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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football - 1967 Season

A Season Split in Two

Ara Parseghian, who led Notre Dame to 2 national football championships, dies at 94
Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian and his assistants give linebacker Dave Martin directions after he intercepted a pass against the University of California on Sept. 23, 1967 in South Bend, Ind.
Chicago Tribune historical photo/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Here we are ... it’s time for another Throwback Thursday! This is week seven in my series of the “unclaimed” Notre Dame Fighting Irish football national championship seasons, and this week I’m looking at the 1967 season. Below are two excerpts from the December 8, 1967 edition of “The Scholastic:” 1967 Notre Dame Football Review. I hope you enjoy them!

A Season Split in Two

When your “cinch” National Championship is taken away just one month into the season, the impulse is to back down and play out the year. Notre Dame, beaten and embarrassed in a disappointing start, refused to quit; they picked up the pieces of a broken dream and finished 1967 with the pride and tenacity that marks a champion. By MIKE McADAMS

TOM PAGNA sat in his office at the Rockne Memorial, scribbling on a pad and eating a turkey and tomato sandwich. It was Monday morning, October 16, and Notre Dame’s offensive backfield coach was charting a football team’s future between gulps of lunch. “They can get down on themselves now and never come back. They have the feeling that they’ve let the world down, and the way the papers talk, they have. Our job is to keep the players’ heads up, to let them know the season hasn’t ended — it won’t be easy.”

The previous Saturday Pagna and 60,000 slightly more detached spectators had seen Notre Dame’s “monolithic supermen” play very much the way ordinary earthlings would against USC, the nation’s number-one team. The score was 24-7, and, quite frankly, the Trojans earned their victory. Now Ara Parseghian and his staff had to get a battered team into some sort of workable mental condition before games with Illinois and, more importantly, Michigan State. If they failed, if Notre Dame allowed disappointment to grow into depression, the entire 1967 season would go down the drain in a series of lackluster, uncoordinated efforts. With the right psychology and key adjustments in two or three positions, maybe, just maybe, something could be made out of 1967. 8-2 and very good was the only goal in sight now; 10-0 and indecently good had gone the way of all preseason forecasts.

So now it is 11:30 on Monday, and Pagna backs off for a moment to analyze where Notre Dame is and why. “We play with kids just like everyone else. Some are awfully talented, but they’re not what everyone imagines. We lost ten of eleven starters from last year’s offense team, we lost Eddy and Goeddeke and Conjar, and yet we can’t lose, we’re number one, we can open a can and out comes a fullback. So we go down to Purdue, with sophomores being told they’re the Packers, and lose a game we might have won with a few games under our belts. O.K., the pressure’s off, right? Two weeks later we play Southern Cal, they’re ranked first, and whose the favorite? We are. We lose, and now we’ve lost two games we should have won. “Where do you go from here?”

The first step was psychological. Practice the week after the Southern Cal game was shorter than usual. John Ray still made those angry noises that sound like a garbage disposal unit, but underneath was a tone that said “we’re with you, don’t give up on yourselves.” “Pride,” a popular word anyway on Cartier Field, became everybody’s last name. “Get your head in there, Bobo. Pride.” By Wednesday Notre Dame had a team again, not a collection of wounded egos.

Now, strategy. The game plans of the early season — they seemed to be Run, Pass, Pass, Pass, until there’s a first down or a punting situation — had to be changed to include a running back or two. A defensive end, to pressure the opponent’s passer and set up the defensive backs — Schoen, Smithberger, O’Leary — had to be discovered or developed. And the young defenders in the line and backing up the line had to be given practice and more practice. There would be no thirty-minute games for Olson or McCoy or Lauck.

The world was finding out what Ara had tried to explain countless times since the previous April. California, not a bad team but not a national contender either, comes to South Bend on a bright Saturday in September and is thrashed, 41-8, and do you think anyone outside of the immediate team is happy? Didn’t they beat USC last year, 51-0? And what’s wrong with the defense, anyway — a touchdown and a two-point conversion to boot? Ara says after the game that yes, he certainly was delighted with the game, and no, you should really wait a few weeks before making the team number one. But coaches always talk that way, and when the wire-service polls come out on Tuesday, there is Notre Dame on the top of them.

