Notre Dame fans feast on all of their lore, good or bad, and part of the fun that Hanratty and Seymour are creating comes from relishing all of the old tales about all of the people who came before Coach Ara Parseghian and his Baby Bombers. There have been several box formations of them, but for Notre Dame insiders, whether they spew forth the memories in bars or restaurants, in homes or offices, the person who dominates their conversations is Frank Leahy, the man who really drew open the curtains for the Era of Ara.
Though he won four national titles in 11 seasons, Frank Leahy was everything Notre Dame loved and disliked at the same time. He was loved, of course, because he won games, but he also was frequently criticized for some of the ways that his teams won. There was the sucker shift, for instance, and the feigned injury. There were charges of dirty play and illegal recruiting. There were accusations of unethical practice sessions. But through it all Leahy outwardly remained a theatrically charming personality, a grim strategist and, best of all, a winner. He would spend many a night in a room in the campus firehall, 30 miles from his home in Michigan City, Ind., worrying about a team the oddsmakers knew he would devour by 40 points. He would attempt pep talks with tears and brooding, with sadness and hatred, and always, as one former player says, "in his high-pitched Boston College speech-course Irish."
When Leahy talked, some players, like Johnny Lujack, listened intently, as if the loss of a single syllable might result in a tragic interception. Others didn't. Terry Brennan had a tendency to nap; he knew he would play his best, and few played better. Ziggy Czarobski frequently seized the occasion to go to the bathroom. Given enough time, Czarobski might have driven Leahy nutty. Or nuttier. After one particularly disappointing Saturday—the Irish had won by only three touchdowns, or something—Leahy announced that the team was going to learn the game all over again. From the primer. "Oh, lads," he said. "We'll start from here. I hold in my hand a football. Now, who can tell me what this is?"
Czarobski said, "Hey, Coach, not so fast."
In moments of frustration and rare excitement, Leahy was known to treat his players with unwarranted scorn, although he would forgive them later on. When Jim Shrader missed an extra point in the Pittsburgh game of 1952, a point that would have tied the score, the coach lunged at him on the sideline, grabbed him by the shoulders and yelled, "Oh, Jim Shrader, you'll burn in hell for this!"
Despite his fierce competitive nature, his agonizing lectures and self-torturing worry, Leahy had a sense of humor that bubbled up on odd occasions. In a September workout before the season of 1953, his last before retirement, Leahy decided he would conclude the drills by rehearsing his injury play—a play, incidentally, that later enabled Notre Dame to tie Iowa and remain unbeaten.
"Oh, lads," he said. "Let us practice the injury play." Frank Varrichione, the tackle, knew what to do. He was the designated victim, so after the usual collision of bodies, Varrichione clutched at his leg, moaned, whimpered, hollered and flip-flopped around like a man who had truly been wounded. Out onto the field raced Leahy.
"Frank," he said. "I think we'd better make it total unconsciousness."
And all of the rest of those stories.
They lead now to Ara Parseghian, restorer of the glory that was, janitor of the debris left by the unfortunate Brennan's five years during obvious de-emphasis and Joe Kuharich's four unspectacular seasons, during which George Izo, a good passer, injured his leg while miscast as a defensive back. Although everything Ara adds up to still seems wrong for Notre Dame—a Protestant and a graduate of another school ( Miami of Ohio)—everything he is and says and does is perfect. Everything.