Frank Leahy, College Football’s Greatest Coach

Notre Dame 1947 National Champions
(Photo: Notre Dame Media Relations)

On Saturday, November 30th, Nick Saban fell short in his attempt to win a third consecutive national championship at Alabama, and his fourth in five years. It is a mighty task, and Nick tried, but many others have tried and failed. When the dust cleared in Jordan-Hare on Saturday, it left standing one name as the greatest college football coach ever.

(1) All-time .864 Winning percentage, second behind Rockne.
(2) In his first 9 years coaching, won 5 National Championships and was unbeaten 6 times.
(3) Coached four Heisman Winners, recruited a 5th
(4) Developed and coached most dominating dynasty in college football
(5) Developed and coached more College Football Hall-of-Famers than any other coach
(6) Unmatched winning percentage against his era’s top coaches
(7) Was so good he forced his school to deemphasize football
(8) Made two storied National Championship winning programs stop playing Notre Dame
(9) Only coach with a decades long legacy of his palace guard, his players.


If there was one human being who would be appalled at Frank Leahy being considered greater than Knute Rockne, it was Frank Leahy. Leahy had a cult-like reverence for Rockne, and while Leahy was confident and aggressive, his respect for Rockne made him shy away from any such discussions of comparison. As a schoolboy up there on the prairie in Winner, South Dakota, Francis William Leahy penned a passionate letter about how he wanted to play for the great Knute Rockne and Notre Dame. He idolized Rock and did so until the day he died.


After short assistant stints at Georgetown and Michigan State, Leahy served as line coach for Sleepy Jim Crowley, one of the Four Horsemen, at Fordham for five years. Leahy was more than adequate as a line coach. WAY more than adequate. He developed a Fordham line that became known as the “Seven Blocks of Granite.” One of those “Blocks of Granite” was an intense, studious, blocky, raven haired young man named Vince Lombardi. That’s right, Rockne taught Leahy; Leahy taught Lombardi.

Frank Leahy was hired to coach Boston College in 1939. His first year the Eagles were 9-2, losing only to Florida, 7-0, at home, and then to Clemson, 6-3 in the Cotton Bowl. In his second year, he took Boston College to an 11-0 record, outscoring opponents 339-65, beating Bob Neyland’s Tennessee Vols, 19-13 in the Sugar Bowl and winning the national championship. Bob Neyland was once called the best coach in college football-by Knute Rockne! Minnesota won the AP poll, Cliff Morgan and Ray Byrne voted BC the National Champion. Tennessee, whom Leahy and BC BEAT in the Sugar Bowl, won the national championship in two polls, which were conducted before the Sugar Bowl. A fortiori, those should be placed in BC’s column.


That alone should end the debate


Leahy returned to Notre Dame, despite Boston College’s fervent desire to keep him. They knew what they had, they were hot in pursuit to keep him, and they were smart about it. Simply, they were not Notre Dame. Never have been, never will be.

When Leahy returned in ’41 he immediately fashioned an unbeaten team, but with a 0-0 tie against Army. By his third year at Notre Dame, 1943, Leahy had won the National Championship and scared Michigan off the schedule.

After two years in the Navy, Leahy returned to Notre Dame and won three of the next four championships, ’46, ’47 and ’49. He had coached for two years at Boston College, seven in South Bend, and had won 5 titles. It was only the Notre Dame administration’s decision to cut scholarships from 33 to 18 in ’48 that slowed Leahy down.

No other coach has done that, and no other coach has, while running a clean, moral program, been so good that it scared a legitimatledy worried administration into deemphasizing football and cutting scholarships and resources.

Further, he has done something that no other coach has done. In three successive coaching years, ’43, ’46 and ’47 Frank Leahy coached Notre Dame to the National Championship. Of course, he was serving his country in the Navy in ’44 and ’45. What? Don’t go there. You’re going to tell me that you’re not going to count it as three in a row because of the two years in the Navy???

Further, besides ’48 when the yellow and blue Michigan team avoided playing the Irish and squeezed by in the polls. Leahy won four national championships in the five consecutive non-service years he coached his beloved Fighting Irish: ’43, ’46,’47, ’49.

