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TGS INDIES RETROSPECTIVE...WHEN NOTRE DAME (FINALLY!) SAW THE LIGHT
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Having published since 1957, TGS has spanned several eras and generations in college football. Including long-ago times when there were only a handful of bowl games. And even those were not necessarily regarded as a reward for a good season. In some cases, they were even a punishment of sorts.

Draconian policies regarding bowls extended well into our publishing lifetime, all of the way into the mid ‘70s, when the Big Ten and then-called Pac-8 finally relented and allowed teams other than their conference champions to participate in the postseason. In the case of the Big Ten, in particular, this was quite a step forward, as it had also adhered to a “no-repeat” rule for its conference champion until the 1972 season. Until then, Big Ten champions were not permitted visits to the Rose Bowl in back-to-back years. Many powerhouse squads, in particular the 1966 Michigan State juggernaut that was involved in one of the “games of the century” that season against Notre Dame in what would end up a still-discussed 10-10 draw, had nowhere to go in bowl season.

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The old Pacific Coast Conference had a similar policy regarding the Rose Bowl before its break-up in the late ‘50s; because of this sort of lunacy, college fans were denied what could have been perhaps the greatest battle of the decade when Red Sanders’ great 1954 UCLA team was barred from participating in the Rose Bowl by that no-repeat edict, and a dream matchup vs. unbeaten Ohio State never materialized. There had been a split in the final polls that season, with the Buckeyes (AP) and Bruins (UPI) earning top spots in the rankings. Ohio State would instead beat an outclassed Southern Cal (which had lost 34-0 to UCLA in its regular-season finale), 20-7, in Pasadena.

That wasn’t all that happened in 1954; the Big Seven (predecessor of the Big Eight) also had a no-repeat rule in effect, barring a great Bud Wilkinson-coached Oklahoma team from bowl participation after it had won the league and appeared in the Orange Bowl the previous season. With two of the top three teams in the country barred from playing in bowls, public outcry was loud enough for a brief movement, orchestrated by none other than crooner extraordinaire Bing Crosby, to match UCLA and the Sooners in a charity game. To no one’s surprise, the NCAA wouldn’t sanction the matchup, and the public appetite, which had really just wanted to see UCLA and Ohio State in a winner-take-all-matchup, was never satisfied.

The successor to the PCC, the AAWU, would wisely drop the no-repeat rule, although it and its progency Pac-8 didn’t relent on a champs-only policy for bowls until 1975, the same year the Big Ten also finally allowed teams other than its champion to play in bowls.

Granted, there weren’t as many bowl opportunities in those days; by 1975, there were only eleven bowl games (including the old Tangerine Bowl), as the proliferation of bowls would not accelerate for several more years. But the final impediment to an expansion of the bowl slate was removed when the Big Ten and Pac-8 finally relented in their champs-only postseason policies.

(Although it preceded our publishing history by a few years, the ACC was formed in 1953 mostly as a reaction to the no-bowl policy of the old Southern Conference; Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, South Carolina, and Wake Forest would constitute the original 7-school alliance, with Virginia joining the following year.)

There was only one exception to the Big Ten’s no-repeat bowl policy in that era, and it came during the fifth season of TGS publishing in 1961. An 8-0-1 Ohio State side, ranked second behind Bear Bryant’s Alabama in the final polls, had bulldozed its way to the Big Ten crown, led by All-American FB Bob Ferguson and two other backfield mates who would go on to more-distinguished pro careers, Matt Snell and Paul Warfield. But the Buckeye faculty was among several in the nation that had been decrying the over-emphasis on football and decided to do something about it; by a vote of 28-25 in its faculty council, Ohio State declined an invitation to the Rose Bowl!

As could be expected, this news was not received well in Columbus, as irate Ohio State fans and students immediately reacted. Trouble in streets ensued; one particularly-agitated Buckeye student was none other than a senior reserve forward on the basketball team named Bob Knight, who along with some other rebellious students and fans had commandeered a streetcar in protest. The Columbus Dispatch was so incensed that it printed the name and address of each “no” voter, along with the amount of reimbursed out-of-state travel he or she had received the previous year. Not until football coach Woody Hayes, of all people, pleaded for public calm did the anger subside and quell potential student riots and other potential disturbances in Columbus.

