Duranko’s Digest: ’66, ’73,’77, ’88 Notre Dame’s National Championship DNA

Aug. 19, 2010; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly (left) listens as former Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian (right) talks to the team during practice at the LaBar Practice Complex. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports


1966 National Championship

1965 had ended dismally.

November, 1965 saw a lot of long faces in the Notre Dame football fan base.  Ara had burst onto the scene, the unwashed phenomenon, in ’64.

But in November, 1965, a great Michigan State defense, led by Harold Lucas, Bubba Smith Charley Thornhill and George Webster held the Ara/Pagna rushing attack to -12 yards on the ground.  It was total domination and humiliation in a 12–3 home loss. Bill Zloch struggled at quarterback, and too often the stadium PA brought Frank Crosiar’s “Zloch fails to gain” to Irish ears.  The following week the Irish went to Miami and played a 0-0 tie against the ‘Canes. 3 points in the last two games.  Depression.

’66? What about Ara’s offense? What about the quarterbacking?

Well, Ara had stashed a couple of quarterbacks in his frosh class.  In the Spring the clubhouse favorite was Coleman Carroll O’Brien.  Then in the pre-fall, a kid from Western Pa, Butler, named Terry Hanratty, was jawdroppingly accurate, especially to fellow soph Jim Seymour.  Ara kept his discovery under wraps.

Vaunted Purdue came to South Bend to open the ’66 season, with the great Bob Griese at quarterback and Heisman favorite Leroyr Keyes at tailback. But Hanratty and Seymour hooked up for a then unfathomable 276 yards, and the defense kept Griese under control and the Irish won 26-14.  Johnny Ray, a great man, a colorful character and a great defensive coordinator had his minions allow just one offensive touchdown over the next 7 weeks.  Lynch, Hardy, Page, Duranko were magnificent.

In mid-October the Irish visited Norman and then swatted away a purported challenge from OU as if it were a housefly, 38-0.

All eyes turned to November 19th.  Rematch with Michigan State. East Lansing.  There was so much anticipation for the game that it forced the Big Ten to change its scheduling protocols.  The Notre Dame-Michigan State game simply sucked the air out of college football and the Big Ten in particular. The Big Ten actually changed its rules so that no non-conference game could be played after September, and this rule stayed in effect until Penn State joined as the 11th member.

It seems that there has never been a season in the modern era in which the top two teams had distanced themselves from the rest of college football.  But that was Notre Dame and Michigan State.  OU-Nebraska ’71? Forida-Florida State ’96?  LSU-Bama ’11? Uh-uh.  Those dogs don’t hunt.  The Irish and the Spartans had lapped the college football field.

Duffy Daugherty had built his team on kids from Ohio, Michigan and Chicago’s Catholic League.  But then Duffy took advantage of Southerm segregation and brought in stars like Bubba Smith and Gene Washington from Texas, George Webster from South Carolina, Charley “Mad Dog” Thornhill from Virginia and Jimy Raye from North Carolina.  Michigan State was mangling its opponents with the same ruthlessness the Irish used to dispatch foes.

It was the first “Game of the Century.” People lined the train  route as the Fighting Irish crossed the border into Spartan Country. Unfortunately, Nick Eddy hurt his shoulder debarking the train and could not play. The day was gray.  True gray, not blue gray.  This was a different era, before the wishbone and the spread.
It was physical football.  Hanratty and the ferocious George Goeddeke were knocked out of the game.  There are no analogies in football, the only thing close was the “Thrilla in Manila” between Ali and Frazier.  No one, at least that I’ve talked to, who attended the game described it as anything but “The Greatest Football Game I ever saw.”  On one play, All American Lynch intercepted a Spartan pass then was hit so hard by Clinton Jones that he turned upside down, and quite literally, not figuratively, landed upside down, straight up, on his helmet.  It ended in a 10-10 tie.

