I met John O'Connor in the bar of San Francisco's Olympic Club
in the summer of 1967, and when he shook my hand, he almost
crushed it. Big guy, size-18 neck, 46-inch chest, still an
active AAU wrestler at 40. On the bridge of his nose was a
telltale helmet scar.
"Where'd you play football?" I asked.
"Notre Dame, '46 and '47," he said.
"Greatest collection of college football talent in history," I
said. "How much did you play?"
"Not at all--for the varsity," he said. "B team. Scrimmaged
against the big boys every day." He paused. "The greatness of
those teams will never be realized. You ever hear of Art Statuto?"
Sure I had. He was the classic example of the postwar talent
amassed by Irish coach Frank Leahy. Statuto never earned a
monogram at Notre Dame, but he played three years of pro
"We had lots of Art Statutos," O'Connor said. "There were guys
who'd been starters and then gone off to war and couldn't win a
monogram when they came back. There were people who weren't even
issued jerseys, but in high school their uniforms had been
retired. There were guys no one ever heard of and were never
heard of again. You ever hear of Chick Iannuccillo?"
No, never had. So he told me the story of Chick Iannuccillo. He
was one of those prospects a coach glimpses once in a lifetime,
if he's lucky. He was a fullback, 5'11", 225 pounds, a monster
in those days. He had speed and a real killer instinct.
"He used to go, 'Vavoom! Vavoom!' when he was running," O'Connor
said, "and he'd bring up a forearm and flatten guys. Leahy used
to have this drill for backs, to see how tough they were: All
the linemen would line up, single file, and the back would run
at them, one at a time. The back got tackled by every one. The
veterans lined up near the end so they could get the runner when
he was tired. When Iannuccillo ran it, all of a sudden guys
would start dropping out of line. One guy needed a new chin
strap, another one would have something wrong with his shoelaces."
Late in the summer of '46, two men from the Department of
Veterans Affairs paid a call to Iannuccillo. "He'd been in an
infantry unit in Italy, and he'd caught a flesh wound in the
leg," O'Connor said. "He was getting a full disability pension
from the government. They let him know that playing football at
Notre Dame would seriously compromise his disability benefits."
The result: Chick Iannuccillo, ex-fullback.
"Notre Dame had given him a job raking leaves in front of the
athletic office," O'Connor said. "Every day on the way to his
office Leahy would have to pass by Chick, raking leaves in his
Army fatigues, getting fatter and fatter. Leahy would just shake
his head, and Chick would keep raking and whistling."
The players fought for positions, playing time, a monogram, a
smile from the coach. "There have been great college teams
through the years," says Leon Hart, an All-America end at Notre
Dame and the last lineman to win the Heisman Trophy, in 1949.
"But for a sheer collection of talent, nothing could match our
teams of '46 and '47."
Which team was better? Hard to say. Both were national champs,
both were unbeaten, although the '46 team was held to a
scoreless tie by the Doc Blanchard-Glenn Davis Army outfit. The
statistics of the '46 Irish were eye-popping: No. 1 nationally
in total offense and defense, first in rushing offense, fifth in
rushing defense, third in pass defense, only 24 points (four
touchdowns, no extra points) allowed during the nine-game
season. The stats of the '47 squad were slightly less
impressive, as the Irish finished second to the Michigan
single-wing machine in total offense but ranked in the top 10 in
seven categories, including, for the first time, passing
offense. Notre Dame gave up eight touchdowns and 52 points for
Most veterans of both teams give a slight nod to the '47 squad.
"We were better, we'd played two years together," says Bill
(Moose) Fischer, the All-America guard and winner of the '48
Outland Trophy as the nation's best lineman.
"Our sequence of plays was slightly smoother in '47," fullback
John Panelli says, "probably because we'd gone away from Leahy's
two-unit system of '46. But that system kept you fresher."