Postseason 1961 was also the small window in time in which the Big Ten’s original contract with the Rose Bowl had expired while a new deal was being negotiated. Nonetheless, the Pasadena folk issued their invitation as usual to the Big Ten champion Buckeyes to face AAWU champ UCLA. When OSU refused, the Rose Bowl invited Big Ten runner-up Minnesota, which had played in Pasadena the previous year. But given Ohio State’s refusal and the in-between contract status with the Rose Bowl, the league did not stand in the way of the Gophers participating in back-to-back years. Redeeming itself from a 17-7 loss the previous January to Jim Owens’ Washington Huskies, Murray Warmath’s Golden Gophers, behind QB Sandy Stephens, beat a Bill Barnes-coached UCLA (using a modified version of the old single-wing), 21-3.

But of all of the storylines from the bowl no-repeat and no-participation era during our earlier days of TGS publishing, none would approach the annual debate that would surround Notre Dame, which had adhered to a strict no-bowl policy since “The Four Horsemen” participated in the 1925 Rose Bowl and beat Stanford, 27-10. The policy would generate increasing debate throughout the ‘60s after the arrival of HC Ara Parseghian in 1964 and the quick re-elevation of the Fighting Irish to national prominence.

Still, despite much pressure and heated discussion, Notre Dame continued to avoid bowl participation through the 1968 season. But the story of how that change of policy finally came about almost 44 years ago remains a fascinating tale.

We have always been humored by a quote from Notre Dame's then-AD Moose Krause, who, after the Domers accepted a bid to play Texas in the January 1, 1970 Cotton Bowl, stated that the modern convenience of air travel was one of the reasons the Irish decided to reverse course on the no-bowl policy. Which, predictably, moved several wags to comment that while Notre Dame invented the glamour of college football, it took the Irish almost 45 years to discover the airplane.

For reasons that can only be understood through the lens of hubris and hypocrisy (long staples in South Bend), Notre Dame avoided bowls for decades, according to many, to simply stand out from among the rest of the college gridiron world, and not be regarded as a dreaded "football factory" as had so many rival institutions. This from a school that received more benefit and notoriety from the gridiron than any other. Travel concerns and impingement upon the academic progress of the football players were always outwardly cited as other reasons for Notre Dame not to partake, although those excuses rang hollow as trans-continental air travel replaced trains as a preferred mode of transportation.

Financial realities, however, became too hard for the school to continue ignoring in the late '60s. That's when Parseghian, a fervent proponent of breaking the bowl ban since his hiring in 1964, was gathering enough support from the Board of Regents, which now included a number of football-minded laymen, to overturn the school's decades-long bowl ban.

For Parseghian, the benefits were obvious. More recognition for his squad and program from the expected TV ratings bonanza, not to mention more chance to recruit in specific areas of the country.

For the school, the benefits were more practical. In a word, money.

Serious discussions about repealing the school’s no-bowl policy had begun as early as June of 1969, when ND’s financial committee on scholarship aid discovered it needed help. Notre Dame already was up to the top of its stadium in fund drives totaling $52 million, and, thus, some other source of revenue would be required to aid a program for underprivileged students. The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, then president of Notre Dame and a longtime hardliner regarding the non-bowl participation, suddenly began to change his tune when noting that fund-raising could use a boost. "Let's think about it," Hesburgh finally said about bowl participation in the summer of '69, lending hope to the legions of Domers and subway alums who had long been clamoring for the Irish to accept postseason invitations.

On the field, Notre Dame fielded another strong team in 1969, led by emerging jr. QB Joe Theismann, but an early-season 28-14 loss at Mike Phipps-led Purdue, and a 14-14 midseason draw at home vs. Southern Cal, eliminated the Irish from serious national title discussion. Still, Notre Dame was a top ten team and figured to command a high-profile bowl bid if it reversed course on its postseason hiatus.

In late September, the Notre Dame athletic board talked informally in favor of a bowl bid, and in late October the alumni board unanimously endorsed the recommendation and sent a committee to Father Hesburgh with the news. About this time, of course, word was leaking around the world that the Fighting Irish might be serious this time about breaking the school's no-bowl policy.

Bowl committees, however, were understandably skeptical, having dealt with Notre Dame's bowl rumor mill in the past. These were also the days before most of the major bowls had contractually-guaranteed spots with conferences. Aside from the Rose Bowl, which pitted the Big Ten and Pac-8 champs, and the Cotton Bowl, which saved one spot for the champion of the Southwest Conference, bowl selection was a free-for-all in those days. That was also an era when negotiations between schools and the bowls would be taking place as early as midseason, if not before. With numerous Big Eight and SEC power teams, plus an unbeaten Penn State, very much free-agents in the selection process of the day, the big bowls wanted to make sure they could lock up an attractive matchup and were reluctant to save a spot for the Irish until the South Bend bunch gave a formal okay for its participation.

