Notre Dame, Boston College and Frank Leahy: Remember What You Are Playing For

By Tom O'Toole

It seems every time that Notre Dame (or almost any major college team) plays now, it’s for another darn trophy. But before the Irish fight the Boston College Eagles Saturday night for the Frank Leahy Memorial Trophy, I’d just like to tell the players from both sides that there’s more to this one than meets the eye.

First, it should be known that the Fighting Irish won the real Frank Leahy trophy a long time ago, and that was when they got Leahy himself. Most people figure that a devout Catholic football coach born in Winner, South Dakota, was destined to be in charge of the Irish, but this originally wasn’t the case.

Oh, Leahy did learn his coaching from Knute Rockne, some while he played for him but even more when they shared a room (due to their respective football injuries) at the Mayo Clinic. But by the time Leahy was ready to coach, Notre Dame was being coached by one of the Four Horsemen, Elmer Layden, so Leahy began his head coaching career at none other than Boston College.

After going 20-2 his first two seasons (and undefeated his second) Leahy was the toast of Boston—until Layden resigned and Notre Dame called. Figuring it was an offer from Our Lady Herself, Leahy agreed to the Irish job—without even getting out of his BC contract first.

The Jesuit school finally and bitterly let Leahy go, but many old Eagle fans hold the “Leahy grudge” against Notre Dame to this day, figuring the glory that goes with Leahy’s four National Championships, not to mention the titles Notre Dame won after Leahy, were rightfully theirs.

Perhaps there is some truth to their sentiment. After all, if Leahy had honored his contract and stayed at BC, perhaps they would have not only won those four National Championships, but would have inherited the title of the national Catholic (football) university, while Rockne’s reign would have remained Notre Dame’s one-trick pony, although with Gipp and the Four Horsemen, it still would have been one heck of a trick.

But before Boston College, the only other Catholic university that still plays major college football, feels too cheated, they should consider the rest of the story. The new president of Notre Dame, Theodore Hesburgh, realizing that Leahy was more powerful than he, rewarded the coach by cutting football scholarships. And when the already-frail Leahy developed further health problems trying to win with less, Hesburgh, instead of giving him time off (à la Urban Meyer) forced him to resign.

Of course, it could be argued that Hesburgh did him a favor; Leahy, despite being the father of eight children, became so consumed with winning at Notre Dame he never went home during the football season except on Sundays. His wife became an alcoholic, one son was later convicted of smuggling drugs and another died at the age of 44 after a life of heavy smoking and drinking.

Leahy himself died young at age 64 from congenital heart failure, and while he did make up with Hesburgh before he passed away, he never enjoyed growing old, as former Irish coaches Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz did. And NO coach after Rockne, including the last two, have been able to withstand the pressure of the ND job for more than eleven years.

So there is a Leahy lesson to be learned for both teams, although perhaps not the cute one the generic-looking trophy suggests. For Notre Dame, although you rightly think the Catholics vs. Convicts rivalry is quite intense, it is nothing compared to Catholics vs. Catholics.

And to Boston College, before you crave the responsibility of carrying the mantle of American Catholicism every weekend before millions of drunken heathen fanatics, I say be careful what you wish for.

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