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Irish Surprise: 1964

Editor’s Note: Over the past five seasons, Notre Dame is 32-31, has tied the school record for most consecutive seasons with at least five losses (five) and is one short of tying the school record of six straight seasons not finishing in the top 25.

Quarterback John Huarte (7) hands off to fullback Joe Kantor in the 31-7 opening game victory at Wisconsin in 1964.

Can the Irish get out of their funk in 2012 and break the spell? At least 10 other Notre Dame teams did. Our criteria include, 1) how long has the program been slumping? 2) how much did it struggle a year earlier? And 3) how dramatic was the turnaround season? At No. 1 is 1964.

Previous Year(s)
Never were there darker days over an eight-year period in Notre Dame’s football history than from 1956-63. Under three different coaches, the Irish had two-win campaigns in 1956 (2-8), 1960 (2-8) and 1963 (2-7).

The Joe Kuharich years from 1959-62 never produced a winning record, leading him to leave abruptly in the spring of 1963. With no time to search for a new coach, Notre Dame installed assistant Hugh Devore as the interim coach and lost the final five games of 1963 — never scoring more than 14 points in the process — to finish 2-7. Only the cancelled game at Iowa because of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy prevented maybe another 2-8 ledger.

The Irish scored 108 points that season, an average of 12 points per contest.

They had lost eight in a row to Michigan State, five of the last six to Purdue, three of the last four to Navy, and four of the last six to Pitt. Maybe most amazing of all, they had lost four in a row from 1959-62 to a formerly moribund Northwestern program that was 0-9 in 1957 but had been revived by a dynamic young coach named Ara Parseghian.

At the end of the 1963 season, the Notre Dame student magazine Scholastic wrote the following editorial: “The University administration has open to it three possible courses of action: 1) continue to play big time football, assuming that athletic excellence is indeed compatible with academic excellence; 2) play a schedule restricted to schools of comparable academic standing; or 3) rather than continue losing, and rather than further sully this school’s once lustrous athletic reputation, discontinue football entirely…

“If this University is to continue in big time football, it must no longer delude itself that everything possible is being done (without violating the University’s principles) to promote winning football.”

It was right around then that Parseghian and Northwestern athletics director Stu Holcomb had a falling out. The Big Ten Skywriters had projected a conference title for Northwestern in 1963. Although the Wildcats began the season with an impressive 23-12 victory over Dan Devine’s strong Missouri team on the road and ended it on the road with a 17-8 at Woody Hayes’ powerful Ohio State juggernaut, Holcomb hinted to Parseghian that his days might be numbered.

Parseghian put Holcomb on notice that he could no longer work for him and made a call to Notre Dame executive vice president Rev. Ned Joyce on whether they are still seeking to find a full-time head coach. Joyce later referred to the call as “bread from heaven.”

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!
Parseghian was hired by Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh even though the new head coach was neither Catholic nor a graduate of the school, a tradition dating back to 1918.

That spring, more than a dozen position changes were made by the new staff in an attempt to maximize talent. This included breaking up the “Elephant Backfield” that saw Pete Duranko move to linebacker (and later the defensive line) and Paul Costa and Jim Snowden to the line.

Halfback Nick Rassas was aligned at safety, while quarterbacks Tony Carey and Tom Longo also were shifted to the secondary. With new rules allowing for two different platoons on offense and defense, the Irish staff started an all-sophomore defensive line with ends Alan Page and Don Gmitter, and tackles Tom Regner and Kevin Hardy. Sophomore Jim Lynch was stationed at middle linebacker.

Predecessors Kuharich and Devore had recruited well, but the team was lacking direction, motivation and players were often out of position. No personnel upgrades were more dramatic than the senior passing combination of John Huarte to Jack Snow. Huarte had been a third-team QB who had yet to receive a monogram. Snow had three carries as a backup halfback in 1963.