But let’s look inside the numbers. In 1943 the Irish beat 8 of their opponents by 19 or more points. DOMINANCE. They beat Iowa Pre-Flight by one, 14-13, then lost a thriller to Great Lakes Naval Station, 19-14. These were not the AFA and the Naval Academey, they were the US Air Force and the US Navy!

IN ’46, other than the epic tie with Army, 0-0 in Yankee Staqdium, the only time when four eventual Heisman winners appeared on the same field-Blanchard, Davis, Lujack, Hart, the closest Irish win was a 20 point margin over USC. DOMINANCE.

In ’47, there was a 7 point win over Northwestern in Evanston, but every other win was by 15 points or more. In ’48, there was a 1 point win over Purdue and a five point win over Northwestern, in addition to the tie with Iowa. DOMINANCE.

In ’49, there was a 13 point win in East Lansing over MSU, and a 7 ppoint win over Kyle Rote and SMU in Dallas. Every other win was by 20 or more points. DOMINANCE. No one’s ever done that over five years. No losses to civilians, only two ties.


No other coach has coached four Heisman trophy winners: Bertelli, Lujack, Hart and Lattner. And, in a contest that made a young Paul “Bear” Bryant of Kentucky throw up his hands and leave his head football coaching position at UK in Lexington for College Station and Texas A&M, Leahy reached into Louisville and plucked star Paul Hornung out of Flaget High School to Notre Dame. Hornung said that Leahy told him, in his office, when Sherrill Sipes accompanied him on the trip, that Leahy thought Hornung could win the Heisman Trophy if he came to Notre Dame. Many promise it, only Leahy delivered.

What kind of Heismans do you like? Quarterbacks? Here’s Bertelli and Lujack. Guys who play quarterback in college and halfback in the pros? Here’s Hornung. Halfbacks? Here’s Lattner. And, wait there’s more. I’ll even throw in an end: Leon Hart.
THE DYNASTY 1946-1949.

From 1946 to 1949 Notre Dame was 36-0-2. One of the ties was the epic 0-0 tie against Blaik, Blanchard and Davis in Yankee Stadium in 1946. The other was a 14-14 tie against USC in the Coliseum in ’48. The Irish were unbeaten and untied at home.

The Irish score 1242 points in the four years and gave up 255. That’s an average of 32.7-6.7. Do the math. The Irish increased their point total each of the four years, from 271 to 291 to 320 to 360. But if they had only the low total of 271 in 1946, that was still more points than the 255 points opponents logged in the ENTIRE four years. In 1947 and 1949, the lowest Irish offensive point total in a game was greater than the most points they allowed in a game.

They took on all comers, from sea to shining sea and played a paltry 16 games at home in the four years. The other 22 were played outside of St. Joseph County.

Dominance as we’ve never seen before or since.


Nobody else comes close

Alphabetically, Angelo Bertelli, George Connor, Ziggy Czarobski, Bob Dove, Bill Fischer, Ralph Guglielmi, Jerry Groom, Leon Hart, Paul Hornung, John Lattner, John Lujack, Jim Martin, Creighton Miller, Emil “Six Yard” Sitko, Bob Williams.

15 Hall of Famers. FIFTEEN


Here is Leahy’s winning record against the coaching giants of his era.

Bob Neyland, Tennessee 1-0
Fritz Crisler, Michigan 1-1
Earl “Red” Blaik, Army 4-0-1
Clark Shaughnessy, Pitt 3-0
Jess Hill, USC 3-0
Stu Holcomb, Purdue, 6-1
Bud Wilkinson, Oklahom 2-1
Forest Evashevski, Iowa 1-0-1

Total against his best contemporaries, 21-3-2!


This is a delicate point. But let’s be honest. Who among us has not had that fleeting thought that perhaps Notre Dame football is too dominant at the school? When the hot streaks are going there is a frenzy about the football program that can nearly overwhelm routine academic life, and, sometimes life itself. At the peak of his dynasty, Notre Dame’s admin, rightly or wrongly, reduced Leahy’s scholarships from 33 to a mere 18. That is why his record is best judged in his two years at Boston College and the first 7 at Notre Dame. After that he was hamstrung, a victim of his own greatness.


