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Notre Dame Football: Are Green Jerseys Cursed? Part 1

An ancient and eternal question

Football - NCAA - Notre Dame vs. USC Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

Every time the Notre Dame Fighting Irish roll out a uniform change, there is always some degree of controversy and/or criticism from fans. Many believe straying from Notre Dame’s simple-but-classic look invites catastrophe. Such talk gets especially intense when the subject is green jerseys, Notre Dame’s most frequently-worn alternates. Conspiratorially-minded fans will often cite terrible losses that occurred in green, usually ending with some variation of “just get serious and win the damn game.”

Less-superstitious fans will usually respond, “What’s the big deal? These guys are young, if they want to have fun with the uniforms we should let them. Besides, curses aren’t even real...right?”

NCAA Football - USC vs Notre Dame - October 15, 2005 Photo by G. N. Lowrance/WireImage

I have found myself in each of these camps at various points in my Notre Dame fandom. To settle this question for myself and for the rest of the team, I’ve decided to conduct this investigation into the true history of the green jersey at Notre Dame, and whether it is a friend or foe of the Fighting Irish.

I couldn’t have done this without the indefatigable research of Jude Seymour, whose data was instrumental in assembling the story set out before you.

Early Days: 1921-40

It is uncertain when Notre Dame first used green jerseys. A lot of people will tell you it happened against the Iowa Hawkeyes on October 8, 1921. Aficionados of green-jersey-curse theories will experience some confirmation bias in favor of this date, as the Irish fell to the Hawkeyes 10-7. Notre Dame had won its last two games in dominating fashion, then put on green and suddenly lost, and didn’t lose again after switching to blue. Coincidence?

There’s one snag in this theory: we were not able to find any contemporaneous sources verifying that green jerseys were used in this game. No newspapers, no football review, or any other source mentions what would have been a momentous occasion.

Portrait of Notre Dame Football Coach Knute Rockne Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Rockne’s first confirmed use of green occurred at home against the Penn State Nittany Lions on October 16, 1926, and the Irish notched a dominating win. Rockne used them five more times throughout his tenure, always in strategic scenarios when the Irish were playing a team whose primary color was also navy blue or black (the team was not using white jerseys for road games).

All told, Rockne went either 5-2 or 5-1 in green, depending on if you count the 1921 Iowa game. His immediate successor, Heartley “Hunk” Anderson, was evidently a fan of green as his teams wore it six times over 1931-1932, going 4-2 in the process. His win over Army on November 26, 1932 was the last time the Irish wore green until the arrival of Frank Leahy in 1941.

What to make of these mixed results? There are some negative-seeming trends: The Irish went either 9-3 or 9-4 in green from 1921-1932 - a .750 or .690 winning percentage compared to the program’s overall .836 mark for the same period. At the same time, contemporaneous sources make it clear that the Irish and their fans didn’t think of green jerseys as bad luck. The 1928 Football Review describes their use against Navy like so:

If we take it from the people who wore them, the more likely conclusion is that the jerseys were good luck. There’s no reason to believe the Irish would have won the games they lost in green if they were wearing blue - if anything, contemporaneous accounts suggest the losses may have been worse and some of the wins may have been losses.

Frank Changes the Game: 1941-58

Frank Leahy took over as Notre Dame’s coach in 1941, commencing our site director’s favorite era of college football. The green jerseys were evidently pleased the Irish-American Leahy, who made them Notre Dame’s primary uniform. After wearing them as a frequent alternate in his first two years, Leahy and his interim coaches (Leahy himself served in World War II) switched to green full-time in 1943 and didn’t look back.

Notre Dame Head Football Coach Frank Leahy
These are not the faces of a man who cares what you think about his uniform choices.
Photo by Bettmann/Corbis/Getty Images

If green was bringing Frank bad luck, he sure had some good stuff outweighing it: he went 87-11-9 at Notre Dame, winning four (should have been five) national championships, going undefeated an incredible six times. The Irish were so on fire during the post-World War II era that at one point they played 39 games without losing once (they tied twice, going 37-0-2).

If you believe green jerseys are cursed, you have to come up with an explanation for why the most dominant run in Notre Dame football history occurred when the team was almost always wearing green. The way I see it, there are two possible theories:

  1. The green jerseys were always cursed, but Frank Leahy was such an unstoppable pigskin sorcerer that he was able to block or undo that curse.
  2. Green jerseys weren’t cursed in the beginning, but the sins of later coaches brought curses upon them.

Both of these are in fact possible, though unlikely, for reasons we’ll explore later.

Johnny Lattner Holding Football Under Arm Notre Dame

Leahy’s successor Terry Brennan continued the trend of green uniforms when he took over at the ripe old age of 25 (remember that the next time someone tells you Tommy Rees is too young to be an offensive coordinator). Over a five-year run from 1953-58, Brennan went 32-18 with a positively Weisian trajectory, as he started out 17-3 in his first two years and then went 15-15 in his next three. While there are a few other contenders - the early-to-mid 1980s and the 2000s come to mind - many fans still point to the late 1950s as the lowest point in Notre Dame’s history.

Fans of theory #1 above might point to this as evidence that the green jerseys were evil all along and, like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, were simply biding their time to strike until Notre Dame’s guardian (Batman/Frank Leahy) was out of the picture. However, there are several possible alternate explanations:

  1. Terry Brennan was 25 freaking years old.
  2. Other teams were going to close the gap on the Irish as they recovered from World War II-era roster depletion (which Notre Dame largely avoided due to Leahy’s brilliance in recruiting returning veterans).
  3. The university’s new administration, led by some guy named Hesburgh, was intent on growing Notre Dame into an elite institution of higher learning rather than just a parochial school with a great football team. That forced the football team to abide by more stringent rules with regard to recruiting and admissions, and there was going to be a tough transition period no matter what color the team happened to be wearing.

The green jerseys were evidently perceived as being a problem in some regard, as the program soured on them after Brennan’s departure. His replacement, Joe Kuharich, reinstated blue as Notre Dame’s primary color. However, the story - and superstition - of green jerseys was far from over. Come back to the site for part 2 tomorrow!