Welcome back to part 2 of our investigation of green jerseys and their effect on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. We left off in 1958, with the end of a 15-year run in which Notre Dame wore green almost exclusively. Today, we’ll bring it up to the present day and answer the question: are green jerseys cursed?
The Return of Blue: 1959-76
Joe Kuharich arrived as Notre Dame’s new coach in 1959 and brought back navy blue as the primary jersey color. We couldn’t find any contemporaneous accounts or photographs of the Irish wearing green during his tenure. Notre Dame’s own site claims they did on a few occasions, but does not specify which games. Kuharich was an ineffective coach, going 17-23 and resigning after four years. His departure came late in the spring of 1963 and Notre Dame did not have time to find a replacement before the season, leaving interim head coach Hugh Devore at the helm. Devore used green jerseys in one game, a 14-7 loss to the Syracuse Orange.
When Ara Parseghian arrived in 1964, he emphasized tradition and simplicity. Not only did Ara never use green jerseys, he also removed numbers from the helmets and stripes from the jerseys. The advent of widespread color TV at this time, with the Irish a near-constant presence on national broadcasts, established this as the definitive Notre Dame look in the popular imagination.
After Ara’s legendary run, which saw the Irish go 95-17-4 and win national championships in 1966 and 1973, fans could be forgiven for forgetting the Irish had ever worn another uniform. But green would return, and in epic fashion.
Renaissance and Road Greens: 1977-92
In case you just became a Notre Dame fan yesterday and don’t know the story of what is still called “The Green Jersey Game,” here it is: in 1977, the #5 USC Trojans rolled into South Bend to take on the #11 Fighting Irish. Dan Devine, now in his third year as head coach, sent the team out for warmups in blue. When it came time for kickoff, however, the Irish came out of the tunnel in green, trailing a wooden horse onto the field and throwing the crowd into a raucous frenzy. The Irish, led by one Joe Montana, took a cue from their Homeric predecessors and slaughtered the unsuspecting Trojans, 49-19.
Recognizing the effect the jerseys had on his players, Coach Devine used green as the default home uniform for the rest of the season. He also introduced a new wrinkle, replacing the blue numbers on Notre Dame’s white away uniforms with green ones. These were the uniforms Notre Dame wore as they clinched the 1977 national championship in a dominating 38-10 win over the Texas Longhorns.
Devine used green jerseys at home and white jerseys with green numbers on the road for the remainder of his tenure, which ended in 1980. He went 31-9-1 in games where the Irish wore either green jerseys or white ones with green numbers, good for a .756 winning percentage - a statistically insignificant difference from his overall mark of .764. Devine’s success in green defies the notion that only Frank Leahy had the ability to overcome its bad juju.
In a gutsy(?) decision, Notre Dame brought in Moeller High School’s Gerry Faust to replace Devine in 1981. Faust threw out both Devine’s green jerseys and Parseghian’s classic navy blues and outfitted the Irish in “Madonna blue,” a lighter shade than Notre Dame had historically used, on the grounds that it was technically the university’s official color.
These uniforms are not remembered fondly by Notre Dame fans, as Faust did not fare well (30-26-1 over five seasons) and the jerseys had neither the rich tradition of the classic navy blues nor the boldness of the greens. Faust himself seemed to sour on the idea, switching back to navy in 1984. Notably, Faust did use green for two games, both of which were dominant victories over USC (27-6 in 1983 and 37-3 in 1985). Green jerseys thus appear to be the only thing about the Faust era that wasn’t cursed.
Lou Holtz took over after Faust’s resignation and more or less stuck to the Parseghian-era look, using navy blue as the exclusive home color. Holtz’s success in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s not only won him the undying love of the Irish fanbase, but cemented his preferred uniforms as Notre Dame’s go-to-look, from which it has rarely deviated since.
However, Lou was not above the occasional innovation. The Irish wore white jerseys with green numbers in the “Cheerios Bowl,” the 1992 Sugar Bowl in which a #18 Irish team that had taken no end of flack for being supposedly undeserving ran wild on the #3 Florida Gators, winning 39-28 as Jerome Bettis rumbled for 150 yards and three touchdowns. This game was a high point of both the Holtz era and of green at Notre Dame. I for one believe this should be Notre Dame’s standard away look, but that’s another matter.
Strife and Turmoil: 1995-2009
Holtz did roll out full-on green jerseys on one occasion: the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day 1995, a 41-24 loss to the Colorado Buffaloes. No honest person would pin this on the jerseys; this was a game in which the unranked, 6-4-1 Irish most certainly did not belong. Holtz likely hoped the green jerseys would galvanize his overmatched team and spark an upset of the #4 Buffs, but it just didn’t pan out.