In eighth place that week is a team playing on the memory of a man named Griese. Purdue cordially welcomes Notre Dame to its Homecoming in West Lafayette and then clobbers the Irish with every utensil in the house. Hardy limps off the field after a most unusual crackback block on the game’s first play. Smithberger goes out next, and O’Leary follows. Keyes sweeps the end, Keyes goes through the middle; Keyes passes, Keyes catches passes. Keyes kicks off, just to round out the performance, and you’d say he does everything except that Phipps and Williams are doing an awful lot themselves. Still, victory is as close as an inch above the hands of Seymour and Snow, and you just know that in 62 minutes of football we’ll catch them for good. That week Purdue is number two.

Iowa is fed to the lions on October 7, and if the 56-6 score doesn’t mean that much, the performance of a reserve fullback named Jeff Zimmerman does. He scores three times, and gains 64 yards in 11 carries. But Hanratty still is favoring the air game, and in Southern California a lay-back-and-wait defensive plan is formed.

O. J. and the Big A. Adrian Young, arrive at South Bend, and they remember last December. They force Notre Dame to take the field first. They claim that nobody can beat Notre Dame on its home field with all that noise, and they turn your advantage into theirs. Early in the game a call for defensive clipping results in a forty-yard penalty, and the tempo of the game is set. The score is 7-0, Notre Dame, at the half, but something feels wrong. It’s Irish Homecoming, and the tremendous magnetic spirit that will push the team over the top is missing. You assumed it would be there, that you could sit back for once and let others do the cheering. But too many students have been sitting back for too long, and on this Saturday USC out-psyches Notre Dame’s Homecoming fans. They win it going away, Ara’s worst defeat in four years. The team played solid football, but they were facing a very solid team with a very big grudge. Next year it will be different. But right now Notre Dame, everybody’s National Everything, is 2-2 and unranked.

Regrouping week is over now. Tom Pagna and John Ray and Ara Parseghian have put the pride back in the team, and some tentative adjustments have been made. “Forget the past,” they tell the team, “we’ll start over. The season starts with Illinois.”

Illinois is more like a halftime between two seasons. Hanratty throws three interceptions, but they’re the last that he’ll throw in 1967. Bob Gladieux has his best day at halfback, and Jeff Zimmerman has come into his own at fullback. Bob Kuechenberg, a bruising offensive tackle for two years, is moved to end and looks like a natural. The defensive plays its best game of the season.

Michigan State, national TV, the first big game of the second season. For thirty minutes it’s a runaway, with Zimmerman doing most of the running. Hardy is back, too, all over the field. But the Spartans always make trouble, and this game is no exception. A tough 24-12 win, but a decisive one. Notre Dame has started the climb back.

Navy. The cold and the snow. But the first half is dry and, yes, this is the Notre Dame we’ve been looking for all year. The offense takes the ball and marches: off tackle, around the end, fullback up the middle. Fifteen errorless plays in a row, all on the ground, bring the first touchdown. Joe Azzaro adds the extra point, his 96th for Notre Dame. He’ll have one hundred before the day is through. Later, Hanratty opens up, completes 8 of 14 passes with no interceptions. The defense is vicious, and Navy makes the score respectable in the second half against reserves. 43-14, but you feel as if the final score was up to Ara. Pittsburgh is more of the same. The game is rather dull, as Pitt-ND games are wont to be, but Tom Schoen puts on a show with Panther punts and passes. The defense gets its first shutout, 38-0.

The last week of the season, what could be a very good season, arrives. A week in a different world of sun and water buckets. Georgia Tech isn’t supposed to have much, but Notre Dame is the team to beat once again, and whatever Tech has they use with abandon. Captain Rocky Bleier scores twice, severing a ligament in his leg late in the first half. He plays the entire second half anyway. The defense allows a field goal and Notre Dame becomes 7-2 by a score of 36-3.

