Oct. 8, 2010
A Blue-Collar Golden Year
1970 team remains a classic in `Fighting Irish' lore
By Lou Somogyi
A champion doesn't necessarily have to finish No. 1.
If being a champion is about maximizing one's capabilities, then Notre Dame's 1970 team that finished 10-1 and No. 2 in the final polls manifested that idea.
"If you had the A and B-team players lined up on the field, most of us were B-team players that played like an A-team when we got together," summarized 1968-70 Irish linebacker Tim Kelly, who co-captained head coach Ara Parseghian's 1970 Irish with offensive guard Larry DiNardo.
Today against Pittsburgh, that university will honor them on the 40-year reunion of their teamwork in 1970.
It wasn't one of the 11 consensus national title winners, but it was a vintage Notre Dame model that remains among the classics in Irish lore, similar to the 1948, 1953, 1964, 1989 and 1993 squadrons that either finished No. 2 or were a play away from the summit.
Earlier this year, first-year Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly outlined what it meant to have the moniker "Fighting Irish."
"Go back to your roots," the new Notre Dame boss told his team. "Go back to who we are as a university, why you're here at the University of Notre Dame. You have to work for it ... I'm tired of hearing about the next NFL player coming out of Notre Dame, quite frankly. They need to understand who we are -- we're the Fighting Irish."
No Notre Dame team reflected this idea better than the one in 1970.
Few Pros ... And Joe
The 1970 Notre Dame offense still holds the single-season school record for yardage output per game with 510.5. No other offense in Irish annals finished with a smaller disparity between the run (257.8 yards per game) and the pass (252.7).
The only other Notre Dame offense ever to average at least 200 yards rushing and 200 passing was the 1977 national champs: 231.9 rushing and 208.1 passing.
However, the '77 offense had a coveted NFL prospect at virtually every position, including first-round tight end Ken MacAfee, first-round running back Vagas Ferguson, first-round offensive tackle Tim Foley, plus a plethora of other prospects such as second-round picks Dave Huffman (center) and Dave Waymer (flanker, and later corner), third-round selection Ernie Hughes (guard) ... and some third-round quarterback named Montana.
Compare that to the 1970 offense.
Not one of the starting offensive linemen -- center Dan Novakov, guards DiNardo and Gary Kos, and tackles Mike Martin and John Dampeer -- played in the NFL. Neither did Jim Humbert, who stepped in for an injured DiNardo despite having undergone two knee operations.
Not one of the top five running backs on that team was drafted by the NFL, let alone played there. The leading rusher was a walk-on, halfback Ed Gulyas (534 yards), who was switched from defensive back. Then there was halfback Dennis Allan (401 yards), fullback Bill Barz (352) and halfback Bob Minnix (219).
The running joke about 1964-74 Notre Dame backfield coach Tom Pagna was, "You can't be big, fast and strong and expect to play for Pagna."
In the Jan. 1, 1971 Cotton Bowl victory against No. 1 Texas, 24-11, the top Irish rushers in this backfield-by-committee setup were the No. 7 and No. 8 ground gainers that season, fullback John Cieszkowski (52 yards) and halfback Larry Parker (48 yards).
Starting tight end Mike Creaney was not drafted by the pros, but had a penchant for huge plays, highlighted by a 78-yard touchdown reception that broke open a tight contest against Pitt.
All-America split end Tom Gatewood was considered way too slow -- his fastest 40 time was 4.7 -- to be a game-breaker, but his 7.7 catches per game that season is still No. 1 in school history, just ahead of Golden Tate's 7.67 in 2009.
Parseghian made Gatewood into "The Swinging Gate" by exploiting his strengths.
"Ara was well ahead of his time," Gatewood noted. "Sometimes I would line up in a slot, and other times I would move inside like a tight end to draw coverage from the strong safety. I didn't have world-class speed, but I had more speed than the safety.
"Then sometimes I would be in tight before I would split out, which would confuse the defense again. Maybe the corner was faster than me, but then Ara would set me up where I could take an inside route in the seam and my size (6-2, 208 back then) would be an advantage. I would swing from one position to the other in various formations."
The other factor was senior quarterback Joe Theismann, who weighed around 150 pounds when he enrolled. He developed into the consummate field general.
In 1970, Theismann's 2,429 yards passing remained the school standard for 29 years, a Notre Dame record. That same year, his 406 yards rushing (including touchdown runs of 3- and 15-yards in the Cotton Bowl) enabled him to become the first Irish quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in his career.
"His mobility accounted for a good percentage of my catches," Gatewood said. "He was not a pure pocket passer, so when he rolled out, he put a lot of pressure on the defensive backs to either commit to him or watch me, which gave me an advantage."
