Notre Dame’s 1949 National Championship

Notre Dame's 1949 National Championship Team
Photo: Notre Dame Media Relations

Duranko takes another stroll down memory lane in looking back at the 1949 Notre Dame National Championship squad.  Learn about how the Irish navigated the ‘1949 schedule en route to another national title.


Weren’t the Irish unbeaten in 1948? Well, yes, but wtih a tie against USC in the last game. The 1948 Irish were 9-0-1 and outscored opponents by a total of 320-93, or an average scort of 32-9. On October 16, 1948, #2 ranked Notre Dame beat Nebraska in Lincoln 44-13. At home in Ann Arbor, #4 Michigan beat Northwestern 28-0 and leaprfrogged past Notre Dame, who Michigan had been avoiding since ’43, to #1 while the Irish were #2.

In the final poll, unbeaten Michigan was #1, Notre Dame #2. Leahy would have loved the matchup!


While many of the WWII vets had moved on, Leahy still had a daunting roster. It was the underclasses that were beginning to atrophy due to the university mandated scholarshp reductions. In 1948 the administration slashed the number of scholarship from 33 per year to 18 per year. Those chickens would later come home to roost. The upperclasses were still loaded.

Bob Williams was settling in at quarterback. Red Sitko was on his way to earning the “Six Yard” Sitko nickname from the fullback spot. Leon Hart was a force at tight end, and Jim Martin was that last guard of the vets on the line.

The Irish opened the season at home and rolled over Indiana 49-6, The Irish continuing to expand their portfolio of West Coast opponents, playing the Washington Huskies in Seattle and came away with a 27-7 victory. The Irish ground attack was still diverse and relentless. Frank Spaniel and Larry Coutre were the halfbacks flanking Six Yard Sitko in his fullback slot. For the seaon, Sitko led with 712 yards, Coutre with 645 and Spaniel with 496. As usual, the irish had three other backs who gained more than 100 yards.

The Irish then bused down to West Lafayette and defeated in-state rival Purdue, 35-12. The Irish seemed to have little difficulty with the Boilers. The Irish had not lost to Purdue since 1933. But with Notre Dame’s recruiting restrictions, Purdue was starting to mine the leftover gold in “Da Region” and in Chicago’s Public and Catholic Leagues, and in the next two decades they would locate and develop quarterbacks like Dale Samuels, Len Dawson, Bob Griese, Mike Phipps and Gary Danielson, who would be a crown of boiler thorns for the Irish.


Many traditional opponents were ducking Notre Dame, so the Irish kept broadening their list of opponents. The Irish handled Tulane 46-7 in South Bend, and then traveled to Baltimore to play Navy. Ah, Navy! Loyalty is as loyalty does. Navy had never abandoned Notre Dame and Notre Dame, 6 decades later, has never abandoned Navy. Heck, we’d even take a trip to Dublin to play the Middies. The Irish rolled over the Midshipmen 40-0. The Irish were ranked #1, were 5-0 and had outsdcored opponents 197-32.

Williams was having a fine year. He would eventually complete 83 of 147 passes for 1374 yards and 16 TDS. Leon Hart, the first, and very large, robin of Notre Dame’s Tight End Spring, would receive the most passes, 19 for 5TDs. Hart was a relentless, brutal blocker, team leader and a scorcher of the foe from his defensive end spot.


Michigan State’s Spartans were ranked 10th in the the country. Biggie Munn was building a robust program and was mounting a challenge to the team in Ann Arbor. The media predicted that this game would end the Irish four year unbeaten streak, but QB Bob Williams stepped up his pin point passing when it was needed most, and the Irish won by a comfortable 34-21 margin. Notre Dame was better, but Michigan State was becoming a force. Interestingly, Michigan State would be the National Champions in 1951

The Irish then dispatched North Carolina 41-6 in the “friendly confines” of Yankee Stadium, and handled the Big Ten’s Iowa 28-7 in South Bend


USC was coming in for the November 26th game at Notre Dame Stadium. You see, in those days, the Trojans had not yet figured out that the winds of November might be too tough for their surfer boy bodies -and psyches-, and they alternated the last game of the year with the Irish. But this one was special.

