Hawkeye Flashback: 1953 Notre Dame

People have asked me who I’ll be rooting for in the BCS National Championship game on January 7.  On one side, you have Alabama and all the SEC fans who think they’re better than everyone else.  On the other side, there’s Notre Dame, and all their fans who think they’re better than everyone else.

You’d think it would be a tough choice, but I’d much rather see the Crimson Tide come away with a victory.  For one thing, at least the SEC’s arrogance is rooted in recent success on the field.  Notre Dame has made headlines and looked down on other programs despite having done very little for the past two decades.

But ultimately, many Hawkeye fans’ disdain for Notre Dame (especially among the older crowd) is rooted in an incident that took place sixty years ago.  Although I’m usually going to profile Hawkeye victories in this segment (for obvious reasons), I’m going to make an exception and look back on the most infamous game in Hawkeye football history.

1953 Notre Dame

1953 Iowa Hawkeyes Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team game program

The Setup

Coach Forest Evashevski came to Iowa in 1952, determined to turn the Hawkeye program around.  Iowa went 2-7 that first year, but 1953 was looking much better.  The Hawks started the 1953 season with a respectable 21-7 loss to an outstanding Michigan State team, but from that point forward, Evy’s charges were very competitive.  Iowa suffered close road losses to Michigan (14-13) and Wisconsin (10-6), and the Badger loss actually dropped the Hawks to a 3-3 record.  Iowa rebounded with their first road victory of the year, however, blowing out a bad Purdue team in West Lafayette, 26-0.

Now in possession of a 4-3 record, the 1953 Hawks hosted #15 Minnesota in Iowa’s final home game of the year.  The Gophers possessed a powerful offense that had put up 85 points over their previous three games.  Minnesota was led by star quarterback Paul Giel, the defending Big Ten Player of the Year from 1952 who was having another terrific year as a senior.

Many observers expected a close, high-scoring shootout between Iowa and Minnesota.  What they got instead was total domination.  The Hawks blew out the Gophers, 27-0, in a shocking turn of events.  Giel was completely neutralized by a great game plan from the Hawkeye coaching staff (especially assistant coach Whitey Piro).  It was an impressive performance considering that Giel would repeat as the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1953 and finish a close second in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

Iowa’s stunning 27-0 victory knocked Minnesota out of the rankings and put Iowa in at #20; someone even gave the Hawkeyes a vote for #1 that week.  But a plurality of the voters gave their #1 votes to the Hawks’ last opponent of the year – Notre Dame.

The Opponent

The Fighting Irish started the 1953 season ranked #1 in the country, and they hadn’t budged from that position.  The Irish were fighting to become the first team in college football history to run the table and go wire-to-wire at #1 in the Associated Press poll.

Notre Dame opened the season with a 28-21 victory over Oklahoma.  The Sooners tied Pittsburgh the following week, 7-7, and then ripped off 47 consecutive victories…a feat that still boggles the mind.  Notre Dame fought off challenges by Pittsburgh (23-14) and Pennsylvania (28-20), but aside from that, they had racked up several comfortable victories on their way to a 7-0 record.

It’s often said that at the time of the Iowa game, Notre Dame had just been voted #1 by the largest margin in the history of the wire service polls, but I’m not sure how that claim got started.  In truth, Notre Dame was one of two major undefeated teams along with 9-0 Maryland.  Notre Dame’s lead over #2 Maryland in the Associated Press poll that week was actually fairly small, with the Irish holding a 1,404-1,344 advantage in poll points.

Johnny Lattner - Fainting IrishThe Irish were 13-point favorites, and it’s easy to see why.  They were led by senior halfback Johnny Lattner, who would go on to claim the 1953 Heisman Trophy.  Junior quarterback Ralph Guglielmi, a future College Football Hall of Famer, would finish fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1954.  In all, twenty players from that 1953 Notre Dame team would go on to play professional football.  Clearly, Notre Dame was ranked #1 in the nation for a reason.

But the 1953 Irish were about to get the challenge of a lifetime.

The First Half

From the opening whistle, Iowa took control of the game.  The Steubenville Trio – Cal Jones at guard, Frank Gilliam at end, and Eddie Vincent at halfback – all started the game and stood out against their opponents.  The Hawkeyes held a 7-0 lead late in the first half when the first controversy struck.

