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Year 3 Countdown: Elmer Layden

Twelve of Notre Dame’s 13 coaches since Knute Rockne are demarcated into two categories: Those who won a national title in their third season, and those who lost at least five games that year.

Head coach Elmer Layden (left) had a sterling .770 winning percentage but left after seven seasons when no national title was produced.

The five who did are Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz. In their respective third seasons, they either finished unbeaten (Rockne, Parseghian and Holtz), won the national title with one loss (Leahy and Devine), or both.

The seven who did not are Hunk Anderson, Terry Brennan, Joe Kuharich, Gerry Faust, Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis. Each of them lost a minimum of five games during his third season, and none lasted more than five years with the Irish.

But one coach among those 13 did not fall into either category. During Elmer Layden’s seven-year reign from 1934-40, he did not produce an unbeaten season/national title campaign, but he also never had a season which had more than three losses.

In his third season, the Irish finished a “Layden-esque” 6-2-1 and No. 8 in the Associated Press poll — the first season a wire service poll was implemented weekly in college football. Consequently, this also marked the first time Notre Dame officially defeated a No. 1-ranked team, a 26-6 dismantling of No. 1 Northwestern on Nov. 21, 1936, in Notre Dame Stadium.

Layden’s career record of 47-13-3 at Notre Dame was good for a winning percentage of .770 – better than both Devine (.764) and Holtz (.765). And unlike Rockne and Leahy, Layden never lost more than three games in one season. Only Parseghian and Layden achieved that feat since Rockne.

Layden isn’t lumped in with the Notre Dame coaching icons — although his status as one of the Four Horsemen still makes him immortal — but his career on the sidelines can hardly be classified as unsuccessful.

How Did It Happen?
Entering his third season, Layden faced a rebuilding job perhaps even greater than the one Charlie Weis had in 2007 or Terry Brennan in 1956. Only two of the 11 starters from the previous season returned (back then, players lined up on both offense and defense), and one of the new starters included right guard Joe Kuharich, who would be the Irish head coach from 1959-62.

Three of the mainstays lost from the previous year were the heroes of the famous 18-13 victory at Ohio State — Bill Shakespeare, Wayne Millner and Andy Pilney. Shakespeare and Millner are both enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame, and Millner joins George Connor, Paul Hornung, Alan Page and Dave Casper as the lone Irish players who have been inducted into both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.

However, one difference between Layden’s third season and Brian Kelly’s upcoming third year might include the schedule.

In 1936, Layden opened with three consecutive home games versus Carnegie Tech, Washington (St. Louis) and Wisconsin. The first two were pretty much falling off the map from competing in major college football, while Wisconsin was coming off a 1-7 season and had hired a new coach — Harry Stuhldreher, another Horseman who teamed with Layden to help Notre Dame to its first consensus national title in 1924.

Some might say Kelly also has a fortunate break starting with Navy and Purdue (at home) — teams the Irish whipped by 42 and 28 points respectively, last year. In fact, the third game is at Michigan State, which finished 11-3 last year but lost by 18 to Notre Dame. Not since 1971 have the Irish begun a season with three straight games where it whipped its first three opponents so badly the previous year.

The 3-0 start in 1936 elevated Notre Dame to No. 7 in the AP poll before a 26-0 loss to Pitt – The Team of the 1930s under head coach Jock Sutherland. The Irish followed with a 7-2 conquest of Ohio State in the rematch from the previous year, but then fell to Navy (3-0).

The campaign closed with victories against Army (20-6), the upset of top-ranked Northwestern and a 13-13 tie at USC — a game where the Irish out-gained the Trojans 411-49, and had 19 first downs to USC’s one.

Ramifications of Year 3
In the latter part of the 1930s, offenses in football began to change, with some more emphasis on passing.

This especially started becoming the trend in the Southwest under TCU head coach Dutch Meyer, who instructed Slingin’ Sammy Baugh and then Davey O’Brien, who would win the Heisman in 1938 while leading the Horned Frogs to the national title.

Layden, though, was ensconced in the “Rockne system” and appeared less apt to change with the times. The 1936 unit averaged only 14 points per game – and the next year the Irish would score only 77 points during another 6-2-1 campaign (8.6 points per game).

Even in 1938, when the Irish started 8-0 and needed to beat USC in the finale to clinch the national title, they had only one game in which they scored more than 19 points (they ended up losing to USC, 13-0).

If one had to pick the greatest disappointment in Kelly’s first two seasons at Notre Dame, it’s been the inability to find a quarterback who ideally fits his spread system. Five-star recruit Dayne Crist was originally pegged as a potential three-year starter from 2010-12, but that didn’t work out. Current junior Tommy Rees has served as the best and viable option, but hasn’t quite deemed the prototype to run the attack, which is why the competition remained open this spring and August with three other candidates.

By the end of last season, Notre Dame’s offense was sputtering and idling, scoring just one TD (opening series) in a 16-14 win versus Boston College, adding a window dressing score in the closing seconds of a 28-14 loss at Stanford and tallying just one TD on offense in the Champs Sports Bowl setback to Florida State.

How Does It Relate To Brian Kelly?
Do you realize that if Kelly finishes 11-2 this season, 12-1 in 2013 and starts 8-0 in 2014, his career record would be 47-13 — which would nearly duplicate the 47-13-3 career mark of Layden at Notre Dame?

Here’s the rub: Layden’s .770 career winning percentage is laudable but has a hole without a national title. He came close in 1938 with an 8-0 start and No. 1 ranking before losing the finale at USC. He has a better winning percentage than Devine and Holtz, but does not have a statue outside Notre Dame Stadium like those two because a national title is missing.

If Kelly had a choice between a career .800 winning percentage with no national title or a .720-type of ledger with a national title, count on him opting for the latter 10 times out of 10.

These days at Notre Dame, 9-3 sounds pretty darn good, but you need to get to the point where that record is actually a disappointment. Former Ohio State head coach Earle Bruce (1979-87) is in the College Football Hall of Fame, but he was derisively refereed to by many Buckeyes faithful as “ol’ 9-3 Earle” because of 9-3 finishes six straight years from 1980-85 (with a 10-3 mark in 1986 before a 6-4-1 record in 1987 led to his termination).

You can defeat the No. 1 team (which Layden did in 1936). You can win what historians labeled the greatest college football game in the first 100 years (which Layden did at OSU in 1935). You can finish in the top 10 three straight years (which Layden did in the first three years of the AP poll from 1936-38). You can have a winning record versus USC (Layden was 4-2-1). Layden was successful in so many ways on and off the field, but the expectations became overwhelming, and after his seventh season (7-2 in 1940), he bid adieu to work as the NFL Commissioner.

Ultimately, the legacy of a Notre Dame head coach is judged primarily on whether a national title was produced during his tenure.

  • I remember the Earl Bruce years at Ohio State. He was an excellent coach but had a losing record to Michigan and the multiple 9-3 records. The OS alumni ran him out of town after years of berating him. I always respected him and his accomplishments. Just goes to show you how fickle fans can be.

    With regard to year three and BK, I've said it a few times before and I'll say it again. There is no reason ND can't win and at least contend for a NT this year. The defense is strong and the offense has potential to be great as well. The secondary will be fine and the receivers will surprise. As long as the QB isn't a dud (I still believe TR is an okay QB) and games aren't filled with multiple turn overs, we'll be fine ... and we just might be great.

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