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Top Five Notre Dame Coaches Ever

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Charlie Weis has taken a lot of heat during his five-year stint as the head coach of the University of Notre Dame. A pressure filled position in its very nature, the burden is especially heavy when the coach doesn't win — just ask Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham.

While Weis has led the Irish to two BCS games in his first two seasons, a 3-9 record in '07 and a 6-6 record (after a 4-1 start) in '08 have put Weis in a crucial position to either win immediately or cease to exist in South Bend. At this point it is unclear whether Charlie is satisfying that requirement, having lost to a highly inferior Wolverines squad and yet having showed strong improvement in the subsequent victories since. Weis' ultimate fate will likely not be decided until the final game is played in this 2009 season which undoubtedly better be a BCS Bowl Game if he wants to continue in his current position.

But this week is an off week for the team and therefore the Charlie Weis job watch will also take a break. Instead, we'll look back at better times for Fighting Irish football, examining the five greatest coaches in Notre Dame history. The list is one of prestige but my choices (or at least the order) will surely raise some debate. But that is the point, as this is not a scientific poll by any means. These are simply my choices, and my rankings, so I hope you enjoy this little slice of retrospect into the storied history of Notre Dame football.

Number 5: Chelcie Ross… I mean Dan Devine

Now more famous for being vilified in Rudy than anything he did as a head coach, Devine was a highly under-appreciated and yet very successful coach in his six-year run in South Bend, compiling a 53-16-1 mark (.764) and attaining a national championship in 1977 with junior quarterback Joe Montana leading the squad. He took his teams to four bowl games in those six years and Devine had many other memorable moments under the watchful eyes of the Touchdown Jesus.

In one of his most memorable games in Notre Dame history — the famous comeback win against USC in 1977 — the Irish emerged from the locker room after halftime clad in their green jerseys, accentuating the drama and mystique of the Notre Dame lore in a crucial win in that national championship season. And although it took Gerry Faust to make Irish fans truly appreciate Devine's contributions to the team, college football as a whole recognized his greatness in 1985, electing him to the College Football Hall of Fame.

Number 4: Lou Holtz

As the span of time between the last Irish national championships in 1988 and the present grows greater, Notre Dame fans pine for Coach Holtz all that much more. The last truly great Irish coach, in his 11 seasons at the helm of Notre Dame Mr. Holtz compiled a 100-32-2 record and was responsible for almost immediately reviving a program in taters from the incompetence of Gerry Faust.

He led his teams to nine major bowl games in those 11 years and should have won a second national championship with his 11-1 squad in 1993. While his Irish beat the top ranked Florida State Seminoles, a season finale upset to Boston College on a last-second field goal caused voters to ignore the head to head advantage and give Florida State the championship.

His first and last seasons with Irish were the only time Holtz didn't take the team to a bowl game and he had one undefeated season and three seasons in which his teams lost only one game during his time in South Bend.

Number 3 (also in Rudy): Ara Parseghian

Ara Parseghian — like Holtz — took over an Irish squad that was coming out of a highly unsuccessful period in the school's history. And also like Holtz, Ara worked quickly to get his team back to elite status. While Parseghian only took the Irish to five bowl games (compared to Holtz's nine) this number is misleading as until 1969 (Ara's sixth season) the Notre Dame administration did not allow the team to travel to bowl games. After the rule was repealed Ara's teams only missed a bowl game once, in the 8-2 season of 1971. His all time record of 95-17-4 (.836) is testament enough to his greatness. Include his two national championships (1966 and 1973) and two one-loss seasons including his first season there in 1964 (following a 2-7 season for the Irish under Hugh Devore the season previous) and it is easy to understand the reverence for Parseghian still present today.

Number 2 (in Notre Dame and perhaps college football history): Frank Leahy

His .864 winning percentage (87-11-9) is bested only by Knute Rockne. His innovative "T-formation" offense changed the game of football forever. A former tackle on Rockne's teams of the late 20s, Leahy was an ambassador of the grand Notre Dame tradition in the finest sense, capturing four national championships, an incredible six undefeated seasons (four with a tie), and went on a ridiculous 39-game unbeaten streak in the late 40s (that included two ties).

In addition, he coached four Heisman Trophy Winners and took part in one of the greatest games in college football history, the 1946 0-0 tie against a then-powerhouse Army squad; a battle that gave the Irish a national championship. A solid argument could be made that Leahy is the greatest coach in college football history (especially when considering the "era" factor), but on this list Coach Leahy comes in at Number 2, not surprisingly because of:

Number 1: Knute Rockne

Let's put the statistics aside for a second. Rockne is a figure of culturally historic proportions. A figurehead of the Roaring Twenties on a level with Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh, Knute played a major role in shaping the national entity that college football is today. Barnstorming his squad around the country, including to the West Coast to play teams like Southern California, Knute was a marketing genius, transforming college football into a sport with nationwide appeal and recognition and Notre Dame into its most recognizable brand.

Without Knute, the sport's growth would have been greatly stunted — struggling to break free from its largely midwestern confines — and the small Catholic school in the small Indiana town of South Bend would never have become home of the most storied football team in the history of the game.

On the sidelines, Rockne was peerless in his success. In his 13 years as head coach of his alma mater Rockne posted an all-time best 105-12-5 record (that's winning 88.1% of his games, folks) and collected six national championships and five undefeated seasons with teams that included George Gipp, the Four Horsemen, and Frank Leahy.

The only entity that was able to beat Knute Rockne was fate. On March 31, 1931 Rockne was killed in a plane crash, an incident President Herbet Hoover called "a national loss."

In his death Rockne's fame has superseded even that of his life. Regularly regarded as the greatest coach in college football history and even having his persona, or references to it, in a variety of different forms of media including the timeless sports classic feature-film Knute Rockne: All American, with Ronald Reagan starring as George Gipp. Rockne was incredibly important to the evolution of Notre Dame football and college football as a whole. That, combined with his historically successful execution on the field, put Rockne easily atop any list of great college football coaches, obviously including this one of those from Notre Dame.

Will Charlie Weis ever crack this list? Likely not. But he is a very good recruiter, has put together a talented group of players (on offense at least), and a national championship or two would go along way towards Weis at least scratching his name on the wall of Irish history with the aforementioned names rather than being relegated with the Gerry Fausts and Bob Davies of history to the bin of willfully forgotten castoffs.

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About Anthony Tobis

  • I agree with your review. They are great coaches.

  • Tony

    Thanks Elmer. They have a great history, even if the present isn’t so great. Would love to see Lou, or maybe his son, on the sidelines at ND.