In modernity, we have a fetish for a final score, but, classically, sometimes a tie is an elegant solution.  Notre Dame has played in two epics, 0-0 against Army in ’46 and that classic 10-10 against Michigan State. Others: Harvard-Yale 29-29 in ’69 and Ohio State-Michigan 10-10 in ’73.

The Irish had one game left, in the Coliseum against Pac-8 Champ USC, headed to the Rose Bowl to play another Irish victim, Purdue.  O’Brien played quarterback and the Irish romped 51-0.  It is no dishonor to Michigan State, but the AP voted Notre Dame the national champion.  Ara had won one!

Texas A&M Made a Run at Mike Elko, It Reportedly Failed

1973 National Championship

1972 had ended dismally.  The Irish went to the Coliseum, and Anthony Davis wrote the front page lead for the Los Angeles Times:
Davis, Davis, Davis, Davis, Davis, Davis.
You see, he scored six touchdowns against our Irish.
SC  45 – ND 23.

The Orange Bowl was even uglier.  Johnny Rogers and Nebraska 40-ND 6.

There were quarterback concerns.  Clements failed in the two big games, struggled to complete 50% of his passes and threw 12 interceptions to a mere 8 touchdowns.

Ara had gotten a taste of the juicy fruit of freshman eligibility with Steve Niehaus in 1972.  Niehaus was a marvel and defied the truism that freshmen couldn’t play. NOTE:  Niehaus suffered a non-contact injury and missed the last half of his frosh year.  He came back to be an All-American and a success in the NFL.  But he was never the same after the injury, never again the nimble hyper-quick dancing bear. He would have been a Notre Dame legend.

But Ara had a couple of frosh in ’73.  Data obscura: the first to earn a starting position was Luther Bradley, a tall cornerback from Muncie. Soon after, Ross Browner won a starting job. Browner blocked a kick in his first game against Northwestern.  The Irish raced to a 5-0 start  with only Michigan State a contest, a 14-10 Irish win in South Bend.

But then in came unbeaten  USC, which Ara had not beaten since 1966….
The day was rainy, and the game was tight at halftime.  Then early in the third quarter, Pagna called one of his beloved misdirection plays with the ball on the Irish 15 in the South part of the field.  As soon as Eric Penick got the ball, you could see the blocking develop.  It seemed as if a tsunami of noise and cheering and fans started at Angela avenue and surged forward with the electric Penick as he went 85 yards to paydirt in the student section.  It was a touchdown, and more, Deliverance, after 6 years of frustration against the Trojans.  Irish 23-USC 15.

Fiery Joe Yonto was the Irish D coordinator and the Irish gave up only 6.6 points a game, while a maturing Clements was masterful as point guard of the offense.
With the Southern Cal monkey off their backs, the Irish cruised in the last four games winning all by at least 21 points.

But there was noise in Tuscaloosa.  Bryant had a juggernaut and the Tide would win every game by at least 14.  Bryant had a burr under his houndstooth hat ever since Leahy stole Paul Hornung from Louisville Flaget while Bryant was coaching Kentucky. He wanted a piece of Notre Dame in the worst way.

There was a T-shirt in South Bend “There will be no Crimson Tide where the River Shannon Flows.”

The match was made, New Year’s Eve 1973 in the Big Easy, in rickety old Tulane Stadium. The pride of Dixie wanted to show those Yankee Catholics how the Be’ah did it.  Classic game, Hunter kickoff return, and the clutch late pass, yes,from the very shadow of his own goal post from Clements to Robin Weber to seal the 24-23 victory.  It was the first time Bryant played Notre Dame and he was 0-1.  Bryant died 0-4 against the Irish.

Parseghian had won his second national championship.

1977 National Championship

1976 had ended dismally, with November losses at Georgia Tech and Southern Cal.  Sure the Irish won the bowl, but it was a “minor” bowl, a 20-9 win over Penn State in the Gator.  Devine, taciturn, had followed the charismatic Ara and was, well, not beloved in South Bend.