The 1970 Heisman Trophy runner-up to Stanford's Jim Plunkett, Theismann was the one Irish player from that season who thrived in the NFL.
"He was by far the best athlete," linebacker Kelly said. "He could throw it, he could run it and he generated a boat-load of confidence into everyone around him. You just expected him to pull it off, no matter what."
Yet not even Theismann was necessarily a coveted pro, and spent the first years of his career in the Canadian Football League before paying his dues with the Washington Redskins as a punt returner and then leading them to the 1983 Super Bowl title.
In the 1971 NFL Draft, seven other quarterbacks were taken prior to Theismann, led by Plunkett, Archie Manning and Dan Pastorini as the top 3 overall selections. The other four were Lynn Dickey, Leo Hart, future Pro Bowl player Ken Anderson and Karl Douglas.
Far more valuable than Theismann's athletic gifts was his consistency in his attitude toward competition that wrought an arrogant temperament -- in a positive way,
"I've always had great belief in my abilities because I'm willing to out-work anybody," Theismann said. "I've never been the most talented person, the most gifted person, the biggest person, the fastest person. But if you want to match me work for work, I'll work you into the ground. You can't stay with me."
He epitomized what the 1970 calling card was of the true "Fighting Irish."
On The Defensive
Unlike the offense, the 1970 Notre Dame defense possessed star power, mainly because the Parseghian dicta was that with few exceptions -- like a Theismann -- his top athletes were situated on defense.
"If the opposition doesn't score, you don't lose," was the mantra of Parseghian and his defensive staff that included veterans Joe Yonto (line), George Kelly (linebackers) and Paul Shoults (defensive backs).
During the 9-0 start, the defense yielded 59 points, never allowing more than 14 in a contest. It shut out long-time nemeses Purdue (48-0) and Michigan State (29-0) in consecutive weeks. The Irish had lost three straight to the Boilermakers, and it had been 0-8-1 in its last nine trips to East Lansing. Mich.
Including the opener against Big Ten runner-up Northwestern, Notre Dame played 10 straight quarters against its three Big 10 foes without allowing a point -- and even one of Northwestern's touchdowns came on a punt return.
On Oct. 17, Notre Dame was on national television for the first time that season when it entered a hornet's nest at Missouri, ranked No. 18 in the country under future Irish coach Dan Devine (1975-80). After falling behind 7-3 in the third quarter, the Irish reeled off 21 straight points en route to a convincing 24-7 triumph.
But it was in back-to-back November meetings against a Georgia Tech team that finished No. 13 in the final AP poll and versus SEC champion LSU, which would finish No. 7, that "Theismann for Heisman" took a back seat and the defense flourished in 10-7 and 3-0 conquests.
The Yellow Jackets amassed only 141 yards total offense but held a 7-3 lead before Theismann directed an 80-yard fourth-quarter scoring drive, highlighted by a 46-yard fling to Gulyas off a scramble.
The following week against LSU, despite the presence of future Pro Bowl quarterbacks Theismann and Bert Jones in the lineup, one of the great defensive games in college football annals saw the Irish prevail in the closing minutes on a Scott Hempel field goal.
Notre Dame totaled only 227 yards total offense, but LSU had just 165.
Headlining the defense were three future first-round selections in end Walt Patulski -- the No. 1 overall pick in 1972 -- tackle Mike Kadish and cornerback Clarence Ellis, along with tackle Greg Marx, a second-round choice. Still, Ellis and Marx combined for four years in the pros, while Patulski had a frustrating five seasons at the next level.
What mattered is they provided a virtually impregnable fortress at Notre Dame.
But similar to the offense, the Irish defense was replete with exceptional and highly motivated college talent that wasn't necessarily NFL material:
Defensive end Bob Neidart, whose diving block of an LSU field-goal attempt helped save the day, was not drafted because of his relatively small 6-0, 220-pound frame..
None of the four starting linebackers -- Kelly, Eric Patton, Jim Wright and Rick Thomann -- played in the NFL. "We were all small compared to the top players," Kelly said.
Among the three defensive backs in the 4-4-3 alignment, safety Mike Crotty was only 5-9, 180 and not drafted, and Ralph Stepaniak also did not play in the NFL, but they were the consummate achievers at the major college level.
According to Tim Kelly, linebacker coach George Kelly (no relation) reflected the motivational skills of the staff.
"If you missed a tackle he would be like, `What are you going to hit him with next time, your wrist?' the linebacker Kelly recalled with laughter. "He could get you so damn mad and was good with that background music as a motivator. He knew how to get you fired [up], get you mad."