Notre Dame drove into Iowa territory with seconds remaining in the half.  Notre Dame had no timeouts remaining, though, so they would need to be careful.  The Irish had the ball at Iowa’s seven-yard line when Guglielmi dropped back for a pass attempt.  But he was tackled for no gain before he was able to get the pass away, so the clock continued to run.

The Irish had a plan – fake an injury to stop the clock.  Unfortunately, the man assigned to the task, lineman Frank Varrichione, didn’t get the memo.  “Normally, I’d be blocking somebody, and there would be a big pileup at the end of the play, so I’d just lay there and pretend to be injured,” Varrichione revealed to Craig Chval in an article on the official site of Notre Dame athletics.  But Varrichione initially thought that the Guglielmi sack was an incomplete pass, which would have stopped the clock anyway.  “I had made my block and I saw the ball bouncing out of bounds. I thought the official had stopped the clock,” Varrichione admitted.

Frank Varrichione - Fainting IrishWhen he got back to the huddle, he realized his error.  “We were walking back after the play and Ralph [Guglielmi] said to me, ‘Why didn’t you fake an injury?'”  The Irish huddled up, but they knew they wouldn’t have any time to get another play away.  Varrichione now knew he had made a mistake, and he needed to compensate quickly.  “We were trying to call a play and I saw the clock ticking down so I knew I had to stop the clock so I just dropped at the line of scrimmage.  Just like I dead out fainted,” Varrichione recalled.

That’s right…he walked all the way back to the middle of the field, saw the time about to expire on the half, and fell down right in the middle of the Notre Dame huddle.  Chval describes it thusly:

Irish left tackle Frank Varrichione let out a blood-curdling scream and collapsed to the turf, seemingly suffering a very sudden and mortal injury.  Under existing college football rules, the officials were obligated to stop the clock and allow Varrichione to be helped off the field.  The Irish offense took advantage of the stoppage in play to line up, and on the final play of the half, Ralph Guglielmi threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Dan Shannon, tying the score.

Evashevski was furious.  Varrichione’s antics stopped the clock with two seconds remaining.  After escorting him off the field, the Irish broke their huddle and the officials signaled for the clock to start.  Yet Notre Dame was somehow able to set down the lines, call signals, and snap the ball, all in two seconds before time expired on the half, which made Guglielmi’s touchdown toss possible.  Evy was actually more upset at the time that the clock operator didn’t start the clock on the official’s signal and that Notre Dame was able to cram their pre-snap activities into two seconds than he was over Varrichione’s fake injury.

The events of the second half would change that complaint dramatically.

The Second Half

Varrichione managed to recover from his near-fatal wounds to play the majority of the second half.  His antics didn’t faze the Hawks, who bounced back from the incident to take back control of the game. With 2:06 remaining in the game, Bob Stearnes threw a touchdown pass to Frank Gilliam to put the Hawks back on top. Notre Dame now trailed, 14-7, and Hawkeye fans could sense an upset victory over the top-ranked team in the nation.

Don Penza - Fainting IrishNotre Dame had one last chance to come back.  As Tom Kirkendall recalled, “Notre Dame had the ball, but again had no time outs and no way to stop the clock. In the final two minutes, Notre Dame moved sixty yards in eight plays, and after each play, one or more Notre Dame players faked an injury to stop the clock.”

With the benefit of these repeated injuries, the Irish were able to advance the ball down to Iowa’s nine-yard line, but the clock continued to run and dipped under ten seconds.  Since the Irish were again out of timeouts, right tackle Art Hunter was scheduled to fake Notre Dame’s next injury.  But with time running down and the game slipping away, end Don Penza couldn’t wait.  He didn’t want to risk another near-miss like what happened at the end of the first half, when Varrichione didn’t realize it was his turn.  So Penza fell to the ground to stop the clock.

What Penza didn’t realize was that Hunter had been paying attention and knew it was his time to fake an injury.  As a result, Penza and Hunter fell to the ground simultaneously, each apparently unaware of the other.  The officials stopped the clock with six seconds remaining, and both players left the field unassisted.  Guglielmi had time for one more play, and he tossed a touchdown pass to Shannon in the end zone to secure a 14-14 tie. Evy was livid at Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy.  “I thought Forest Evashevski was going to come across the field and kill Leahy,” Lattner recalled.