Leahy's biggest problem was sorting out all the talent that came
back from the war, so in '46 he played his first unit, on both
offense and defense, in the first and third quarters, the second
group in the second and fourth. "It was a tremendous advantage
to play on that second unit," says George Ratterman, who split
quarterback duty with All-America Johnny Lujack in '46. "The
first unit would beat hell out of them. We'd come in against
guys who were worn out. Look it up. We scored twice as much as
the firsts did."
Sure enough, the Irish had six touchdowns in the first quarter,
14 in the second, six in the third and 14 in the fourth. If
Ratterman had come back in '47, Leahy might have used the
two-unit system again, but Ratterman was a gifted four-sport
athlete and had had his fill of playing behind Lujack. At age 20
he signed a contract with the Buffalo Bills of the All-America
Football Conference, a deal worth $11,000, including a $2,200
bonus if he finished among the league's top five in passing. He
collected the bonus in a breeze, making second team all-league.
In South Bend he would have been second team Notre Dame.
"Just look at the guys from those teams who never did much at
Notre Dame but played pro football," Ratterman says. "I'd say
the pros are pretty good judges of talent, wouldn't you? There's
no question in my mind that Notre Dame would have beaten any
team in professional football except the Cleveland Browns."
Forty-three Notre Dame players from either '46 or '47 (or both)
played in the NFL or the rival AAFC. Yes, there were two
leagues, but the total number of teams was only 18, or 60% of
today's total. And squads were about 30% smaller.
The Notre Dame count is not easy to establish. What do you do
about Bob Hanlon, for instance? In 1943 he was a
monogram-winning fullback and linebacker on Leahy's first
national championship team. He came back from the war in '46 and
was moved to guard. "A tough nut," says Jack Connor, a reserve
guard who is the brother of Notre Dame All-America tackle George
Connor and the author of Leahy's Lads, the definitive book on
that era in Irish football. "In early fall practice Bob broke
George's hand in a scrimmage and suffered a deep thigh bruise.
He could barely walk. Leahy told him to run it off. He said the
hell with it and transferred to Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa."
Where he made Little All-America. Then the squad of the 1948 NFL
Western Division champion Chicago Cardinals. Then the Pittsburgh
Steelers. If you count Hanlon, it's 44 Domers from '46 and '47
in the pros, but we won't count him.
How about Luke Higgins? He'd been a monogram-winning tackle on
Leahy's 1942 team, ranked No. 6 nationally. "A shot put
champion, one of the strongest guys in the school," Jack Connor
says. The NFL's Cleveland Rams drafted Higgins in '45 while he
was serving in the infantry in Italy, but when he returned home
with a Purple Heart, he chose to stay at Notre Dame. Before
going off to war, however, he had made an unforgivable mistake:
One day he had told Leahy he was tired. In '46 Higgins found
himself on the B team. On the afternoon that Notre Dame beat
Purdue, he had a career day in the B team's rout of Great Lakes
Naval Training Station, which had walloped the Irish varsity the
year before. In '47 Higgins was wearing the uniform of the
Baltimore Colts. Yes, we'll count him.
In his book Jack Connor wrote about being selected to run in the
infamous Murderers' Row drill, at which Iannuccillo had
excelled, on his first day of practice in '46. Connor faced 14
guards. "Eleven had lettered on previous teams," he wrote, "and
six of them had each earned two monograms." Three--John
Mastrangelo, Bill Fischer and Marty Wendell--would go on to make
"I was one of the few players who hadn't been in the service,"
says Leon Hart, who arrived at Notre Dame as a 17-year-old
freshman in '46 and would become one of the school's greatest
stars ever. "I was one of 21 ends, 11 of them monogram winners."
