With a plus-three improvement from his second year (2-8) to third year (5-5), Joe Kuharich had the second-best upgrade among Notre Dame coaches in wins during those two seasons of his career. The only one better was Lou Holtz, who was plus-four after improving from 8-4 in Year 2 (1987) to 12-0 in Year 3 (1988).
Notre Dame had a 3-0 start and rose to No. 6 in the country in Joe Kuharich's third year, but finished only 5-5.
That was the positive side of Kuharich’s third year, which enabled him to finish higher overall than five other Notre Dame coaches in this survey. The negative is Kuharich remains the lone Irish head coach who had a losing career record after three seasons (12-18). It led him to stay only one more season before stepping down in the spring of 1963 when NFL commissioner and friend Pete Rozelle hired him to supervise officiating crews in the NFL.
Kuharich’s second year with a 2-8 mark in 1960 instantly elicited skepticism about future prosperity under his regime.
Amazingly, Kuharich began Year 3 by defeating Oklahoma (19-6), Purdue (22-20) and USC (30-0), which featured future College Football Hall of Fame head coaches Bud Wilkinson, Jack Mollenkopf and John McKay, respectively. Those three victories elevated the Irish to No. 6 in the country, the highest ranking during the Kuharich era. Year 3 had a magical start.
The fourth game was at No. 1 Michigan State, and for 42 minutes Kuharich’s team was in charge again with a 7-0 lead, before losing 17-7. The following week, Ara Parseghian’s Northwestern Wildcats toppled the Irish a third straight season, 12-10.
After the promising 3-0 start, the Irish went 2-5 the rest of the way, highlighted by a wild 17-15 victory over No. 10 Syracuse on a 41-yard Joe Perkowski field goal as time elapsed. It was Kuharich’s fourth victory of the season versus a Hall of Fame coach (Ben Schwartzwalder), a feat not many have matched in the game’s history.
But 5-5, 2-8 and 5-5 records in three seasons weren’t gong to get it done at Notre Dame. Kuharich knew it, and stepped down voluntarily after another 5-5 season in Year 4 (1962).
Wrote South Bend Tribune sports editor Joe Doyle in 1961 of Kuharich’s third year: “It is hard to believe the same football team played the various parts of the schedule. One moment the Notre Dame team of 1961 seemed to be an eager, hustling squad that believed it could lick any opponent. At other times, it was indifferent, lethargic and unable to cope with anything out of the ordinary on offense or defense.”
How Did It Happen?
Talent was not the problem at Notre Dame. And contrary to popular belief at the time, academics, climate and the perceived de-emphasis of football under University president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C. also was not an issue. People such as Roger Staubach still dreamed of going to Notre Dame – they just weren’t deemed talented enough to play football there (Staubach won the Heisman at Navy instead in 1963).
The talent included future NFL star linemen Paul Costa and Jim Snowden, who were part of Kuharich’s “Elephant Backfield,” and future pro stars such as quarterback Daryle Lamonica, linebackers Nick Buoniconti and Myron Pottios and tackle Joe Carollo, among others.
When new head coach Ara Parseghian and his staff arrived from Northwestern in 1964, one of their first impressions was, “Geez, we never had personnel as talented as this at Northwestern” – even though the Wildcats were 4-0 against the Irish during the Kuharich years (1959-62).
However, the Irish talent was out of position and/or lacking direction. Costa recalled what Parseghian said in his first meeting with the Irish squad in 1964.
“He told us, among other things, that we were not a disciplined team – that when he was at Northwestern he could count on a lot of Notre Dame penalties, and that those penalties would help shape the outcome of the game,” Costa told Blue & Gold Illustrated years ago. “We didn’t have to wait for spring practice to begin. We realized then and there that things were going to change.”
Ramifications of Year 3
It was similar to the third years of Tyrone Willingham (2004) and Gerry Faust (1983): The Irish achieved huge wins – Michigan and Tennessee under Willingham in 2004, for example – but it would make the losses to BYU, Boston College and Pitt, the latter two at home, more frustrating.
Kuharich beat a Who’s Who list of coaches in 1961, but he also was getting bested by teams such as Northwestern, Navy and Duke, the latter a 37-13 pasting in the season finale. You can’t use academic standards as an alibi against Northwestern, Navy and Duke.
Once this kind of inconsistency becomes a pattern, as it did through Kuharich’s first three years, you’re coaching days get numbered at a place such as Notre Dame.
How Does It Relate To Brian Kelly?
While Kelly’s 8-5 finish in his second season last year was a huge disappointment given that the Irish were considered a viable BCS candidate in the pre-season, he did not have the albatross of a 2-8 season hanging around his neck entering Year 3 the way Kuharich did.
Kuharich had a sensational 3-0 start in his third season that elevated the Irish all the way to No. 6 in the AP poll. A 3-0 start is realistic for Kelly this year — and it would be a first at the school since 2002. The first three foes are teams that Notre Dame defeated by 42 (Navy), 28 (Purdue) and 18 (Michigan State) last year, although it’s noted that the Spartans, who are rebuilding on offense, will be a huge road test.
What Kelly cannot afford is for his program to get into the inconsistent rut that Kuharich’s did. Beating four Hall-of-Fame coaches as Kuharich did in one season was quite an achievement, but to lose to Northwestern three years in a row and get pounded 37-13 by Duke in the finale nullified the perceived progress and raised inquiries about the staff’s competence.
Kelly and Co. in 2012 especially need to start defending the home field against the Michigans and Stanfords, plus avoid the head-scratching losses, from Navy in 2010 to even Michigan and Florida State last year when the Irish found ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the fourth quarter.
By the end of his third season, Kuharich already had become overwhelmed by the high expectations at Notre Dame and was a beaten down head coach. Fortunately, Kelly seems to have embraced the immense expectations, and his teams in 2010 and 2011 bounced back from early setbacks.
Now it’s up to him and his staff to build some early September momentum, continue to ride that wave throughout the season and avoid a sixth straight year (and third under Kelly) without a top-25 finish, which would tie the school record set from 1981-86.