#18 Tom Clements, Quarterback, 1972-1974
Born in McKees Rocks, Tom Clements was a multi-sport athlete at Canevin High School in Pittsburgh. Beyond being a prep football phenom, Clements was so adept on the basketball court that Dean Smith recruited him to play point guard for the mighty Tar Heels. If you ever had your ankles broken on a Clements crossover in the Pit at the then Convo, you’d understand Dean Smith’s pursuit.
When Tom Clements arrived at Notre Dame, he was part of the last class subject to the strictures of freshman ineligibility.
After Ara and Pagna were unable to digest the unappetizing trio of Bill Etter, Cliff Brown and Pat Steenberge in the lackluster 1971 season, Clements quickly won the starting job in the spring of 1972.
Tom Clements could run, throw and scramble. He was a great team leader. More than any other, he was the quarterback most suited to deploy the full ordnance of the Parseghian/Pagna Offense. Clements would rush for over 1,000 yards in his three years as a starter and score 12 rushing touchdowns to complement his 22 passing TDs.
Clements ripped out of the chute with a burst in 1972, leading early victories over Northwestern in Evanston, 37-0, 35-14 over Purdue in South Bend, and then 16-0 over the Spartans in East Lansing before walloping Pitt, 42-16 in South Bend.
But the ’72 championship express slipped off the rails in the rain in a stunning 30-26 upset loss to Al Onofrio’s Missouri Tigers in South Bend. The previous week Mizzou had been “outpointed” 62-0 by Nebraska in Lincoln. Apparently Mizzou had literally and figuratively kept its powder dry.
The ’72 Irish defense lost its cornerstone when wunderkind frosh Steve Niehaus went down with a knee injury in pre-workout calisthenics in mid-season. In its last two games, the Irish D yielded a total of 85 points to USC and Nebraska, first getting Anthony Davis’ed (6 TDS) in the Coliseum and then getting Johnny Rodgers’ed in the Orange Bowl.
But in ’73 Clements had settled in. Niehaus was back bigger and more agile than ever. Two super-frosh, Ross Browner and Luther Bradley bolstered the defense. The Irish went unbeaten, and in the process broke a string of six years when they had not defeated USC. A 14-10 win over Michigan State was the only win by less than a touchdown.
The Irish kept winning with some ease and then the title game was set. New Year’s Eve, Deep South, New Orleans, rickety old Tulane Stadium. Paul “Bear” Bryant, the Prince of the South and the King of the SEC. Bryant had had a Notre Dame burr under his saddle since, while serving as the head coach for the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, he had seen the Commonwealth’s prize player, Paul Hornung of Flaget High, scooped up by none other than Frank Leahy to play for the Irish. Bear’s attempt to put up “a fence” around the Commonwealth of Kentucky was not sufficient to keep the charismatic Leahy at bay.
The battle raged, exceeding the hype. Late in the game, just when the dew was beginning to cover Dixie, and Bryant’s Red Elephants ready to move in for the kill, Tom Clements dropped back into his own end zone, with great aplomb, and dropped the ball into the waiting arms of Tight End Robin Weber some 36 yards downfield. First and 10 Irish. The Irish ran out the clock. Notre Dame 24-Bama 23. Thank you for coming. Drive home safely, folks, especially you, Bear!
’74 would turn out to be Ara’s last year, and Browner, Bradley, Fry and Hunter had been furloughed. The Irish suffered a strange loss to Purdue early in the year. When they went to the Coliseum, they shot to a 24-6 lead over a talented USC squad. Then, in a surreal psychodrama, USC scored 49 points in a row in a terrifying 18 minutes. USC 55-ND 24.
Ara announced his intent to retire, and as a farewell gift the players swore a blood oath to send him out with a win. His lisp dripping with revenge, Bryant would again bring his Crimson Tide team to be the opponent, this time in the Orange bowl. Notre Dame 13-Alabama 11.
Tom Clements is the only quarterback EVER to defeat Bear Bryant twice in bowl games.
Clements greatness transcends mere numbers and “fantasy football” stats. Clements played in a more manly era. Ara had been coached at Miami by Sid Gillman, the father of the vertical passing game. Clements threw the ball downfield, without dinking and dunking. His effectiveness far exceeded his completion percentage.
In 1974 Clements won All-America honors and finished fourth in the Heisman voting behind running backs Archie Griffin of Ohio State, Anthony Davis of USC and Joe Washington of Oklahoma.
#18 Tom Clements, Quarterback, 1972-1974
#19 Chris Zorich, Nose Tackle, 1988-1990
#20 Aaron Taylor, Guard/Tackle, 1990-1993
#21 Nick Buoniconti, Linebacker/Guard, 1958-1961
#22 Ken MacAfee, Tight End, 1974-1977
#23 Bill “Moose” Fischer, Left Guard, 1945-1948
#24 Todd Lyght, Cornerback, 1987-1990
#25 Louis “Red” Salmon, Fullback, 1900-1903