The rout at Michigan in 1943 and the fierce Fritz Crisler, 35-12, made Michigan avoid scheduling Notre Dame for 35 more years. The Maize and Blue had never suffered such a defeat at home under Crisler, and Crisler found reasons to avoid Notre Dame thereafter. Excellent Catholic teams need not apply to play Michigan! Blaik found reasons not to have Army play Notre Dame after his visit to South Bend in 1947, when the Fighting Irish thumped the Cadets, 27-7. This “hiatus” came after the one whipping in South Bend came notwithstanding that after Army had played Notre Dame for 16 years in its backyard on the banks of the Hudson in New York City. One home game in Leahy’s lair every 17 years was a tad too much for Red Blaik.


They are unique. A voluntary cadre of players who played for Leahy, a level of passion and loyalty beyond being alumni at Notre Dame. A palace guard, a band of brothers identified by their love, respect and lifelong loyalty to Frank Leahy. Their ranks dwindle eadch year. as the youngest “Lads” are now 78 years old. But they are a testimony to their excellence and his passion and greatness.

His passion burned like no one else’s but he had the technical skill and the motivational and interpersonal skills as well.

He’s a Man, He’s a Man, He’s a Notre Dame Man!!!

Frank Leahy

College Football’s Greatest Coach.

Recquiescat in pace!

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  1. Much enjoyed your piece–a ton of good stuff. However, you did an injustice to The Master Coach. His record against Bud Wilkinson was 2-0, not 2-1. (27-21 in 1952, 28-21 in 1953). The only loss to Wilkinson came under Terry Brennan in 1956, 40-0.

  2. Thanks, Doc and I will!

    FWIW, the current head coach is aware of Leahy, and then some. In his first recruiting press conference he started by mentioning that Leahy’s recruiting class of ’46 was the gold standard for ALL recruiting or words to that effect. And it’s kind of cool that the Leahy statue is on the side of the stadium where the coaching staff can’t help but see it as they go into work each day.

    I’m bringing a few relatives to their first ND football game this Fall;rest assured that we will linger in front of Leahy’s statue, and they will be regaled with stories of Leahy and his accomplishments.

  3. You know what they say, C-Dog, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In SteelFanBooby’s case, I just think imitation is the sincerest form of insanity.

  4. 7)Shameless Self-Promoter with the Least Knowledge of ND Football: “SteelFanBoob”. No one on here says less with more words and less football acumen than Booby.

    8)Most Plagiarized Screen Name: “SteelFanBoob.” In further proof of unoriginal thought and disinformation.

    9)Not Having Ever Made a Substantive Observation All Season: “SteelFanBoob.” In addition to unoriginality Booby never failed to contribute with his own brand of banality.

    That’s an impressive three nominations for the totally unsubstantial “SteelFanBooby.” What a way to start the new year!

  5. -18 in south bend Monday stay warm men
    And safe do they still have that naked race from the rock to the library and back on the coldest day of the year . Too scary for me.

  6. I have had the good fortune to meet and get to know Jerry Groom. Jerry played center and linebacker at ND before going to the NFL.
    Jerry and Jack Connor originated the Frank Leahy Foundation for scholarships for ND students.
    Frank Leahy is alive at ND for those who remember him as an outstanding ND Man.
    Please consider keeping his name alive for current students at ND by contributing to the Leahy Scholarship Foundation at ND.
    “Leahy. Leahy. Leahy”.

  7. Excellent vademecum SFBoberina, (God) Our Heavenly Father will surely bless you and duranko by turning the both of you into mormons; complete with pilgrim hats! Surely you two are related? LOL!

  8. With more than 200 days until the next game let’s hand out some poster awards for 2013. Please submit your votes:

    1. Biggest whiner of the year: Nominees – BJ (tough to find a moment when he is complaining about something or wanting somebody fired). Stiller Fan Rob (frequently calls the defense gutless and feels complaining somehow makes him a better fan than all of you).

