Bob Holliday

Notre Dame stole one in 1975

Posted October 6, 2008
Updated October 7, 2008

I can still hear the late Dan Devine’s words that October day in 1975 as he addressed the media following Notre Dame’s stunning comeback at UNC.

“With all due respect to the fine young men I coached at Missouri and Green Bay,” he said, “this was my greatest win.”

Understand, it took Devine about 25 seconds to convey those few phrases. During one of Devine’s many pauses a reporter began to ask a question. But Devine kept speaking. “Do you mind if I complete my train of thought? I don’t often have a train of thought.”

Although I’ve read other accounts that reinforce the notion that Devine was not one of Notre Dame’s great orators, he had good reason to be tongue-tied during his trip to Chapel Hill. North Carolina pushed Notre Dame all over the field for more than three quarters. Tar Heel tailback Mike Voight and the North Carolina offensive line dominated the game. Dominated.

Notre Dame began the 1975 season a bit slowly as Devine took over from the legendary Ara Parseghian. The Irish opened with wins against Boston College, Purdue, and Northwestern, but lost to Michigan State the week before the meeting with North Carolina.

It was a talented Notre Dame team that came to Chapel Hill, with Ross Browner, Luther Bradley, and Bob Golic on defense. Greenville’s Al Hunter, Jerome Heavens, and All-America tight end Ken McAfee led the offense. The Irish scout squad that season featured a player named Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger. Rudy did not make the trip to Chapel Hill, but 1975 is now remembered in South Bend as the “Year of Rudy.”

The script for the popular 1993 movie took several detours from reality. The screen version of Notre Dame football made a guy named Roland Steele captain. In reality, there never was a Roland Steele at Notre Dame. The 1975 captains were Ed Bauer and Jim Stock. And Devine was nothing like the cinematic version of the coach, played by Chelcie Ross. Remember his famous line? “Nobody comes into our house and pushes us around.”

That wasn’t like Coach Dan Devine. Sports Illustrated once wrote Devine’s idea of a pre-game speech was to say, “Men, put your helmets on.” Devine, incidentally was quite upset about being portrayed as the heavy in “Rudy.” And the famous scene, where all the players gave up their jerseys so Rudy could play, was great theater but never actually happened.

But the popularity of the movie has given kind of a cult status to the men who actually played for Notre Dame in 1975. And much of what that team accomplished began at Kenan Stadium.

Through three quarters, North Carolina seemed to have the game won, with Voight rushing for some 200 yards. The scoreboard read 14-0, but sitting in the press box, you felt like the game wasn’t that close. And the Tar Heels were a three-touchdown underdog. Then-coach Bill Dooley believed games were won with ball control and defense. When Carolina took a two-touchdown lead into the fourth quarter, Tar Heel play selection turned from conservative to ultra-conservative. And Notre Dame began to battle back.

It was still 14-6 with about six minutes to go when Devine replaced struggling Rick Slager with a guy by the name of Joe Montana. Suddenly the Irish came to life. Montana quickly moved Notre Dame to the North Carolina 30.

Then, with just over four minutes to go, Montana passed 38 yards to Dan Kelleher. Moments later, Hunter, from Rose High School in Greenville, took it in from the two yard line. Montana then hit tight end Doug Buth for a game tying two-point conversion.

And Notre Dame got the ball back with just over a minute to go, taking over on its own 20. Montana, of course, was still under center. No one outside Western Pennsylvania had ever heard of Montana at this point. That was about to change.

Montana threw a simple safe sideline pass to a guy named Ted Burgmeier. UNC cornerback Russ Conley lunged at the spiraling football but missed. Burgmeier took off down the sideline. What should have been a simple eight or 10-yard completion was about to grow into legend.

Only one player had a chance at Burgmeier. Bobby Trott, who would later become a defensive coordinator at both Duke and Clemson, caught up with Burgmeier somewhere around midfield. Burgmeier hesitated just a moment and Trott reacted to the fake. Now his only option was to dive at the receiver’s feet and knock him out of bounds. Burgmeier never touched the white line on his way to an 80-yard touchdown. In the span of five minutes, North Carolina’s big upset had after all become a grand illusion.

The next week Montana again came off the bench to rally the Irish past Air Force. Notre Dame’s athletic director at the time, Moose Krause, called the team’s comebacks against Carolina and Air Force the most exciting games he’d ever seen.

Montana broke a finger later in the year, and believe it or not, found himself buried on the depth chart until midway through the 1976 season. The 1975 Fighting Irish finished 8-3, losing late in the year to Southern Cal and Pittsburgh. Notre Dame beat Georgia Tech in its final home game, 24-3, as Rudy Ruettiger finally got to play. Montana would later say Rudy’s getting into the game was like winning the national championship, adding “Everybody was so excited.”

The excitement for Notre Dame started October 11, in Chapel Hill.

Tar Heel fortunes plummeted after this bitter loss to the Irish. Carolina lost five straight games, finishing what once seemed like a promising season with a record of 3-7-1. Not until 1976 would winning football return to Chapel Hill.

One final indignity awaited disappointed Carolina fans that fateful Saturday in ’75. Restaurants were absolutely slammed. The thousands of extra fans that follow the Irish on the road were now creating long lines at many of the Triangle’s top dining spots. And while the Tar Heel faithful waited, they fretted about what should have been.

October 11, 2008, exactly 33 years to the day of Notre Dame’s “great heist,” the Irish return to Kenan Stadium. Carolina has beaten Notre Dame just once in 17 tries - the Tar Heels’ worst record against any single opponent. The record should read 2-15 or at least 1-15-1. But the Montana-led comeback has altered the record book forever.

This Saturday could mark the last chance for North Carolina to beat Notre Dame in Chapel Hill. If there is any poetic justice in college football, that will happen.

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