The 1977 Notre Dame football team was ranked third in the country to start the season, on the strength of the veteran defense, with returning Outland Trophy winner Ross Browner at defensive end, Willie Fry on the other end and Luther Bradley at defensive back. The position coach in the secondary was the late Jim Johnson, at the beginning of a career that would see him become a renowned defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles’ best teams in the early 2000s.
Pitt was the defending national champion and the first Irish opponent. The Panthers had won in South Bend en route to their crown the previous year, but Heisman winner Tony Dorsett was gone from that team, now starring as an NFL rookie in Dallas. Notre Dame won the opener 19-9, but immediately gave it back with a surprise loss at home to Ole Miss.
Notre Dame fans were grumbling—it was head coach Dan Devin’s third year and the first two had been three-loss campaigns. That isn’t acceptable at Notre Dame today, even in an era where they’ve only once seriously competed for a national title in almost twenty years and it certainly wasn’t in 1977.
The offense was playing poorly, as quarterback Rusty Lisch had first struggled and then gotten hurt. Second-stringer Gary Forsythe got the chance against Purdue and Notre Dame fell behind 24-14. Devine decided to turn to his third-stringer—a kid named Joe Montana.
Montana had played well in some relief work in 1975, then missed all of ’76 with a shoulder injury. He immediately led the Irish back to win over the Boilermakers, then consecutive wins over Michigan State and Army. Those wins set the stage for a mid-October date with fifth-ranked USC and gave the Irish a chance to return to relevance.
The 1977 Notre Dame-USC game has a special place in Fighting Irish lore. After finishing pregame warmups and returning to the locker room for a final pep talk, the Irish saw something special waiting in their lockers—kelly-green jerseys, to replace the dark navy customarily worn. It electrified the team and when they came running out of the tunnel again, the crowd went berserk. Something as simple as a green jersey gave Notre Dame a huge emotional lift and they hammered USC 49-19.
Led by Montana and tight end Ken McAfee, who was so prolific that he managed to finish third in the Heisman balloting, Notre Dame would close the season with five straight wins to finish 10-1, but there was one challenge. Clemson got them into a double-digit hole, and Montana was able to add another early chapter to his comeback legend by leading the Irish back to a 21-17 win. Notre Dame concluded the season ranked #5 in the country and got an invitation to play #1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
A New Year’s Day run to a national title was unlikely, but theoretically possible. The teams ahead of Notre Dame—in addition to Texas, there was Oklahoma, Michigan and Alabama—were all in separate bowls, so the Irish could hope to pull off a miraculous turnaround.
In our own day, we wait for November Saturdays when the BCS picture gets shaken up, but back then it was possible to happen on New Year’s Day. Although technically this game was played on January 2, given that New Year’s had fallen on a Sunday. The good people of Texas had watched the Cowboys win the NFC Championship the previous day over the Minnesota Vikings and were now looking to UT to add a national championship to the package.
The Longhorns were led by Heisman Trophy-winning running back Earl Campbell, a powerful runner with some of the biggest thighs ever seen on a back. Campbell had a big NFL career ahead of him, but wasn’t able to get going in this game, as Texas couldn’t stop turning the ball over. While the ‘Horns scored first to take a 3-0 lead, Montana, running backs Jerome Heavens and Vagas Ferguson and McAfee, kept scoring after that. The final was 38-10 and the national championship was there for someone else to grab.
But other than Alabama, no one else wanted to grab it. Michigan was upset by four-loss Washington and quarterback Warren Moon in the Rose Bowl. Oklahoma seemed a lock to beat Arkansas, especially after the Razorbacks suspended three players for disciplinary reasons prior to the game. But Hogs coach Lou Holtz started making his mark on South Bend history in advance of his arrival there for the 1986 season. Arkansas smoked OU 31-6 and it was down to Notre Dame or Alabama for the national championship.
This would’ve been the ideal time for a plus-one format after the bowls, because the Irish and Tide had strong resumes, but ones that appealed to different voting philosophies. Alabama had played a consistently tougher schedule and their September loss to Nebraska was infinitely more defensible than Notre Dame’s defeat at Ole Miss.
But the Tide didn’t have wins like the devastations Notre Dame had hung on USC and Texas—beating two highly regarded opponents by a combined 58 points. Voters like “trophy wins” over a consistent steady haul, and having buried the consensus #1 team in a bowl game only heightened the Notre Dame appeal. They won the national championship, and just like Parseghian before him and Holtz after him, Devine had done it in his third year.