- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2002

Being seven-eighths Irish the rest of me is perfectly normal I’m obliged to comment from time to time on Notre Dame’s football fortunes. (Sorry, it’s a genetic predisposition.) And while I have no idea whether Tyrone Willingham or Won’t-ingham as the team’s new coach, I’m hopeful he’ll accomplish one thing his immediate predecessors failed to do: Bring the ND offense into the modern age.

I found myself thinking about that as I watched South Carolina Lou Holtz’s club line up in a full-house backfield in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. Lou used to pull that kind of stuff all the time when he was at Notre Dame, stuff straight out of the ‘40s. Not long after his arrival in South Bend, you may recall, he had Tony Rice, an option quarterback, and Kent Graham, a future NFL quarterback, on his roster. Rice played; Graham transferred.

You’d hardly know, watching the Irish play the last 30 years, that they helped popularize the forward pass. In fact, Gus Dorais threw more times against Army in 1913 (17) than Carlyle Holiday did most Saturdays this past season. Dorais and Knute Rockne were the Montana and Rice of their day. Sort of. After they tore up the Cadets, 35-13, and showed the football world what the “overhead game” could do, the sport was never the same.

Yes, hard as it may be to believe, Notre Dame was once very cutting edge, offensively speaking. In 1942, even though he’d just had an undefeated season, Frank Leahy started moving away from Rockne’s hallowed box formation and began experimenting with the newfangled T. “Pretty nervy fellow, that Leahy,” Clark Shaughnessy, one of the T’s developers, said. “There must have been a thousand critics on his neck.” But Leahy saw the transition through, and from ‘46 to ‘49 the Irish went 36-0-2.

In his autobiography, Bears quarterback Sid Luckman reminisced about spending hours with Leahy one evening at New York’s Commodore Hotel, “shifting chairs about to simulate [T formation] plays.” Sid kidded the ND coach, calling him, “the best armchair strategist in the game.”

“You’ll find that most of your major coaches plan their moves with hotel chairs,” Leahy replied with a grin. “Name any of them Stagg, Dobie, Bible, Waldorf all are masterful chair jugglers. The fans have no idea how many big-time games are won or lost beforehand in hotel rooms.”

One of the more memorable games of my youth was Notre Dame’s season-opening win over Purdue in 1966. The Boilermakers’ Bob Griese was supposed to take his first step toward the Heisman Trophy that afternoon, but Terry Hanratty and Jim Seymour, a couple of sophomores making their varsity debut, upstaged him. They hooked up 13 times for 276 yards and three touchdowns and so enthralled the nation that they wound up on the cover of Time magazine.

But then, Ara Parseghian, the ND coach, was a Paul Brown disciple. He knew the ins and outs of the passing game and understood their importance to an offense. The coaches who followed him haven’t been so forward-looking. Dan Devine was dull, dull, dull except for the brief period when he had Joe Montana. (And even then …) Gerry Faust, the former high school coach, had a high school-type attack. Holtz was more fun in the beginning (with a modestly talented club) than he was later on (with more talent than he knew what to do with). And Bob Davie’s offenses were nigh unwatchable. The Irish averaged barely 100 yards passing a game this season 101.5 to be exact. And how many of you can even name their starting quarterback? (Answer: Carlyle Holiday.)

Did you know Rocket Ismail ran the ball more times than he caught it at Notre Dame? Did you know Tim Brown, ND’s last Heisman winner, never had more than 45 receptions in a season? Did you know that no Irish receiver has had 200 yards receiving in a game since Seymour? You could look it up all of it.

In one of his weaker moments at least, let’s hope so Rockne said, “The pass is like a lot of dangerous things in life. … If it cannot be controlled, it’s wisest to stay away from it before it ruins you.” That’s pretty much what the Irish have done since Parseghian left. And now comes Tyrone Willingham, protege of Denny Green and proponent of Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense. His Stanford team threw the ball more than 300 times this season, more than any Notre Dame team has ever thrown it. For the Irish offense, it seems, the future is finally here.

Now Willingham just has to find himself a Hanratty and a Seymour. Preferably sooner rather than later.

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