One of Leahy's favorite routines was to have his assistants take
on the linemen in drills. "It was brutal but very effective,"
says Fischer. "Player blocks coach. Techniques can be corrected
immediately. Much better than hitting a sled. It kept the
assistants in shape, too. Now Moose Krause, the tackle coach,
was the kind of guy who didn't want to embarrass you in front of
Leahy, so when I went against him, he kind of retreated, inch by
inch, and Leahy said, 'Oh, Bill Fischer, that's the way we want
you to block.' He always used that formal form of address, first
and last names. When Leahy left, Moose said, 'One more trip,'
and he slammed me with an elbow to the throat and walked me back
to the green fence and said, 'Don't you ever forget who's boss
Fischer was one of six members of the '46 and '47 squads who
would make All-NFL. Nine players on the '47 Irish team were
All-America at some point in their careers; two of them, Lujack
and Hart, won the Heisman; two more, Fischer and George Connor,
earned the Outland Trophy. Seven would be chosen for the College
Football Hall of Fame. Who were the superstars? Hart, of course,
a 6'4", 252-pound end who made All-Pro with the Detroit Lions on
offense and defense, just as Connor did for the Chicago Bears.
And Lujack, the Bears' All-Pro quarterback who was equally
gifted at defensive back. In his first NFL game, in 1948, Lujack
picked off three passes, tying a Bears single-game record that
still stands. He finished his rookie season with eight
interceptions, equaling a club record that would stand until
"When I was at Notre Dame, everyone went both ways," Lujack
says. "I loved defense. My first game as a Bear, we were playing
the Packers, and the guy I was covering kept yelling at me, 'You
All-American s.o.b., you're gonna have a long day today!' I was
shocked. No one had ever said anything to me on the field
before. So I picked off three, and next time we played them,
they didn't throw to him."
George Connor, a member of the NFL Hall of Fame, was the finest
interior lineman in Notre Dame history, a demon blocker with
enough speed to make All-Pro as a linebacker. His brother tells
the story about the week before the Purdue game in 1947, when
George was worrying about an ankle he'd sprained in a scrimmage
and Leahy had him test it against half a line--guard, tackle,
center--all by himself as the backfield ran plays at him.
"They ran off-tackle plays, traps, up-the-middle plays, quick
openers," Jack Connor wrote in his book. "They did this for a
half hour, and the offensive team never gained more than a yard
or two. At the end of the drill, George was convinced that his
ankle was fine.... Years later Frank Leahy told his nephew,
'Jack, in all my years of playing and coaching football, it was
the greatest exhibition of defensive tackle play I have ever
The other big stars were Marty Wendell, a short, blocky guard
and linebacker with a devastating initial pop, and Jim Martin,
an end with an interior lineman's body. (In '49, his senior
year, Martin switched to tackle and made All-America at the new
position. He followed that with a 14-year NFL career as a
linebacker.) And, of course, there was Leahy.
Almost everyone on the team could do a passable Leahy
imitation--his habit of calling each player by his full name,
his formal, almost prissy way of speaking. His practices were no
joke, though: mean, grueling affairs, heavy on full scrimmages,
born out of Leahy's years as a 185-pound tackle under Knute
Rockne at Notre Dame, from 1928 to '30, and reflecting Leahy's
boyhood in Winner, S.Dak., as the son of a freight handler who
taught his four boys boxing and wrestling almost as soon as they
"What I remember is that we fought every day--fought to win a
job and then to hold it," says Martin, who went to Notre Dame
after serving as a Marine in the Pacific, where he was decorated
for swimming ashore and doing reconnaissance work before the
invasion of Tinian. "I was a mature 22-year-old freshman. I
remember when I was visiting Notre Dame before I enrolled.
George Tobin, a guard, was showing me around and said, 'How
about a movie?' I said, 'How about a bar?' You had guys like me,
and then you had the older service vets, and practice was tough
on them. They'd had enough of war, of guys beating the hell out
of each other, but that's what practice was every day, a war."
Notre Dame corralled many of the best high school recruits, of
course. But World War II scrambled the process, as many
blue-chip recruits joined the service. And Leahy, a Navy officer
in the Pacific with the assignment of organizing and supervising
athletic and recreational activities for submarine crews
returning from the Far East, did some serious recruiting among
"I was stationed at Pearl Harbor," says George Connor, who had
been All-America at Holy Cross in '43, "and one day a command
car pulled up and a guy said, 'Ensign Connor, Commander Leahy
would like to see you at the Royal Hawaiian.' He talked me into
coming to Notre Dame. He said we'd win the national
championship, and I'd make All-America. It all came true."
