SI Vault
Paul Zimmerman
November 24, 1997
After World War II, Notre Dame fielded the greatest college football team in history, but which unbeaten lrish juggernaut was it: the '46 or the '47 squad?
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November 24, 1997

The Golden Boys

After World War II, Notre Dame fielded the greatest college football team in history, but which unbeaten lrish juggernaut was it: the '46 or the '47 squad?

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Where he made Little All-America. Then the squad of the 1948 NFL Western Division champion Chicago Cardinals. Then the Pittsburgh Steelers. If you count Hanlon, it's 44 Domers from '46 and '47 in the pros, but we won't count him.

How about Luke Higgins? He'd been a monogram-winning tackle on Leahy's 1942 team, ranked No. 6 nationally. "A shot put champion, one of the strongest guys in the school," Jack Connor says. The NFL's Cleveland Rams drafted Higgins in '45 while he was serving in the infantry in Italy, but when he returned home with a Purple Heart, he chose to stay at Notre Dame. Before going off to war, however, he had made an unforgivable mistake: One day he had told Leahy he was" tired. In '46 Higgins found himself on the B team. On the afternoon that Notre Dame beat Purdue, he had a career day in the B team's rout of Great Lakes Naval Training Station, which had walloped the Irish varsity the year before. In '47 Higgins was wearing the uniform of the Baltimore Colts. Yes, we'll count him.

In his book Jack Connor wrote about being selected to run in the infamous Murderers' Row drill, at which Iannuccillo had excelled, on his first day of practice in '46. Connor faced 14 guards. "Eleven had lettered on previous teams," he wrote, "and six of them had each earned two monograms." Three—John Mastrangelo, Bill Fischer and Marty Wendell—would go on to make All-America.

"I was one of the few players who hadn't been in the service," says Leon Hart, who arrived at Notre Dame as a 17-year-old freshman in '46 and would become one of the school's greatest stars ever. "I was one of 21 ends, 11 of them monogram winners."

One of Leahy's favorite routines was to have his assistants take on the linemen in drills. "It was brutal but very effective," says Fischer. "Player blocks coach. Techniques can be corrected immediately. Much better than hitting a sled. It kept the assistants in shape, too. Now Moose Krause, the tackle coach, was the kind of guy who didn't want to embarrass you in front of Leahy, so when I went against him, he kind of retreated, inch by inch, and Leahy said, 'Oh, Bill Fischer, that's the way we want you to block.' He always used that formal form of address, first and last names. When Leahy left, Moose said, 'One more trip,' and he slammed me with an elbow to the throat and walked me back to the green fence and said, 'Don't you ever forget who's boss here.' "

Fischer was one of six members of the '46 and '47 squads who would make All-NFL. Nine players on the '47 Irish team were All-America at some point in their careers; two of them, Lujack and Hart, won the Heisman; two more, Fischer and George Connor, earned the Outland Trophy. Seven would be chosen for the College Football Hall of Fame. Who were the superstars? Hart, of course, a 6'4", 252-pound end who made All-Pro with the Detroit Lions on offense and defense, just as Connor did for the Chicago Bears. And Lujack, the Bears' All-Pro quarterback who was equally gifted at defensive back. In his first NFL game, in 1948, Lujack picked off three passes, tying a Bears single-game record that still stands. He finished his rookie season with eight interceptions, equaling a club record that would stand until 1963.

"When I was at Notre Dame, everyone went both ways," Lujack says. "I loved defense. My first game as a Bear, we were playing the Packers, and the guy I was covering kept yelling at me, 'You All-American s.o.b., you're gonna have a long day today!' I was shocked. No one had ever said anything to me on the field before. So I picked off three, and next time we played them, they didn't throw to him."

George Connor, a member of the NFL Hall of Fame, was the finest interior lineman in Notre Dame history, a demon blocker with enough speed to make All-Pro as a linebacker. His brother tells the story about the week before the Purdue game in 1947, when George was worrying about an ankle he'd sprained in a scrimmage and Leahy had him test it against half a line—guard, tackle, center—all by himself as the backfield ran plays at him.

"They ran off-tackle plays, traps, up-the-middle plays, quick openers," Jack Connor wrote in his book. "They did this for a half hour, and the offensive team never gained more than a yard or two. At the end of the drill, George was convinced that his ankle was fine.... Years later Frank Leahy told his nephew, 'Jack, in all my years of playing and coaching football, it was the greatest exhibition of defensive tackle play I have ever seen.' "

The other big stars were Marty Wendell, a short, blocky guard and linebacker with a devastating initial pop, and Jim Martin, an end with an interior lineman's body. (In '49, his senior year, Martin switched to tackle and made All-America at the new position. He followed that with a 14-year NFL career as a linebacker.) And, of course, there was Leahy.

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