In his first two seasons at Notre Dame, Terry Brennan finished 9-1 (1954) and 8-2 (1955), and his .850 winning percentage was on pace to make “The Boy Wonder” — who was only 25 years old when he was hired — another Knute Rockne or Frank Leahy, his predecessor.
Terry Brennan led three top-10 finishes in his first four seasons, but a 2-8 campaign in his third season (1956) became too much to overcome.
However, in Year 3, for only the second time in the 20th century, Notre Dame posted a sub-.500 record with a 2-8 finish, the school’s worst ever. The Irish were pummeled by Michigan State (47-14), Oklahoma (40-0, still the widest margin of defeat at home), and Navy (33-7) during one three-week stretch. Later in the year, Notre Dame lost to Iowa by 40 points (48-8).
Remarkably, senior quarterback Paul Hornung was still awarded the Heisman Trophy. He finished ahead of three players whose teams finished unbeaten (Tennessee’s John Majors and Oklahoma’s Tom McDonald and Gerry Tubbs), plus a fourth individual who many consider the greatest NFL football player of the 20th century, Syracuse’s Jim Brown.
At the end of the season, Notre Dame’s faculty board in control of athletics recommended to university president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C. to fire Brennan because the coach’s original three-year contract had expired. While Hesburgh contemplated the situation, athletics director Ed “Moose” Krause put out a feeler to successful NFL coach and Notre Dame graduate Joe Kuharich as the replacement.
How Did It Happen?
Starting in 1947, Notre Dame began cutting back on scholarships in football, and the first year it was felt was in 1950 – when the 1947 recruits were seniors and finished 4-4-1 after unbeaten seasons from 1946-49.
The recruiting numbers began to pick back up to about 30 per year, but in head coach Leahy’s last year (1953), Notre Dame freshman coach Brennan noted that the administration put forth a policy where scholarships would be 80 over a four-year period. Back then most of the elite conference programs were bringing in 30 to 40 per year.
According to Notre Dame president Hesburgh (1952-87) in his book “God, Country, Notre Dame”, near the end of Leahy’s tenure the legendary Irish head coach requested 42 grants-in-aid from new president Hesburgh — with the understanding that he would take only 18 the next season to balance out to 60 over two years (30 per year). The new president obliged, and he reminded him of their deal when Leahy wanted to take in 30 again the next year.
Beginning with Brennan’s tenure as the head coach (1954), Notre Dame required the college entrance board exam (now either the SAT or ACT) out of Princeton for admission into Notre Dame. According to Brennan, the only schools that used that exam at the time were Notre Dame and the Ivy League. There were no uniform minimum academic standards for eligibility at the national level.
Because Notre Dame still brought in quite a bit of recruiting volume from 1950-52,, the Irish were able to thrive in 1952 (No. 3 finish), 1953 (No. 2), 1954 (No. 4) and 1955 (No. 9), the latter two under Brennan. Remember, Leahy requested the 42 scholarships in one season because he thought he had a particularly outstanding harvest. That helped carry the program into Brennan’s first couple of years.
But the gravy train ran dry in 1956. The small recruiting class after the 42 was riddled with injuries and attrition, and was down to about single digits by its senior year in 1956 (plus freshmen were not eligible to play on the varsity back then).
Not even Hornung could compensate for the sudden dearth. Hornung and captain Jim Morse were the lone returning starters from 1955 who were able to stay healthy for most of 1956 (when players played both offense and defense). It was somewhat similar to Charlie Weis’ 3-9 third year in 2007 when he had a total of seven seniors and 10 juniors on his roster.
In one game alone (Duke) in 2007, Weis started six true freshmen. In 1956, Brennan had to rely on a plethora of sophomores who weren’t primed for extensive action, but it prompted Brennan to state, “Wait until these sophomores are seniors (in 1958). Then you’ll see something.”
Ramifications of Year 3
Father Hesburgh opted to give the 28-year-old Brennan a one-year extension — and it seemed to pay off the next year when the Irish improved to 7-3, finished No. 10 in the AP poll and upset Oklahoma 7-0, ending the Sooners 47-game winning streak. Indeed, it seemed those sophomores from 1956 had grown up. For all the travails, Brennan has the unique distinction of saying that since the advent of the AP poll in 1936, his teams finished in the top 10 three of his first four seasons — before he even turned 30.
But with national title hopes in 1958, Notre Dame finished only 6-4 (17th in the final AP poll). With the memory of the 2-8 finish still relatively fresh, Brennan was axed after his fifth season in what would be labeled the infamous “Christmas firing.” When Krause approached Kuharich again in 1958, Kuharich reportedly told him “it’s either now or never” as far as hiring him.
The meltdown in Year 3 was something Brennan never could fully overcome — even with the dramatic rebound campaign in 1957.
How Does It Relate to Brian Kelly?
Unlike Brennan in 1956, Kelly has a more fully-stocked roster in his third season, especially with 2011 All-Americans Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert returning at inside linebacker and tight end, respectively, when they had a chance to be top picks at their positions in the NFL.
The return of those two players alone has made Notre Dame a top-25 contender in the eyes of many (19th in USA Today 2012 College Football, 20th in Athlon Sports, 21st in Phil Steele’s 2012 College Football Preview), and the return of fifth-year seniors such as defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, safety Jamoris Slaughter and center Braxston Cave provide the team a more seasoned look.
“There is no question in my mind that we've got enough players out there to compete,” said Kelly after the April 21 Blue-Gold Game. “I'm not worried about not having enough players. We need to continue to build the players that we have, and we have a long way to go.”
Unlike Brennan in 1956, Kelly does not possess a Heisman Trophy favorite at quarterback. He’s just trying to find someone to execute his full offense while minimizing turnovers.
Maybe the greatest similarity between Brennan and Kelly in Year 3 is the promise of the future more than the present. Brennan noted during the 1956 season that by the time his sophomores will be seniors in 1958, look out. Last year in a cause celebre after the USC loss, Kelly noted how “my guys” — specifically referring to his 2011 recruits — would be more primed to take the Irish to a higher level in due time.
As Kelly enters Year 3, we echo what we said earlier this week in the countdown: It’s not so much about Kelly about making the eagles or double-eagles or even holes-in-one (a la third-year national title coaches such as Rockne, Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz). It’s more about avoiding the type of quadruple-bogey that Brennan had in 1956 or Weis did in 2007.
It’s difficult, perception-wise, to rally from such a season, and they hovered like a black cloud over Brennan and Weis in their remaining two years.