The '46 season was Leahy's first one back, after two years in
the service. The Irish had been nationally ranked in '44 and
'45, but two lopsided losses to Army, and another to Great Lakes
in '45, had marred those seasons. The word got out early that a
mighty collection of talent was gathering at Notre Dame in 1946.
Phil Colella, the second-leading Irish ballcarrier in '45 and a
Navy vet who had been on two ships sunk by Japanese torpedoes,
came out to preseason practice, took one look at the backs Leahy
had stockpiled and transferred to St. Bonaventure.
"Our paper strength still has to transform into playing
strength; we could lose three or four games," said Leahy, whose
legendary pessimism was part con, part paranoia. Notre Dame's
first opponent was Illinois, which had opened its season with a
33-7 win over Pitt, a game that Leahy had scouted. "It's an
awful assignment," he said, "the toughest any Notre Dame team
has ever tackled in its first game. Their line is the biggest
I've ever seen in college. Their backfield is two- and
three-deep, and with Buddy Young. it has tremendous speed."
Notre Dame won 26-6. Young, who would become one of pro
football's most scintillating runners, gained 40 yards. Until
the last 30 seconds of the game, Illinois had been in Irish
territory only once.
Pitt, coming off a 33-7 win over West Virginia, was the next to
fall to Notre Dame. The Panthers threw up a 5-4-2 defense,
forcing the Irish to pass. Lujack and Ratterman obliged with 211
yards in the air, and Notre Dame added 257 on the ground in the
33-0 rout. Pitt made three first downs, 42 total yards. Leahy
was furious at what he saw in the films, or at least that's what
he told the South Bend Tribune's beat writer, Jim Costin. It was
a technique Vince Lombardi would later use at Green Bay: Rip 'em
when they're riding high, leave 'em alone when they're down.
Leahy blasted player after player by name until Costin finally
asked him, "Didn't anyone play well?"
"Bob McBride," Leahy said. McBride was a third-string guard.
The following Saturday the Irish beat Purdue 49-6. In practice
the next week Leahy was annoyed with his punt return unit. He
hollered to Bill Earley, the B team coach, "Send me a punt
returner!" and along came Coy McGee. He ran one back all the way
against the varsity. Then he did it again. "My goodness," Leahy
said. "Who is that lad?"
Are you old enough to remember Fox's Movietone newsreels of 1946
and '47? Seems like every week there was another thrilling punt
return by McGee and the familiar narration: "There he goes
again, folks. Another one for little Coy McGee." He was a
jackrabbit runner from Longview, Texas, whose weight fluctuated
between 146 and 158 pounds. "His legs would go every which way,"
says Terry Brennan, the Irish starting halfback in '46. "In the
open field he was almost impossible to tackle."
McGee made the 36-man traveling squad for the next game, at
Iowa--a team of which Leahy was "scared to death." Someone
showed him a pool card. The Irish were favored by 19. "It's a
typographical error," Leahy said.
McGee turned in a few nifty runs in the 41-6 slaughter, but he
didn't even make the traveling squad for the next game, a 28-0
victory over Navy. It was simply too crowded. "Guys killed
themselves to make the traveling squad," Fischer says. "One day
years later I asked Bill Earley, 'Why did we always have that
two-hour scrimmage on Thursday in full pads, with only the first
team exempt?' He said, 'The coaching staff would spend hours and
hours trying to select the traveling squad. The idea of the
Thursday scrimmage was to see who got hurt. That would help us
select the squad.'"
Unbeaten Army was coming up, at Yankee Stadium. On the Saturday
morning of the game a motorist drove around the stadium with a
sign offering a $3.30 end zone ticket for $200. He sold it. "My
girlfriend in Cleveland called and said she needed two tickets,
probably for her and some other guy," Martin says. "So I sold
her two for 50 bucks apiece. I made her pay. I never saw her
again. Can't be lucky all the time."
It was buttoned-up football, close to the vest--too close, some
Notre Dame players would say years later. The Irish had been a
two-unit team all season, but now Leahy went with his firsts.
