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Notre Dame “Senior Years”: Devine

Today is the eighth 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.

Dan Devine and 1978 tri-captains Jerome Heavens (30), Bob Golic (55) and Joe Montana (3), who helped the Irish bounce back from an 0-2 start to a No. 7 finish versus one of the toughest schedules in NCAA history.

No. 4: Dan Devine (1978)
Record: 9-3
Final Associated Press Ranking: No. 7 (No. 6 in UPI)

At Notre Dame, a three-loss campaign used to be the demarcation between a bad season and a “passable” one.

Ara Parseghian had one three-loss season in 11 seasons (8-3 in 1972). So when Dan Devine opened his career 8-3 in 1975 and then 9-3 in 1976, “Dump Devine” stickers became popular in his third season when the preseason favorites to win the national title started 1-1.

The Fighting Irish went on to capture the national title that season (1977), but in Devine’s “senior year,” an 0-2 start — home losses to Missouri (3-0) and Michigan (28-14) — saw the critics resurface.

Devine’s situation was similar to Parseghian’s fourth year in 1967.

• Both were coming off national titles in year three.

• Both graduated game-changers on defense, Parseghian with Alan Page, Pete Duranko and Jim Lynch, and Devine with Ross Browner, Willie Fry and Luther Bradley, among others.

• On offense, Parseghian saw the graduation of halfback Nick Eddy, who finished No. 3 in the Heisman voting, while Devine lost tight end Ken MacAfee — who also finished No. 3 in the Heisman balloting. Parseghian saw the departure of the dominant left side of the line (first-round picks Paul Seiler and Tom Regner), while Devine had the graduation of a productive right side (Ernie Hughes and Steve McDaniels).

• Both had a dynamic pass-and-catch combo, Parseghian with western Pennsylvania quarterback Terry Hanratty and wideout Jim Seymour, and Devine with western Pennsylvania quarterback Joe Montana and receiver Kris Haines.

• Parseghian’s fourth Irish team sputtered to a 2-2 start, while Devine’s began 0-2.

Both then guided strong turnarounds. Notre Dame won the final six games of Parseghian’s “senior year,” with the most impressive coming in the finale against a Miami team that finished 7-4.

Hence, the reason we rank Devine’s fourth year one spot higher with the 9-3 finish as opposed to the 8-2 finish under Parseghian in 1967 is strength of schedule.

Since 1977, the first year the NCAA statistically began tracking the toughest college football schedules, the highest-rated one is the 1978 Notre Dame team that saw its opponents compile a .709 winning percentage. A distant second that year was co-national champ USC at .663. Back then, though, the bowl games weren’t included in the final stats. So if you add the epic 35-34 Cotton Bowl comeback victory over Houston, which finished 9-3, Irish foes were 86-34-2 overall — a .713 winning percentage.

Seldom has any college team cracked the .700 mark in this category. It is akin to a Major League Baseball player batting .400 in a season.

After the 0-2 start, Montana led the Irish to a 9-1 record against a slate that saw six foes finish in the top 15: USC (No. 2, but No. 1 in UPI), Michigan (No. 5), Houston (No. 10), Michigan State (No. 12), Purdue (No. 13) and Missouri (No. 15).

That doesn’t even include three other bowl teams: Pittsburgh, Navy and Georgia Tech. Eight of the 12 teams Notre Dame faced that year competed in a bowl game — and that was when there were only 15 bowls, not the ridiculous 35 of today. A ninth team that year, co-Big Ten champ Michigan State, didn’t go to a bowl because it was on probation.

Esteemed mentors led Notre Dame’s three other opponents in 1978, including Lou Saban at Miami and Johnny Majors — who steered the Pitt Panthers to the national title two years earlier — at Tennessee. The one unknown head coach on the slate was at Air Force, 37-year-old Bill Parcells.