Fightin' Irish, indeed.
The Bitter & Sweet
After the conquest of LSU, the 9-0 Irish still had the season finale at USC remaining, but had to vote on playing either defending national champ and No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, or No. 3 Nebraska in the alluring Orange Bowl at Miami Beach.
It was no contest after an 11th-hour 21-17 loss to Texas in the 1970 Cotton Bowl, played 11 months earlier.
"I don't think Ara Parseghian was out of the shower before he told us, `We'll be back here next year, and the score is going to be different!," Patulski recalled.
Alas, just like in 1964, the USC Trojans appeared to end 9-0 Notre Dame's dream of a national title with a 38-28 victory in a monsoon.
A spectacular effort by Theismann with his school-record 526 yards passing was negated by an unfathomable 8-0 advantage by USC in turnovers. The Irish fell behind early in the third quarter when it turned the ball over at its 17 and in the end zone that quickly made the score 38-14.
"Right to the end, we had confidence Joe was going to win it for us," said Kelly.
With the defeat, Notre Dame fell from No. 4 to No. 6, and ostensibly out of the national title picture. Still, there was immense motivation to snap Texas' 30-game winning streak.
Parseghian had been planning on it for months.
"In spring ball, we put the Mirror Defense in, and we worked on it all spring," Patulski noted. "He knew we were going back to play Texas. Once the game arrived, we were so ready."
The principle of the new defense was to align three players on defense in a "mirror" formation of Texas' vaunted Wishbone offense that featured three running backs behind the quarterback.
"We had three guys in a [similar formation] set up deep right across from them, and it would rotate accordingly" Kelly explained. "The first guy would take the fullback (Steve "Woo Woo" Worster, the second the quarterback (Eddie Phillips), and the third guy hit the halfback (Jim Bertelsen). The principle was they were supposed to get hit every play by an assigned person -- and they did. Somebody put a helmet on them every time, and then you had the rest of the defense gang-tackling."
Phillips had a 63-yard run on the opening play, but otherwise the Mirror never cracked while forcing nine fumbles and recovering five. Phillips put forth a valiant effort before getting knocked out of the game, and All-Americans Worster and Bertelsen combined for 24 carries for a measly 50 yards.
"It was an extremely physical game and [Worster] looked bad after the game with bruises all over," Kelly recalled.
Theismann directed a 21-3 lead in the first half, when all the scoring was done. Without an injured Gatewood to throw to in the second half, the offense leaned on the defense, led by Ellis in his one-on-one pass coverage -- plus a 37-yard catch on offense to set up Notre Dame's final score.
Later that afternoon, No. 2 Ohio State was stunned by Stanford in the Rose Bowl, which meant if No. 3 Nebraska lost to LSU in the Orange Bowl, the Irish would be No. 1.
LSU led 12-10 in the fourth quarter ... but a late drive by the Cornhuskers resulted in a 17-12 victory.
There was some debate that evening on whether the Irish should move all the way to No. 1 with their dramatic upset in Texas' home state, but Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney joked, "Not even the Pope could vote Notre Dame No. 1."
In the final AP vote, Nebraska received 39 first-place votes and 946 point to Notre Dame's eight first-place votes and 814 points.
"We were all watching that final game and hoping like heck it would fall our way," Kelly said. "We weren't necessarily disappointed. We were happy we won -- it just would have been nicer to bring the big trophy back to South Bend, But we got through it."
Just like a champion.
At Northwestern/W 35-14
Impressive road win against 1970 Big Ten runner-up (6-1) to Ohio State.
Joe Theismann connects 12 times with Tom Gatewood for 192 yards, 3 TDs.
At Michigan State/W 29-0
First victory at East Lansing since 1949 sees Irish rush for 366 yards, 107 by Theismann.
Point total was highest ever tallied against an Army team.
At Missouri/W 24-7
Notre Dame tallies last 21 points of second half to post victory versus No. 18 Tigers.
At Navy/W 56-7
Twenty-eight point second quarter by Irish breaks 7-7 first quarter tie.
Third 600-yard total offense (606) of the season negates 14-13 Pitt lead.
Georgia Tech/W 10-7
Denny Allan scores game-winning TD with 6:28 left to defeat final top 15 team.
Scott Hempel's 24-yard field with 2:58 left defeats SEC champs in titanic slugfest.
At USC/L 28-38
Theismann's 526 yards passing can't compensate for 8-0 disparity in turnovers.
Texas (Cotton Bowl)/W 24-11
No. 1 Longhorns see its 30-game winning streak snapped by inspired Irish.