The Orange Bowl, which in mid-November of '69 was still not sure Notre Dame was serious, might have been able to land the Irish had developments unfolded in a different manner. Parseghian was said to have preferred the Miami locale because of the desirable trip to Florida, night-time TV audience on NBC, and extra exposure with the Eastern press corps. But Joe Paterno's Penn State was not playing the will-we-or-won't-we game as was Notre Dame; the undefeated Nittany Lions were of course into bowl fray with both feet, and had indeed made quite an impression in Miami the previous year in an exciting 15-14 win over Pepper Rodgers' Kansas Jayhawks in the Orange. The Miami connections knew they would have a hot commodity if they could land Penn State, which at that time seemed a safer bet than gambling on Notre Dame eventually breaking from its no-bowl policy in time for the New Year's night game.

It's worth remembering that by mid-November of 1969, top-ranked Ohio State, which would be ineligible for the Rose Bowl due to the Big Ten no-repeat rule of the day, was expected to make the national title debate a moot point as long as it finished the regular season unbeaten. And it was decision time for many bowls before the conclusion of the regular season. Paterno, not thinking a national title would be on the line for his fourth-ranked squad against either number two Texas or number three Arkansas (who still had a showdown planned for early December) in the Cotton, instead put a Miami or Dallas vote to his players, who overwhelmingly preferred the former. (It was said that many black members of the Penn State team had no interest whatsoever in a New Year's trip to Dallas, considered much-more hostile territory for minorities in those days, and overwhelmingly approved sunny Miami.) Paterno thus told the Orange Bowl he would accept its bid. After an unbeaten Tennessee squad fell from favored status in mid-November when losing 38-0 to Ole Miss and Archie Manning, removing the Vols from top-tier consideration, and while Notre Dame continued to ponder, the Orange instead set up a tasty matchup between Penn State and one-loss, Big 8 champ Missouri.

Then, however, the college football world was turned inside-out by Ohio State's subsequent 24-12 loss to Bo Schembechler's first Michigan squad on November 22. The co-chairman of the Cotton Bowl selection committee, Field Scovell, would now have a number one team (the winner of the Texas-Arkansas showdown in two weeks) in Dallas. Paterno, having instead enlisted with the Orange before the Michigan upset of Ohio State, would forever lament missing a chance to play for the chance at number one vs. the Longhorns or Razorbacks. Meanwhile, the Irish began to stir a bit more, warming to the idea of playing the highest-rated team possible in a bowl with a conference tie-in as opposed to one with a commercial sponsor.

Scovell, who still had a rugged, functional, and workmanlike one-loss LSU team on the string for the Cotton, was initially skeptical when receiving a call from a well-placed Notre Dame connection that the Irish were seriously interested in a bowl. But as events unfolded in late November, the fit for the Irish in the Cotton became obvious. Soon, Scovell was consumed by the thought that Notre Dame would break its self-imposed bowl ban in his Cotton, against a number one Texas or Arkansas.

"When you hear you've got a real chance to get Notre Dame for the first time in 45 years," Scovell said in an SI piece at the time, "you don't care about anything else."

Scovell and Southwest Conference executive director Wilbur Evans then embarked upon a painstaking trek to South Bend, overcoming a blizzard, missed flight connections, and eventually hovering above South Bend, unable to land for hours, before finally touching down. Unable to wait, Scovell rushed to a pay phone to call Notre Dame's Father Edmund Joyce, the school's executive vice president, who had been a proponent of the bowl.

"You have nothing to worry about," Joyce assured Scovell, and presto, the Notre Dame self-imposed bowl exile was history.

(As a byproduct of Notre Dame's belated entry into the 1969 bowl fray, that aforementioned 9-1 LSU team, only three points removed from an unbeaten regular season and ranked 8th in the polls, went without a bowl invitation!)

Of course, in typical Fighting Irish fashion, the school announced at the time that it was making a one-time exception to participate in the Cotton, but every reasonable observer knew that was so much hooey. Once getting a taste of the postseason, Notre Dame would return. The Irish, losing a last-minute 21-17 verdict to top-ranked Texas in that Cotton Bowl, would return to Dallas the next season as well and earn sweet revenge vs. another Longhorns national title-hopeful in a 24-11 Irish upset, one of Parseghian's finest hours.

Now, no one thinks twice about Notre Dame and bowls, even the most low-profile of which being attractive to the Irish these days if there are no other options for the Domers to consider.

Hard as it is for modern-day football followers to believe, however, it always wasn’t that way in South Bend!


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