The coaches were sitting around the Notre Dame dressing room, hashing over the spring game just completed and taking their time about showering because the coaches' shower stall was not built for a crowd, when a visiting journalist spoke up on the subject of preseason rankings. He said it was his view, from what he knew and had just seen—a 39-0 operation on the Oldtimers done by the incumbent varsity—that there was every reason to select Notre Dame as the No. 1 team in the country. John Ray, who coaches the Irish defense, leaped up as if the stool on which he had been sitting to untie his shoes were an F-86 ejection seat. "No!" he shouted. "Hell no, don't do that! Don't make us No. 1. Make Alabama No. I. Bear Bryant's all the time talking about being No. 1. Make him No. 1." Head Coach Ara Parseghian smiled and shook his head. "Nobody wants to be No. 1 in May," he said. "Only in December."
There are 115 teams playing major-college football in America, and 77 have never won anything that could be called a national championship. Of those exalted few who have, Notre Dame stands apart as the champion of the champions: 12 times voted a No. 1 award by the time the polls closed. Well, it is a long, long time from May to December but—bless him, Father, and give strength to that Armenian Presbyterian, Parseghian—there is no way to avoid a September vote for the Fighting Irish as No. 1.
Whether the Irish win for the Gipper or the Alumni Club or the Golden Dome or the fun of it, what they win with is bigger and better football players, and, from the mounting evidence, better coaching. Football is more of a coach's game than most, and therefore there is wry truth in the line that Notre Dame's team captain, Bob Bleier, has so deftly twisted: "One of our assets this year is that our entire coaching staff returns."
It is not certain yet that Parseghian is Knute Rockne's equal as a high-speed orator, because all of his speeches at Notre Dame pep rallies are drowned out by cheering, but his won-lost record is remarkably similar to that of the last famous Notre Dame coach, Frank Leahy. Leahy also won a national championship his third season at Notre Dame, and his first three teams won 24, lost 3, tied 3. Parseghian's teams have won 25, lost 3, tied 2.
This is the year Parseghian could leave Leahy further behind, for he has put together what looks like the best football team Notre Dame ever had, one of great size—the defensive front four averages 260 pounds—ability, speed and finesse. Parseghian recently was asked to nominate those among his senior players who he felt were good enough to play in the East-West game in December. Without a qualm he named eight, and this list did not include the pitch-and-catch battery of Quarterback Terry Hanratty and Split End Jim Seymour—they are merely juniors and therefore ineligible for all-star games.
The state of Indiana is so excited about this team that you would think having a winner around was a new experience. Ticket prices have been raised to $6.50 for home games, all of which are sellouts. Three chartered jet airliners have already been reserved for the season's last game at Miami. There are No. 1 signs everywhere; barbershops, drugstores, hotel lobbies, even license plates. Parseghian's license was a gift from the governor. It reads: 71 (for St. Joseph's county) P (for Parseghian) 1 (for you know what).
The marvel is that Notre Dame could have such a potential in view of what it lost from last year's team. The Irish graduated nine players who were taken in the first three rounds of the NFL-AFL player draft. So how could they still be so good? Easy. The squad includes five players who made All-America teams, a large force of competent backup men, some of whom would have been regulars last season were it not for injuries, and impressive new sophomores, such as a 6'5", 280-pound defensive tackle named Mike McCoy.
But experience counts little in football if it is not in the right places (that is why "lettermen returning" is often a misleading statistic), and Notre Dame has the experience at what the coaches call "the skilled positions." Take the matter of throwing and receiving. Hanratty (see cover), who can throw a 50-yard pass without letting it rise more than 10 feet off the ground, had a 78-for-147 passing record last year, good for 1,247 yards gained and eight touchdowns. He is backed up by the little diabetic with the midshipman's manners, Coley O'Brien, who was so able filling in against Michigan State when Hanratty was hurt and who then was responsible for the dismembering of USC, 51-0. Doing the receiving are Split End Seymour, who caught 48 passes for 862 yards even though he missed two and a half games because of an ankle injury, Tight End George Kunz and Halfback Bleier. In addition, there is Seymour's impressive substitute, Paul Snow.
The Irish running attack may not be as good as last season because Bleier does not have the elusive qualities of Nick Eddy, but he is probably more consistent and certainly more durable. Nor is there a fullback around who combines both the running and blocking abilities of Larry Conjar, though Ron Dushney will try. In the line, only two offensive starters return. Tackle Bob Kuechenberg and Guard Dick Swatland, and it is tougher to teach offense to linemen than defense, but once again there is ample talent just waiting to learn. The offensive line will be good.
The defense will be better than good. John Ray calls his defense a tight-six; rivals call it a split-six or wide-tackle-six. It revolves around the use of four linebackers, instead of the usual three or two, to cope with changing formations. It was so effective last season that the first string allowed only 17 points to be scored against it, 10 by Michigan State. Notre Dame has more of that well-placed experience on defense, for Ray has back six of the seven men in his secondary, Linebackers Mike McGill, John Pergine and Dave Martin and Deep Backs Tom Schoen, Jim Smithberger and Tom O'Leary. And on the line, playing one or more positions, sometimes simultaneously, is 6'6", 280-pound All-America Kevin Hardy, a remarkable athlete who is probably the best college defensive lineman in the country.