Perhaps sensing that something was awry, Lou never experimented with green again. The next three Irish coaches mostly stuck with the traditional look he established. But while exceptions were few, they were also brutal. This series of games is painful to discuss, so I’ll do my best to keep it brief, but let’s just say it’s not surprising that a lot of Irish fans came out of this era with the opinion that green jerseys were cursed.
- Bob Davie’s Irish played the 1999 Gator Bowl in green jerseys and were defeated 35-28 by the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets - a team whose coach (George O’Leary) Notre Dame later attempted to hire, until it was revealed that he had fabricated part of his resume.
- Tyrone Willingham’s 2002 Irish were 8-0 and ranked fourth until they came out in green against the unranked Boston College Eagles and inexplicably lost 14-7, commencing the slow and painful unraveling of both the season and Ty’s coaching tenure.
- Attempting to recreate the magic of 1977, Charlie Weis sent the ninth-ranked 2005 Irish out in green against #1 USC, and it nearly worked until the Irish lost 34-31 in one of the most heartbreaking moments of television I have ever witnessed.
- Two years later, Notre Dame again paid tribute to their 1977 forebears by wearing 30-year-anniversary throwbacks - which OFD readers recently confirmed were the best Irish alternates of the modern era - against USC. Unfortunately, they were worn by the worst Irish team of the modern era, which was trounced 38-0.
All together, the woebegone trio of Davie, Willingham and Weis went 1-4 in green, with the lone win coming against a hapless Army Black Knights team on Senior Day in 2006. While I don’t blame people for looking for anything that might explain such a terrible stretch, there are a couple things to keep in mind:
- This era of Notre Dame football was terrible in general, with plenty of painful losses in conventional uniforms.
- Most of the times the Irish wore green in this period, they did so as a way of paying homage to tradition, not defying it. With that in mind, it’s hard to argue that the football gods were punishing Notre Dame for deviation from tradition.
Could you perhaps make an argument that these same football gods have a wicked sense of irony and exercised unique punishment on Irish teams that wore green to channel their ancestors as a way of showing how far the program had fallen? That it was a way of punishing arrogance and complacency? Perhaps, but in that case it’s not so much that green jerseys are cursed as it is that incompetent and out-of-touch coaches brought curses upon them. It leaves open the possibility that a better coaching staff and program administration could use them effectively.
Shamrocks and Senior Day: 2010-present
Brian Kelly’s first season at Notre Dame was the second year of the Shamrock Series, the brilliant brand-building campaign/foolhardy traveling clown show (depending on your persuasion) that has served as a vehicle for Notre Dame to showcase a variety of alternate uniforms. The games in that series in which Kelly’s Irish wore green - all of which were wins - are as follows:
- 2010: Standard dark green jerseys vs. Army (Yankee Stadium)
- 2011: Standard dark green jerseys w/shamrock helmets vs. Maryland Terrapins (FedEx Field)
- 2015: Kelly green jerseys w/green pants vs. Boston College (Fenway Park)
- 2016: Military/olive green jerseys vs. Army (Alamodome)
Outside of the Shamrock Series, the Irish (in)famously wore white jerseys with green numbers against the Michigan Wolverines in 2011, which looked awesome but were tainted by association with that game’s tragic result. They also wore green on Senior Day against the Florida State Seminoles in 2018, winning 42-13 and bringing Coach Kelly’s record in his namesake color to 5-1.
From where I’m standing, the Leahy era alone makes it very difficult to conclude that green jerseys are cursed. Throw in Devine’s triumphs and the sparse-but-successful use of green in the last decade, and you have a pretty strong case that they are, on net, a positive factor in the program’s history. However, it is undeniable that they have also been involved in some incredibly low moments, particularly in recent years, and I don’t blame fans whose inclination is toward simplicity and seriousness rather than flash. But the jerseys themselves shouldn’t be blamed; the blame lies with the coaches and athletic departments that put those teams on the field. To the extent that any curse lay upon green jerseys, it came and went with them.
My own preference is for the current home uniforms to remain more or less intact; I am generally a fan of simplicity and tradition in style, and I love the way the almost regal way navy blue jerseys pair with gold helmets. That said, the players do seem to enjoy the green every now and then, so allowing them to have some fun with it at least once a year makes sense to me, and there’s no reason at all to not use green numbers on the white away uniforms; if there’s one thing this exercise has shown, it’s that changing things up is nothing new for Notre Dame.
What do you think? Are green jerseys a fun tradition that Notre Dame should keep dusting off every now and then, or are they a trap from the pit of hell sent to bedevil the Irish? Leave your responses/preferences/conspiracy theories in the comments.