a mighty clash with #4 USC was next on the schedule. A tense 7-7 game at halftime turned into a laugher as USC score 5 touchdowns in the 2nd half to pull away with a 42-23 win, and Devine’s struggles against the Trojans continued.

The highlight of the 1979 season came against an unranked South Carolina team. Early in the game Notre Dame looked extremely lethargic against the Gamecocks, entering halftime with a 3-0 lead. South Carolina roared out of the gates in the 3rd quarter, scoring 17 points on their first three drives of the second half. A Vargas Ferguson touchdown with 17 seconds left in the 3rd quarter brought the score to 17-10. After Notre Dame missed a field goal on its initial possession of the 4th quarter, South Carolina proceeded to hold onto the ball for the next 9:30, finally punting with 1:20 left in the game. Trotting onto the field, Rusty Lisch hoped to channel his inner Montana as the Irish drive began on their own 20 yard line. Lisch marched the team 80 yards in 54 seconds to score a touchdown. Instead of going for the tie, Devine opted for the two-point conversion, which Lisch completed with a 2 yard pass. Though the win came in a down year, Lisch had finally attained his moment in the sun after 5 years at Notre Dame. Notre Dame would go on to defeat Navy 24-0, before suffering back to back losses to Tennessee and #14 Clemson. To conclude the disappointing season, Notre Dame traveled to Tokyo to take on Miami (FL). Notre Dame easily defeated the Hurricanes, 40-15 and capped an extremely disappointing season with a 7-4 record. What can not go unmentioned from 1979 is Vargas Ferguson’s magical season. Ferguson set the single season rushing record at Notre Dame with 1,437 yards and single season rushing touchdown record with 17. Ferguson concluded his career with 3,472 rushing yards and 32 career touchdowns. All of these marks were records at the time he graduated from Notre Dame.

As the Irish readied for the 1980 season, Dan Devine made a surprise announcement in early August. He announced that following the season he would be retiring to spend more time with his family. Devine would plan to rely heavily on the strength of his defense and running game during his final season as he announced freshman Blair Kiel would be his starting quarterback.

Notre Dame entered the season ranked #11 and easily dispatched #9 Purdue by the score of 31-10. The second weekend of the season saw the Irish take on #14 Michigan. As had been custom the previous two games, the 1980 clash was full of drama. Notre Dame jumped out to a 14-0 lead before Michigan scored 21 unanswered points to take a 21-14 lead. Notre Dame scored the next 12 points to hold a 26-21 advantage with 3:03 remaining in the game. However, Michigan proceeded to drive down to score a touchdown with 41 seconds remaining to take a 27-26 lead. Not finished, Kiel directed a 5 play, 46 yard sprint to set up a final 51 yard field goal attempt. With the wind blowing directly into his face, Harry Oliver drilled one of the most iconic kicks in Irish history to give the Irish a 29-26 walk-off win.

Fans were beginning to wonder if Devine would ride off into the sunset with a second national championship. After edging an average Michigan State team, Notre Dame pummeled #13 Miam (Fl), 32-14. Four weeks into the season, Notre Dame stood at #5 in the polls. Over the next 3 weeks Notre Dame allowed a total of 6 points as they defeated Army, Arizona, and Navy. Following the win over Navy, Notre Dame moved from #3 to #1 in the rankings. Unfortunately, the Irish did not handle their lofty ranking very well. The week after moving to the top of the rankings, Notre Dame tied Georgia Tech with the score of 3-3. The Yellow Jackets would only end up winning a single game during the season. The tie dropped the Irish down to #6 in the rankings. The following week, the Irish traveled to Tuscaloosa to take on Bear Bryant’s #5 Crimson Tide. The game turned out to be a defensive struggle. The lone touchdown on the afternoon came following a series of mishaps on both sides. In the middle of the 2nd quarter, Alabama’s quarterback, Don Jacobs fumbled a handoff on the Alabama 12 yard line which Notre Dame recovered. On the next play, Blair Kiel dropped the snap, and Alabama recovered the fumble. Jacobs proceeded to fumble the ball right back, and Notre Dame took possession on Alabama’s 4 yard line. Two players later, Notre Dame scored the lone points of the day with a 2 yard run by Phil Carter. Neither offense was able to muster anything of substance the remainder of the day, allowing Notre Dame to return to South Bend with a 7-0 victory. The win elevated the team back up to #2 in the polls following the win. The next week Notre Dame defeated Air Force 24-10, leaving one more game left on the schedule.