You see, those freshmen, football players and mere mortals, who entered Notre Dame in 1946 had never lost or BEEN TIED in Notre Dame Stadium. The Army tie was in Yankee Stadium, the USC tie in 1948 in LA. They were a perfect 15-0 at home. Could SC stop the streak? Well, the seniors kept on the underclassmen, and the Irish routed the Trojans 32-0 for their second shutout of the season.

Only one contest remained, at SMU in Dallas. Their great All-American, Doak Walker, destined forpro greatness with the Detroit Lions, was injured. But young Kyle Rote, later a star with the New York Giants, played the game of his life, stunning the Irish with two quick touchdowns. The game was tied 20-20 with seven minutes to go. Hart and Martin and Bob Toneff buckled their chinstraps and the Irish ground out ten consecutive rushes for 54 yards and punched into the Mustang end zone for the final 27-20 count. Unbeaten, 10-0, 360 points for, 86 against.


Oklahoma, California and Army had also finished the season unbeaten. It’s a shame that Blaik had not wanted Army to play against Notre Dame. But the Irish, suffocatingly dominant against teams from across the country, were the National Champion by a landslide AP vote, a remarkable third title in four years, and Leahy’s fourth in just seven years as Notre Dame Head Coach. Leon Hart, Bob Williams and Emil Sitko were unanimous All-Americans. Hart won the Heisman by a landslide vote over Charley “Choo-Choo” Justice of Notre Carolina and Doak Walker of SMU. Interestingly, Bob Williams finished fifth in the votingfourt

The Irish were 36-0-2 in the four years from 1946 through 1949. They outscored oppponents by 1242-255, and average of ND 32.7 – opponent 6.7.

A Dynasty like no other.

Go Irish!

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  1. It’s enthralling to have these eye witness accounts and personal reminiscences of the Leahy era.

    The stories of Prendergast, Nelis and Zier are PURE GOLD.

    “Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall visions.” May the glory of Notre Dreams
    help the rest see visions.

  2. I was a sophomore in 1949, pleased that a number of classmates already were contributing on the field — Barret, Pettibon Toneff, Burns,Mutscheller, et al. The Tulane game stands out. On a sprectacular fall day,the fourth-ranked Tulane team streamed confidently onto the field. Three minutes passed, no ND team. Another five, no ND team. Then from the tunnel came the co-captains, Hart & Martin, jogging slowly to midfield. A Tulane player later commented – “At that point, I knew we had come 1,000 miles for nothing”. After eight minutes the score was 26 – 0

  3. Hugh Devore loved Notre Dame as much as Rockne and Leahy. Further,
    his recruiting class of ’63 was an all timer-Page, Hardy, Lynch,Conjar
    Regner, Seiler, Gmitter, Goeddeke and many more.

  4. As an 11 year old living in the Turtle Creek Valley, I became an ardent Notre Dame fan in the mid 40’s when local phenom, Leon Hart from Turtle Creek High School, went to Notre Dame.
    I remember to this day when my cousin Billy Waldron and I went to St. Coleman’s parish after the 1949 season of Notre Dame football, and Leon Hart showed black and white 8mm film of the season highlights of their national championship and 3rd out of four undefeated seasons. Leon had also played four years at Turtle Creek High School where that team was undefeated during his four years.

    Billy and I arrived late and there were no seats left in the church hall. Leon called us over and sat us on his knee, which was like sitting on a park bench. How can one ever forget an experience like that. I really didn’t appreciate it until years later, but to this day my favorite team is Notre Dame, win, lose or draw.

  5. Your really getting close to home ,saw my first ND game with my dad, I think it was in Baltimore vs navy in 1948. Dad lived in Sorin hall with our eventually neighbor Hughie Devore. I am not sure of his Grad date. I think Hughie grad in 34. Nice to read about those good days.

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