GLENVIEW, Ill. — The silver-haired man, strong of voice and memory despite 85 years on Earth, sat on his sofa Wednesday in this north Chicago suburb, scribbling O's and X's.
He hasn't coached football in 55 years. But he still knows the game. Still remembers the game.
He sketched the Oklahoma split-T offense, then showed how most defenses played it. Then he drew the split-T and showed how his ball team played it so many years ago.
On Nov. 16, 1957, Notre Dame beat Oklahoma 7-0, ending one of the greatest streaks in sport. The Sooners had won 47 straight, but victory was denied that afternoon at Owen Field.
OU plays Notre Dame again this Saturday in South Bend, Ind., renewing a series that has been maddening to Sooner fans of several generations. OU stands 1-9 against the Fighting Irish.
And the Sooners' lone victory, a 40-0 whitewashing of the Irish in 1956, was followed the next season by the stunning verdict that ended the streak.
Notre Dame's head coach in 1956 was 28 years old. Fitting, his record that season was an inglorious 2-8. A year later, the coach was 29. And he had his Irish ready for the Sooners.
Terry Brennan would last only one more season as the Notre Dame coach. But that victory on the Oklahoma plains more than half a century ago will last forever. And Brennan himself has lasted.
He sat on his couch Wednesday and told me how his Irish took down the streak.
Brennan will be at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. His 1957 team will be honored by the school that loves to honor its football heritage.
The '57 Irish weren't otherwise anything to get excited about in Notre Dame lore. Their record was 7-3. They finished 10th in the AP poll. That won't get you many monuments in South Bend.
But beating the Unbeatables — Sports Illustrated's issue the week of the game proclaimed “WHY OKLAHOMA IS UNBEATABLE” — will keep you remembered.
Brennan goes to most Notre Dame games. Has for about eight years, since Irish historian John Heisler invited him to sit in the press box.
That helped heal long-festered wounds. Brennan hadn't ignored his alma mater — he was a salty halfback for Frank Leahy's great teams in the late 1940s — but you'd be sore, too, if you'd been dismissed in 1958 after five seasons caused in part by administrative policies.
Brennan went 32-18 as the Notre Dame coach. That's a .640 winning percentage; which puts him below the Knute Rockne/Elmer Layden/Leahy/Ara Parseghian/Dan Devine/Lou Holtz club, but above the Gerry Faust/Bob Davie/Tyrone Willingham/Charlie Weis level.
Brennan grew up in Milwaukee, went to Notre Dame because his brother was there and became a football prodigy. Graduated in 1949 at the age of 20, having been a teammate of two Heisman Trophy winners, Leon Hart and Johnny Lujack, and was hired to coach Chicago's Mount Carmel High School. Brennan wasn't even old enough to sign his teaching contract; his father signed for him.
Brennan coached Mount Carmel four years and thrice won the Chicago city championship.
That was enough for Father Theodore Hesburgh, who in 1953 began an unparalleled 35-year run as Notre Dame's president. Hesburgh hired Brennan to coach the Notre Dame freshmen and scout for the varsity in 1953, obviously grooming him to eventually replace Leahy.
A year later, Leahy was out despite a record of 87-11-9 in 11 seasons — fired by Hesburgh, Brennan says — and Brennan got the job at age 25.
But Hesburgh, whose stated goal was to embolden Notre Dame academics, cut Brennan's scholarships to 20 per year.
“It was like being put on probation by the NCAA, only it was your own school doing that,” Brennan said. “Fifty years later, I still don't know. Somehow, it was supposed to help the academic side of the university.”
Brennan's first two teams were excellent, 9-1 and 8-2, but talent and depth were gone by 1956.
Bud Wilkinson's mighty Sooners came to South Bend on Oct. 27, riding a 34-game winning streak.
“They just had talent,” Brennan said. “Tommy McDonald, big strong line. They had it all. They were national champions.”
The Sooners rolled, and Brennan says he's responsible for the one-sided score.
“We played ‘em pretty well,” Brennan said. “You could blame me for the 40 points. I knew they had a much superior team. I tried every goofy trick you could think of. None of them worked.”
A neighbor of Brennan's had come by the locker room and was chatting after the game. The neighbor told Brennan that a blocked kick in the second quarter was the turning point in the game.
Legendary New York sports writer Red Smith overheard the conversation and later told Brennan, “Blaming that game on the blocked kick is like blaming the Johnstown Flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona, Pa.”
By 1957, Notre Dame was getting better. Hesburgh had restored the football scholarships — “I told the president, you're killing us,” Brennan said — but still, the Irish weren't great.
