As college programs seek to one up each other by adding more stadium capacity, a bigger jumbotron, or more opulent locker rooms, some programs have gone so far as to add more national championships. Back in 2004, USC decided to retroactively claim the 1939 National Championship as their own. Washington has followed suit this year by declaring their 1960 team National Champions.
The beauty (or horror depending on your views) of the non-playoff college football setup is that the open-ended nature of the conclusion of the season allows for such possible debate and revisionism. Just check out a random year from this College Football Data Warehouse list of yearly national champions. Each year, three to four programs are labeled the best in the land according to some magazine or computer algorithm. And the fact that many of these polls were finalized before the year end bowl games only serves to confuse the picture more. It's to the point now where many schools could dig through the record books and archives and make their own claims about new national champions. Which brings us to this.
What if....Notre Dame decided to officially declare an additional national championship?
Don't laugh. Notre Dame has done it before. Sorta...
Dickinson System (1924-40); a mathematical point system devised by Frank Dickinson, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois. Dickinson divided teams into two categories, those that had a higher than .500 winning percentage and those below. Dickinson mentioned his method in class one day and the Daily Illini sports editor featured a story which came to the attention of Chicago clothing manufacturer Jack Rissman, who decided he would like to use Dickinson's ratings to select the top team in the Big Ten each year so that he could present a trophy to the winner. When Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne heard about this, he invited both the professor and the clothing manufacturer to lunch at South Bend and said, "Why don't you make it a national trophy that Notre Dame will have a chance to win?" Never one to miss out on a good thing, Rockne also persuaded Dickinson and Rissman to predate the whole thing a couple of years so that the 1924 Irish -- the Four Horsemen team -- could be the first official, system-rated national champion.Getting back to the topic at hand, if ND does decide to retroactively add another mythical national championship, which year should they take?
The Fighting Irish officially claim eleven "consensus" national championships which includes those eight teams that won the AP national championship since the AP poll started in 1936. However, the Irish were listed by some legitimate organization as national champs in ten other seasons. The full list of championship years and their selectors can be found here. If the Irish were to decide on adding a 12th title to the mix, which of those ten other years is the most likely? 1993? 1964? All of them?
The answer, according to us here at BGS, is 1953. We're not suggesting that ND should add 1953 to the list of Irish-recognized national champions, but of all of the possible choices, Frank Leahy's last team certainly warrants recognition as ND's unofficial "12th" national championship.
And now, doing my best Joe Doyle/Lou Somogyi impersonation, here's a recap of that impressive, largely overlooked season that truly was one of the more interesting and eventful seasons in ND's history. Cue the fog-machines, choppy black and white footage, and booming narrator voice.....
As per usual in the Frank Leahy era, the Fighting Irish team headed into the new season full of promise and talent, despite the best sandbagging efforts of the continually pessimistic Leahy.
"I'll be amazed," he moaned, "if we make a first down all season."Riding high after securing a commitment from Kentucky high school star Paul Hornung over the in-state Wildcats and their coach Bear Bryant, the Irish headed into the 1953 season as the nation's #1 ranked team. With returning Maxwell Award winner Johnny Lattner and senior Joe Heap at running back, workhorse Neil Worden at fullback, captain and end Don Penza on the line, and quarterback Ralph Gugliemi eager to enter his second year as a starter, the Irish were loaded with star talent. Fans across the nation were eager to watch these latest Irish heroes and would be able to do so, thanks to a new broadcast deal that put every ND home game in movie theaters across the country.
There was one twist though. No one was quite sure just how the season would play out as the NCAA had just outlawed two platoon football and the free substitution rules that allowed for it. Now, a player could only enter the game once every quarter, leading teams to revert to the one-platoon "ironman" style of football for the '53 season.
First up on the docket was a road trip against a juggernaut Oklahoma program that had only lost five games in the previous five seasons and was riding a 25 game home winning streak. The game was a back and forth dogfight and ultimately was highlighted by Gugliemi's two touchdown passes to fullback Joe Heap. A late punt return TD by the Sooners kept fans on the edge of their seats, but ND held on for the 28-21 win. After this game, the Sooners would tie Pittsburgh the next week and then start their still-record 47-game winning streak, ended by the Irish in 1957.
With the mighty Sooners vanquished, ND held on to the #1 ranking and dispatched an unranked Purdue squad 37-7 the following week in West Lafayette.
Heading back to South Bend for the home opener against Pittsburgh, the Irish honored former greats Knute Rockne, Elmer Layden, and George Gipp. Former Four Horsemen member Layden joined family representatives of Rockne and Gipp in a special box located just behind the Irish bench, where they watched ND put away the visiting 15th ranked Pittsburgh 23-14.
