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.
Halfback Jim Lynch reaches the corner of the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the three with 3:50 left in Notre Dame's stunning 7-0 victory at Oklahoma in 1957.
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. 5 is 1957.
In 1956, Notre Dame’s football program reached rock bottom — and maybe even several flights below it with a 2-8 ledger.
Only one other time in its 69-year history had Notre Dame lost more than four games during a campaign, that occurring in 1933 with a 3-5-1 finish. Even then, it ended the season with a 13-12 upset of unbeaten Army.
While playing one of the most extraordinarily difficult schedules in school history — six of the 10 opponents finished in the AP Top 18, including No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 3 Iowa and No. 9 Michigan State — the Irish were top-heavy with green sophomores, and it showed while getting crushed by the Sooners (40-0, to this day the largest margin of defeat at home), Spartans (47-14) and Hawkeyes (48-8).
Third-year head coach Terry Brennan directed the Irish to a 9-1 record his first season and 8-2 his second, but the football cupboard that predecessor Frank Leahy usually had stocked had suddenly became barren. Academic standards were raised dramatically under new president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh (1952-87), and by the end of Leahy’s tenure in 1953, the recruiting gravy train had derailed.
An agreement between Hesburgh and Leahy called for Notre Dame to sign 30 student-athletes per year on a grant-in-aid. Leahy inked 42 one season, according to Hesburgh, so to hold up the “30 per year” deal, he could sign only 18 the next season. Attrition hit that last class hard, and by 1956 the numbers game fully caught up, even though one of those seniors was Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung at quarterback.
For 1957, not only was the one-man show Hornung gone, but team captain and leading tackler from 1956, center/linebacker Ed Sullivan, also was injured for part of the season.
Another daunting schedule made a second straight season under .500 — maybe even 2-8 again — probable. Seven of the 10 opponents who had defeated Notre Dame were back on the schedule, plus 10th-ranked Army was added as an eighth game, in Philadelphia.
Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!
Right away, Notre Dame sent a message to college football that 1957 was going to be different. A year after losing at home to Purdue (28-14), it opened with a 12-0 victory at Ross-Ade Stadium, its first shutout on the Boilermakers’ home turf since 1922. That took Notre Dame from unranked to No. 16 the next week.
After upsetting No. 10 Army, 23-21, on a field goal by sophomore end Monty Stickles, and then vanquishing another 1956 defeat with a 13-7 victory versus Pitt, the 4-0 Irish climbed all the way up to No. 5 in the first month of the season.
Setbacks to No. 16 Navy (20-6) and No. 4 Michigan State (34-6) then brought back old ghosts, and the worst was about to come with a trip to Norman, Okla., where the two-time defending national champ Sooners were riding an NCAA record 47-game winning streak.
Yet in maybe the most epic upset in school history, the 19-point underdog Irish avenged the 40-0 defeat from a year earlier with a stunning 7-0 decision on Nov. 16, 1957 — which happened to be the 50th anniversary of Oklahoma’s statehood.
Quarterback Bob Williams — not the Hall of Famer from 1948-50 — orchestrated the mother of all Notre Dame touchdown drives in the fourth quarter: 80 yards, 20 plays (only one pass) that milked 9:01 off the clock. On fourth-and-goal from the three, Oklahoma prepared to stop fullback Nick Pietrosante, who had rushed for 35 yards on the drive, but a quick toss sweep to Dick Lynch enabled him to get to the outside and score with 3:50 remaining.
Brennan said he went for the touchdown instead of the field goal because Oklahoma’s explosiveness from anywhere on the field necessitated going for it all. The Sooners drove down to the Irish 24 on the final drive, but Williams picked off the final pass attempt at the one. The Notre Dame defense, led by Jim Schaaf, Al Ecuyer and Don Lawrence, all juniors who had paid their dues a year earlier, propelled the shutout, the first time in 123 games Oklahoma went scoreless.
The victory elevated Notre Dame back from unranked to No. 9. Although No. 8 Iowa posted a 21-13 victory the next week at Notre Dame, the Irish concluded the season with a 40-12 rout of No. 5 USC and a 54-21 drubbing of SMU.
Beating top-5 ranked teams from Oklahoma and USC in the same season is not accomplished often in college football (although the Irish might have a chance to replicate the feat in 2012).
From 2-8 to 7-3 and a No. 10 finish, Brennan’s corps achieved one of the greatest turnarounds in school history.
With the extraordinary rebound in 1957, Notre Dame had a “return to normalcy.” In other words, expectations of national title contention came back in 1958 with almost everyone returning from the previous year’s squad.
The Irish weren’t bad, finishing 17th with a 6-4 record against another arduous schedule, capped with a 20-13 win at USC.
However, the specter of Leahy’s legend and the 2-8 meltdown from 1956 remained. Despite three top-10 finishes in five years, the 31-year-old Brennan was fired as head coach prior to Christmas 1958, a decision that brought the school and Hesburgh much negative backlash that would continue for several more years.