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.

  • ND's defense will be a premier BCS unit - and will be the reason for a 10+ season. I don't see too many tds scored against this unit. If we have a productive rushing attack, which many believe, we'll have a BCS bowl bid for sure. When it comes to the rushing attack I'll take the line from President Reagan " trust but verify" I TRUST it will happen but it needs to be VERIFIED on gameday. GO IRISH!

  • Lou, I believe Lynch graduated in 57 as Red Mack came aboard and started in 58. Pietrosante, though, was a junior in 57 and had an almost statistically identical year in 58, his senior season.

  • Risksorter,

    Lynch had to be Class of '58 because he scored the TD against Oklahoma in the 1957 classic. He was then selected in the 1958 NFL Draft. Red Mack did come to the forefront afterwards before suffering a season-ending injury early in 1960 during the 51-19 loss to Purdue.

  • Dick Lynch was in the 1954 ND frosh recruiting class-graduating class of 1958
    Nick Pietrosante was in the 1955 ND frosh recruiting class-graduating class of 1959
    Red Mack was in the 1957 ND frosh recruiting class-graduating class of 1961

  • Yeah, but what were their star rankings? ;)

    "Having the right to do something doesn't mean it's right to do it." -- Chief Justice Warren Burger

  • Actually, I do have a HS football/ recruiting publication from the 1955 season.
    I bought it a few years ago on ebay.
    It is the earliest 'recruiting' publication that I have ever seen.

    On the cover is Bronko Nagurski Jr of International Falls, Mn
    Nagurski Jr's dad was the legendary Chicago Bears player.
    Jr signed with ND and played 3 yrs varsity and then in the CFL.

    No star ranking but the following '55 ND frosh recruits were listed in the publication:
    Nagurski Jr
    Norm Odyniec QB from Greensboro, NC (converted to FB at ND)
    Mike Dugan QB from Omaha, Neb (Creighton Prep)
    Frank Reynolds B from Oak Park, Ill (Fenwick)
    Bob Wetoska E Minneapolis (later long time Bears starting Tackle)
    Angelo Mosca T Waltham, Ma (CFL Hall of Fame etc etc etc-too many stories to tell about Angelo)
    Don Lawrence T Cleveland (Cathedral Latin)
    Al Ecuyer G New Orleans (Jesuit)
    Jim Just HB Milwaukee, Wis (Don Bosco)
    Jim Colosimo QB Eveleth, Mn -converted to FB at ND

    no Pietrosante mention however

    This post was edited by ronbliey 9 months ago

  • Lou,

    Yes, Lynch graduated in 58, but he did not play in 58. He was a senior on the 57 squad and did not play with Pietrosante on the 58 team. Mack was a sophomore on that team and the second leading rusher behind Pietrosante. Mack was injured in 59 and again in 60.

    In some ways, Mack was the Greg Bell of his era, but did not fare nearly as well in the pros at his new position, flanker. Some thought he might develop into another Kyle Rote, but the damage to his knee was too great, and it never happened.

    Lynch became a first-rate CB for the New York Giants, intercepted many balls and had a number of long, shifty returns. He had good speed and very good feet. He later became the Giants' color commentator on radio. Held that spot till right before he died.

  • Ron:

    Here's one for you.

    All three FB's for the 58 team -- and they all came from the 55 recruting class you cited --started in postseason all-star games:

    Ron Toth -- The North/South Game
    Nick Pietrosante -- The East/West Game
    Norm Odyniec -- The Senior Bowl.

    All did well.

    In those days, those games were a lot more prominent. There were less than ten bowl games, and it was the only shot most good players got at postseason play.

    ND was always well represented in these games, which I watched religiously.

  • Lou,

    I've wanted to mention this to you for a while.

    On You Tube, there are highlights of each game of ND's 63 season. I think you would enjoy watching this. Plus, it would give you a flavor of what the game was like before your own coming of age in the 70's.

    That 63 ND team, which lost 7 games, was really snake-bitten. They were a better team than their record indicated, as Parseghian so promply proved to us.

    Anyway, the progression (or lack thereof) at QB in 63 was really interesting. It went, I believe, from Frank Budka, who shared time with Lamonica in 61 before switching to flanker in 62 and then back to QB in 63; to Dennis Szodt; to John Huarte; to Sandy Bonvecchio.

    Bonvecchio was then thought to be the best of the group and was starting by the time I saw the ND-Syracuse finale at Yankee Stadium the week after the JFK assassination. In typical fashion for that year, ND lost 14-7 in the closing minutes.

    It was still a good game, with Pete Duranko at fullback and Nick Rassas, I believe, at running back. They didn't play those positions for Ara, but did they not both make All-America at DT and DB, respectively? The man was a genius.

    But check out those clips. They are very revealing. The team had talent. They just couldn't put it together for 60 minutesTo me, a clear lack of leadership on the part of Hughie Devore.

  • Those were the days of Single Platoon football-the rules were very different from 1954 through 1963.

    Players had to play both ways-limited substitution.
    ND had Pietrosante, Toth and Odyniec at FB/LB but Nick got most of the snaps.
    The other two didn't play much due to the limited substitution rules but were good enough to make All Star teams after the season.

    The 'snakebitten' 1963 squad that you mentioned in another post was indeed snakebitten:

    *Nick Eddy should have been a soph that year but had been suspended from school
    *The leading rushing from '62 Don Hogan, had been badly hurt in a off season auto accident ending his career
    *The star potential star fullback should have been a jr in '63 Bob Cappadonna (named one of the top 10 sophs in the country '62 along with Butkus and Sayers the prior season) but Cappadonna had transferred-later to play in the AFL
    *Ron Bliey(my poster name) was the best running back in NYC history(Brooklyn) but couldn't play defense-yet by single platoon rules he HAD to play defense if he was on the field-hence he didn't play-later played in the NFL
    * Mickey Bitsko-younger brother of former Irish star Myron Pottios (and 3rd leading tackler on the '61 Irish even though he didn't start) had flunked out of ND(he would have been a senior in '63) and transferred to Dayton, then on to the AFL
    and there were more....

    This post was edited by ronbliey 9 months ago

  • I remember seeing Bliey play in HS games on TV. He was extremely good and used to run away from people.

    The word I heard on him was that he didn't like contact on the college level. Heard this from a number of different sources.

    No idea if this is correct.

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