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Irish Surprise: 1929

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.

Knute Rockne rebounded from his worst season to direct an unlikely run to the 1929 national title.

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. 3 is 1929.

Previous Year(s)
At some point in virtually every successful coach’s career, he hits a lull, a slump, a setback that he must rebound from after having established himself as an eminent figure in his industry.

Frank Leahy went through a 4-4-1 season in 1950 after not losing a game the previous four years. Alabama’s Bear Bryant won national titles in 1964 and 1965, but was 6-5 and 6-5-1 in 1969-70. Ohio State’s Woody Hayes was 4-5 in 1966, USC’s John McKay 6-4-1 in both 1970 and 1971. Texas’s Mack Brown had a 5-7 season in 2010 after going 69-9 the previous six years … the list goes on and on.

For Knute Rockne, it was 1928. In the nine seasons from 1919-27 he was 78-7-3 (.903). Never had he lost more than two games in a season … until his 1928 team finished 5-4. That tied the 1905 school record for most defeats in a year.

The season was shaky enough with a 4-2 start that it inspired Rockne to give the famous “Win One For The Gipper” speech on Nov. 10, 1928 versus unbeaten Army at a time when “the breaks are beating the boys.” The Irish responded with a 12-6 upset, but it might have taken everything out of them physically and emotionally.

After the win over the Cades, Notre Dame hosted Carnegie Tech, which handed the Irish a 27-7 defeat — the first loss at home (Cartier Field) in 23 years. The season then concluded with a 27-14 loss at USC, which won its first national title under head coach Howard Jones.

The Rockne era might have been running its course. He flirted with taking the Columbia job a year earlier, he expressed concern about the recruiting practices of other schools — yes, even back then — and there were widespread opinions that the coach had lost his Midas touch and the program had become awash in complacency.

The schedules weren’t getting easier. In 1929, not one of the nine home games would be played on the Notre Dame campus. Notre Dame Stadium was under construction at the time, and it began right after the 1928 season when the wooden stands at Cartier Field were torn down to begin the foundation for “The House that Rockne Built.” Three of the games would be at Chicago’s Soldier Field, and there also would be long railroad excursions to Baltimore (Navy), Atlanta (Georgia Tech) and Yankee Stadium (Army).

All four opponents that defeated Notre Dame in 1928 were back on the slate, and traditionally powerful Army was bent on avenging a loss that cost it the national title.

Oh, and by the way, prior to the start of the season, phlebitis developed in one of Rockne’s legs, and doctors advised him to step down from his stressful occupation. The head coach delegated more authority to his top assistant, Tom Lieb, and the head coach would be limited on making trips. In obvious pain when he walked, Rockne often had to direct workouts from a seat on the sidelines, with a megaphone in hand.

After the 1928 season, Rockne knew what he was up against.

“This was the worst season Notre Dame football ever has seen,” he said of 1928. “It’s the worst for me, too. There are a lot of football folks throughout the country who think I’m finished. The team and the coaches made a lot of mistakes this year. But the team isn’t through, and I’m not through.

“After all, a football team should be conducted like any business organization. What happens when the salesmen of a firm find that that merchandise isn’t selling? Do they quit? No! They analyze their product for weaknesses that might not have been suspected. They change their personnel. They adjust the faults in the product. That’s what Notre Dame is going to do.

“Don’t let anyone convince you that Notre Dame or its coaching staff or its players are through. We’ll re-tool and come up with a better model.”

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!
With an entirely new starting backfield comprised of quarterback Frank Carideo, halfbacks Marty Brill (a transfer from Penn) and world-class speedster Jack Elder, and fullback Larry (Moon) Mullins, plus four new starters along the line — including guard Jack Cannon, the last Notre Dame player to compete without a helmet — the Irish went unbeaten (9-0) and captured a consensus national title without playing a game on their home turf.

It’s safe to bet that such a feat will never again occur.

After opening with victories against Indiana (14-0) and Navy (14-7), Notre Dame followed with three straight conquests against teams that had defeated and out-scored it 62-13 the previous year: Wisconsin (19-0), Carnegie Tech (7-0) and Georgia Tech (26-6).

The Irish then defeated Drake (19-7) before winning its 13-12 showdown with USC in front of 112,912 at Soldier Field. Notre Dame and the Trojans would each be declared national champs five straight years from 1928-32, with USC getting three (1928, 1931 and 1932) and the Irish two (1929 and 1930).

Notre Dame clinched the national title with a rout of a strong 6-2 Northwestern team (26-6), and then in frigid conditions vanquished Army (7-0) on Elder’s length-of-the-field interception return for a touchdown.

From 5-4 and on a downward slope … to 9-0 and a second consensus national title while never playing at home. Business at Notre Dame never seemed more prosperous — even though the market crashed that fall to usher in The Great Depression.

“The season of 1929 probably was the most strenuous Rockne ever experienced,” wrote famed Chicago writer Arch Ward. “He was in no condition to handle the team, but he never let up. For three months, he held the works together — smoothing out here, cajoling there, lifting a stern hand in another place, and making boys win … He used his illness to inspire his boys to play all the harder.”

With Brian Kelly coming off back surgery this summer …

Rockne would direct a third consensus national title the following year with a 10-0 finish, his fifth unbeaten campaign in 13 years, before perishing in a March 31, 1931 plane crash.

His winning percentage of .881 (105-12-5) remains No. 1 among major college coaches, although Boise State’s Chris Petersen will challenge it with his current mark of .924 (73-6).

Beyond Rockne’s winning percentage, his impact in collegiate athletics and Americana will remain everlasting.

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