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ND Rank: #1-5

Mar 2, 2014, 7:16 PM EST

Johnny Lujack Johnny Lujack

Craig Chval, the official 2013 football beat writer for the Strong & True blog, is currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Over the course of the year Craig will bring you insight from within the student section, interviews with Fighting Irish players and previews of each game. You can follow Craig (and the rest of the Notre Dame student beat writing staff) on twitter at @JrNDBloggers.

This is it. I started this series nearly four months ago, and we’re finally to the top five. I’ve spent those four months going back on forth on who should be No. 1. For me it’s always been between two players, and I’ve landed on my answer. What’s yours?

I could write a longer intro, but that’s not why you’re here. Your final five of ND Rank:

#5: Angelo Bertelli – Quarterback / Halfback – 1941-1943

source:

Angelo Bertelli

2x 1st-team All-American (1942, 1943), Consensus All-American (1943), Heisman (1943), 2nd in Heisman (1941), 6th in Heisman (1942), National Champion (1943)

1941: 70 completions on 123 attempts for 1,027 yards, 8 TDs

1942: 72 completions on 159 attempts for 1,039 yards, 10 TDs; 8 defensive interceptions

1943: 25 completions on 36 attempts for 512 yards, 10 TDs

With the evolution of football over the last century, it’s hard to find World War II-era quarterbacks with any passing records. Angelo Bertelli had 318 career passing attempts, for crying out loud. That’s both weekends of a fall break for recent Irish teams.*

But somehow Bertelli still ranks eighth all-time in career passing touchdowns in Notre Dame history with 28. He held that record for 27 years, until Joe Theismann broke it in 1970 with 31. All the players ahead of those two played in the ‘90s or later.

In 1943 Bertelli won the Heisman (Notre Dame’s first) with 36 passing attempts. Having so few passes removes him from qualification for many records, but his 69.4% percentage that year would be the best all-time (ahead of Jimmy Clausen’s 68.0% in 2009). His 258.4 efficiency rating towers over Clausen and Bob Williams’ 161.4. To put that in perspective, Bertelli would have had to throw 10 more interceptions in a row to fall behind them.

We can keep playing this game, too. His 14.2 yards per attempts are a solid four more than Notre Dame’s all-time season leader, John Huarte. And 20.48 yards per completion easily clears Huarte’s 18.09.

Bertelli easily had the most efficient passing season in 126 years of Notre Dame history, and to tremendous results. Some consider the 1943 Irish team the best in school history. Bertelli’s squad beat seven teams ranked in the top 13, and only played three home games. Oh, and Bertelli missed the last four games after joining the Marines.

That’s right, he only played six games, only attempted 36 passes, and still won the Heisman. And to think he started his career at halfback. Leahy moved him after 1941 saying, “Bert, you’re the finest passer and the worst runner I’ve ever coached.”

Notre Dame’s only player to win the Heisman one year and finish second another, Bertelli was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1972. Besides quarterbacking, he was the team’s punter and played stellar defense. His eight interceptions in 1942 are tied for third in a season in Notre Dame history.

*OK, slight exaggeration. It took Tommy Rees 11 games to hit that number in 2013. But Bertelli’s 36 attempts in his Heisman season are only eight more than Rees’  total against Michigan last year – in the second half.

#4: Johnny Lattner – Halfback / Defensive Back – 1951-1953

source:

Johnny Lattner

2x Unanimous All-American (1952, 1953), Heisman Trophy (1953), 5th in Heisman (1952), 2x Maxwell Award (1952, 1953)

1952: 148 carries for 734 yards, 4 TDs, 17 receptions for 252 yards, TD, 3 kickoff returns for 45 yards, 7 punt returns for 113 yards, 4 interceptions, 3 fumble recoveries

1953: 134 carries for 651 yards, 14 receptions for 204 yards, 8 kickoff returns for 321 yards, 10 punt returns for 103 yards, 9 total TDs, 4 interceptions, fumble recovery

The only two-time Maxwell Award winner until Tim Tebow, Johnny Lattner was another one of those jack-of-all trade players for Notre Dame. With his two Maxwell Awards (and of course Heisman Trophy), he is the only Irish player to win an award for best player in the nation two separate seasons.

