Nov. 17, 2015
By Todd Burlage
The decades have passed, as have many of the players and parties involved, but history and lore keep the legend of Frank Leahy very much alive at both the University of Notre Dame and Boston College nearly 75 years after this hall of fame coach dominated the headlines at both schools, for very different reasons.
Bostonians called Leahy a defector. Folks around South Bend called him a savior. Whatever side you fall on, Leahy's contentious decision in 1941 to leave his coaching position at Boston College and return to his alma mater to become head coach at Notre Dame sent equal parts angst and joy within the two campuses, and sewed the seeds of bitterness between these fine Catholic institutions.
"People were riled when Leahy left," recalled Rev. Charles Donovan, Boston College Class of 1933, in a 1992 story for the Chicago Tribune. "I remember that Father [Bill] Murphy put out a press release when it happened, wishing Leahy well. As far as the press release went, it was like President Bush wishing Clinton well."
The Boston bitterness was understandable, especially with the way Leahy's departure came about. Boston College had him, Notre Dame wanted him, and ultimately got him.
Leahy had recently signed a contract renewal at Boston College but the unexpected opportunity to return to the school where he played football and graduated was too much to ignore. Leahy was so passionate about returning to Notre Dame, the coveted coach begged the Boston College administration -- and even the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts -- to void his contract.
When his persistent pleas fell on deaf ears, Boston lore says that Leahy took matters into his own hands to get out of town.
Running out of time and patience, Leahy called his own press conference where he fictionally announced to about 50 reporters that Boston College had voided his contract and he would be moving on.
"With the release, went the good wishes and benediction of Boston College." Leahy told the reporters.
The ploy worked, and with the news of Leahy's impending departure now circulating all over Boston and South Bend, the Boston College vice president contacted Leahy by telephone and made the coach's release official. "You may go wherever you want, and whenever you want. Good-bye," he succinctly said.
One Of Boston's Best
Even with his dubious departure, Leahy remains one of best coaches ever to walk the Boston College sidelines, with much of his success coming from the tutoring he received as a young assistant during six seasons as an offensive line coach at Fordham (1933-38) where he worked under "Sleepy" Jim Crowley, one of the famed Notre Dame Four Horsemen.
After a successful run at Fordham -- a stint that included the development of a Rams line that became known as the "Seven Blocks of Granite" and included an undersized overachieving guard named Vince Lombardi -- Leahy took the head coaching job at Boston College in 1939, a hire that paid immediate dividends.
Leahy spent only two seasons in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, but he is still regarded as one of the best coaches in the history of Boston College football. His two teams had a combined record of 20 wins and two losses and both earned bowl game appearances, the first two in program history.
The Eagles 1940 team went undefeated under Leahy and is still considered the best in program history after claiming a share of the national championship that season along with the University of Minnesota, Stanford University and the University of Tennessee.
Led by quarterback Charlie O'Rourke and running back Lou Montgomery (Boston College's first African-American football player), this team outscored its opponents 320-52 that season and held six teams scoreless, eventually pulling a 19-13 upset over mighty Tennessee in the 1941 Sugar Bowl at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans.
To help illustrate his coaching brilliance, Leahy stole, perfected and implemented a play from Tennessee's own playbook that helped secure the bowl win over the Volunteers and their legendary coach Robert Neyland. Leahy titled the play, "Shift Right, Tennessee Special," a rushing play that O'Rourke took 24 yards over the right side of the line for the game-winning score.
"It was a Tennessee play we couldn't stop in our practices," Leahy later recalled. "A single wing play with the tailback taking the snap, starting around right end, raising his arm as if to pass, then tucking it away, cutting it back inside the end, running parallel to the line of scrimmage."
The impromptu installation of the play took place away from curious eyes, and behind closed doors at a high school gymnasium with Leahy's players wearing sneakers and sweats.
"Every time we ran it in practice, it worked," said Leahy, who fittingly grew up in Winner, S.D. "We decided to put it in our game plan, just in case."
The play would forever become "the run that launched Leahy" because the ingenious idea and national attention the coach gained in perfecting it helped to set in motion his course to Notre Dame.