Having accepted a bid to play #1 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl during the final weeks of the regular season, Devine had one final hurdle to clear to set up a national title showdown. Standing in the way was Devine’s personal nemesis, USC, a team that held a 4-1 record against him. USC entered the game on a 2 game losing streak and would be without the services of star running back, Marcus Allen. Prior to the game, Devine ominously stated, “You may say this is just coach’s talk, but I think we are in for our toughest game of the year on Saturday.” Devine’s words rang true as USC held Notre Dame without a touchdown, winning 20-3. After a magical run, any hope for a national title had been dashed.

Entering the Sugar Bowl, Notre Dame was riding a 5 game winning streak in bowl games when facing an undefeated, top-ranked team in the country. Though Georgia had freshman star Herschel Walker in the backfield, few on the Irish sideline were intimidated. Looking at the final stats from the game, one would have thought Notre Dame rolled to an easy victory. The Irish out-gained the Bulldogs 328-127 in total yards and racked up 17 1st downs compared to Georgia’s 10. Heck, Georgia did not even complete a pass until 2 minutes remained in the game. Furthermore, Notre Dame held a 9 minute time of possession advantage. After going up early 3-0, everything that could go wrong did in Devine’s final game. Notre Dame had 4 turnovers, missed 2 field goals, allowed 1 blocked field goal, and had a miscommunication on a kickoff that allowed Georgia to recover the ball on the 1 yard line. In his final game as coach, Devine once again played musical chairs at quarterback. After Georgia went up 17-3 in the 2nd quarter, he pulled Blair Kiel from the game and inserted senior Mike Courey. Courey did not last very long as he suffered a broken hand, forcing Kiel to re-enter the game. The litany of mistakes could not be overcome, and Georgia walked out of the Superdome with a 17-10 victory and a national title. Devine’s career came to a demoralizing end as he was left to ponder not only the maddening defeat but also the disappointing finish to the season. Notre Dame ended the season with a 9-2-1 record and a final ranking of #9 in the AP Poll.

Devine finishes #5 in my ranking for a variety of reasons. On the positive side, he finished his time in South Bend with a .764 winning percentage, a 17-9 record against ranked opponents, a 3-1 bowl record, and 1 national championship. On the surface those numbers are fairly impressive. Furthermore, he took a dominant program that Ara Parseghian had built and continued it on the right path. While certainly not as dominant as Ara, Devine was no slouch either. Additionally, Devine dealt with a ton of abuse from the fan base, many of whom were simply irate at him for not being Parseghian. Devine handled his time in South Bend with extreme class, and to the best of my knowledge, never lashed out at fans. On the negative side, outside of 1977, Devine produced good but not great seasons in his other 5 campaigns. His biggest issue was his inability to defeat USC, posting a 1-5 mark against them during his time with Notre Dame. 1980 had all the makings of a national title. However, his team faltered in the final game of the regular season and performed extremely sloppy in a very winnable game against Georgia. Devine seemingly made things harder on himself with his maddening refusal to name Joe Montana the starting quarterback in 1975 and in the early portion of 1977. Furthermore, Devine’s teams were good for 1 head-scratching performance each year. That, along with the near yearly USC loss, served as the main culprit as to why the Devine-era lacked more fanfare. Ultimately, Devine should be appreciated by fans for winning a national title, continuing the resurgence of the program, albeit at a level lower than Parseghian, and coaching the team to some of the most memorable Irish victories in their storied history.

Stay tuned to find out who ends up at #4 on my list of “Top Ten Greatest Notre Dame Football Head Coaches.” Below are links to the other profiles in the series.

https://www.onefootdown.com/2020/4/18/21226537/top-10-greatest-notre-dame-football-head-coaches-6-brian-kelly-matt-balis-college-football-playoff

https://www.onefootdown.com/2020/4/5/21208689/top-10-greatest-notre-dame-football-head-coaches-7-jesse-harper-knute-rockne-army-fielding-yost#comments

https://www.onefootdown.com/2020/3/29/21198730/top-10-greatest-notre-dame-football-head-coaches-8-elmer-layden-nfl-commissioner-four-horseman

https://www.onefootdown.com/2020/3/21/21189636/top-10-greatest-notre-dame-football-head-coaches-terry-brennan-hesburgh-oklahoma-iowa-michigan-state

https://www.onefootdown.com/2020/3/16/21182139/top-ten-greatest-notre-dame-football-head-coaches-10-tyrone-willingham-brady-quinn-jeff-samardzija