    2. Overly optimistic poster of the year: Nominees – Toulmin H Brown (let’s face it he wins hands down, still thinks Purdue and Temple were great wins). Shazamrock (manages to find positive facts and figures for all to look at).

    3. Tool / dbag / blowhard of the year: Nominees – JC (loves to quote scripture and use SAT words to make his argument, never misses a chance to imply he works for large companies and makes serious $$$). Stiller Fan Robby (pines for yesteryear when ND never lost and never gave up a point, implies ND used to beat #1 teams on the road all the time when in fact it has happened exactly once). Burgundy (useless one liners).

    4. Wingman of the year: Nominee – Irisheye62 (agrees with everything JC and SFR say, maybe he is the tool of the year).

    5. Aussie of the year: Nominee – C-Dog (claims he is some wonder boy from the land down under, secretly wished for Tommy Rees to get hurt.)

    6. Most confused poster of the year: Nominees – BJ (still looking for offense, can’t believe we all aren’t praying at the grotto for the travesty that is BK). Still Man Robert (thinks that by moaning and whining about ND it somehow makes him a better fan and that it leads to more wins, don’t settle for anything less.) JC (often speaks in Latin, Yiddish and jibberish to make points, didn’t graduate high school let alone from ND.) Anchorman (this isn’t San Diego and you are not a newscaster).

    Speak up, let your voice be heard. We need to know what you think, we the people deserve it!!!!

    I for one am on the edge of my seat waiting for insults, scripture verses, statements about my orientation and what school I am a fan of.

    Go Irish!

    1. Perhaps my favorite post of the year! I really wish I would have added some commentary to be included in your awards! Bahaha

    2. I am humbled, honored and I guess a little disturbed to be nominated. Good luck to my fellow nominees!

      Can I vote in the categories I have been nominated?

      1. RB,

        I got Nominated for managing to find positive facts!
        (Pretty cool huh)

        For example: Did you know it is a fact that the only poster here to ever state that they have spent time in Australia is D-Train65?
        It’s true!

        I think I would have to vote him for Aussie of the year instead of C-Dog.
        (Sorry C-Dog)

        Which brings me to an Award that has been largely overlooked thus far… The Darwin Award!

      2. Shazamrock,
        No worries. I’m not sure I even understand what he’s trying to do. It’s pretty weak even for a flame, although I wonder where he got the idea I ever wanted Rees to get injured. Maybe someone has copied my User Name.
        He of course has made a weak Weird Al Jankovic version of our own Steel Fan Rob and has not even the creativity to be original.
        I question his affiliation with Notre Dame, just as I question duranko’s. True Alumni and Subway Alumni alike know what Notre Dame is. That is our bond and kinship. Guys like the Bob just don’t get it.
        Save that Aussie vote for me for next year or the year after. Hoping to get there for work.

        I’m voting for you, SFR, JC, Irisheye62, Storespook, and the other old timers.

        But it may be time to invoke our everlasting hero —


        May he rise up out of the grave or his straight jacket! And may his wrath smite the infidels with libel per se!!!!!

        Happy 2014 everyone!!!

    3. I won’t quote scripture, call you a name, or insult you. Clearly you have some disdain for specific bloggers on this site. I just wonder why you chose to express what you did under this particular article on Frank Leahy since your post had nothing in common to the article in question.

      Otherwise, a great article on an outstanding coach. A very nice summary on his coaching bio at ND.

      Go Irish

    4. “SteelFanBoob” is still the only poster on here not to make a substantive football point all season. Yes, THB borders on the delusional at times. But at least he’s making a point. At the other end, BJ can seem like BK can do absolutely nothing right. But, again, at least he’s stating a case. The rest of us fall in somewhere between the blind optimism of THB or the blind negativity of BJ. But in our own ways we’re making our points as best we can. But “SteelFanBoob” has made absolutely no points since making his unwelcome debut here. Instead, he’s tried to pick fights with a lot of us on here, beginning with me given his choice of a screen-name. Of course, debating Booby is degrading given his lack of football acumen. Thus his resort to insults (which he then blames us for starting) and banalities like his post above.

