Notre Dame might be the highest-profile college football program around. Partisans of Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma or a few others might argue the point. But how many of them grabbed a national TV network three decades ago and never let go?
That’s a rhetorical question.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. I learned about college football history in the late 1950s and 1960s in part by reading about the Gipper, the Four Horsemen, Knute Rockne’s fatal airplane flight, the Golden Dome. The term “subway alumni” was coined to describe the New York City-area Catholics who flocked to Yankee Stadium to see Notre Dame play Army in the 1930s and 1940s.
Notre Dame hasn’t quite lived up that that high threshold in recent years, although they did make last year’s playoffs. But they haven’t won a national title since 1988, haven’t won a Heisman Trophy since Tim Brown in 1987.
Still, it’s a big deal when the Irish come calling. Notre Dame’s November 9th’ visit to Wallace Wade will be only the sixth time Duke has played Notre Dame and only the second time in Durham.
I have no idea why but Duke and Notre Dame never squared off during Duke’s glory days under Wallace Wade. It’s not like Wade was afraid to play national powers. At Duke he squared off against such notables as Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Army, Navy and Colgate (a big deal in the 1930s).
Just didn’t happen.
Duke and Notre Dame first played in 1958, the Irish winning 9-7.
Three years later they met in Durham, December 2, 1961, the season finale for both teams.
Notre Dame was in a lull under the uninspired leadership of Joe Kuharich. They came into Durham with a 5-4 record, their most impressive win 30-0 over a Southern Cal team that would go undefeated the following season.
Duke’s Bill Murray was having his last fling with glory, indeed Duke’s last sustained period of success for a generation. Following a 50-0 loss to UNC on national TV to end a 4-6 1959 season, Murray opened up his notoriously conservative offense and went 23-8 from 1960 through 1962, with three ACC titles.
Duke went into the 1961 finale with a 6-3 record, the losses to Georgia Tech, Clemson and Michigan. Duke was led by quarterback Walt Rappold and All-ACC linemen Art Gregory and Jean Berry.
But Notre Dame had next-level talent, including linebacker Nick Buoniconti and quarterback Daryle Lamonica, both of whom would go on to long careers in the pros.
The Irish were slight favorites in front of a crowd of 35,000 on an unseasonably warm 70-degree day.
Duke had defeated UNC 6-3 two weeks earlier and used the open date to practice long and hard for the visitors, changing slow blocking schemes.
Notre Dame drew first blood when Angelo Dabiero went 54 yards for a score five plays into the game.
Duke responded on the following drive, a 59-yard drive by the second team--unlimited substitutions were still in the future in 1961-keyed by quarterback Gil Garner, who finished the drive from a yard out.
Duke went ahead in the second period. Duke had the ball at the Notre Dame 21 when Garner tried to hit end Stan Crisson in the end zone. The pass was deflected but Duke end Zo Potts snatched it inches off the ground for the score.
Right place, right time.
It was the only touchdown of Potts’ Duke career.
Notre Dame matched the TD with a minute left in the half but failed on a two-point conversion, leaving Duke up 14-13.
The old Bill Murray would have run out the first-half clock. But 1961 Murray was made of more adventuresome stuff. Duke put the ball in the air and Rappold hit Pete Widener with a 43-yard bomb and then a 16-yard touchdown.
A two-play, 30-second scoring drive.
Billy Reynolds’ PAT was blocked, leaving Duke up 20-13 at intermission.
Duke dominated the second half. Notre Dame was bigger than Duke but slower and certainly less ready for the unexpected heat.
I talked to Rappold about that second half a few years ago.
“We ran something close to a hurry-up offense. We huddled only about three yards from the line of scrimmage. We could hear them gasping for breath between plays.”
Duke started the second half with a Reynolds field goal, then a soul-sapping 91-yard TD drive that concluded with an 11-yard Rappold to Crisson touchdown pass.
Garner set up the final score with an interception. Duke went 36 yards, Garner to Jay Wilkinson for 12 yards and the touchdown.
The final was 37-13. Duke out-gained Notre Dame 440 yards to 306, picked up 28 first downs to Notre Dame’s 15 and intercepted three passes, while not turning it over.
Rappold ended 12-of-19 passing for 173 yards.
Kuharich praised Rappold.
”He threw much sharper than any passer we’ve played against. When passes are thrown so sharply and patterns are executed so well, that’s pretty hard to stop.”
Here’s what Potts told me a few years ago.
“Murray came to every player after the game, shaking their hands and telling them they had just taken part in something special.”
The two programs were heading in opposite directions when they next met, in 1966. Ara Parseghian had revitalized the Irish, while Duke was beginning its slow decline. Notre Dame demolished Duke 64-0 on the way to a consensus national title.
That was it for the 20th century. Notre Dame beat Duke 28-7 in 2007, Duke returned the favor 38-35 in 2016, both games played in South Bend.
So, here come the Irish. As members of the ACC in darn near everything that matters except football, Duke fans have welcomed Notre Dame in basketball, baseball, soccer, lacrosse and other sports.
But not football. It remains to be seen whether the 2019 Duke team has a special win over the Irish. But it should be fun to find out.