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)
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.