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Throwback Thursday: Though the Odds Be Great or Small by Terry Brennan

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Notre Dame’s 1957 comeback season and the year that changed college football.

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Before I get to my story I’d like to express my deepest condolences to the family of Terry Brennan who passed this week. In an article posted on UND.com:

Terry Brennan, two-time national championship winning halfback and five-year head coach at the University of Notre Dame, has passed away at the age of 93. He won 65 games as a student-athlete and head coach with the Irish, played in the legendary ‘Game of the Century’ scoreless tie with Army in 1946 and led Notre Dame to one of its greatest upset victories – ending Oklahoma’s record 47-game win streak in 1957.

Brennan was an outstanding halfback at Notre Dame, rushing for over 1,716 yards during his four-year career under legendary coach Frank Leahy. The Milwaukee, Wisconsin, native averaged 5.8 yards per carry while helping the Irish compile a 33-2-3 record over four seasons and earning the 1946 and 1947 National Championship.

Brennan was drafted in the fifth round (51st overall selection) of the 1949 NFL Draft but chose to enter the coaching ranks at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago. He led the Caravan to three consecutive city championships before being called back to his alma mater in 1953 as an Irish assistant and leader of the freshman team.

Leahy retired as the Notre Dame head coach after the 1953 season and Brennan became the youngest head coach in Notre Dame history, assuming the position just before his 26th birthday.

In his first game as the Irish head coach Brennan’s team handed Texas its first shutout in 77 games and assumed the nation’s number-one ranking. The Irish eventually finished 9-1 and fourth in the final Associated Press poll – one of four top-15 AP finishes in Brennan’s five years with the team.

Adjusting to a lowered scholarship limit as the University doubled-down on its academic focus, Brennan’s team stumbled to a 2-8 record in 1956, but still provided a highlight, as Paul Hornung earned the fifth of Notre Dame’s seven Heisman Trophies.

The 1957 team, dubbed the “Comeback Comets,” jumped back into the national discussion in 1957, finishing 7-3, ninth in the final AP poll and posting the aforementioned 7-0 upset of top-ranked Oklahoma.

Brennan’s final season with the Irish was 1958, a 6-4 campaign that earned the team a final AP ranking of 14th.

Brennan was preceded in death by his wife Kel (Mary Louise Kelley) and is survived by Terry Brennan (Gilmore), Denise “Dinny” Dwyer (John), Jane Lipton (Richard), Chris Brennan (Dianne), Joe Brennan, Matt Brennan (Marilyn) along with 25 grandchildren and 32 great grandchildren.

A Celebration of Life mass service will be held Friday, September 10, 2021, (11 a.m.) at Saints Faith, Hope & Charity Catholic Church in Winnetka, Illinois.

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Well, we survived week one and captured the win, and are looking ahead to Toledo. Since there is no football game history between Notre Dame and Toledo to throwback to, I’m going to tell you about one of the new books that I’ve gotten an advanced copy of: Though the Odds Be Great or Small, by Terry Brennan.

I love reading about Notre Dame history. There’s a lot to be learned by looking back at the coaches, teams, and players who have come before us. When I got the opportunity to get an advance look at Terry Brennan’s new book, I was so excited. I very much enjoyed Jim Dent’s book, The Undefeated, about Oklahoma’s win streak that Notre Dame broke in 1957. And so when I saw that Terry Brennan’s book was about that very same 1957 season, I was eager to read about it from his perspective.

Here’s a little bit about the book. This is one you’ll definitely want to get a copy of, trust me!

Back when Paul Hornung was a Heisman Trophy winner and South Bend was the epicenter of the football universe a young coach led the Fighting Irish back from the brink to beat the unbeatable.

Though the Odds Be Great or Small

Terry Brennan is 93 years old and he is quick to remind you of the age-old one-liner about the three toughest jobs in America: The President of United States, the mayor of New York City and the head coach of Notre Dame football. With a wink, he’ll remind us all that he was the head coach for the Fighting Irish from 1954 to 1958 and although it went by all too quickly, he remembers every moment of it. He calls it “ancient history”, but he’s so wrong.

Brennan’s tenure in South Bend is the centerpiece of one of the critical eras of the Fighting Irish’s fabled football tradition and the subject of the new book “THOUGH THE ODDS BE GREAT OR SMALL: Notre Dame’s 1957 Comeback Season and the Year That Changed College Football,” coauthored with William Meiners (Loyola Press, August 24, 2021).

THOUGH THE ODDS BE GREAT OR SMALL is the full telling of Coach Brennan’s story as he pulled a program in distress back from the brink of disaster and provided the game plan for one of the Fighting Irish’s greatest all-time wins and one of the biggest upsets in football history. As most who follow college football can agree, there is the Mount Rushmore of legendary Notre Dame head coaches over their many decades of dominance—Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, and Frank Leahy. In 1954, at the age of 25, Brennan replaced the legendary Leahy who had grown too controversial and powerful for the university’s comfort. They needed a new direction. Brennan provided that.

As a player for Notre Dame under Leahy, Terry Brennan was a star known for his speed and grit. As a coach, he was cerebral and adaptable, preaching fundamentals and smart play while exhibiting maturity beyond his years. But it was an era when Notre Dame greatly favored academics over athletics and the young coach found his scholarships cut. Football is a game of numbers and his ranks of championship-caliber talent faded leading to a disastrous 2-8 season in his third year as coach—1956. Thereafter, the bright lights of the Notre Dame fishbowl grew infinitely brighter. Could he be able to prove that the 1956 season was an anomaly and rise from the ashes in 1957? Could he prove to the Notre Dame faithful that he deserved one of the premier jobs in sports?