The Aftermath

In the years that followed, many Notre Dame defenders have tried to spin the incident by noting that faking injuries to stop the clock was a common tactic before and since.  In 2010, there were allegations of opponents faking injuries to slow Oregon’s fast-paced offense.  Back in the 1950s, several teams used the injury tactic to gain a clock stoppage, allegedly including the Hawkeyes.

But former Hawkeye radio broadcaster Bob Brooks once put Notre Dame’s 1953 performance in perspective.  “In retrospect, faking an injury was common in those days.  That’s what teams did, anything to get a timeout.  However, it was abnormal in that Frank Leahy, the Notre Dame coach, had the Irish fainting all over the place.  Players went down like they were shot.”  And this wasn’t a typical situation – Notre Dame was trying to remain #1 in the nation and win a national championship by abusing this stunt.

It didn’t help that Notre Dame’s players were open – and openly proud – of their shenanigans.  Everyone at Notre Dame admitted that the players faked the injuries and that they had rehearsed the routine in the same way that teams now practice two-minute drills.  When Johnny Lattner was asked about it, he responded, “Pretty smart thinking, wasn’t it?”  Guglielmi listed the controversy-marred game as his single greatest memory of that 1953 season, saying that the comeback illustrated “what an outstanding team we were.”

To this day, most of the Notre Dame players remember the game with laughter.  Varrichione noted that his fake injury attracted far more attention than Hunter’s.  “I guess he did a better job of faking it than I did,” Varrichione laughed.  His lousy performance made his name synonymous with the practice of faking injuries.  He recalled, “When someone got hit near the end of a half and went down, Merlin [Olsen] would say, ‘He pulled a Varrichione!'”

The immediate reaction of the football world was swift and unanimous.  The fact that Notre Dame, the supposed bastion of all that’s good and right with the game of football, was the institution that pulled this stunt woke up the echoes scolding her name.  Critics labeled the team the “Fainting Irish” and mocked their tie-at-all-costs approach.

Grantland Rice - Fainting IrishEven legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, who was largely responsible for immortalizing the Irish football program three decades earlier by dubbing their backfield “The Four Horsemen”, was appalled at Notre Dame’s tactics.  At the New York Football Writers luncheon the Monday after the game, Rice declared, “I consider it a complete violation of the spirit and ethics of the game and was sorry to see Notre Dame, of all teams, using this method.  Why, in heaven’s name, was it allowed?  If this violates neither the rules nor the coaching code, let’s throw them both out the window.  Some people are calling it smart playing.  I think it was disgraceful playing.” For their part, the NCAA did throw the rules out the window, immediately modifying them to try to prevent teams from using injuries to stop the clock at the end of each half.

The Reaction from Iowa

Vee Green, who was serving as Jim Zabel’s color commentator for the game, called out Notre Dame for their tactics immediately. However, despite the fact that the Des Moines Register had three reporters at the game (including Sec Taylor and Bert McGrane), none of them included the incident in their summary of the game; readers had to rely on the Associated Press account of the game to read about it. The Register didn’t report on the controversy until after Rice chastised the practice at the Football Writers luncheon.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette wasn’t as polite. The Gazette reprinted a poem written by Hank McCormick, the former sports editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. It questioned how Notre Dame expected to get national respect by lying on the ground.

Oh Paddy dear, and did you hear
The news that’s going ’round?
Now Notre Dame is winning games
With players on the ground!

The first to hit the ground this day
Was Frank Varrichione;
The Irish claim that he was hurt,
But others cry, “Baloney!”

He stopped the clock, of that no doubt,
And then the Irish scored;
So Notre Dame tied up the game,
And all the faithful roared,

But thirty minutes still remained
Of this grim football game,
And Iowa would take no guff
From proud old Notre Dame.

The end drew near, the Hawks now led,
And seconds fast were fleeting,
So someone had to stop the clock
To halt an Irish beating.

Few seconds showed upon the clock
When suddenly was spied
Not one bold Mick upon the turf
But two lay side-by-side.

A whistle stopped the clock again,
As Penza and Hunter lay,
Upon the ground where they’d been dumped
So frequently that day.