"Let's face it. He just chickened out," Martin says. "They had a
great first unit, but we could have worn them down with our
squad. Leahy could have put Ratterman in and opened things up."
Lujack had been iffy until game time with a sprained ankle.
Although the Irish outgained Army by 35 yards, his passing was
way off. He made the defensive play of the game, though,
bringing down Blanchard in the third quarter with an ankle-high
tackle in the open field. Notre Dame mounted the most serious
threat of the game, getting a first down on the Army 12 in the
second quarter. But Billy Gompers was stopped on fourth-and-one
at the three. "I told Lujack, 'Hell, you should have given me
the ball,'" John Panelli says. "That was the end zone where my
parents were sitting. I'd have scored."
The amazing thing about the newspaper accounts of the scoreless
tie was that no one suggested that Notre Dame should have kicked
a field goal. "Uh-uh, not Leahy's style," Lujack says. "It would
have been an admission of defeat." Field goals were still in
their infancy at South Bend. The Irish kicked none in '46, two
in '47. In 1945 they were still drop-kicking their extra points,
and Stan Krivak missed 13 of them.
"Look, the game ended zero-zero, and people are still talking
about it," Lujack says. "If it had ended 7-0, would they still
talk about it?"
The rest of the season was anticlimactic. The only unknown each
week was which Notre Dame player would break loose. Emil Sitko
romped for 107 yards on 15 carries in a 27-0 victory over
Northwestern. Gompers (10 carries for 103 yards) and former
South Bend high school star Ernie Zalejski (seven for 101) ran
wild in the 41-0 annihilation of Tulane in New Orleans. After
that game still other players went wild, notably All-America
right tackle Zygmont Peter (Ziggy) Czarobski.
"A few of us had celebrated at the Old Absinthe House," Fischer
says, "and we finally got to the train and took over the club
car. Ziggy was leading the party. Ziggy led all the parties." To
this day, when the old players get together, the night is called
a Ziggy. Everybody has a Ziggy story. At the Notre Dame sports
publicity office they still have the questionnaire he filled out
as an incoming student. Church preference? "Red brick." Hobbies?
"Plant collecting, bee hunting, surf-riding [Ziggy came from the
South Side of Chicago], dancing."
One time Leahy found Ziggy taking a shower before practice.
"Zygmont Czarobski, what in the world are you doing?" he asked.
"Coach, it just gets too crowded afterward," Ziggy said.
When Ziggy, who tended to put on weight, got married, Terry
Brennan wired the father of the bride: "You are not losing a
daughter, you are gaining a ton."
As Ziggy led the revelry in the club car after the 1946 Tulane
game, in walked Leahy. "Ziggy hollered, 'Hey, Coach, I want you
to meet a friend of mine,'" Fischer says, "and he turned to the
girl on his lap and said, 'What the hell's your name again?'
Leahy turned and started walking out the door, and some of the
guys booed him.
"Oh, boy, now this was a dilemma. He couldn't ignore it. He
couldn't beat up the whole first team in practice that week, not
with Southern Cal coming up and a shot at the national title.
And that's when he got a gastrointestinal attack and checked
into the hospital. Thank god he put Moose Krause in charge. We
had a great week of practice."
The Irish rushed for 517 yards in a 26-6 victory over the
Trojans, and McGee, who'd always been a favorite of Krause's,
broke two dazzling runs and wound up with 146 yards on six
carries. Southern Cal had one consolation. It scored the only
touchdown against Notre Dame's first unit all season.
The Irish were national champions. They had terrorized the
college football world--well, all of it except second-ranked
Army, whose unbeaten streak now stretched through three seasons.
But Notre Dame would have one more shot at the Cadets, in South
Bend the following year. That game would be the last in a
34-year Notre Dame-Army series, whose cancellation by West Point
would become a sore point with the Irish.
Only three Notre Dame starters would graduate in the spring of
1947, and Leahy sounded a rare note of optimism when he told the
Chicago Sun-Times in March, "We should be in very good shape
next season." By September he was back in form: "Army will come
out here undefeated on November 8," he said. "As for us, who
knows? No telling how many games we'll have lost."
