It was only last month that Moose Krause, athletic director of Notre Dame University, assured a gathering of Chicago sportswriters that "Terry Brennan was a better coach this season than he was last year, and he will be at Notre Dame for many, many years to come."
Although there were rumbles of discontent from Notre Dame alumni over the fair-to-middling 6-4 season just completed, the writers had no reason to doubt Krause's statement. The 1958 Irish, while not measuring up to the formidable standards of Rockne- and Leahy-coached teams, still played exciting football, drew near-record crowds and always stayed within striking distance of victory even in the four games they lost. More important, the team and its coach seemed to fit well into a university whose president, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, has been striving mightily to raise academic standards, gain prestige and place football in its proper status in university affairs: an important but not domineering force.
On December 11, at a football team banquet, the university's executive vice-president, the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, indicated that the administration was taking the team's four losses philosophically. Father Joyce, who is also chairman of the Faculty Board for Athletic Control, admitted that the season "was disappointing" but firmly said that "Notre Dame will continue to field teams in the proper educational atmosphere."
On the evening of December 16, 30-year-old Terry Brennan was entertaining a few friends in his modest white frame house in South Bend when the telephone rang. It was Father Joyce. The message: the faculty board had recommended Brennan's release. Stunned, Brennan agreed to keep the firing secret until the following Sunday but flatly turned down an offer to resign: "That might look as if I were quitting and running out, and that isn't the way it was at all."
On Sunday, four days before Christmas, Notre Dame announced Brennan's dismissal. It also released a letter from Father Hesburgh. "It is with great reluctance that I accept this recommendation," he wrote to Brennan. "In the five years that you have been head football coach...you have impressed all of us as the kind of young man Notre Dame aspires to produce." But what young Terry Brennan had obviously failed to produce was enough victories.
In the days before Brennan, South Bend wags will tell you, there were only three rules a coach had to obey to keep his job: 1) Win every game. 2) Win by more than the betting point spread. 3) Gain the No. 1 rating in the nation. And the wags will wink and tell you that one reason why Frank Leahy left is that a fourth rule was written in when Father Hesburgh became president in 1952. The fourth: Obey the other three if you can but do it with A students. In fairness to Father Hesburgh it must be reported that he would have liked to erase Rules 1 to 3, but even the president of Notre Dame is only partially in control of its football fortunes. As for Rule 4, under Hesburgh's administration an athlete has been obliged to maintain, not an A average, of course, but a respectable 77%.
Young Terry Brennan was aware of the Rules when he took over for the 1954 season, but he believed he could field winning teams even within the Hesburgh framework. For the first two years he did just that, won nine games and lost one in 1954, won eight and lost but two in '55. But when the class of '56 was graduated, with it went the last of the players who had come to South Bend under the old Notre Dame recruiting tradition, and the next fall the Irish had the worst football season in their history, losing eight games and winning only two. Alumni screams arose calling for Brennan's dismissal. For two months the university's administration was silent, then tersely announced: "Terry Brennan has been re-engaged for another one-year period."
In the best of all possible worlds, a university ignores alumni when it thinks they are wrong. Compounding the sensitivity of Notre Dame's position, however, is the fact that the university is engaged in a $66 million fund drive, and the fund raisers have been running into an old fact: it is easier to raise money when you have a winning football team. The man in charge of the Notre Dame drive is the Rev. John J. Cavanaugh, Father Hesburgh's predecessor as president of the university. As early as September 1957 the Detroit Times, in a story by Sports Editor Ed Hayes, identified Father Cavanaugh as one of the men most anxious to see football changes. Prophetically the Times added: "The man they'd like to install as head coach is the veteran professional coach, Joe Kuharich, a former Notre Damer now head man for the Washington Redskins."
After the 1957 season cries came again for Brennan's removal. This time the university issued not a sentence on Brennan's status, and without even a written contract Brennan began to build a promising team including 25 veterans from the '57 squad which, after all, lost only three games and won seven, including a stirring victory over Army and an upset of Oklahoma, which had been unbeaten for 47 games. In 1957 Brennan had been lucky in the vital moments but in 1958 his luck invariably failed. Injuries to his key linemen kept the defense shaky, and 23 fumbles blunted the potentially great Irish attack.
There is little doubt that Terry Brennan considers his dismissal unfair, that he is disappointed, hurt and a little angry. He is also, like any reasonable man who has done his best, puzzled by the furor and the firing. "I think that Notre Dame will always have good football teams," said Brennan slowly and thoughtfully last week, "but I think that those who hope for a return of the good old days are being very unrealistic. Our overall policy here has been to aim in a certain direction educationally, and to get a winning team, too. I don't understand how I failed in that respect. Strange, strange business."