Almost everyone on the team could do a passable Leahy imitation—his habit of calling each player by his full name, his formal, almost prissy way of speaking. His practices were no joke, though: mean, grueling affairs, heavy on full scrimmages, born out of Leahy's years as a 185-pound tackle under Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, from 1928 to '30, and reflecting Leahy's boyhood in Winner, S.Dak., as the son of a freight handler who taught his four boys boxing and wrestling almost as soon as they could walk.
"What I remember is that we fought every day—fought to win a job and then to hold it," says Martin, who went to Notre Dame after serving as a Marine in the Pacific, where he was decorated for swimming ashore and doing reconnaissance work before the invasion of Tinian. "I was a mature 22-year-old freshman. I remember when I was visiting Notre Dame before I enrolled. George Tobin, a guard, was showing me around and said, 'How about a movie?' I said, 'How about a bar?' You had guys like me, and then you had the older service vets, and practice was tough on them. They'd had enough of war, of guys beating the hell out of each other, but that's what practice was every day, a war."
Notre Dame corralled many of the best high school recruits, of course. But World War II scrambled the process, as many blue-chip recruits joined the service. And Leahy, a Navy officer in the Pacific with the assignment of organizing and supervising athletic and recreational activities for submarine crews returning from the Far East, did some serious recruiting among servicemen.
"I was stationed at Pearl Harbor," says George Connor, who had been All-America at Holy Cross in '43, "and one day a command car pulled up and a guy said, 'Ensign Connor, Commander Leahy would like to see you at the Royal Hawaiian.' He talked me into coming to Notre Dame. He said we'd win the national championship, and I'd make All-America. It all came true."
The '46 season was Leahy's first one back, after two years in the service. The Irish had been nationally ranked in '44 and '45, but two lopsided losses to Army, and another to Great Lakes in '45, had marred those seasons. The word got out early that a mighty collection of talent was gathering at Notre Dame in 1946. Phil Colella, the second-leading Irish ballcarrier in '45 and a Navy vet who had been on two ships sunk by Japanese torpedoes, came out to preseason practice, took one look at the backs Leahy had stockpiled and transferred to St. Bonaventure.
"Our paper strength still has to transform into playing strength; we could lose three or four games," said Leahy, whose legendary pessimism was part con, part paranoia. Notre Dame's first opponent was Illinois, which had opened its season with a 33-7 win over Pitt, a game that Leahy had scouted. "It's an awful assignment," he said, "the toughest any Notre Dame team has ever tackled in its first game. Their line is the biggest I've ever seen in college. Their backfield is two-and three-deep, and with Buddy Young, it has tremendous speed."
Notre Dame won 26-6. Young, who would become one of pro football's most scintillating runners, gained 40 yards. Until the last 30 seconds of the game, Illinois had been in Irish territory only once.
Pitt, coming off a 33-7 win over West Virginia, was the next to fall to Notre Dame. The Panthers threw up a 5-4-2 defense, forcing the Irish to pass. Lujack and Ratterman obliged with 211 yards in the air, and Notre Dame added 257 on the ground in the 33-0 rout. Pitt made three first downs, 42 total yards. Leahy was furious at what he saw in the films, or at least that's what he told the South Bend Tribune's beat writer, Jim Costin. It was a technique Vince Lombardi would later use at Green Bay: Rip 'em when they're riding high, leave 'em alone when they're down. Leahy blasted player after player by name until Costin finally asked him, "Didn't anyone play well?"
"Bob McBride," Leahy said. McBride was a third-string guard.
The following Saturday the Irish beat Purdue 49-6. In practice the next week Leahy was annoyed with his punt return unit. He hollered to Bill Earley, the B team coach, "Send me a punt returner!" and along came Coy McGee. He ran one back all the way against the varsity. Then he did it again. "My goodness," Leahy said. "Who is that lad?"