Seldom has any college football team competed against as many quality coaches in one year. In addition to the three mentioned, Michigan’s Bo Schembechler, Purdue’s Jim Young, Navy’s George Welsh, USC’s John Robinson and Houston’s Bill Yeoman all are in the College Football Hall of Fame. Georgia Tech’s Pepper Rodgers achieved success at Kansas (two-time Big 8 Coach of the Year and 1969 Orange Bowl participant) and UCLA.

Meanwhile, Pitt’s Jackie Sherrill (180 career wins) could be in the conversation for inclusion into the Hall, but a checkered past might keep him on the outside looking in.

After the 0-2 start, the Irish reeled off eight straight victories, beginning with Purdue (which would finish 9-2-1), co-Big Ten champ Michigan State (29-25) and Pitt (26-17), the latter with Montana propelling a rally after a 17-7 fourth-quarter deficit.

Other impressive conquests during that streak came against 7-0 and No.11 Navy (27-7) and at Georgia Tech (38-21) two weeks later. Junior Vagas Ferguson set new school records for rushing yards in a game in those two outings with 219 and 255, respectively.

In between, the Irish hosted Tennessee, a 31-14 victim. It speaks volumes when the Volunteers were considered one of the lighter fares on the slate.

With an 8-2 record and No. 8 ranking, the Irish entered the cauldron at USC, which would share the national title that year with Alabama — even though the Trojans trounced the Crimson Tide at Alabama earlier in the year. USC toyed with Notre Dame for three quarters while building a 24-6 lead, but Montana rallied the Irish to a 25-24 lead with 46 seconds left.

On the final series Notre Dame defensive tackle Jeff Weston sacked quarterback Paul McDonald, who appeared to lose the ball while attempting to tuck it away. The Irish recovered the loose football … but it was ruled an incomplete pass by the Pac-10 official. The call helped USC win on a field goal with two seconds left, 27-25.

Trailing 34-12 with less than eight minutes left in the Cotton Bowl, the Irish were staring at an 8-4 finish (beginning the year with two losses and ending it likewise) and a place in the lower half of the top 20. Instead, a miraculous rally, capped with a Montana-to-Haines TD on the final play from scrimmage and Joe Unis’ PAT, put Notre Dame No. 7 in the Associated Press poll and No. 6 in the UPI.

Against the schedule it encountered, it was an outstanding accomplishment. Indeed, it might be the most memorable three-loss season in Notre Dame history.

After a 7-4 finish in his fifth season (1979), Devine announced three weeks before the start of his sixth and final year at Notre Dame that he would retire at the end of that campaign. The Irish stunned college football with a 9-0-1 and No. 2 ranking before losing the final two games. Still, a 53-16-1 overall record at Notre Dame, highlighted by the national title, helped earn Devine a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.

A No. 7 finish in Brian Kelly’s fourth season — including a bowl win — likely would be lauded as well in 2013.

  • We're not looking to finish No. 7.

  • Bueman,

    I'm well aware of that. But finishing No 1 is very, very hard. That's why it hasn't been done in 25 years. Given all that's been lost, a No. 7 finish would be as impressive this year as it was in 1978.

    No. 1 is always the goal. Next goal is to win a major bowl (BCS) for the first time in 20 years.

  • Lou
    I am enjoying this series-love the ND football history

    ND in 1978 was 2 plays away from only losing one game instead of the 3 that the Irish recorded.

    You mentioned the 'non-called' fumble in the USC which should have ended that game with a ND victory (one of 4 USC games in my lifetime where one call took away a potential ND victory= '64,'69,'78 and '82)

    The other loss in '78 that was maddening was the Missouri loss in the opener (0-3) in 94 degree heat

    the one play missing was for Coach Devine to just kick a FG-the Irish had many, many opportunities (and at least come away with a tie...although if Dan had elected to kick a FG every time that he should have the final might have been ND 12 (or at least 9) and Missouri 3:

    1st half: 0-0 Montana fumbles snap on Mo 18 yd line Tigers recover and stops drive

    2nd half:
    still 0-0 ND 4& 1 at 11 & Irish go for it- Montana tries sneak and is stopped