  9. It was different then. Remember, these guys had fought on Midway, Bataan,
    and the European theater. They had a higher threshold of pain, and because of military training, a higher threshold of “he’s pickin’ on me, Mommy!!!”

    Junction, Texas and what Bear did was 55 years closer to WWII than we are today.

    I could just imagine Jim Martin, George Connor, Lujack or Czarobski walking up to Leahy with a smart phone and “declaring” that they were going to “tweet” some stuff to their adoring fans. HaH!

    The stories are myriad, and each has at least a kernel of truth. But my favorite is that Frank Leahy, neglecting no motivational opportunity, was preparing the football team for a trip to mighty Iowa.

    They went to the cemetery where Rockne, and other Notre Dame notables, including George Keogan, the late basketball coach was buried. Leahy assembled the Lads around Rockne’s grave for some prayer and contemplation, sort of flipping the Gipper script. In a lull in the elongated prayer session, Lujack, who had played hoop, wandered over to George Keogan’s grave for a commemorative prayer. Leahy was enraged, but Lujack responded that he was just trying to honor the late basketball coach. The way Lujack tells the story, Leahy responded “What’s the matter with you, Lujack, pray to Keogan during BASKETBALL season.”

    Some kind of focus.

    My recollection of the the stories about Lattner’s fumbles is that Leahy asked him how many Hail Mary’s Lattner had said in Penance for each of the mortal sins (fumbles) Lattner had committed on Saturday.

    I still contend that the role Czarobski played, the clown prince, which softened the tension of the team, is not dissimilar to that which Louis Nix
    has fulfilled the last four years. Czarobski even had a weight problem and there were some hijinks and skullduggery surrounding his weigh-ins.

  10. “I remember hearing a story of an untimely fumble by either Bertelli or Lattner, and that player carrying a football with him around campus the entire next week. Myth or true?”

    I think Leahy also made (Lattner) him go to Mass to confess his sin of fumbling. Great story from a day gone by.

    Do you think a coach could get away with singling out a player like that and making him endure the eyes of the student body? Holtz was criticized for pulling a player (Huntley Bakich)off the field by his facemask on national television.

  11. Great post, Duranko. A good friend of mine’s dad went to ND after WWII,
    and during his four years there as a student, ’46-’49, he
    was among the student body who never experienced an ND loss.

    Of course, there were a barrage of vets who returned from the war and opted for ND.

    Having all that talent was key; developing an attitude that won’t accept the possibility of losing
    is where the great coaches separate themselves from the rest, and Leahy was
    obviously in a realm of his own when it came to inspiring and demanding excellence.

    I remember hearing a story of an untimely fumble by either Bertelli or Lattner, and that player carrying
    a football with him around campus the entire next week. Myth or true?

    Thanks for a look into part of that glorious past that still marks ND as the winningest college football program.
    Now it’s time to move forward into creating new golden days in ND’s fabled history.

  12. With all these coaches stating they are not leaving their school for any job , NFL or not( Briles, Shaw, ) why has Kelly been silent?

  13. Ah, lads, it was the best of times!

    Great job, reporting and assimilating the facts and stories.

    You must have used up the abacus pulling all the numbers together.

    God, bless!

  14. Glad you made this post. Hopeful that it means you will stop the nasty insults to alums and anyone else bringing up Notre Dame’s storied past. Leahy so was the man. Football was modern enough by then, that even ND haters have to admit he is the best. While the ND family still loves Rockne as the first innovator and one who first put ND at the top, Leahy belongs with Rock. Without Leahy, ND might have been a Michigan, Army,Navy, etc. There might not have been the Parsighian’s, Devine’s or Holtz’s., Hornungs, Huartes, Browns, etc.

  15. I think we should hire him again; he seems like a good hire. Do you think Swarbrick has heard of him?

    Nice blog Duranko.

    1. Wonderful post. Hard to imagine that kind of coach today, they are too worried about their next move to the NFL. Alabama is fortunate to have Saban.

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