Slager and Lisch were frightening at quarterback.  Western Pa hotshot Joe Montana couldn’t stay healthy and we were working on a new three game losing streak to USC.

Devine marched to a different drummer, and it seemed that he finished establishing the other 21 starting positions before he started working on the quarterback
position. Yonto was still the defensive coordinator but his star assistant was defensive backs coach Jim Johnson.  Yeah, that guy, who coordinated the Eagles defenses for years. There was some defensive talent with ’73 vets Browner, Bradley and Fry and a marauding middle guard/middle linebacker, Bob Golic.

The Irish struggled past Pitt when Matt Cavanaugh got hurt, and then lost 20-13 to Ole Miss in Jackson. Wolves bayed at the moon where the St. Joe River bends South.  The quarterback clusterfest continued against Purdue, until third stringer Joe Montana entered the game after Forystek got hurt. The waters parted and Joe led the Irish to a nerve-wracking 31-24 win.  The Irish struggled past MSU by 16-6. They stood a nervous 4-0.

Returns of Jerry Tillery, Tevon Coney Beyond Huge for Notre Dame

Then something happened to the team during the off week.  They seemed crisp during a 24-0 dominating performance over Army in the newly minted  Meadowlands. That was the good news; the bad was that mighty Southern Cal was coming to South Bend.  The Trojans were 5-1 with just a one point loss to Alabama marring the record.

Green Jerseys. It was the match that lit the Irish kindling and the game was a rout from the get-go. It was 22-7 at half.  Even Jay Case scored and the final was a redemptive 49-19.

The Irish kept winning, with only a 21-17 win at Clemson being close.  In that one, on one drive the Irish had to overcome Southern referees who flagged two 15 yard penalties to force the irish to drive 120 yards for a touchdown.

Meanwhile, in Texas, Earl Campbell was leading Texas to an unbeaten season and himself to New York to accept the Heisman.  His teammate Brad Shearer was winning the Outland.
The Irish were invited.
The Irish accepted.
The Irish showed up.
The Irish destroyed Texas 38-10.

Dan Devine, mirabile dictu, had won a National Championship!

1988 National Championship

1987 had ended dismally. Three straight losses.  By 21-20 in the cold at State College.  By shutout at Miami, 24-0, suffering the indignity of Dan Stubbs corkscrewing Kent Graham into the Orange Bowl turf.  The Canes were no longer the “University of Miami at Coral Gables” that played under Schnellenberger.  Jimmy Johnson had come to Miami and he recruited Jerome Brown and Michael Irvin.  They became “Da U” in October, 1985 when they brashly went into Norman Oklahoma and intimidated the crowd and eventual champion OU in a romp in which they broke Troy Aikman’s leg (clean hit).  Then against A&M in the Cotton Bowl, with Andrysiak starting, The Irish
(1) much as we did in ’80 with Buck Belue, made Bucky Richardson a hero
(2) saw the indignity of an Aggie taking Tim Brown’s towel
(3) lost the game 35-10.

Long winter.  Uncertainty at quarterback.  Gotta play DA U and @ USC.

Lou trusted his defensive coordinator, Barry Alvarez, with newcomer Chris Zorich, stout George Williams, ferocious Frank Stams and Todd Lyght in the secondary.

Only Holtz had confidence in Tony Rice, but that was enough, as the Irish Reggie Ho’d past Michigan and Bo, 19-17.  The Irish kept winning.  Rice looked better as a runner than a passer.  Miami beat FSU, Michigan, Wisconsin and Mizzou before an open date preceding their visit to South Bend.

Oct. 15, 1988.  Jimmy Johnson.  Russell Maryland.  Randy Shannon. DA U.  Sunshine and tension.  It was an epic game with ebbs and flows, big plays, controversy and, most importantly, hubris by Jimmy Johnson as Lou and Alvarez stuffed the ‘Canes on a fake punt.  Pat Terrell picked for 6 and batted down a 2 point conversion.  Notre Dame 31-Miami 30.