The preseason forecasters, unfazed by the pessimism, were saying
that this Irish squad might be the greatest collegiate team ever
assembled. "Intercollegiate football will be divided into two
groups in 1947, Notre Dame and The Rest," Tom Siler wrote in Pic
Magazine. "The best games will be the intrasquad scrimmages at
When the Eastern sportswriters visited South Bend in the
preseason, the first thing Leahy complained about was a lack of
size and speed in his backfield. "Instead of halfbacks, we have
nine small fullbacks," he said. How about Brennan, a gifted,
versatile back who would often line up as a flanker and had led
the Irish in scoring and receiving in '46?
"Heart alone," Leahy said. "He hasn't the speed or physique of a
Then what about Sitko? Now there was a guy who could fly. "For
50 yards," Leahy replied. "After that his legs tighten up, and
tacklers get him from behind."
"He ran well in one game."
And so on, right down to Leahy's announcement that Zalejski
would be lost because of a knee injury. "A terrible blow," the
coach said. Terrible. Only 15 backs left.
The start of the season revealed a new wrinkle in the offense.
The Irish were opening things up. They were throwing the ball:
204 yards in a 40-6 win over Pitt, 184 in a 22-7 victory over
Purdue, two teams that had loaded up to stop Notre Dame's
fearsome array of runners. The Boilermakers' seven-man line held
the Irish backs to 89 yards. That simply had to be addressed.
The defense was not a problem. It never was.
What Leahy didn't see was that his team was wearing down. The
two months of spring practice ("Goofy," says Brennan. "You
started with snow on the ground, and you ended in June") and the
brutal fall practices, with their two-hour scrimmages, had
sapped the players' strength. "After the Purdue game there was
almost a mutiny," says Brennan, who would succeed Leahy in l954
and coach the Irish for five years. "Our captain, George Connor,
went to Leahy on behalf of the team and said, 'Look, you've got
to start backing off on the practices.' Then Warren Brown, the
sports editor of the Chicago Herald American, told him the same
"It had gotten to the point that all you wanted to do in
practice was survive," says Brennan. "It didn't prove anything.
This was a veteran team. Leahy knew who his best football
players were, he knew who was going to play hard for him. He
didn't have to kill them off on the practice field."
"The games were Cub Scout meetings compared to the practices,"
says Panelli, the fullback. "Boy, I'll tell you, we lost a lot
of good people in those scrimmages."
"The amazing thing was that Leahy listened to Warren Brown,"
Brennan says. "This guy was not a friend, so he listened. Leahy
wound up cutting back on the practices, and it saved our season."
The team responded with three straight shutouts: 31-0 over
Nebraska, 21-0 against Iowa and 27-0 over Navy. The only sour
note was the news that came over the wire and was announced on
the public address system during the Iowa game. At Baker Field
in New York, Columbia had upset Army 21-20. Notre Dame players,
who had wanted to be the ones to halt West Point's four-year
unbeaten streak, kicked the ground in disgust.
The Notre Dame-Army game still produced a record crowd in South
Bend. There was a bitter undertone on the Irish side, a
resentment of the Cadets for abandoning the series. It was a
nasty, windy day. Army's kickoff was a shank out-of-bounds. The
next one was a line drive that Brennan had to take a step
backward to catch. "The kick got there ahead of the coverage,"
Brennan says. "I took a few steps up the middle and froze the
first four guys. I saw a crack, made my break, and I was gone."
Ninety-seven yards, touchdown.
The rout was on. The cold and wind limited the Irish to 28 yards
passing, but Leahy unleashed a merciless set of backs: Brennan,
the darting Sitko and the bruising, slashing 190-pounder, Mike
Swistowicz. The new wrinkle was Martin on end-arounds, picking
up 47 yards on five carries. "I've never seen such a bunch of
speedy, hard-driving backs," Army coach Earl Blaik said after
his team's 27-7 defeat. So much for Leahy's preseason moaning
about having nine small fullbacks.