When he won the Heisman in 1953, he did so despite the fact that he did not lead his team in rushing or scoring. A huge reason for that is his defense, where he was spectacular. (He did, however, set the Irish record for all-purpose yards, which wasn’t broken until Vagas Ferguson in 1979.)

His junior year he was a unanimous All-American at defensive back, and was once again a unanimous selection at back when college football shifted to a one-platoon system in ’53. His two selections make him one of four Irish players to accomplish the feat, along with Frank Carideo, Ross Browner, and Johnny Lujack.

Stats in the ‘50s weren’t kept with as much detail as they are now, so it’s hard to quantify Lattner’s defensive impact. In case you didn’t believe me, though, Sports Illustrated put him on their all-century team in 1999 as a cornerback*. He is tied for third all-time in Notre Dame history with 13 interceptions.

That’s not to say Lattner wasn’t great on offense and special teams, as well. He still ranks in the Notre Dame record books in receiving yards for a back (9th), career punts (9th), kickoff return average in a season (2nd), and kickoff return touchdowns in a season (T-1st).

*The other Notre Dame players on the team are Tim Brown, Raghib Ismail, Bill Fischer, George Connor, Johnny Lujack, Leon Hart, Ross Browner, and George Gipp.

#3: Leon Hart – End – 1946-1949

source:

Leon Hart

3x 1st-team All-American (1947, 1948, 1949), 2x Consensus All-American (1948, 1949), Unanimous All-American (1949), Heisman Trophy (1949), Maxwell Award (1949), 3x National Champion (1946, 1947, 1949)

1947: 9 receptions for 156 yards, 3 TDs, 3 fumble recoveries

1948: 16 receptions for 231 yards, 4 TDs, 4 carries for 39 yards, TD, 2 fumble recoveries

1949: 19 receptions for 257 yards, 5 TDs, 18 carries for 73 yards, TD, 3 fumble recoveries

Part of the 1950 graduating class that never lost a game, Leon Hart was a two-way monster for Frank Leahy. Usually reserved for quarterbacks and running backs, the Heisman was awarded to Hart in 1949, which 65 years later remains the last season a lineman won the trophy.

Even when football moved to separate platoons in 1949, Hart started on both sides, the only Notre Dame player to do so besides Jim Martin, his co-captain. As a four-year monogram winner, Hart was a part of three national championship teams under Leahy.

The Associated Press named him the athlete of the year in ’49, which was Jackie Robinson’s MVP season, and he won the Maxwell Award for top college football player. Hart epitomized the days of 60-minute football, and he decried the proliferation of substitutions in modern football as taking the game out of the hands of the players.

In his day, Hart was fully involved in the play calling of the defense, and it didn’t hurt that he graduated from Notre Dame with an engineering degree. However, we waited a bit to use it, playing eight seasons with the Detroit Lions and winning three NFL championships. He is one of three players to win a national championship, earn the Heisman Trophy, and be drafted first overall in the same season – along with Cam Newton and Notre Dame’s Angelo Bertelli.

A 1973 inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame, Leon Hart remains Notre Dame’s only player in history to make an All-American team three times and win the Heisman. There’s even video evidence of his physical domination.

#2: George Gipp – Halfback – 1917-1920

source:

George Gipp

Consensus All-American (1920)

1918: 98 carries for 541 yards, 6 TDs

1919: 106 carries for 729 yards, 7 TDs

1920: 102 carries for 827 yards, 8 TDs

‘‘I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.’’ –George Gipp

Notre Dame fans like legends. We enjoy our larger-than-life figures: Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, the Four Horsemen, the Gipper. Especially the Gipper.

