Riding the Tennessee Special To Notre Dame
By Peter Finney
Story submitted Fall, 2008, for the Sugar Bowl’s 75th Anniversary Celebration
In later years, he would enjoy telling stories about how it all began.
“I’ll never forget standing in the dressing room after the game at Tulane Stadium,” said Frank Leahy, remembering back to the day in September of 1940 when Boston College opened the season with a 27-7 victory over the Green Wave.
“Fred Digby, a New Orleans sports editor, came running up to me and said, ‘I’ve just seen this year’s Sugar Bowl team and it’s got to be Boston College.’ I’ll never forget how difficult it was to convince our lads the season wasn’t over.”
Turned out, when the regular season was over, Leahy’s Boston College Eagles, sure enough, would be playing their final game in Tulane Stadium, this time in the Sugar Bowl against Tennessee.
It would be a battle of unbeatens oozing intersectional flavor, matching the fourth-ranked Vols, champions of the Southeast, coached by the legendary General Bob Neyland, and the fifth-ranked Eagles, champions of the East, coached by a fiery 32-year-old Irishman who had vaulted the Eagles onto the national stage.
As post-season games go, there wouldn’t be anything that compared to the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl games played on January 1, 1941 as far as the far-reaching impact they had on the future of college football.
For two reasons.
In Pasadena, the Stanford Indians, using Clark Shaughnessy’s revolutionary T-formation, defeated Nebraska to complete the most stunning turnaround, from 1-9 to 10-0, in the history of the college game.
In New Orleans, Boston College would use a Tennessee play to upset the Vols, a 24-yard run by tailback Charlie O’Rourke that became known as “the run that launched Leahy.” That run carried him to the head coaching job at his alma mater, Notre Dame, and would give the Fighting Irish the kind of dynasty that surpassed the sainted Knute Rockne.
As Leahy became the messiah figure in South Bend, and it was storytelling time, he would always go back to that Sugar Bowl, telling about the week Boston College trained at St. Stanislaus High School in Bay St. Louis, Miss., behind closed doors, shut off from the rest of the world.
He would tell the story about a play called, “shift right, Tennessee Special,” a play the first stringers, wearing sneakers and sweat clothes, ran through inside the high school gym. It was so secret, said Leahy, the Boston College trainer didn’t know about it.
“It was a Tennessee play we couldn’t stop in our practices, a single wing play with the tailback taking the snap, starting around right end, raising his arm as if to pass, then tucking it away, cutting back inside the end, running parallel to the line of scrimmage. Every time we ran it in practice, it worked. We decided to put it in our game plan, just in case.”
A touchdown underdog, the Eagles were behind 7-0 at halftime and being roundly out-played until they blocked a kick in the third quarter to tie the game and, after the teams matched touchdowns, it was still deadlocked at 13-all going into the final six minutes.
That’s when the 140-pound O’Rourke took over, moving the Eagles with a series of passes that put the Vols defense back on its heels.
With two minutes remaining and the Eagles on the Tennessee 24, it was time for the “Tennessee Special.”
And there went O’Rourke, right, then left, cutting back against the grain to score as he ran through a bunch of orange jerseys to score and pull off the 19-13 upset.
“It might have been the toughest loss ever suffered by General Neyland,” said Tennessee’s Ray Graves. “We had a punt blocked for a touchdown and we gave up the winning touchdown on a Tennessee play.”
Six weeks later, Frank Leahy, the “boy genius.” was back home.
“It was 3:15 in the afternoon, February 15, 1941,” Leahy would recall. “I’ll never forget the date or the time. I walked into the same administration building where I had registered for classes 14 years earlier. I signed a contract to coach football at Notre Dame. I was at Notre Dame under the Golden Dome with Our Lady for protection.”
The coach who had left Boston College as “a traitor” was welcomed to South Bend as a messiah, “the second coming of Rockne.”
Still, it was not all seashells and balloons for the Irishman. When Leahy let it be known he wanted to junk the Notre Dame “box formation” that Rockne had used to win mythical championships in the thirties, it was looked upon by Irish faithful as a mortal sin, a sacrilege.
But Leahy was undeterred. He knew a good thing when he saw it. “Rockne would be doing the same thing I’m doing,” Leahy told his critics. He would meet privately with Clark Shaughnessy, who had left Stanford for the University of Maryland to learn the intricacies of the T formation. It was Shaughnessy who was responsible for all the success George Halas enjoyed as coach of the Chicago Bears – while Stanford began its Rose Bowl preparations, Shaughnessy traveled to Chicago to put in the game plan for the Bears’ championship game against the Washington Redskins. Thanks to Shaughnessy’s revolutionary formation, the Bears’ 73-0 victory over the Redskins changed football forever, a fact Frank Leahy immediately realized.
As coach of the high profile Fighting Irish, it was Leahy, with quarterback Angelo Bertelli running the T and winning the Heisman Trophy, taking the Irish to a national championship in 1943 and helping establish the T as the formation of the future in football, college and pro.
After World War II ended, it was Leahy’s Fighting Irish dynasty, and the T, that dominated college football with 1,1,2,1 finishes in the polls, from 1946-49, that helped carve the T formation in stone.
So, as you look back, that was some journey Frank Leahy traveled during the forties, all the way from the Sugar Bowl and the Tennessee Special to Notre Dame and the T.
Peter Finney has been covering sports in New Orleans since 1945.