Next up was a tough #4 ranked Georgia Tech team. The Yellow Jackets were owners of a 31 game win-streak; the longest current such streak in the nation. ND held tough though for the 27-14 win and you can check out the following game highlights to see the Irish ground game wear down the Tech defense.
Despite the victory, the day was a sad one for Irish fans. The stress of the game, compounded by the grind of an 11 year ND coaching career came to a head when a worn and weary Coach Leahy collapsed in the locker room, likely from the pain of his acute pancreatitis, during halftime of the game
Here's a recount of the events from Herb Juliano, courtesy of Irish Legends.
We were minutes into the second half. [Joe] Boland was busy with play-by-play. Howie Murdock, Joe's color commentator, noticed that Frank Leahy was missing from the sideline. "Where's Leahy," he asked Joe through connecting headphones. "I don't see him," replied Boland. "It looks like McArdle's in charge," continued Howie. "It sure does," agreed Boland. Then, turning to me, "See what you can find out, Herb."The story goes that while in the first aid room, a Notre Dame priest administered last rites on the frail coach. Regardless of that particular rumor, Leahy was hospitalized for the next five days. Yet, he kept up with football practices thanks to two-year old TV station WSBT, which filmed each practice and transmitted the feed via a closed circuit to a small TV in Leahy's hospital room.
At that time the elevator had not yet been installed to the press box and there were 95 steps to the ground. Making my way toward the locker room I was passing the first aid room and noticed an attendant dressed in white guarding the entrance. "is something going on?", I asked. "There sure is," he replied. "Coach Leahy collapsed after the first half. Doctors are tending to him right now. They do not know yet if it was a heart attack, but he is conscious and talking. The doctors are continuing to check him over."
For the next game against #20 Navy, Leahy decided to use a "3-D" coaching strategy to keep all of his assistants busy while he was absent. The idea worked as follows; the main assistant coaches directed the team from the bench, keeping track of players and substitutions. Former star turned assistant Johnny Lujack was up in the press box, watching the game and phoning instructions down to the assistants on the sideline. New assistant Terry Brennan also manned a phone line, while peering through a hole in the scoreboard at one end of the field to keep an eye on lineman spacing and look for weak spots. Leahy meanwhile was resigned to watching the game on TV from his home, with the sound turned off by doctors orders lest the crowd noise get Leahy too worked up.
Worried that the team might try too hard with their head coach not on the sidelines, Leahy tried to shift the focus prior to the game.
On the eve of the Navy game, Frank Leahy sent a note to his team asking that the game be played "for the seniors and for Notre Dame."This mashup of coaches, phones, vantages points, and "Win One for the Leahy" inspiration worked as ND steamrolled Navy 38-7.
But as Captain Don Penza explained later in the dressing room: "The boys got together and played it for the coach anyway." It was very likely the first time in his ten-year regime at Notre Dame that a team had ever disobeyed Frank Leahy.
Over the next two games, ND kept its stranglehold on the #1 ranking by knocking off Pennsylvania 28-20 and North Carolina 34-14 during back to back road games. It was after the Pennsylvania game when Irish star Johnny Lattner was the subject of a lengthy article and a prestigious cover spot on Time magazine.
Triple Talents. Lattner is more than a ball carrier. In the two-platoon era of a year ago—when most players were either offensive or defensive specialists, and few ball-carrying halfbacks ever dirtied their hands with a tackle—Johnny Lattner was one of football's rare iron men, a 60-minute player who enjoyed making a crackling tackle almost as much as he enjoyed lugging the ball. On the offensive, Halfback Lattner was and is a throwback to the days of the genuine triple-threat back; his ability to pass from a running play is a constant threat to the opposition, and his booming kicks travel so high and far that even the slowest-footed Notre Dame lineman can get downfield to smother the receiver. This year Notre Dame's opponents. ' returning Lattner's punts, have averaged less than 2 yds. a try.While Lattner was getting the major headlines at the time though, another Irish player was quietly making history. Defensive end Wayne Edmonds had worked his way into the playing rotation and by the end of the year earned a monogram letter in football. In doing so, he became the first minority to letter in football at Notre Dame. He wasn't the first minority to play on ND football teams. In fact, teammate Dick Washington was also African-American. But he was the first to earn a varsity letter. As it turns out, it wasn't so much skin color, but his and others' religion that drew the ire of protesters during the 1953 season.
For these manifold talents, Halfback Johnny Lattner, as a Notre Dame junior, got the Maxwell Trophy as the outstanding football player of 1952. and he was the only player to make everybody's All-America team. This year, when two-way players are at a premium with the end of the two-platoon system, when football is again producing iron men instead of wooden specialists, All-America Lattner is taking up where he left off.
