NOBODY saw this one coming!
John Huarte was from California, a prized prospect from an emerging Catholic prep school, Santa Ana Mater Dei, which would later produce Heisman honoree Matt Leinart of the Cardinal and Gold of USC.
But Huarte’s talents went unrecognized by Joe Kuharich and Hugh Devore. As a soph in ’62, Huarte escaped the sideline, and Kuharich’s dour gaze, long enough to complete 4 of 8 passes for an un-Heisman foreshadowing 38 yards.
When the ’63 season opened, under “interim” Coach Hugh Devore, Huarte was buried behind Dennis Szot, Frank Budka and Sandy Bonvecchio.
The Irish faithful would certainly see a Heisman Winner in Notre Dame Stadium in ’63 but it was Roger Staubach, the Junior
from the Naval Academuy. It stung that Staubach was from Cincinnati’s Purcell High School a Catholic School later renamed as Purcell Marian Catholic. Why was he not at Notre Dame?
In the Spin cycle that was Devore’s management style, Huarte did play some, completing 20 of 42 passes for 243 yards.
In November, as the loyal but overwhelmed Hugh Devore was leading the Irish to a 2-7 season, President John Kennedy was assassinated. This shocked and numbed the nation and few were paying attention on a quiet December Saturday afternoon when word leaked out that Notre Dame had hired Ara Raoul Parseghian.
In the Spring, Ara and Tom Pagna were shocked but stimulated, rather than numbed, by John Huarte. They had no idea……… But they soon realized they had their quarterback!
Ara and his staff repositioned and retasked myriad players, and a key one was Jack Snow, a fair to middlin’ halfback who Ara and Pagna reckoned would prosper as a receiver.
Roger Staubach was the odds-on preseason Heisman favorite. Were such a list then extant, it is probable that Huarte would not have been one of the top 300 candidates.
Notre Dame opened at mighty Wisconsin, and Ara let the Californians, John Huarte and Jack Snow, out. Some Badgers were bewitched, bothered and bewildered. Huarte completed bombs of 61 and 42 yards for touchdowns to Jack Snow and the Irish trapped and skinned the Badgers 31-7.
Purdue and a sophomore from Evansville’s Rex Mundi, Bob Griese, showed up the following Saturday, and Huarte was the better man, leading the Irish to 34-15 triumph. With that win, the resurgent Irish had matched the 1963 win total. After four tilts, the Irish, under Huarte’s quarterbacking. had scored more points than the ’63 squad had scored in the entire season!
When Simon and Garfunkel wrote “Mrs. Robinson” it contained a plaintive phrase “Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” Nostalgia, and the search, post-Kennedy, for heroes, was in vogue. And in the Dark Ages of Notre Dame football, after Leahy, in the ten years of Brennan, Kuharich and Devore, the nation had missed Notre Dame. Some missed the Irish to root for them, some missed the Irish to root against them. But unlike Joltin’ Joe, Notre Dame football had returned, and that return was celebrated by media across America. The Irish rose to #1 in the polls and the name of Notre Dame once again was on the lips, some to blow a kiss, some to form a curse, of college football fans from coast to coast.
There was a serendipitous conundrum that may have helped Huarte’s Heisman campaign. Was it Coach Parseghian or QB Huarte that was the real reason for ND’s return to the mountaintop? We now know the answer, but there was insufficient data in 1964 to definitively answer the question.
The Irish kept romping through the schedule, winning by more than 20 points over the next four opponents, the Air Force Academy, Stanford, UCLA and Navy. When Huarte and the Irish met Staubach and Navy in Philadelphia, Notre Dame won 40-0. It’s kind of nice to shutout the defending Heisman Trophy winner! Pitt was the only close game before the finale, staying close in a 17-15 loss in South Bend. The Irish then beat Michigan State and Iowa by a combined 62-7 before heading out to the Coliseum with a glittering 9-0 record and the nation’s top ranking. Alas, the Irish, victimized by a goal line penalty, and a misplay in the secondary, fell 17-14, and Ara’s championship would have to wait.
John Huarte would complete 114 of 205 passes for 16 TDS and 2062 yards. Huarte was not playing chuck and duck. That was 18 yards per completion! Huarte set 12 Notre Dame offensive and passing records in that year. Snow, after catching 6 passes from his halfback slot in 1963, grabbed 60 for 1114 yards and 9 TDS.
Those Huarte numbers must be viewed in historical context. In the previous four years, the leading Irish passers had thrown for 548, 636, 821 and 251 for the SEASON. Huarte nearly surpassed the four previous passing leaders by himself in ’64. Again, nobody saw it coming.
Huarte’s meteoric rise, in a year in which he finished third in the nation in total offense, was coupled with a lack of Heisman contenders. Staubach had a miserable senior campaign, and just one quarterback was of the star type. Jerrry Rhome put up the numbers, but after all he played for Tulsa. Some folks thought a two-way player for the Fighting Illini was the best overall football player in the country. He started at center for the Illini but found time to play a little linebacker. He sort of liked to hit people. And Dick Butkus would finish third in the Heisman race. The win over Rhome was within 100 points, but Notre Dame’s superior competition provided a better test for Heisman greatness.
Huarte was named a first team All American and UPI’s Offensive Player of the Year and College Football Player of the Year. Like Bertelli, Hornung and Brown, he won his Heisman for a coach different from the coach who recruited him. But Notre Dame had its sixth Heisman Trophy winner.