"Notre Dame had given him a job raking leaves in front of the athletic office," O'Connor said. "Every day on the way to his office Leahy would have to pass by Chick, raking leaves in his Army fatigues, getting fatter and fatter. Leahy would just shake his head, and Chick would keep raking and whistling."
The players fought for positions, playing time, a monogram, a smile from the coach. "There have been great college teams through the years," says Leon Hart, an All-America end at Notre Dame and the last lineman to win the Heisman Trophy, in 1949. "But for a sheer collection of talent, nothing could match our teams of '46 and '47."
Which team was better? Hard to say. Both were national champs, both were unbeaten, although the '46 team was held to a scoreless tie by the Doc Blanchard-Glenn Davis Army outfit. The statistics of the '46 Irish were eye-popping: No. 1 nationally in total offense and defense, first in rushing offense, fifth in rushing defense, third in pass defense, only 24 points (four touchdowns, no extra points) allowed during the nine-game season. The stats of the '47 squad were slightly less impressive, as the Irish finished second to the Michigan single-wing machine in total offense but ranked in the top 10 in seven categories, including, for the first time, passing offense. Notre Dame gave up eight touchdowns and 52 points for the season.
Most veterans of both teams give a slight nod to the '47 squad. "We were better, we'd played two years together," says Bill (Moose) Fischer, the All-America guard and winner of the '48 Out-land Trophy as the nation's best lineman.
"Our sequence of plays was slightly smoother in '47," fullback John Panelli says, "probably because we'd gone away from Leahy's two-unit system of '46. But that system kept you fresher."
Leahy's biggest problem was sorting out all the talent that came back from the war, so in '46 he played his first unit, on both offense and defense, in the first and third quarters, the second group in the second and fourth. "It was a tremendous advantage to play on that second unit," says George Ratterman, who split quarterback duty with All-America Johnny Lujack in '46. "The first unit would beat hell out of them. We'd come in against guys who were worn out. Look it up. We scored twice as much as the firsts did."
Sure enough, the Irish had six touchdowns in the first quarter, 14 in the second, six in the third and 14 in the fourth. If Ratterman had come back in '47, Leahy might have used the two-unit system again, but Ratterman was a gifted four-sport athlete and had had his fill of playing behind Lujack. At age 20 he signed a contract with the Buffalo Bills of the All-America Football Conference, a deal worth $11,000, including a $2,200 bonus if he finished among the league's top five in passing. He collected the bonus in a breeze, making second team all-league. In South Bend he would have been second team Notre Dame.
"Just look at the guys from those teams who never did much at Notre Dame but played pro football," Ratterman says. "I'd say the pros are pretty good judges of talent, wouldn't you? There's no question in my mind that Notre Dame would have beaten any team in professional football except the Cleveland Browns."
Forty-three Notre Dame players from either '46 or '47 (or both) played in the NFL or the rival AAFC. Yes, there were two leagues, but the total number of teams was only 18, or 60% of today's total. And squads were about 30% smaller.
The Notre Dame count is not easy to establish. What do you do about Bob Hanlon, for instance? In 1943 he was a monogram-winning fullback and linebacker on Leahy's first national championship team. He came back from the war in '46 and was moved to guard. "A tough nut," says Jack Connor, a reserve guard who is the brother of Notre Dame All-America tackle George Connor and the author of Leahy's Lads, the definitive book on that era in Irish football. "In early fall practice Bob broke George's hand in a scrimmage and suffered a deep thigh bruise. He could barely walk. Leahy told him to run it off. He said the hell with it and transferred to Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa."