Notre Dame's fall from power stems from the same roots as Army's—a dwindling in the matriculation of large, able-bodied, lightning-swift new students. But, at Notre Dame, the slackening in new talent came on the heels of two substandard recruiting years—1953, Frank Leahy's last season, and 1954, Brennan's first. The 1953 freshman crop at Notre Dame was a good one, but it was subject to unusual attrition. One bright prospect was injured in an automobile accident and never tried out for football, another transferred to a Big Ten university and a bigger percentage than is normal was left by the wayside scholastically.
1928 In one of his celebrated half-time orations, Knute Rockne first asked his team to "win one for the Gipper," and the Irish did—on a pass play from John Niemiec to Johnny (One Play) O'Brien, who came off the bench for this play and returned immediately.
Then, in Brennan's first year as head coach, he found himself with only 18 athletic scholarships to distribute to promising football material. At Notre Dame every athletic scholarship is awarded for the full four-year academic course and remains in effect regardless of whether the athlete makes the team—so long, of course, as he is not expelled for disciplinary or scholastic reasons. In the three years before Brennan took over, the Irish had awarded a hefty number of such scholarships each year; in Brennan's first year, in order to balance the scholarship budget, he was allowed to give out only a meager 18. Not only that, but since Brennan's appointment was not made until the February 1 preceding his first season as coach, he did not have his staff assembled until mid-March and thereby got a late start in his recruiting. And finally, some of his 18 scholarships had already been committed by Leahy. There are even some who have been unkind enough to say that the illness which brought on Leahy's resignation was due largely to the poor crop of football prospects.
1944 Army gave Notre Dame it's worst beating in the school's football history 59-0. The Army touchdown twins, Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard, ran and passed almost at will in what turned out to be the first of their three years as All-America backs.
Last season, those weak-player crops of 1953 and 1954 made up the juniors and seniors of Brennan's team. A total of 33 injuries at one time or another during the season depleted the Notre Dame team even more and, playing a traditionally tough schedule, the Irish were always outmanned. Brennan is not the first Notre Dame coach to suffer from a subpar recruiting year; Leahy's 1950 Notre Dame team, which won 4, lost 4 and tied 1, reflected a substandard crop of freshmen in 1947, when only 21 scholarships were awarded and four of those dropped out, leaving only 17 players on "rides."
Brennan, who owns one of the best football minds in the country, has slowly rebuilt his fences in the last two years. He orders his practices as carefully and budgets his time on the practice field as neatly as does Blaik. The other day, dressed in a gray sweat suit, he stood on the sidelines and watched the Notre Dame team work, the sharp blue eyes missing nothing.
"I screamed for help after that first year," he said. "You can't face a schedule like ours without some relief, and I got it."
Brennan has come up with two good freshman squads in the last two years. He got most of the players he wanted this year and, on this particular afternoon, the Notre Dame green shirts—freshman team—showed good size, spirit and ability in a scrimmage with the varsity. Brennan watched carefully and occasionally demonstrated to a defensive halfback the steps and the position necessary for an adequate reaction to the maneuvers of a receiver coming down. Brennan is lean and fit-looking, and the halfbacks listened with a deep respect. The road back for Notre Dame should be a shorter one than it will be for Army despite indications otherwise in last Saturday's games against Indiana and Penn State, respectively.
"Last season didn't seem to have any effect on the kids we talked to," Brennan said. "And our competition is still using the same old argument to convince boys they should go somewhere else. You know—'don't go to Notre Dame because they recruit so many players you will be lost.' "
This year's Notre Dame team still bears some of the scars of the two lean years. Only three seniors are on the starting team, a rather small percentage. The rest of the Irish starters are juniors, reaped in the first full crop Brennan was allowed to harvest. By next year, the Notre Dame team will be all Brennan's, i.e., it will reflect his player selections for the last four years; and by next year, too, Notre Dame should be at or near its usual position at the very top of the football heap.