Dan Devine: Notre Dame’s overlooked legend

The Legend of Dan Devine!
SOUTH BEND, IN - CIRCA 1977: Joe Montana, #3 quarterback and Dan Devine, head coach of the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team talk about a play during a game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by University of Notre Dame/Collegiate Images via Getty Images)

Dan Devine was one of the greatest coaches in College Football history; he was so good that the era of Ara almost never existed as Devine almost got the Notre Dame job in 1963 instead of Ara. Devine, at the time, was the head coach at Missouri, where he was, to say the least, highly successful.

Devine started as a head coach at Arizona State University, where he compiled a 27-3-1 record, including an undefeated season in 1957.

He then moved on to Mizzou, where his success continued, including one undefeated season (1960) and four top 10 finishes in the AP Poll (1960, 1965, 1968, 1969) while rolling up a .715 winning percentage. This period was the most successful in Missouri Tigers history. Devine left Missouri to become the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. His tenure in Green Bay was not overwhelming, but he did lead the Packers to their only playoff berth of the 1970s in 1972, where the Packers fell to George Allen’s over the hill gang in 1972. Ara Parseghian retired at the end of the 1975 season, and the Irish needed a new coach. Devine’s heart was into coaching College Football, and he jumped at the chance to become the head coach of the Fighting Irish.

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Dan Devine at Notre Dame

Under normal conditions, Devine’s first two years at Notre Dame would be considered highly successful at any place that wasn’t Notre Dame at the time. Remember during this time that Notre Dame was the highest-profile job in all of Football, not just College. Add on to that with the fact that he was replacing a living legend in Ara Parseghian, and you have some high expectations set from the get-go.

Devine pieced together a pair of good seasons to start his career in South Bend (8-3 in ’75, 9-3 in ’76, including a smackdown of Penn State in the Gator Bowl). The 1977 season was supposed to be THE year for Notre Dame as they were ranked preseason number one by Sports Illustrated.

Issues with Joe Montana and the 1977 season

The Irish started the season with a win over the defending National Champion Pitt Panthers, and it looked like that preseason ranking was bang on. Then game number two came, and the Irish somehow were upset by an Ole Miss team that had nowhere near the talent of the Irish. After that game dump, Devine bumper stickers could be seen all over South Bend, and Devine was under fire. Why so much anger over one loss? It came down to the fact that the Devine stubbornly and inexplicably refused to play budding star quarterback Joe Montana (even after he’d had so much success as a redshirt freshman in ’75), which helped create a tidal wave of hatred toward Devine from within Notre Dame Nation.

The best question now, of course, would be why didn’t Devine play Montana? Devine didn’t think Montana was physically strong enough to go through the rigors of an entire season and his annoyance with Montana playing in Bookstore Basketball in the spring of ’77 after he’d missed the entire 1976 football season with a shoulder injury. There had to be some personal vendetta against Montana because he was superior to Rusty Lisch and the other quarterbacks on the roster.

Going into the 1977 season, Montana was relegated to third-string quarterback, which was nearly as absurd then as it is now. I’m sure Montana wasn’t innocent (the Bookstore Basketball incident being one example of the player blowing off what the coach wants). Still, when push comes to shove, it’s tough to find any sort of logic in Devine not declaring Montana his starter. This is the one case where the complaints by Irish fans are warranted.

Montana finally gets in, and the Irish roll.

Even after the loss to Ole, Miss Montana did not start the next game against Purdue. The Irish were losing 24-14 with 11 minutes left when Montana entered the contest. But with the season in the balance and the Irish down 24-14, Devine relented and put Montana in, and the rest, as they say, is history. Three possessions and 17 straight points later, Notre Dame was victorious, claiming a 31-24 win. Montana would be the starter the rest of the season.

The Green Jersey game

He figured that Devine needed a mental edge, as USC was coming to town, and the Trojans were the favorite to win in South Bend. The Trojans were ranked 5th in the country, and any shot at winning a National Championship for the Irish hinged on, upsetting the talented Trojans. Devine had green jerseys made up for the team but told only the captains and Irish basketball coach Digger Phelps of his plans. At the pep rally Friday night, Phelps addressed the crowd and said, “TOMORROW WE WILL BE THE GREEN MACHINE!” No one had any clue of what he was talking about. After warming up in their standard blue jerseys, the players returned to the locker room to find the green jerseys. The team erupted, and when they burst onto the field behind a huge wooden Trojan Horse that the students had constructed, the stadium went crazy. The tide of emotion carried the day as the underdog Irish destroyed Southern Cal 49-19. The Irish won out from there but entered the Cotton Bowl ranked 5th in the country, and they were playing the number one ranked Texas Longhorns led by the incredible Earl Campbell and once again, the Irish were underdogs.

The National Championship

Now to claim a National Championship, the Irish would need help from other teams, and they got it. They got the help they needed when future Notre Dame legendary coach Lou Holtz and his Arkansas Razorbacks upset the second-ranked Oklahoma Sooners 31-6. Then, Washington behind Warren Moon upset the number four ranked Michigan Wolverines. The Irish would beat the Longhorns in the Cotton bowl; they shut down Earl Campbell and dominated the game-winning 38-10.

1978-80

Devine started 1978 0-2, and the Dump Devine bumper stickers would be back out in full force again. Devine was successful during his final three years, winning the Cotton Bowl in 1979 in the famous “Chicken soup game” and would lead Notre Dame to the Sugar Bowl against Herschel Walker and the number one rated Georgia Bulldogs; the Irish came up short in that Sugar Bowl which would be Devine’s final game at Notre Dame.

The Truth about Rudy and the movie

Rudy was a popular movie in 1993 about a walk-on named Rudy Ruttegier, who Ara Parsegihan 1975 promised to play in a game during the 1976 season. Of course, Ara retired before that 1976 season. In a scene from the film “Rudy,” the seniors of the 1975 Notre Dame football team march into coach Dan Devine’s office and, one after another, lay their jerseys on his desk. The gesture is supposed to force the coach to put a hard-nosed walk-on named Rudy Ruettiger on the dress list in his last game of eligibility.

Coach Devine had this to say about that scene in the movie Rudy “Completely false,” Devine said. “There’s not an iota of truth to it. Rudy was on the original dress list, and there was never any intention to hold him out of the game. And anybody who knows me knows that if any kid came in and put his jersey on my desk, he’d never see it again.”

The sad part of all of this is how many people will have seen this movie and think dan Devine was a villain; that is not true. Devine was a hall of fame coach that won the Irish a National Championship and was the reason for the iconic “Green Jersey” game. Dan Devine should be mentioned when the legends of Notre Dame are brought up. He followed a legend, and he is a legend.

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