About six weeks after carrying his Eagles to the best season and only national championship in school history, Leahy was gone, back home at the school where he spent three years playing for and learning from legendary Irish coach Knute Rockne -- a man Leahy held in the highest regard and very much wanted to emulate.
Brash and confident in his approach to life and coaching, Leahy was still humbled by his new opportunity because of the big shoes he had to fill.
"It was 3:15 in the afternoon, February 15, 1941, I'll never forget the date or the time," Leahy said. "I walked into the same administration building where I had registered for classes 14 years earlier. I signed a contract to coach football at Notre Dame. I was at Notre Dame under the Golden Dome with Our Lady as protection."
One Of The Best
Considered a "traitor" when he departed Boston, Leahy was welcomed as a "messiah" in South Bend, "the second coming of Rockne" was a popular assessment of the time.
The honeymoon at Notre Dame was short-lived when Leahy's full offensive overhaul was met with much surliness and skepticism from the old Irish guard. Leahy scrapped Rockne's traditional "box formation" of the 1930s in favor of the more progressive T-formation offense.
"Rockne would be doing the same thing I'm doing," said Leahy, undeterred by his critics.
Through his private meetings and tutoring sessions with offensive guru Clark Shaughnessy -- the mastermind behind the unstoppable T-formation offenses of the era at Stanford University and with the Chicago Bears under George Halas -- Leahy changed the course of football and became arguably Notre Dame's best coach ever, perhaps even in all of college football.
After two solid seasons at Notre Dame in 1941 and 1942 when Leahy led the Irish to a 15-2-3 overall record, the Irish savior hit his stride in 1943. With future Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Angelo Bertelli running the innovative T offense, Leahy claimed his first of four National Championships at Notre Dame.
"That could have been us," was the collective reaction to the sore fans back in Boston.
Leahy's career at Notre Dame was put on hold in 1944 and 1945 when the Irish coach traded his cleats and whistle for standard issue Navy gear to help fight in World War II.
What was feared to be a setback for the program turned out to be a blessing. Leahy was able to recruit fellow soldiers to his school as future players when they came home.
And when Leahy returned to his coaching post in 1946, his Irish program picked up right where it left off, winning consecutive national titles in 1946 and 1947. Take out the two war years and add the title from Boston College in 1940, and Leahy claimed an unprecedented four championships in his first six seasons as a head coach.
After the war ended, Leahy's Irish became a dynasty and nearly every elite program in the country was adopting and duplicating his T-formation offense. From 1946 thru 1949, Notre Dame enjoyed finishes in the polls of 1,1,2,1, with a combined record of 36-0-2 in those four seasons while outscoring its opponents 1,242 to 255 during that stretch.
Through two years coaching at Boston College and his first five at Notre Dame, Leahy claimed all five of his titles. The only thing that slowed Leahy down at Notre Dame was the University's decision in 1948 to cut scholarships from 33 to 18, a numbers shortage that caught up with Leahy in 1950 when his team went 4-4-1.
Health concerns forced Leahy to retire from Notre Dame and coaching in 1954 after 13 seasons as a head coach, and he passed away in 1973 at the age of 64. But his accomplishments at both of his coaching stops need to forever be celebrated, especially on a weekend like this when the two teams Leahy coached resume their Holy War with the Frank Leahy Memorial Bowl trophy on the line.
Following are some amazing career highlights for one Francis William Leahy:
*In his two college coaching stops and 13 seasons -- two at Boston College, 11 at Notre Dame -- Leahy won nearly 90 percent of his games, compiling an overall record of 107-13-9.
*Leahy leads all coaches with four Heisman Trophy winners on his watch: Bertelli (1943), Johnny Lujack (1947), Leon Hart (1949) and Johnny Lattner (1953). He also recruited a fifth to Notre Dame, Paul Hornung, who won his Heisman in 1956, three years after Leahy retired.
*In 1970, Leahy was inducted into both the Boston College Hall of Fame and the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame. Notre Dame does not have a hall of fame but Leahy was immortalized by the University with a bronze statue outside of Gate C at the stadium.