Months later, Huarte would win the Heisman, becoming the first Notre Dame quarterback to pass for more than 2,000 yards in a season (2,062). The previous record was 1,374 by Bob Williams in 1949. In 1963, top passer Frank Budka threw for 239 yards — the entire year. Huarte eclipsed that with 270 yards in the 1964 opener at Wisconsin. Meanwhile Snow placed fifth in the Heisman balloting with 60 catches for 1,114 yards — more than doubling the previous highest receiving yards in a season by an Irish player.

After opening the season with a stunning 31-7 victory at Wisconsin — where Parseghian’s 6-0 and No. 1-ranked Northwestern team lost 37-6 two years earlier — the Irish moved from unranked to No. 9 (back then, the AP ranked only 10 teams).

Notre Dame had lost 7-6 to Purdue the previous year but this time won 34-15. It had lost 24-14 to Stanford in 1963, but won 28-6 in 1964. After losing 35-14 at home to Navy in 1963, the Irish defeated 1963 Heisman winner Roger Staubach and the Midshipmen 40-0 in 1964.

The season of avenging losses continued by squeaking by at Pitt (17-15) and ending the record eight-game losing streak to Michigan State with a 34-7 rout.

Notre Dame entered the Nov. 28 season finale at No. 10 USC ranked No. 1 with a 9-0 record, the biggest turnaround in school history.

“What I could see in 1964 was a group of hungry young guys because of their past sense of failure,” Parseghian said. “Their expectations of living up to the school’s standards were not fulfilled. As soon as they experienced a little success, I saw exhilaration overtake them, the feeling that they could get the job done and how something dramatic was in the making.

“Practice normally can be drudgery, a grind. But that year the players couldn’t wait to get to practice. When it was over, they couldn’t wait to start the next day. That whole season was such an upbeat atmosphere. When you walked into the Notre Dame locker room, your spirits were immediately lifted.”

The Irish were a half away from clinching a consensus national title after taking a 17-0 halftime lead at USC. But miscues, controversial and phantom calls against Notre Dame and some clutch play by the Trojans enabled USC to come away with an 11th-hour 20-17 victory.

Notre Dame finished No. 3 in the AP poll, but it had begun another renaissance.

Parseghian finished his 11-year Notre Dame career with a 95-17-4 record and consensus national titles in 1966 and 1973, plus a No. 2 finish in 1970.

Technically, it’s not inaccurate to say Parseghian guided three national titles at Notre Dame. The NCAA recognizes four major sources for titles: Two of them are the AP poll with writers and broadcasters, and the former UPI poll that is now the USA Today poll with coaches.

The third is the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA), which has presented the Grantland Rice Award since 1954. The fourth is the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame, which has awarded the MacArthur Bowl to that year’s national champ since 1959.

Just like in Notre Dame consensus national title years in 1966, 1973, 1977 and 1988, the Irish were the recipient of the MacArthur Bowl in 1964.

In 1964 Alabama won the AP and UPI polls — even though it lost the Orange Bowl to Texas, 21-17. But back then, the wire service polls declared a national title after the regular season, not after bowls.

However, Arkansas received the Grantland Rice Award from the FWAA in 1964 because it defeated Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl to finish 11-0. The FWAA decided to wait until after the bowls to make its decision — and Arkansas counts it as a “national title year.”

Finally, despite the loss to USC, the MacArthur Bowl was presented to Notre Dame. Although the MacArthur Bowl is emblematic of a national title, the University officially recognizes only the consensus championships in 1924-29-30-43-46-47-49-66-73-77-88.

It should be pointed out that even though Notre Dame defeated Alabama in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, Alabama recognizes itself as a national champ because that was the last year the UPI still awarded the title before bowl games.

For the same reason, Texas also recognizes 1970 as a “national title year” even though it lost to Notre Dame 24-11 in the Cotton Bowl. Also in 1970, Ohio State lost to 8-3 Stanford in the Rose Bowl, but recognizes it as a "national title year" because it shared the MacArthur Bowl with Texas.

Whether or not Notre Dame officially recognizes 1964 as a championship season, it was the most amazing renaissance campaign in school history.

It edged out the one from 24 years later in 1988, a 12-0 national title campaign. Twenty-four years later in 2012 … can another rebirth take place?

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