Mar 2, 2014, 7:16 PM EDT
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
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
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
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
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
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:
1. Johnny Lujack
2. George Gipp
3. Leon Hart
4. Johnny Lattner
5. Angelo Bertelli
7. Raghib Ismail
8. Paul Hornung
9. Ross Browner
10. Manti Te’o
12. Frank Carideo
13. Ken MacAfee
14. Chris Zorich
15. Terry Hanratty
17. Emil Sitko
18. Aaron Taylor
19. Marchy Schwartz
20. Bob Crable
22. Bill Fischer
23. Michael Stonebreaker
24. Jim Lynch
25. Ed Beinor
27. Luther Bradley
28. Bob Williams
29. Bob Golic
30. Ralph Guglielmi
32. Jeff Samardzija
33. Mike McCoy
34. Walt Patulski
35. Brady Quinn
37. Joe Kurth
38. Elmer Layden
39. Monty Stickles
40. Bob Dove
42. Jim Crowley
43. Golden Tate
44. Tom Gatewood
45. Jim Seymour
47. Al Ecuyer
48. Bobby Taylor
49. Clarence Ellis
50. Creighton Miller
52. Alan Page
53. Vagas Ferguson
54. Jack Snow
55. Greg Marx
57. Tom Regner
58. Tony Rice
59. Gus Dorais
60. Jim White
62. Shane Walton
63. Tom Clements
64. John Scully
65. Kevin Hardy
67. Mike Townsend
68. Jim Kelly
69. Jack Cannon
70. Pat Filley
72. Christie Flanagan
73. Dave Casper
74. Dave Huffman
75. George Kunz
77. Tommy Yarr
78. Pete Demmerle
79. Nick Rassas
80. John Yonakor
82. Wayne Millner
83. John Smith
84. Dick Arrington
85. Art Boeringer
87. Jeff Burris
88. Mirko Jurkovic
89. Nick Pietrosante
90. Gerry DiNardo
92. Frank Rydzewski
93. Eddie Anderson
94. Jack Robinson
95. Chuck Sweeney
97. Reggie Brooks
98. Bob Kelly
99. Ziggy Czarobski
100. Frank Dancewicz
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