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Notre Dame “Senior Years”: Brennan

Today is the sixth part of our countdown from 11 to 1 of the best fourth seasons by a Notre Dame head coach, beginning with Knute Rockne’s tenure that started in 1918. Not included are Hunk Anderson (1931-33) and Tyrone Willingham (2002-04), who were axed after their third seasons.

Terry Brennan’s fourth season included the epic upset of Oklahoma that enabled Notre Dame to finish in the Associated Press top 10 for the third time in four years.

No. 6: Terry Brennan (1957)
Record: 7-3
Final Associated Press Ranking: No. 10
A strong argument can be made that Terry Brennan’s “senior year” in 1957 was not only one of the better coaching jobs at Notre Dame, but also that it could rank among the top five when it comes to best fourth seasons by an Irish head coach.

A year earlier, Notre Dame had its worst season ever with a 2-8 campaign in Brennan’s third year, and it also was only the program’s second sub.-500 finish in the 20th century. The first — 3-5-1 in 1933 — cost Hunk Anderson his job after three seasons.

While there were a few wheels in motion to potentially make a change in 1956 as well, Brennan had built up some coaching equity with a 17-3 record and two top-10 finishes his first two seasons. The 1956 season was a confluence of myriad factors, similar to Charlie Weis’ epic meltdown in his third season as well in 2007 with a 3-9 record.

Weis’ 2007 team had graduated a plethora of big-time talent, but also had merely 17 seniors and juniors combined on the roster from poor recruiting classes in 2004 and 2005 (“self-imposed probation” is how we referred to it).

Likewise, the 1953 Notre Dame recruiting class also was small in numbers when the transition in coaching was made from Frank Leahy to Brennan, and there were only about a handful of seniors by the time the 1956 season started. One of them happened to be quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung — but it was learned all too well that one man cannot comprise a good football team.

During the mid-1950s, academic standards also were significantly raised under new school president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C., who served from 1952-87, and only the Ivy League at the time had a comparable measure to gauge test scores among football recruits, according to Brennan.

Just like it took a few years for the recruiting shortages/issues to catch up in 2007, so it did in 1956, which became a sophomore-dominated roster. Brennan was optimistic enough about the young talent, led by Nick Pietrosante, to declare that by the time they become seniors in 1958, the Fighting Irish should return to national prominence.

Despite the graduation of Hornung, and being that proverbial “year away” in 1957, Notre Dame became perhaps the top surprise of the college football season.

The five-win improvement from 2-8 to 7-3 is tied with 2002 (from 5-6 in 2001 to 10-3) for the second best in the program’s annals, behind only going from 2-7 in 1963 to 9-1 in 1964 under first-year head coach Ara Parseghian.

Five different opponents that defeated Notre Dame in 1956 — Purdue, Pitt, Oklahoma, USC and SMU — were vanquished by Brennan’s Fighting Irish the following year. The most famous was the 7-0 triumph at Norman that snapped the Sooners’ NCAA-record 47-game winning streak. Oklahoma had administered the worst beating ever, to this day, on the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium a year earlier with a 40-0 rout. But a classic fourth-quarter drive in 1957 that went 80 yards in 20 plays (with only one pass), and concluded with a Dick Lynch scoring run on fourth down with a key block from Pietrosante, led to the greatest upset victory in Irish annals.

After a relatively predictable letdown loss the next week at home to Forest Evashevski’s powerful Iowa program (21-13), Notre Dame’s season ended by shellacking a 1-9 USC team (40-12) and crushing SMU (54-21) for Brennan’s third top-10 finish in the Associated Press poll.

Furthermore, just as Brennan projected, the turnaround in 1957 with mainly non-seniors such as Pietrosante or rising sophomore star Monty Stickles at end made Notre Dame a preseason top-five pick in 1958.

Brennan is one of six Notre Dame coaches to finish in the AP top 10 in his fourth year (or in the case of Knute Rockne, 10-1 when polls weren’t yet in existence), but the only one whose tenure didn’t go beyond five years.

With minimal expectations in 1957, Notre Dame shined. With loftier visions in 1958, it faltered, finishing 6-4 and leading to the firing of Brennan that December.

Such is the situation Brian Kelly and Co. will be confronting in 2013. The fun part is seasons like 2012 when expectations on the outside are relatively tempered, you’re considered maybe “a year away,” yet you experience one of those once-in-a-generation “where did that come from?” campaigns. The tougher part is dealing with the realization that suddenly a 10-win season that seemed like the Holy Grail a year earlier might now be a letdown in comparison.

If Kelly and his staff can have a top-10 finish again in 2013 (which would be a first at Notre Dame since 1992-93), like Brennan did his senior year in 1957, the season would have to be deemed a success.

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