Yes, he could. And, against all odds, he did.

THOUGH THE ODDS BE GREAT OR SMALL also covers:

  • Brennan’s childhood romping through Whitefish Bay a north shore suburb in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • His days playing running back and defensive back for the Fighting Irish (1945-1948)
  • How when Terry’s brother Jim—a standout player for Notre Dame—shipped off for his naval service, his football scholarship seemed to fall to Terry
  • The plane crash that nearly took his life
  • His three seasons coaching Mount Carmel High School football in Chicago after his Notre Dame playing days were over
  • How he was considered for the head-coaching job with the professional Chicago Cardinals as early as 1952, at age 23
  • The rivalries and perils of Notre Dame’s vaunted annual schedule against some of the premier football programs in the country
  • The rumors surrounding Frank Leahy’s recruiting strategies and coaching tactics
  • Brennan’s experiences dealing with a vindictive Leahy and the academic agenda of Father Theodore Hesbaugh, Notre Dame’s very visible president
  • Comparing and contrasting the efforts of Notre Dame coaches from era to era
  • The state of Notre Dame football in the postwar era
  • The unnecessary tensions that can arise between academic ambitions and gridiron glory
  • The evolution of the game happening during this time, including the integration of black players
  • The controversial Paul Hornung Heisman in 1956 after the 2-8 season
  • Notre Dame’s rebound seasons in 1957 and 1958
  • Notre Dame’s unequaled November lineup of games in 1957 including four ranked opponents on consecutive weekends—Navy, Michigan State, Oklahoma, and Iowa—concluding the brutal month with arch rival Southern California
  • All of the bona fides of the 1957 Oklahoma Sooners, one of the greatest teams in college football history
  • How Father Hesbaugh was criticized widely for his decision to fire Brennan
  • How his tenure at Notre Dame marked the end of Brennan’s coaching career—despite offers from Colorado and Maryland to be their head coach, and an offer from good friend, Vince Lombardi, to join his Green Bay Packer’s staff—as he didn’t want to move from town to town, position to position, dragging his growing family from place to place
  • How Brennan returned to football on his own terms, as a broadcaster.

Respect, by almost any measure, is not guaranteed as a college football coach, but Terry Brennan earned almost universal respect from most of the legendary coaches of the era while steering Notre Dame through those five seasons with quiet confidence, good sportsmanship and a disarming smile. And with a 32-18 record, it was a truly controversial decision for Notre Dame to fire the father of four just prior to Christmas in 1958. Brennan was disappointed, hurt and more than a little angry, but he moved on to other challenges over the next 60 years—with little fanfare and even fewer headlines. Yes, life has been full for the father of six, grandfather of 27 and great-grandfather of 30.

THOUGH THE ODDS BE GREAT OR SMALL represents a look back at his many memories leading the Notre Dame Fighting Irish from decades past—memories of thrilling games and storybook endings; of loyalties and legacies; and of beating the unbeatable.

About the Authors:

Terry Brennan played halfback at the University of Notre Dame from 1945 to 1948. In 1954, at the age of 25, he became Notre Dame’s youngest head football coach, serving as head coach until 1958. In his five seasons as head coach for the Fighting Irish, Terry Brennan compiled an overall record of 32–18 while playing one of the most challenging schedules in college football history.

William J. Meiners is a writer, an editor, and the founder of Sport Literate, which celebrated its 25th anniversary issue in 2020 as a preeminent journal for all things sports.

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Here’s a snippet from Chapter Four:

Heisman Hopeless

Notre Dame had a lot of returning players in 1957. Brennan certainly knew, however, that he couldn’t replace Paul Hornung with a single man. There was no denying the all-around versatility that Hornung brought to a team, which he punctuated throughout a Hall of Fame career with the Green Bay Packers. He brought a sense of effortlessness to a violent game.

“Paul played the game like it was ping-pong,” said Dick Selcer, a sophomore backup quarterback to Hornung in 1956. “Larry Cooke was in Paul’s class and also played backup QB. He was a pre-med major who went on to become a doctor. A driven student and good football player, he was probably 6 feet, 195 pounds. We always tackled our position in practice. Cooke never could tackle Hornung in practice. Hell, I couldn’t tackle him either.”

Jim Morse, the captain on the 1956 team, said he “had the pleasure of tackling Paul more than once. He was tough to bring down.”

Additionally, Morse believes his friend and teammate deserved the Heisman in spite of the team’s record. “Paul was the best all-around football player I’ve ever seen,” he said. “But you look at him, it was deceiving. He didn’t seem to be running very fast, but he could move.”

Hornung, in answering his mother’s prayers, arrived at Notre Dame fully expecting to play for the legendary Frank Leahy. As it turned out, he’d only scrimmage occasionally with the varsity squad, so Brennan turned out to be his head coach for four years. Not long after his retirement, however, Leahy heaped high praise on the Golden Boy after the spring old-timers’ game in 1955. “Paul Hornung will be the greatest quarterback Notre Dame ever had,” he said. “He runs like a mower going through grass. Tacklers just bounce off him. His pass is tops and his kicking is, too.”

Pick up your copy of Though the Odds Be Great or Small, by Terry Brennan and keep reading!

Cheers & GO IRISH!