Sometimes the legend doesn’t have to be true. (Just watch Rudy for some good old-fashioned Notre Dame tall tales.) Was Gipp actually Notre Dame’s first All-American? Did he actually catch pneumonia outside Washington Hall? Did he actually ask Rockne to tell a future Notre Dame team to “Win one for the Gipper?”

Well, Gus Dorais was Notre Dame’s first All-American, but I like to believe the rest of the story. Rockne was known for making up stories to inspire his players, but I’d be surprised if he lied about Gipp and never fessed up to it.

Part of the legend is that Gipp is the best player in Notre Dame history, if not the history of the game itself. When I started this endeavor, I kind of just penciled him in at No. 1. But is the legend true?

The best evidence is his 1920 season, which is what everyone points to. His 8.1 yards per rush is a nigh untouchable record, most closely approached by Reggie Brooks in 1992 (8.0) It’s the Irish standard of a perfect season for a running back. When your record echoes so loudly nearly 100 years later, that’s reason to pause.

Gipp’s name is scattered in the record books elsewhere, owning the record for yards per attempt of total offense in a season (the only non-quarterback anywhere near the top of the list), rushing/receiving yards per game in a career, kickoff returns in a game, and total returns in a game.

Gipp’s value was also in his versatility, leading the team in both rushing and passing in three separate seasons. He was a great punter and defensive back, collecting interceptions while rarely letting a pass get completed. He also was a tremendous baseball player, planning to play for the Cubs. Perhaps their World Series drought would only be at 80 years if he had his chance in Major League Baseball.

Of course he would not, and Gipp’s death of complications from strep throat remains one of the most tragic stories in Notre Dame lore. Everyone loves a good legend.

He is the mythical Fighting Irish player, the best Notre Dame has ever seen. Or is he? Because while we Notre Dame fans love our legends, we love something more. And that’s national championships.

#1: Johnny Lujack – Quarterback – 1943-1947

source:

Johnny Lujack

2x Unanimous All-American (1946, 1947), Heisman Trophy (1947), 3rd in Heisman (1946), 3x National Champion (1943, 1946, 1947)

1946: 49 completions on 100 attempts for 778 yards, 6 TDs, 23 carries for 108 yards, TD

1947: 61 completions on 109 attempts for 777 yards, 9 TDs, 12 carries for 139 yards, TD

I wanted to put the Gipper at No. 1. I really did. But I couldn’t. And that’s because of Johnny Lujack. Johnny Lujack and his three national championships. Johnny Lujack and his 20-1-1 record as a starter.

Lujack played three seasons for the Irish, and they won championships in all three. His career began midway through the 1943 season, when Bertelli left to join the Marines during World War II. Lujack took over for the final four games, against #3 Army (26-0 victory), #8 Northwestern (25-6 victory), #2 Iowa Pre-Flight (14-13 victory), and Great Lakes (19-14 loss). Despite the loss to Great Lakes, who finished #6 in the final polls, the Irish were declared national champions.

Missing the next two seasons to fight in the war, Lujack would return in 1946 to begin Notre Dame’s undefeated four-year run. He finished third in the Heisman that year, winning yet another championship along the way and earning unanimous All-American status.

A solid defender, Lujack preserved the title in the game against Army, making perhaps the most famous tackle in school history, a touchdown-saving takedown of reigning Heisman winner Doc Blanchard. From the Notre Dame media supplement:

‘‘They said Blanchard couldn’t be stopped one-on-one in the open field, yet I did it,’’ said an exhausted Lujack after the game. ‘‘I really can’t understand all the fuss. I simply pinned him against the sideline and dropped him with a routine tackle.’’

Notre Dame and Army tied 0-0, each team’s only game without a victory. And although Lujack lost out in the Heisman to Blanchard’s partner in the backfield, Glenn Davis, the AP named the Irish the champs.