The following week Northwestern gave the Irish their closest
battle of the year, scoring a late touchdown before losing
26-19. "I never felt that we were in trouble," Lujack says. "We
never trailed in the game." Or in any game during 1946 and '47.
Next, Tulane came to South Bend with its great fullback, Eddie
Price, and fell 59-6. The Irish scored 32 points in the first
Before Notre Dame's season finale, against Rose Bowl-bound USC
in Los Angeles, the city was hit by a rainstorm. "I think the
Trojans have a good chance of upsetting Notre Dame," said UCLA
coach Bert LaBrucherie, whose Bruins had lost to USC 6-0.
"They've beaten favored Notre Dame teams in the past."
"Everything points to a Southern Cal victory tomorrow," Leahy
said. "I'll be the happiest Irishman in Los Angeles if we can
win by a single point."
How about 31? Sitko, whose legs supposedly tightened up after 50
yards, broke the game open with a 76-yard touchdown run on the
opening play of the second half, and the Irish went on to win
38-7. "I was watching a telecast of the game," says Mike Hudson,
who was then a Palo Alto High student and would go on to be a
UPI desk editor. "They had this very pro-USC announcer doing the
game, and on Sitko's run there was only one guy left between him
and the goal line--Gordon Gray, the safety. The announcer kept
saying, 'Can Gordon Gray make the stop? Can Gray make the stop?'
It was hilarious. Notre Dame had an absolute mob of blockers
downfield, and Connor just left the pack, knocked off Gray and
returned to the group, and when Sitko crossed the goal line,
everyone was still looking around for people to block."
"One thing Leahy always liked," Connor says, "was linemen who
The Irish beat out undefeated Michigan in the polls for the
national title. There was newspaper talk about matching the
teams in some kind of charity game, but it was just talk. "It
would have been interesting," Brennan says. "Two distinct
systems, our T formation versus their single wing, one unit
against Michigan's offensive and defensive platoons. I often
wondered how we'd have done under that system. Maybe we'd have
been even better."
There was speculation about how Notre Dame would have done
against a pro team. "It's too bad football can't have a world
series, with the winner of the two major professional leagues
meeting for the right to tackle Notre Dame for the
championship," The Newspaper Enterprise Association's lead
sportswriter, Harry Grayson, wrote. "Notre Dame, in this
observer's opinion, would beat the best of the pro teams."
The next summer 14 Irish players made the trip to Chicago for
the College All-Star Game against the NFL champion Cardinals.
The collegians were coached by Leahy. Art Statuto, the
fifth-team Notre Dame center, with 10 minutes of playing time in
'47, made the squad. So did five Irish backs and four tackles.
What the hell, the Notre Dame reserves were better than other
people's first teams. Someone asked Ziggy Czarobski what was the
toughest team he had faced. "The Notre Dame second unit," he
said, for once being serious. The All-Stars lost to the
Many of the '47 Irish players drifted off to pro football.
Lujack, the Heisman winner, signed what was then a hefty
contract as the Bears' No. 1 draft choice: four years at
$17,000, $18,000, $20,000 and $20,000, plus a $5,000 bonus and
an endorsement deal with Wilson Sporting Goods. "I found out
later," he says, "that [Bears owner and coach] George Halas had
paid only $2,000 of the bonus. The rest was an advance on my
Wilson royalties. Halas had tricked me. Fifteen years ago I was
approached to contribute to the Halas Hall Foundation. I said,
'I already contributed $3,000.'"
After Hart finished his eight-year career with the Lions, he
became active in the NFL Alumni association. He has maintained a
strong interest in football at all levels. "Notre Dame would
have beaten any pro team," he says. "The talent at that time was
all in college.
"What is football now? It's push-pull on the line and an aerial
show. An athletic contest consists of three things: effort,
stamina and ability. The substitution rules have canceled the
element of stamina. Effort? Well, everyone knows he's playing
for big bucks, and he's only one play away from oblivion, so
that erodes the element of effort. All that's left is ability,
and what you see, along with it, are gloves and towels and
low-cut shoes, everybody trying to look good.
