Dan Devine was stepping into the proverbial no-win situation when he took the head coaching job at Notre Dame. Devine was following a legend, Ara Parseghian, who had won three national championships under the Golden Dome. But the expectations don’t stop at a place like South Bend and Devine had to find a way to keep his new team in the hunt for a national title.
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The 1975 Notre Dame football team has been immortalized in Hollywood, as the climactic year of Rudy, the partially true/partially mythical story of undersized Dan Ruettiger, who fought for a roster spot with the program he loved. On the field, 1975 Notre Dame football didn’t quite meet expectations.
Devine began his Notre Dame career under the lights in Foxboro, as the team traveled to the home of the New England Patriots for a game against Boston College. The Eagles were one of five Irish opponents that would ultimately finish the regular season 7-4, ensuring Devine would face a steady diet of competent opponents, mixed in with the occasional heavyweight.
Notre Dame was ranked 10th to open the year and after beating BC 17-3, the Irish went on to wins over Big Ten cellar-dwellers Purdue and Northwestern. They nudged up to #8 in the polls, but a home game with another soon-to-be seven-win team in Michigan State didn’t go well. A 10-3 loss dropped Notre Dame to #15.
Devine had problems at quarterback, where erratic junior Rick Slager was the incumbent. There were two quality running backs, in freshman Jerome Heavens and junior Al Hunter, along with sophomore tight end Ken McAfee, who got some love in the All-American voting at season’s end. But there was no one to get them the football.
Well, actually there was. A freshman by the name of Joe Montana was sitting on the bench. It wouldn’t take Devine long to figure out what he had and the quarterback would eventually win a national championship for his new coach. But all that would come later.
Narrow road wins over bad teams in North Carolina and Air Force that did little for the Irish poll position. The next game could move the needle—USC was undefeated, ranked third in the nation, and coming to South Bend. Notre Dame missed its chance though, with a 24-17 loss. It’s a loss that began to look worse as the year went on and the Trojans lost every remaining regular season game.
Notre Dame found it’s footing with a decisive 31-10 win over a pretty good Navy team. Then they followed it up with a 24-3 win over Georgia Tech—the final home game of the year and the one where Rudy gets into the game and gets a sack. The win moved the Irish into the Top 10.
A road game to Pitt awaited. The Panthers were unranked, but this is deceptive. This was another team on their way to 7-4, and Pitt would win a bowl game at a time when doing so was a bigger accomplishment than it is today. More important, this Pitt team had serious talent, led by running back Tony Dorsett. It was the foundation of a team that would win the national championship in 1976, and they beat Notre Dame 34-20 on this day, and the Irish tumbled all the way out of the Top 20.
With three losses, Notre Dame wasn’t going to a bowl game—the Irish generally refused to accept non-major bowl invitations at this time, so the trip to South Beach to play lowly Miami in the finale would have to count as the players’ trip. An easy 32-9 win at least got Notre Dame back into the rankings, finishing the season at #20.
For Devine, the 1975 Notre Dame football season would get worse in retrospect. Hollywood decided they need a villain for the Rudy story, and the scenes of Devine resisting letting Ruettiger play, or the seniors staging a mutiny against him are completely fictional. I understand jazzing up Rudy’s story for the movie, but completely making the head coach out as the bad guy was uncalled for.
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Fortunately, things on the football field would get better. Notre Dame made steps forward in 1976, and in 1977, made the ultimate step and won a national championship.