Notre Dame to honor its heyday teams of 1940s

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Johnny Lujack loved crisp fall Saturday afternoons at Notre Dame after serving in the Navy during World War II.

Fans from around the country would travel to South Bend to see the Fighting Irish win - and they always won. Best of all, though, Lujack and his teammates got a day off from coach Frank Leahy's grueling practices.

"We always felt that a game was kind of an easy scrimmage because the scrimmages we had against each other were mean and rough," the 1947 Heisman Trophy winner said.

All that work paid off. Notre Dame went unbeaten for four consecutive seasons and cemented itself as one of the iconic American sports teams of the era.

The university will honor that undefeated team of 1949 and all Irish squads of the '40s during its game against Michigan State on Saturday, recognizing the heyday of Notre Dame's storied football program when Leahy mixed a group of war veterans and college students into an unbeatable team.

"He was a great coach. But he rode them pretty hard," said the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of the university for 35 years before retiring in 1987.

The Irish won four national championships in seven years and finished another season undefeated and ranked No. 2. They produced three Heisman Trophy winners during the decade. In the 60 years since, the Irish have won four national championships and four Heismans.

Murray Sperber, a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote "Shake Down the Thunder," a history of Notre Dame football, said although Knute Rockne's winning percentage of .881 is better than Leahy's .855, the 1940s teams were probably superior.

"If you look at the schedules, Rockne loved to play patsies," Sperber said.

The schedules from 1918 to 1930 usually included two games a season with opponents such as Kalamazoo, Lombard and Beloit, while Leahy's schedules consisted of name teams and usually included three or four ranked teams.

Those who follow Notre Dame football say unique circumstances led to the Irish '40s dominance. Rockne laid the groundwork with his teams, leading Roman Catholics around the nation to cheer for Notre Dame and parochial school boys to dream of playing for the Irish.

Before Rockne's death in a 1931 plane crash, the Irish had won 19 straight and were declared national champions in back-to-back years in 1929 and 1930 by numerous organizations. They didn't win any titles over the next 10 years.

In Leahy's first season, the Irish went 8-0-1 and finished No. 3. They won the national championship in 1943 and Angelo Bertelli won the Heisman despite playing in only six games before joining the Marines.

Leahy and many of his players joined the military after that season, but the remaining Irish coaches kept recruiting. Leahy did a little recruiting of his own in his work with the Navy, including keeping up with his players.

"He knew where all his guys were stationed. He would travel around the world to see them," said guard Bill "Moose" Fischer.

Fischer, who won the Outland Trophy as the outstanding collegiate interior lineman in 1948, said Leahy would tell each player that some other player had a message for him: head back to Notre Dame after the war and let's win a championship. He also persuaded players from other schools, such as George Connor of Holy Cross and George Strohmeyer of Texas A&M, to play for the Irish.

So when the war ended, the Irish already had a full roster of players. Then they had players who left for the war returning with their school paid by the GI Bill. Other veterans joined the team as well, leading to a crowded roster. Fischer said he was one of 18 returning lettermen at guard.

"Some guys who were first string in '42 didn't make the traveling squad in '46 because we only traveled four units," he said.

The Irish were so deep that center Art Statuto never lettered for the Irish, yet played in the 1948 College All-Star game, was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles and played two seasons with the Buffalo Bills of the All-America Football Conference and a season with the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL.

Leahy had a tower built at Notre Dame's practice field so he could watch over three scrimmages going on at the same time. They scrimmaged daily and after practice he'd have players run 100-yard sprints until they were exhausted.

"Every one is hanging on the ropes and Leahy would say, 'We're just going to do it one more time because this is going to make the difference in the fourth quarter when our opponents are hanging on the ropes and we're going to be wiping them out,"' Fischer said. "We'd run the extra 100-yard sprint and he'd say, 'That was a fantastic job. Now I'm going to ask you for the impossible. One more."'

Joe Doyle, sports editor emeritus of the South Bend Tribune who started covering Notre Dame in 1949, said Leahy was intense and a stickler for details.

"He'd go out there and move the guard's foot back 6 inches and it would help him. He convinced the players this would help them. Sometimes it didn't, but they believed him," Doyle said.

Kent Stephens, the College Football Hall of Fame historian, doesn't believe a school will ever dominate for a four-year period like Notre Dame did.

"I can see a team win two or three national championships in a row, but to be undefeated for four seasons, I don't think anyone's going to be able to do it," Stephens said.


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