In 13 seasons as a college football head coach at Boston College (1939-40) and Notre Dame (1941-43, 1946-53), Frank Leahy finished unbeaten a mind-boggling seven times.
Frank Leahy's willingness to change cost him during his second year, but paid off tremendously in his third (1943) with a national title against the nation's most brutal schedule.
In the 58 seasons since Leahy’s retirement, Notre Dame has finished unbeaten only three times (1966, 1973 and 1988).
Yet if one were to ask what was Leahy’s single most impressive season, it’s not necessarily one where he finished unbeaten. In Year 3 (1943) under “The Master,” Notre Dame finished 9-1 and captured the national title against the most difficult schedule in school history — and maybe ever in college football.
En route to a 9-0 start, Leahy’s lads topped the teams that finished No. 2 (Iowa Pre-Flight, a semi-pro team formed during World War II, 14-13), No. 3 (at Michigan, 35-12), No. 4 (Navy, 33-6), No. 9 (at Northwestern, 25-6), No. 11 (Army, 26-0) and No. 13 (Georgia Tech, 55-13).
So when the Irish lost in the season finale to another semi-pro outfit — Great Lakes, which finished No. 6 in the AP poll — on a 46-yard “Hail Mary” touchdown pass with 33 seconds remaining (19-14)…there wasn’t any other team in America the pollsters could justify moving ahead of Notre Dame.
In the 68 seasons hence, only the 1971 Nebraska Cornhuskers matched the achievement of defeating the teams that placed Nos. 2-3-4 in the final AP poll. As for defeating six teams that finished in the top 13 of that same poll, that feat has yet to be accomplished before or after, by any other program.
How Did It Happen?
Complacency was never a vice for Leahy. In his first season at Notre Dame (1941), the Irish finished 8-0-1, their first unbeaten campaign since Knute Rockne’s national title in 1930, his final year before he perished in a plane crash four months later.
Had Leahy opted to stand pat with Rockne’s traditional “Notre Dame Box” formation after going unbeaten in 1941, it would have been understandable. Instead, he sensed football’s future would be with the T formation. Clark Shaughnessy introduced an advanced version of the modern T to the Chicago Bears’ George Halas, and the Bears were the dominant NFL team of the 1940s, winning 73-0 in the 1940 title game versus Washington.
That same season that Leahy went unbeaten (1941), Shaughnessy was a first-year head coach at Stanford and he implemented the new-fangled formation. The Indians (their politically incorrect nickname back then before switching to the Cardinal) went from being the worst team in their conference to No. 2 in the nation with an unbeaten campaign, capped by a Rose Bowl victory.
Leahy actually approached Notre Dame higher-ups to receive his blessing for this change. While the priests were fine with it, they warned Leahy that he needed immediate results, otherwise the alumni would be in an uproar and interpret the move as arrogant and even blasphemous.
Indeed, the Irish opened with a 7-7 tie versus Wisconsin and a 13-6 loss to Georgia Tech in Leahy’s second year (1942) with the new offense. The backlash was immense, sending Leahy to the Mayo Clinic by the third game. The Irish later lost at home to Michigan and finished 7-2-2, a comedown from the previous year.
But the kinks were worked out in the off-season and, led by Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli, the offense became a juggernaut in Leahy’s third season. After scoring only 7 points versus Wisconsin a year earlier, the Irish crushed the Badgers 50-0 in 1943. After falling 13-6 to Georgia Tech in 1942, Notre Dame posted a 55-13 drubbing of the Yellow Jackets the following year.
Yet when Bertelli had to leave the squad on Nov. 1 to report for officers’ training school for World War II, sophomore John Lujack, another future Heisman winner, stepped in the remainder of the year and guided victories over teams that were ranked No. 3 (Army), No. 8 (Northwestern) and No. 2 (Iowa Pre-Flight) at the time of the game.
Not only did Bertelli win the Heisman, but running back Creighton Miller finished 4th and tackle Jim White placed 9th. Miller’s 911 yards on the ground led the nation — the only time ever an Irish runner paced the country. Other All-Americans that season included end John Yonakor, center Herb Coleman and guard Pat Filley.
Leahy’s proactive vision and lack of complacency helped Notre Dame scale its grandest heights in the 1940s. The 1943 season would be a warm-up act to the post-war years, when the Irish never lost a game from 1946-49. Yet based on the gauntlet the Irish faced in 1943, that may have been the most impressive single season of all under Leahy.
Ramifications of Year 3
Leahy was a Rockne protégé and it became evident by the end of his third season that Notre Dame football had again hit the mother lode and was destined for a new Golden Age.
Particularly interesting was the way Leahy’s first three seasons mirrored Ara Parseghian’s from 1964-66. Both opened with dramatic impacts, with Leahy finishing 8-0-1 and Parseghian 9-1. Both had letdowns in their second year, with Leahy finishing 7-2-2 and Parseghian 7-2-1.
Both then won titles in Year 3 while having to use two quarterbacks to finish the job. Leahy did it with Bertelli and then Lujack, while Parseghian achieved it with Terry Hanratty and then Coley O’Brien. Leahy’s record after three seasons was 24-3-3 with one consensus national title, while Parseghian was 25-3-2, also with one consensus title.
How Does It Relate To Brian Kelly?
There is an axiom in coaching that says never screw around with a winning streak, or always dance with the girl that brought you to the ball.
Yet Leahy, despite going unbeaten in his 1940 season at Boston College (11-0-) and his 1941 debut at Notre Dame (8-0-1) scrapped what he had become so prominent with and introduced the T-formation at Notre Dame, which was not nearly as successful in his first go-round.
Many might wonder why Brian Kelly, after achieving much success with a fast-paced no-huddle offense — especially with a 12-0 regular season at Cincinnati in 2009 — has somewhat gone astray from what brought him to Notre Dame’s dance. He did have to adjust the tempo in 2010 after a 4-5 start, and it resulted in a 4-0 finish that year. It demonstrated he is not married to one way of doing business and can adapt.
He also arrived with a reputation as an “offensive-minded” coach but has repeatedly stressed that building a defense is the foremost priority at Notre Dame, and offense can be manufactured afterwards.
In year 3, he will confront what looks to be a treacherous schedule, although it’s unlikely that seven of the 2012 foes will finish in the top 13, including 2-3-4, like the one faced by Leahy and Co., in 1943.
Leahy and Kelly are the only two coaches who were hired by Notre Dame after orchestrating an unbeaten season at another school the previous year. The difference is Kelly won’t have to finish unbeaten six times with the Irish or win four national titles to have his own statue outside Notre Dame Stadium. Just one will do.