They won their first four games but came to Norman on a two-game losing streak, having lost to Navy and Michigan State.
The '57 Sooners remember Notre Dame being fired up for revenge. “We had embarrassed them the year before,” said OU star halfback Clendon Thomas. “Nobody wants that done to them.”
But Brennan said revenge wasn't on his team's mind. History, maybe, but not revenge.
“We were primed for every game,” he said. And he's got a point. Notre Dame played 10 games in 1957. Eight of the 10 came against teams ranked in the top 16 nationally.
So the coach who threw everything at the Sooners in 1956 threw something else at OU in 1957.
Brennan adjusted his defense, so that when the Sooners were in the traditional split-T on third-and-short, the Irish front seven all stunted, moving automatically into a gap as the ball was snapped, and the secondary rotated so that one cornerback came up on the line away from the slanting. That gave Notre Dame, in effect, an eight-man line.
And the Sooners never solved the riddle. Four times in the first half, OU was in Notre Dame territory. A punt, a loss of downs and two fumbles turned back the Sooners.
“I knew that Oklahoma had a little more talent,” Brennan said. “Not a little more. We thought, well, we have a chance. I came up with a defense, how crazy it was, but it worked. Why not? We were outgunned.”
Eight times on third-and-short, the Irish stunted into an eight-man line. Five times to the wide side, three times to the short side. Brennan remembers those numbers, 56 years later.
“It worked all day,” he said. “It worked all day.”
Brennan said Wilkinson was fairly predictable on third down. “He felt that with those big horses, they could boom, get three yards or less,” Brennan said. “Pretty good strategy. They did that for 47 games.”
The fourth quarter arrived, and Notre Dame suddenly was fortified.
The Irish knew all about the streak. “They all read the newspaper,” Brennan said. But there was no awe. “They're a good team. Give it our best, see what happens.”
Here's what happened. Notre Dame went on a 80-yard, 20-play drive that ate up most of the fourth quarter. Fullback Nick Peitrosante carried seven times for 35 yards and three first downs. Halfback Dick Lynch ran for a couple of first downs.
And quarterback Bobby Williams played superbly.
“You could have quarterback meetings forever,” Brennan said. “But the kid's gotta go out there and do it. And he did it.”
The Irish reached first-and-goal at the OU 8-yard line, then finally faced fourth-and-goal at the three. Williams called the play, a sweep for Lynch.
A field goal never entered Brennan's mind. “We wanted a touchdown,” he said.
Lynch gave them one, with an easy trot around right end, and with 3:50 left in the game, OU trailed.
And when Williams intercepted Dale Sherrod's desperation pass in the final minute, the game, and the streak, was over.
Notre Dame players carried Brennan on their shoulders to his midfield meeting with Wilkinson.
Brennan and Wilkinson were friends. Wilkinson was a young coach himself, having gotten the OU job at age 30; he still was only 41 in 1957.
Brennan and Wilkinson had been to Europe together, on a football clinic trip. But they didn't have much to say amid the Irish delirium and the Sooner disbelief.
In the press box, a Notre Dame assistant named Hank Stram — yep, Brennan had a heck of a staff — stepped onto the elevator, full of disappointed Oklahomans, and tried to suppress his glee.
An OU fan said: “You know, I'm kinda glad we lost. I'm sick and tired of seeing that split-T every Saturday.”
Stram burst out laughing at the insanity of it all.
Back on the field, the Notre Dame players “went bananas,” Brennan said. Back in South Bend, “the school, Notre Dame, went bananas.”
A big crowd welcomed the Irish at the South Bend airport. Brennan was escorted to the student center so he could address an adoring crowd. Father Hesburgh, the great champion of academics, canceled Monday classes.
“You had to pinch yourself,” Brennan said. “Is this all true? Just a great feeling. What else can you do.”
A year later, the Terry Brennan era was over. The 1958 Irish went 6-4 against a schedule that included eight ranked teams. Brennan was fired by Father Hesburgh.
Brennan joined an investment banking firm in Chicago and, except for a few years in Milwaukee, has been there ever since.
Brennan had other offers to coach. Colorado, Maryland, some schools he's long since forgotten.
“I would have made more money if stayed in coaching,” Brennan said. “But you're gone all the time. Some guy helps you get a kid (recruit), you gotta go to the Kiwanis Club.”
He focused on his family. “I didn't make a lot of money, but my kids are doing just great,” Brennan said.
He's got six children, 26 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
And 22 ballplayers who will join him Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium to commemorate a game that never will be forgotten in the gridiron kingdoms of Oklahoma and Notre Dame.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.