"Blocking techniques have almost vanished," Hart continues. "I
produced a film for the Notre Dame National Monogram Club, The
Golden Age of Notre Dame Football, and it's wonderful to see the
way the game was played. The precise timing of the blocking, the
way the holes opened up. It isn't just running to daylight,
running for some seam, behind a whole lot of pushing and
shoving. It was beautiful football. The kind of football Frank
Leahy died in 1973, at age 64. In 11 seasons at Notre Dame he
produced six unbeaten teams and four national champions. His '46
and '47 teams were the best, though, and who can argue that they
weren't the best of all time?
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HY AND DAVID PESKIN/LIFE Friendly Fire Players on Notre Dame's 1947 juggernaut claimed the scrimmages were tougher than the games. But here in a "scrimmage" staged for LIFE magazine, Irish halfback Russell Ashbaugh, who has taken a handoff from All-America quarterback Johnny Lujack (30), bursts through a nonresistant Notre Dame defense (page 104). [T of C]
B/W PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME ARCHIVES As Fischer (72) and Hart (82) looked on, Larry Coutre ran for Notre Dame's fourth touchdown in its 27-7 win over Army in '47. [Bill (Moose) Fischer, Leon Hart and Larry Coutre in game]
B/W PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME ARCHIVES [Photographs of University of Notre Dame football players and coach superimposed on aerial photograph of University of Notre Dame football stadium]
B/W PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME ARCHIVES Lujack, the All-America quarterback, had the signature most coveted by young fans of the Irish. [Johnny Lujack signing autographs]
B/W PHOTO: UPI/CORBIS-BETTMANN The '46 Irish held Army scoreless, thanks partly to pass rushing by George Connor (81).
B/W PHOTO: AP Sitko's fourth-quarter interception helped preserve the tie. [Emil Sitko in game]
B/W PHOTO: HY PESKIN/LIFE Assistant coaches such as Joe McArdle (helmetless) were easily as tough as the Irish starters. [Joe McArdle giving blocking demonstration]
B/W PHOTO: UPI/CORBIS-BETTMANN Against Northwestern in '46, Sitko broke through the Wildcats' line for 107 yards on 15 carries. [Emil Sitko in game]
B/W PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME ARCHIVES Ziggy (second from left)--with Lujack (second from right) and mates--was the Irish toastmaster. [Zygmont Peter (Ziggy) Czarobski, Johnny Lujack and others]
B/W PHOTO: UPI/CORBIS-BETTMANN In '47 Brennan caught a touchdown pass from Lujack as Notre Dame beat Navy 27-0. [Terry Brennan in game]
B/W PHOTO: HY PESKIN/LIFE Connor, an All-America and Outland Trophy winner, was a towering figure in South Bend. [George Connor]
THE '46 TEAM WAS EYE-POPPING: NO. 1 IN TOTAL OFFENSE AND DEFENSE,
FIRST IN RUSHING, ONLY 24 POINTS ALLOWED
IF THE GAME AGAINST ARMY HAD ENDED 7-0, LUJACK SAYS, WOULD PEOPLE
STILL TALK ABOUT IT?
LEAHY'S PRACTICES WERE NO JOKE: MEAN, GRUELING AFFAIRS, HEAVY ON
NOTRE DAME WOULD HAVE BEATEN ANY TEAM IN PRO FOOTBALL EXCEPT THE
CLEVELAND BROWNS," RATTERMAN SAYS
ZIGGY LED ALL THE PARTIES. EVEN NOW, WHEN OLD PLAYERS GET
TOGETHER, THE NIGHT IS CALLED A ZIGGY
THE '47 SEASON REVEALED A NEW WRINKLE IN THE OFFENSE. NOTRE DAME
WAS THROWING THE BALL MORE
FORTY-THREE NOTRE DAME PLAYERS FROM EITHER '46 OR '47 (OR BOTH)
PLAYED IN THE NFL OR THE RIVAL AAFC