    ND gets inside 10 after fumble recovery and:
    Montana stopped on 3rd and inches
    next play-ND goes for it again and HB Vagas Ferguson is stopped for a 3 yd loss

    Later: (Still 0-0)
    Montana hits Kris Haines with a 34 yd pass to the Mo 4 yd line
    But Haines slaps the Mo DB up the side of the helmet after the catch and gets a 15 yd penalty
    Now 1st & goal from the 19, ND get 4 yds and on 4th down FINALLY tries a FG
    Kicker Joe Unis will try from 32 yds out
    But holder Joe Restic fumbles the snap and has to try a pass instead-incomplete

    Now Missouri finally puts a drive together(Irish defense was great all day) and kicks a 33 yd FG
    They lead 3-0 (Crowd is stunned)

    ND drives to the 28/broken record here-On 4th and 1 Ferguson is stopped for no gain

    ND defense stops Mo and gets ball back.
    Driving again to the Mo 25-Ferguson fumbles-Mo recovers
    3:30 remaining

    ND defense stops Mo again to force punt 1:15 remaining
    maybe one more chance for Montana to work his magic

    Mo punts-Irish return man Randy Harrison fumbles and Mo recovers
    Game over

    This post was edited by ronbliey 9 months ago

  • ronbliey,

    I snuck into that game, and it was a scorcher. I sat with the student body during the first half when Montana was 4-of-17. Then in the second half I moved to the south end zone, where all the snafus occurred. I still see the play by Haines as clear as day. It was the same Missouri DB who popped off earlier in the week about ND not being that good. He baited Kris, and he took it.

    The next week against Michigan, ND was down 20-14 when QB Rick Leach threw a pass that i think Bobby Leopold had right in his hands for clear sailing and a TD (Leopold already had 3 INTs for TDs in his career). This time he dropped it. The next play Leach connected on a 50-yard TD to put the game away.

    But I'm not into "1 or 2 plays away." We always talk about the plays that went against ND but not about the plays that went its way. It all evens out in the wash. ND had some very good bounces go its way in victories against Purdue, MSU and Pitt — and God knows against Houston in the Cotton Bowl. They were what they were that year: a very good top-10 team.

  • That all said Lou.... I Still Really Like the Away Jerseys from 1978

  • I am actually sorry to hear that you don't subscribe to the '1 play away' could have changing a loss to a win.
    I torture USC fans that I know with my list of 'missed calls' that meant the different between an Irish win or loss(in the case of '69, a tie) & enjoy it thoroughly!

    Just think if Texas wasn't allowed a 'phantom' timeout call negating a Mike McCoy fumble recovery at the 7 yd line just before half in the first Texas Cotton Bowl game.
    Or that not so clear Greg Davis' clip on the Rocket's punt return for a td vs Colorado

    But I don't think it is an accident that most of my '1 play away' memories happened in USC games.

    maybe I just need something to complain about

    PS I had totally forgot about the Bobby Leopold drop in the Michigan game (I must have some list somewhere that I'll need to add that to!)

    This post was edited by ronbliey 9 months ago

  • ronbliely,

    I'm not necessarily talking about a specific play in a game that "could have" resulted in a win. I'm talking about a play or two in other games that same season that could have resulted in a loss.

    An example is the 2000 season. We talk about that 9-2 regular season and ND was "two plays away" from being 11-0, the 4th-and-11 slip at Michigan State, or in the OT loss to Nebraska it looked like an Eric Crouch was headed right to Tyreo Harrison, who didn't turn his head in time. Take those two plays ... voila, 11-0.

    Not so fast my friend. We conveniently omit the Air Force game that year when Glenn Earl stepped outside his role and blocked a 28-yard field goal that, had it been made, would have won the game. Or what if Nick Setta missed from 38 yards on the last play against Purdue? Boilermakers fans were saying they were a play away. So it should have been 7-4 instead of 9-2.

    It usually evens out in the wash. You need some luck (what if Gillette had made the FG for MIchigan in 1988, etc.), but generally you are what your record says you are.

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