Miami, too, has had a second season. They’ve won six in a row, the Irish five. They’ve had an open date and have practiced in their home town for two weeks. “Notre Dame is our bowl game.” The Irish have had two days of practice in freezing rain. They arrive in Florida with new lightweight jerseys, with oxygen tanks, with respect. They’ll need every bit of it. Miami shows plenty of punch, leads at the half, but can’t make the kill. Smithberger twice saves Notre Dame on defense, and now Zimmerman and Gladieux are getting clear. Hardy crunches Hendricks to save a touchdown, and Miami withers. A close game, the best for Notre Dame in a long, long time. An imperfect season, maybe, but a perfect ending.

Success is relative. When victory is so assured that it is not worth cheering for, then the victory is hollow. When a football team is expected to win time after time, it cannot really win because it has nothing to accomplish. The losses to Purdue and USC were unfortunate for the coaches and players of Notre Dame, who have proved that they are still hungry. But they taught a lesson to many fans and writers, and they made the Notre Dame team great by forcing it to get up off the floor and fight back. No one in the country fought back harder than Notre Dame in 1967; by November, quite possibly, no one was any better.

I’d like to share one more excerpt from the 1967 Notre Dame Football Review ... this one written by Rocky Bleier and Steve Anderson:

The Captain Looks at the Season

“ANYONE WHO HAD ANYTHING to do with sports had a comment on Notre Dame this year. We were promised everything — from the National Championship to a drop right out of the Top Ten. But one thing hadn’t changed: ten teams and thousands of fans looked on us as the team to beat.

“Many people seemed to think that all we had only to walk out on the field and our opponents would roll over. But that’s just not the way the game is played. It doesn’t necessarily follow the preseason picks, or even the number of All-Americans that are on the team — football is won by blocking and tackling and having the right mental attitude.

“This is the kind of team I believe we had in 1967 — not a group of All-Americans, but a team dedicated to the game. It was a team that worked hard for what it achieved and deserved every bit of the recognition it got. It was a team that came out to play ball, and when we lost this year it was because we ran into teams that also came to play ball. The image of O. J. Simpson pushing away tacklers after the whistle because “man, we’ve only got sixty minutes to play” is a vivid and perhaps painful one — but it is also one that characterized several members of our team. When we were on the field, we wanted to be doing something.

“The ‘67 team had a nucleus consisting of a strong defense and a spotty offense. Both teams needed new lines, and the offense needed some running backs to help balance it off. But, with a great quarterback and the men to catch that ball, we had the essentials and in time we began to mold into a functioning machine. We started as the offspring of a great ‘66 team with nothing to call our own, but with quite a reputation to carry. If we were to follow the format put before us, we would have been a characterless group of individuals carrying out the predetermined. We did not, of course, go that route — after four ball games our record stood at 2-2. At that time the end of the season looked light-years away. The National Championship was out of our grasp, and we weren’t even ranked in the Top Ten.

“But we knew we had a good team, if not a potentially great team. The one thing that we hadn’t taken into consideration was the idea of beating ourselves. And that’s exactly what happened. We gave Purdue the game in the last minute although we had beaten them in every statistic but the score. Then there was the Southern Cal game — you just can’t turn the ball over four times inside an opponent’s ten-yard line and expect chances to score later on.

“At this point we had six games to go, with the last three on the road — and here is where I’ll have to say we became a team. It could have been easy to give up and become a 2-8 ball club or a 6-4 ball club, but it took guts, determination, and a self-realization to become 8-2. We had nothing to shoot for except to get back into that Top Ten and maintain that Notre Dame spirit. The season, I felt, reached its climax at Miami, the game which probably best typified the entire season. It showed the unity, the character, the Notre Dame tradition and spirit, and the self-pride that this team had throughout the entire season. We started the game slowly and soon fell behind, just as we had done on the level of the season. In the first half our running game wasn’t moving and we weren’t working as a unit, but the second half was a new ball game. We made some changes. The team drew together, the running attack opened up, and we struggled to come from behind and win. You know, this team set or tied 29 school records this year, which I believe demonstrates the power of the squad. But there was a thirtieth record, of sorts, that won’t go into the books — it was the first time in four years that we came from behind against an exceptionally good ban club to take and protect a lead. That game, like the season, was a great tribute to the entire ‘67 ball club.”

I hope you enjoyed this week’s excerpts! Next week I’ll take a look at the 1970 season.

Cheers & GO IRISH!