1971: ND Players Decline Invitation to Gator Bowl
Twenty-five years ago, in November of 1971, the Notre Dame football team did what would be unimaginable today.
Despite an 8-1 record and No. 8 national ranking, the Fighting Irish players voted to decline an invitation to the Gator Bowl to compete against the University of Georgia.
Too much money is involved today for such an act.
In 1994, when Notre Dame was 6-4-1, unranked and deemed unworthy of a major bowl, there was little hesitation by the University to accept a $3 million payoff to play 10-1 and No. 4-ranked Colorado.
It was a mismatch, and some Irish players later admitted their hearts weren't in the game won by the Buffaloes, 41-24.
However, it was no longer the democratic process it was in 1971.
From the 1925 Rose Bowl against Stanford to the 1970 Cotton Bowl versus No. 1 Texas, the University had a policy of not participating in bowls. Back then, bowls were more of an afterthought.
Notre Dame won four national titles in the 1940s without playing in a bowl. The Irish were declared 1947 national champions even though unbeaten and No. 2-ranked Michigan walloped USC in the Rose Bowl, 49-0. National champions were decided before bowls.
In 1953, Maryland was declared the national champion over No. 2-ranked Notre Dame prior to the bowl games. The Terrapins then lost in the Orange Bowl to Oklahoma - a team Notre Dame defeated in Norman. But it didn't matter. Maryland remained No. 1.
In 1966, 9-0-1 Notre Dame was declared the national champion over
11-0 Alabama. It didn't matter that the Irish didn't go to a bowl and the Ken Stabler-led Crimson Tide crushed Nebraska, 34-7, in the Sugar Bowl.
However, by 1969, the University's administration changed the policy for a number of reasons. One, the academic calendar had been changed at Notre Dame, making preparations for a bowl more accommodating. Two, hundreds of thousands of dollars revenue generated from a bowl game would benefit the school. Three, bowls were becoming more visible as a chance to stake a claim to a national title.
Certain parameters were set by the administration on the bowl policy.
The goal was one of the three major bowls - Orange, Cotton or Sugar.
Preferably, the Irish would either compete for the national title in the bowl, or enhance their standing by playing a higher-ranked foe.
Money from the bowl would be used to fund minority scholarships.
The squad would have the right to vote on whether it wanted to play in the bowl game.
"When we finally decided to go in 1969, we were all novices," recalled then head coach Ara Parseghian this past November.
In nearly 20 years as a college head coach, Parseghian had never been to a bowl either.
"All precedents were set in 1969," Parseghian said. "How many players are we going to take? Will the administration and athletic department go too? What about the wives? I remember being on the phone with other schools on how to do this."
Notre Dame's first two bowls since 1925 were the 1970 and 1971 Cotton Bowls against No. 1-ranked Texas.
The Longhorns clinched the national title with a 21-17 victory in the first meeting. In the second, Notre Dame ended Texas' 30-game winning streak, 24-11, to finish No. 2.
Sports Illustrated made the Irish the pre-season No. 1 in 1971 despite the loss of record-setting quarterback Joe Theismann. The defense, led by All-Americans Walt Patulski at tackle and Clarence Ellis in the defensive backfield, was outstanding. But the offense had no fire-power other than receiver Tom Gatewood. Notre Dame won games by scores of 8-7 (Purdue), 14-2 (Michigan State), 17-0 (Miami) 16-0 (North Carolina), 21-0 (Navy) and 21-7 (Tulane).
The Irish didn't play a single ranked opponent during their 8-1 run, and lost 28-14 at home to a 2-4 USC squad.
After the victory over Tulane, it was time to vote. Coaches were requested to leave the meeting room, and the ballots would not be signed. Parseghian sensed all was not right. Rebellion was present on college campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the bowl novelty had subsided among the returning Irish players.
There also was some racial tension on the team, and a published story cited how the University didn't turn as much of the bowl receipts over to minority scholarships as intended. For others, the bowl would be a dramatic letdown from the two previous years when they were playing against No. 1.
Parseghian was disappointed when the team declined the invitation, and so were some players who wanted to go. A second vote was taken later, but the damage already had been done. The first rejection influenced a second one.
"The times, the circumstances...That period of time on college campuses, there was some unrest, a general malaise, and you could feel it on the team," Parseghian said.
"It was kind of a shock to me at the time. Looking back at it now, and what the parameters set by the University were...it was the first time we weren't going to play in a major bowl, and we weren't necessarily going to improve our standings."
Neither Parseghian nor the University wanted any veto power that year.
"My attitude was, 'If you don't want to go to a bowl game, then I don't want to coach you,' " Parseghian said. "If you don't want to go in the first place, what are your chances of winning?"
"The decision in those days was in their hands. Even if the margin had been 51 percent in favor, I don't think I would have wanted to take them because you still have, basically, a split team.
"Since then, I can tell you that there have been regrets expressed by some of the players who didn't vote to go to the bowl game."
Several days after the vote, the Irish closed the season with a 28-8 loss at No. 14 LSU, led by quarterback Bert Jones. The loss left Notre Dame 8-2 and No. 13 in the final AP poll - its first finish out of the top 10 in Parseghian's eight seasons.
Four years later, Dan Devine's first Irish team, after a 34-20 loss to Pitt, rejected an invitation from the Cotton Bowl.
How times have changed.
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AUTHOR: Lou Somogyi