But kind hands raised the fallen boys,
All hope was not yet dead,
For straight the ball to Shannon flew –-
Guglielmi used his head.

And so the game wound up a tie,
But who deserves the fame
For staving off defeat that day
For proud old Notre Dame?

You have your choice of heroes here –-
Penza? Varrichione?
Or maybe you like Hunter best?
Let’s have your testimony.

Strange things have come to pass, I think,
At proud old Notre Dame,
When lying on the ground reflects
Undying football fame.

University president Virgil Hancher organized a pep rally two days later for the Hawks that outplayed the top-ranked team in the country. Evashevski was invited to speak as well, and in typical Evy fashion, he didn’t hold back. He told the fans in attendance, “Don’t celebrate a tie; celebrate a victory. I was there Saturday, and if ever a team won a game, Iowa won a victory at Notre Dame Saturday.”

Since Grantland Rice had publicly dressed down the Irish, Evy decided to parody one of Rice’s most well-known sayings.  Evy told the assembled fans,

When the Great Scorer comes
To write against our name
He won’t write whether we won or lost
But how come we got gypped by Notre Dame.

The 2,500 Iowa fans in attendance loved it, but school officials felt it was unsportsmanlike and told Evy to apologize.  He did…sort of.  He released a statement through the sports information department that read, “I surely don’t want to take any credit from [Notre Dame], for all afternoon they were able to move the ball well against us. They showed a powerful and balanced attack and the men played with terrific determination. I have no complaint. Of course, I am sorry that we did not win after we came so close to doing so.”

That was as close to an apology from Evy as anyone was bound to get.

The Significance

Notre Dame was immediately dropped to #2 in the AP rankings behind Maryland, where they remained the rest of the season. The tie denied the Irish a wire service national championship, giving the 1953 AP and Coaches Poll national championships to the Terps. In a roundabout way, the Hawkeyes were partially responsible for the greatest moment in Maryland football; Iowa forcing Notre Dame into a humiliating tie opened the door for Maryland’s only wire service national title.

Iowa, conversely, shot up to #9 in the final national polls and even claimed six first-place votes. It was the first time Iowa finished the year ranked since the Ironmen in 1939. The school was so thrilled with Iowa’s 1953 team and particularly the performance against Notre Dame in the season finale that they gave Evy a ten-year contract after the season, which was almost unheard of at that time. Evy was named Coach of the Year by the Detroit Times, and the tie gave his strengthening football program national attention.

Frank Leahy - Fainting IrishNotre Dame’s coaching situation wasn’t as stable. Amid the public firestorm, Leahy didn’t coach Notre Dame the following week against USC, reportedly for health reasons. Leahy returned to the sidelines for Notre Dame’s final game of the year against SMU before announcing his retirement from coaching.

The public stance behind Leahy’s retirement has always been that it was for health reasons. But Jim Zabel maintains that Notre Dame’s administration, particularly Father Hesburgh, was incensed by Leahy’s Fainting Irish tactics and essentially let Leahy go. Leahy himself, after first claiming that he stepped down due to his health, later acknowledged that he no longer felt welcome in South Bend.

Evy, meanwhile, never lived down the disappointment. A victory over Notre Dame on that stage was supposed to be a coming-out party for the Hawkeye program under his guidance, a near-triumph that was marred by the Fainting Irish. Near the time of his death, Evashevski confessed, “I have cried inside many times,” referring to the incident. Iowa and Notre Dame had a well-established rivalry in the 1940s through the 1960s, but it should come as no surprise that no more games were scheduled between the two schools shortly after Evy became Iowa’s athletic director in 1960.

The Fainting Irish incident of 1953 left many old-school Hawkeye fans with sour feelings toward Notre Dame that linger to this day. Many of those Hawkeye fans believe the Fainting Irish were an embarrassment that resorted to egregiously abusing a well-intentioned rule rather than accept defeat after being outplayed. On the other hand, many Irish fans consider the 1953 squad to be “a wonderful reflection on the University of Notre Dame.”

Personally, I think they’re both right. And that’s why I, and many other Hawkeye fans, will be cheer, cheering for old Alabama come January 7.

Please share this page with others!

    One thought on “Hawkeye Flashback: 1953 Notre Dame”

    1. Pingback: Happy Birthday!

    Leave a Reply