Out of that frying pan, the Irish then awaited the fire in the Coliseum.  Brash USC was unbeaten at 10-0 and looking to end a 5 game losing streak against the Irish, led by Rodney Peete. Sportswriters from a then hamlet in Bristol, Connecticut to LA foretold doom and an end to Irish luck.  But Rice made a long pass to Rocket Ismail, took a keeper to the yard, Smagala intercepted Peete and on that very play Stams added injury to insult by pancaking Peete.  Notre Dame 27-SC 10.

The Irish, having clinched championships in the Sun Belt in LA, ’66, New Orleans, ’73, Dallas, ’77 then were headed to Tempe to play unbeaten West Virginia and Major Harris. The Irish stopped Harris early, got big plays from Ismail and Watters, and coasted in, 34-21.

Lou Holtz had his national championship.

24 Autumns ago.

And here we are. Is this DNA strand familiar?
’11 ended dismally with losses to Stanford and FSU.
Quarterback was a mess, with advocates for Rees, Hendrix,
Kiel and Golson. (You all know who you were!)
Pretty good D coordinator in Diaco.
October test with Stanford, road tests with OU and USC.
Let’s look at the map here: LA, NO, Dallas, Tempe,
well, Miami, guess it’s your turn.

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  1. Mike Sullivan 5 years ago


    Thank you for putting all this together, and for your high school English teacher who taught you how to express yourself.

    You must have bedeviled your faculty at ND! Another wonderful piece, combining facts which many of us may have forgotten but love to be reminded about once again.

    Terrific research which must have taken time and penmanship which is exceptional.

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  2. JC 5 years ago


    You just took me on a magic carpet ride all the way back to age 14. Your formative influences encapsulates the very essence of ND with no culminating point insight. You sir, are indeed, an inestimable hallmark of an ND man. Sorry, I misunderstood you early on, I thought wrong.
    Please accept my sincere apologies. And please keep presenting your labor of love for our benefit. You are truly blessed.

    Peace and Happy New Year to you and your family.

    Here come our beloved Irish!

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  3. duranko 5 years ago

    Carroll, I’ll debate that one until the cows come home. Alabama was the
    best team in the region, but MSU and Notre Dame were frightening aggregations. Sometime, just check out a few things:

    (1) Size differentials of MSU and ND versus Bama in ’66
    (2) Scoring of #s of both College Football Hall of Famers
    and NFL Hall of Famers for MSU, Bama and ND.3)

    (3)The “quickness” shibboleth. The Irish demolished that
    against OU, 38-0, in Norman.

    (4) If you put Ara on sodium pentathol, he would admit that ’66 was a far
    better team than ’73. By then, Bama had integrated and sized up,
    but still couldn’t beat the Irish.

    (5) I know in the south they write books about how the Tide got robbed in
    ’66 but if you saw the teams play in real time, you would opine differently.

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    1. Carroll 5 years ago

      OK- ND Purdue 1966 was my first game being at ND stadium (I was a Freshman) so I know well how great that team was. I was naive- thought that was the way it would always be 🙂 Won’t argue whether ‘Bama was also a great team that year- we will agree to disagree. Go Irish!!

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  4. Carroll 5 years ago

    Great post. But one quibble. Much as I hate to say it ‘Bama was on a par with ND and MSU in 1966. I’m not saying at all the Irish didn’t deserve to be National Champions but I think to say ND and MSU were head and shoulders above ‘Bama that year is a real stretch.

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  5. SteelFanRob 5 years ago

    Meant to say “best post to date,” obviously!

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  6. SteelFanRob 5 years ago

    What else can be said of this but brilliant!

    Perhaps your post to date, “Duranko”. That’s saying quite a bit in light of your others contributions to this site.

    Perhaps our “guests” “Buckeye” and “Steve” could be encouraged to comment on your sane post in order to move our dialogue forward into more civil territory.

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