The following season Lujack would capture both honors, going undefeated and untied in ’47 with unanimous All-American honors, a championship, and the Heisman. The only games that had margins of victory under three touchdowns were a 22-7 win over Purdue and 26-19 over Northwestern, both on the road.

At the end of his Irish career, Lujack had three national championships in three years. The only other quarterback to win more than one was Frank Carideo. He and Carideo are the only quarterbacks to be two-time unanimous All-Americans (in fact, Ralph Guglielmi is the only other QB with any).

Only Carideo has a better record among Irish signal-callers, and Carideo didn’t have to fill in for a Heisman winner in his first year, like Lujack in his only losing effort.

I understand the sentiment for Gipp, but Lujack’s résumé is too strong. The ’40s video archives are not the most abundant, but here’s Lujack’s tackle of Blanchard. Not the most overwhelming play, but here we are, still talking about it nearly 70 years later.

That’s it, Johnny Lujack is the best player in Notre Dame history, according to one 21-year-old Notre Dame student. Any arguments for other players? Arguments for Gipp that I missed? And you know I’m always ready to hear complaining about Joe Montana’s absence on the list.

This has been a four-month endeavor, and I’ve enjoyed every minute, even when everyone disagrees. I’ve learned a lot about Notre Dame football, and I hope you did too. As spring practices start up, stay tuned as the blog returns to the future of Irish football, and not just its glorious past. One last time, here’s the final ranking:

List:

Intro

1. Johnny Lujack

2. George Gipp

3. Leon Hart

4. Johnny Lattner

5. Angelo Bertelli

6. Tim Brown

7. Raghib Ismail

8. Paul Hornung

9. Ross Browner

10. Manti Te’o

11. George Connor

12. Frank Carideo

13. Ken MacAfee

14. Chris Zorich

15. Terry Hanratty

16. John Huarte

17. Emil Sitko

18. Aaron Taylor

19. Marchy Schwartz

20. Bob Crable

21. Todd Lyght

22. Bill Fischer

23. Michael Stonebreaker

24. Jim Lynch

25. Ed Beinor

26. Nick Eddy

27. Luther Bradley

28. Bob Williams

29. Bob Golic

30. Ralph Guglielmi

31. Steve Niehaus

32. Jeff Samardzija

33. Mike McCoy

34. Walt Patulski

35. Brady Quinn

36. Joe Theismann

37. Joe Kurth

38. Elmer Layden

39. Monty Stickles

40. Bob Dove

41. Harry Stuhldreher

42. Jim Crowley

43. Golden Tate

44. Tom Gatewood

45. Jim Seymour

46. Larry DiNardo

47. Al Ecuyer

48. Bobby Taylor

49. Clarence Ellis

50. Creighton Miller

51. Don Miller

52. Alan Page

53. Vagas Ferguson

54. Jack Snow

55. Greg Marx

56. Tom Schoen

57. Tom Regner

58. Tony Rice

59. Gus Dorais

60. Jim White

61. Allen Pinkett

62. Shane Walton

63. Tom Clements

64. John Scully

65. Kevin Hardy

66. Bill Shakespeare

67. Mike Townsend

68. Jim Kelly

69. Jack Cannon

70. Pat Filley

71. John Mastrangelo

72. Christie Flanagan

73. Dave Casper

74. Dave Huffman

75. George Kunz

76. Jerry Groom

77. Tommy Yarr

78. Pete Demmerle

79. Nick Rassas

80. John Yonakor

81. Frank Stams

82. Wayne Millner

83. John Smith

84. Dick Arrington

85. Art Boeringer

86. Art Hunter

87. Jeff Burris

88. Mirko Jurkovic

89. Nick Pietrosante

90. Gerry DiNardo

91. Tyler Eifert

92. Frank Rydzewski

93. Eddie Anderson

94. Jack Robinson

95. Chuck Sweeney

96. Jim Martin

97. Reggie Brooks

98. Bob Kelly

99. Ziggy Czarobski

100. Frank Dancewicz

  1. Greg - Mar 3, 2014 at 5:59 AM

    Where is joe Montana Curious

    Sent from my iPhone

    Reply
  2. koolinsc - Mar 3, 2014 at 5:15 PM

    Where’s Ray Lemek???

