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.
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