The followers of [ed. so-to-be excommunicated] Father Leonard Feeney of Boston, who espoused a strict interpretation of the phrase extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church, no salvation”), used football games as protest sites. “The first sign of your approaching damnation,” barked one demonstrator who ran onto the field in 1953, “is that Notre Dame has Protestants on its football team.”Getting back to football, ND faced a tough 20th-ranked Iowa squad for the second to last home game of the season and the result is one of the most famous games in ND history. Trailing by seven and facing fourth down with seven seconds left in the first half and no timeouts, an ND player, Frank Varrichione, dropped to the ground, apparently injured. The refs called a timeout to stop the clock for the dubious injury. Coming out of the timeout, Gugliemi fired a TD pass to tie the game going into the half. Then, with 25 seconds left in the 4th quarter and ND down by 7 on the Iowa 9 yard line, the refs again called a timeout when a few ND players were on the ground again, presumably injured. After the injury timeout, ND threw two incomplete passes before completing a touchdown pass to Dan Shannon with six seconds left in order to salvage a 14-14 tie with the Hawkeyes. You can listen to the radio play by play of the key plays here.
The play angered Iowa's coach to no end, and while faking injuries was a somewhat common practice at the time, it rarely had such a big impact on the outcome of the game. ND was routinely criticized in the press as the "but everyone else does it" excuse didn't fly. As a result of the widely discussed faked injuries, ND earned the mocking title the "Fainting Irish" and after the season, new rules were put in place to reign in the practice of faking injuries to stop the clock.
Another outcome of the Iowa tie and resultant criticism was that for the first time all season, ND lost their #1 ranking to undefeated to the previously ranked #2 Maryland, who impressively dispatched Alabama 21-0.
Now playing from the #2 spot, ND traveled out to L.A. to take on Southern Cal. However, Coach Leahy's doctors forbade him from traveling with the team for health reasons, so he stayed behind in South Bend for the game. Fired up once again to win one for their coach, Johnny Lattner scored four touchdowns and Joe Heap brought back a punt 94 yards for a touchdown as ND routed the Trojans 48-14 in scorching 95 degree heat.
The magnificent performance against the Trojans cemented Lattner's place as college football's player of the year. He was named the winner of the Heisman Trophy and also picked up the Maxwell Trophy for the second straight year. Tackle Arthur Hunter was also named 1st Team All-America while Captain Don Penza was named 2nd Team All-America.
ND still had one game left in the regular season though; a final home game against Southern Methodist. They were no match as Lattner again scored 2 touchdowns and Neil Worden scored 3 rushing touchdowns to give him 11 for the season in the 40-14 rout. Little did anyone know at the time, that would be Coach Leahy's last game on the Notre Dame sideline as he retired the following February.
Now with a record standing at 9-0-1, the Irish season was over as ND was still in the middle of a self-imposed bowl game ban. Meanwhile, #1 Maryland made plans to match up against #4 Oklahoma, winner of the Big Seven conference, in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day. Before the bowl game however, in fact, four days before the ND-SMU game, the final AP poll and Coaches Poll were taken and Maryland wound up on top in both. Thus, Maryland won the AP National Championship while Notre Dame had to settle for a #2 ranking.
However, in the Orange Bowl the #1 Terrapins faltered and lost to the #4 Sooners 7-0. Meanwhile, in the Rose Bowl, the previously undefeated #3 UCLA Bruins lost to the one-loss #5 Michigan State Spartans 28-20. That left Notre Dame as the only undefeated team in the country, albeit with one tie.
At the time, the only poll that took bowl game results into consideration was the Helms Foundation, which gave the #1 spot to Notre Dame. Possibly as a result, the following year the Football Writers Association of America began their own poll to name a national champion and waited until after the bowl games were over to declare a winner. They have been naming a winner ever since. In fact, Washington's claim of the 1960 championship is based largely on the FWAA poll.
Given all of those outcomes, no one should really complain if the Irish decided to add the 1953 championship. They went undefeated and beat, on the road, an Oklahoma team that beat the Maryland team awarded the AP national championship. Besides, no one complained too much when Southern Cal added the '39 title and the timing of UW's move is drawing more raised eyebrows than the actual decision to award themselves the '60 championship.
Still, it's probably not the right thing to do for the Irish. Despite the hopes and wishes of football fans across the nation, ND football isn't a relic of a bygone era and doesn't need to use historical revisionism to stay atop the national championship arms race. The focus should remain on attaining future championships. And while a relatively minor side issue, the sting of the "Fainting Irish" charge does mar the season somewhat and I'm not so sure that ND would be keen on taking credit for a season that included such a controversial finish. In the end, it's probably for the best to remember the 1953 season not as a national championship year, but as one that included some fantastic finishes, some amazing players, important historical footnotes, and the final season of one of the greatest coaches in college football history.