    Curious I’ve read some of these stats of guys in the 50-100 group and they don’t have half of the resume that The 1955 solo Team Captain Lemek had?

    his overall record 26-3-1
    started for Leahy as a soph.
    1955 solo team captain
    9 years in The NFL
    Pro Bowl in 1965 Pittsburgh Steelers

    Reply
  3. ER Jedi - Mar 3, 2014 at 10:52 PM

    No Bettis!?

    Reply
  4. goirishdog - Mar 3, 2014 at 11:36 PM

    Really, no Montana or Bettis???

    Reply
  5. Craig Chval ('15) - Mar 4, 2014 at 12:50 AM

    Man, you guys really took me seriously when I said I never tired of Montana whining.

    I mentioned this in my first post in this series, but I had a couple stipulations when I started this. First, NFL careers had absolutely no bearing on the rankings. Interestingly enough, 99 percent (if anything, this is an underestimation) of complaining I’ve heard has been about the placing of NFL greats. It has become abundantly clear to me that many fans let NFL careers affect their memory of Notre Dame players.

    Second, the players must be at least a third-team All-American. There are something like 140 first-team All-Americans in Notre Dame history. I had to leave 50 of them off this list. I think 97 or so players on this list were either two-time All-Americans, consensus picks, or Heisman finalists. While All-American status isn’t everything, it’s really hard to leave off players who pretty much everyone agreed was the best at their position in the country.

    I was very tempted to put Montana on the list, and would not fault anyone for thinking he should be on it. But also remember that he was never a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd-team All-American, and I left off 50 first-teamers. I wanted to be as position-neutral as possible, and national championship quarterback was not enough in my eyes to put him on. I fully understand if it’s enough for some people, but my list, my rules.

    I also think the “comeback” argument is a little unfair because many of his great comebacks were necessary because of lackluster play early in the game. It’s not Johnny Lujack’s fault he killed most of his opponents. If I had to pick a quarterback to lead a fourth-quarter drive, sure, I’d give Joe a call. But that’s not the criterion of the list.

    Jerome Bettis had 20 total touchdowns in 1991, which is obviously very impressive (and a Notre Dame record). But he had one 2nd-team All-American season, and that was it. I find it very interesting that so many people have come up to me about Bettis when there are a great many possibly deserving players who didn’t have as amazing NFL careers.

    As for Ray Lemek, I think I’ve said enough, dude. While captaincy and records as a starter played a role, this is a list of two-time All-Americans and major award winners. There have been more than 60 solo captains, dozens of players with phenomenal records under Leahy, and hundreds of two-way players. Lemek was a great player, but there’s no way I could justify putting him on this list.

    I’m always grateful for feedback, and don’t take this response as being upset about any of it. You asked where these players were, and here’s my response. Remember that this is a list of absurdly talented players – my No. 100 finished sixth in the Heisman. This would have been a lot easier at any other school.

    Reply
  6. bearcatboy - Mar 5, 2014 at 9:54 PM

    I was a little surprised Julius Jones or Autrey Denson were not in the top 100, particularly Jones who was certainly one of the most talented RBs to play at ND and a dangerous kick returner as well.

    Reply
  7. irishrugby990 - Mar 9, 2014 at 6:39 PM

    Overall, not a bad list. And unlike some people on this board, I understand your criteria of including only All-Americans.

    With that said, I must ask about the omission of a few players:
    -Mark Bavaro and Mike Golic, both cut from the tough guy mold
    -Joey Getherall and Ted Burgmeier, both of whom did a little bit of everything during their Notre Dame careers

    Reply
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