'77 Irish football team took back seat to no one
Former Notre Dame star running back Vagas Ferguson in the 1970s // Photo courtesy of Notre Dame (September 21, 2012)
Who would have ever guessed that a seating chart would have had an impact on the Notre Dame football team's 1977 national championship?
Cotton Bowl week in Dallas. This was only supposed to be a formality. Texas, 10-0, led by Heisman Trophy-winning running back Earl Campbell, only needed someone to occupy the other sidelines in order to make the Longhorns' impending title official.
Fifth-ranked Notre Dame (9-1), one of several one-loss teams in the country, accepted the challenge. At a banquet a couple days before the game, the Longhorns were seated up near the front of the large auditorium. The Irish were given tables near the back.
"We were treated like second-class citizens," said Ross Browner, an All-American defensive end on that team. "The Texas guys got their watches right away. There was a delay on ours."
"We were treated like a step-child," said running back Vagas Ferguson. "Our coaches played to that all week."
"Sitting in the back really bothered us," said running back Jerome Heavens. "We were all talking about it. The attitude was, 'We'll see you on game day.'"
Wherever the motivation came from, the outcome was amazing. Led by Joe Montana at quarterback, the Irish scored 21 second-quarter points and rolled to a 38-10 win over the top-ranked Longhorns and made the leap to the national title in the final polls.
That team and its achievements will be honored with its 35-year reunion at Saturday night's Notre Dame-Michigan game.
It was a magical season with a special group of players galvanized toward a single purpose under coach Dan Devine. Those Irish withstood a 20-13 loss to Mississippi in the second game of the season, then ran the table.
Jackson, Miss., on Sept. 17 was brutal.
"Whoever changed that game from a night game to a day game was a genius," said the 55-year-old Ferguson, lauding the Ole Miss strategy. "It was so hot and humid."
"It was 107 degrees on the field, and humid," said Browner, 58.
"Ole Miss was running two offensive lines and two defensive lines the whole game," Ferguson said. "We were dead after warm-ups. We were drained."
Add an ankle injury to the equation and it was miserable for Ferguson.
One loss did little to diminish the hopes and expectations for what should have been a great season. The Irish dropped from third to 11th in the polls. After beating Purdue by a touchdown the next week, they still slipped to 14th.
"A bunch of us leaders — me, Terry Eurick, Ken MacAfee, Willie Fry — we got together and came to the conclusion we weren't going to let things fall apart," Browner said. "There was a lot of soul-searching. We were going to pull the younger guys along."
That season's pivotal game happened in South Bend Oct. 22. Fifth-ranked USC came calling.
"Tuesday of that week, coach Devine, with (Irish basketball coach) Digger (Phelps), brought all the captains (Browner, Eurick, Fry and Steve Orsini) in his office," Browner recalled. "This game was special. They had green jerseys for the game. When would be the best time to give them to the team?
"We came up with handing them out after warm-ups. Keeping the secret (the rest of the week) was tough. It was eating me up inside. I knew what this would do to the team, and it worked."
The result was a 49-19 thrashing that vaulted the Irish from No. 11 to Southern Cal's spot at No. 5, positioning Notre Dame for its shot at Texas.
Heavens (21 carries, 101 yards) and Ferguson (21 carries, 100 yards, 3 TDs) were too much for the Longhorns to deal with. Montana completed 10 of 25 passes for 111 yards, but it was a potent running attack that got the job done.
"Between all of us running backs, there was never any selfishness," Ferguson said. "I was always rooting for the guy in there running the ball.
"After I got hurt against Mississippi, I missed the next four games. Everybody made me feel I was a part of the team. That's not always the case with a guy who's hurt. That's the attitude that made us special."
Heavens vividly remembers one play in the Texas game. It wasn't necessarily a big gain. It wasn't a touchdown.
"I ran a sweep to the right," Heavens recalled. "I put my helmet down, collided with a guy from Texas, and my helmet exploded. Now that was a collision. I remember seeing the paint splinter. Football is a vicious sport, but I've never seen anything like it."
Heavens said he finished the game wearing backup running back Danny Knott's helmet.
Time hasn't dulled those memories. What happened 35 years ago is still special today. It has taken this long, but Ferguson has been able to put it all into a different perspective from his playing days.
"I remember when we were playing and they would honor, say the '47 (national championship) team during our game," Ferguson said. "We'd be out on the field saying, 'Man, that's a long time ago. What are they doing out there? Get off the field, we're ready to play.'
"Now, we're on the other end of that. This is unbelievable that the school and the fans still appreciate you enough to bring you back."
"I remember we'd have a good sweat going and they'd stop everything for a ceremony," Browner said. "We're all, 'Let's get this game on.' Now, we're all honored that we were able to carry on the tradition. We feel honored by the players today out there wearing our numbers. They're keeping the tradition alive."
That's motivation enough.
Staff writer Al Lesar: firstname.lastname@example.org 574-235-6318