Terry Brennan had one of the most unusual coaching careers in the history of college football.
His hiring at the age of 25 to take over one of the most prestigious coaching jobs in college football at Notre Dame shocked the college football world in 1954.
It was the first major decision by new president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh and showed times were changing at Notre Dame.
Brennan then pulled off another surprise, proving he was a good coach as he overcame the school’s slashing of scholarships to bounce back from a 2-8 record in 1956 and post one of the most storied victories in the school’s history – the 7-0 victory at Oklahoma that ended the Sooners’ 47 game winning streak in 1957.
And then he was fired at Christmas a year later after going 6-4, a move that was even more shocking than his hiring five years earlier, and Fr. Hesburgh never really explained why he sacked him. The move apparently even took athletic director Moose Krause by surprise.
And then he never coached again, turning down head coaching jobs at Maryland and Colorado and an offer to be an assistant to Vince Lombardi at Green Bay. It is intriguing what would have happened if he’d won those Super Bowl rings with Lombardi and what that might have led to.
But he never appeared to look back and had a good life as a TV analyst, businessman who had a law degree and family man and has mostly faded from public view.
Then his children talked him into writing a book on his career, which led to the publishing of “Though the Odds Be Great or Small” written by William Meiners.
The book not only covers Brennan’s career, but the history of Notre Dame back to such legends as Knute Rockne, George Gipp and Frank Leahy down to the present day.
What we will never know is what kind of career Brennan would have had if he’s been coached another decade or so at Notre Dame. Brennan writes that he thinks the program was an upswing because Fr. Hesburgh abandoned his scholarship restrictions and no longer made the coach wait until April when the College Entrance Board results were in to offer scholarships.
“Those changes didn’t help me much, but it did my successors,’’ he writes in the book.
As it turned out, the coach Notre Dame hired to replace Brennan, Joe Kuharich, was a disaster, but they rebounded by hiring Ara Parseghian in 1964. He was only the third coach to coach the Irish for a decade or more. The first two were Rockne and Leahy. Lou Holtz was the fourth and the current coach Brian Kelly is the fifth.
Meanwhile, the administration whiffed on some hires, notably Gerry Faust, Bob Davie and Charlie Weis.
Notre Dame will never be what it once was as a football power because Fr. Hesburgh was focused on turning it into an Ivy League type institution and he succeeded. The average SAT score of a Notre Dame student is now 1475. Fr. Hesburgh once said he wanted to be a level with Princeton and the Irish are now close because Princeton is at 1505.
But Fr. Hesburgh came to terms with football at Notre Dame, realizing it was too important for the alumni to play football on an Ivy League level.
They can recruit good enough to be competitive on a major college level but can’t bring in very many blue chip prospects and won’t be winning a national title any time soon. They’re kind of like Stanford, which is completive but hasn’t won a national title since 1940.
As Brennan wrote of Hesburgh, “Hesburgh wanted to be the “education president” and he was. I don’t think he deliberately destroyed the football program, but he certainly didn’t understand it. In my opinon he did a very clever thing I’d call “modified secularism.” He bent the school towards secularism as far as he could without removing religion entirely. It was a good move and a good sell to big corporate donors and industries who were not necessarily Catholic.”
When he took over, Notre Dame had an endowment of $9 million. It is now $13.3 billion. He doubled the enrollment and 40 buildings were put up. The ironic thing is that Brennan probably would have been the perfect coach for the kind of school Hesburgh wanted Notre Dame to be.
Meiners writes that Brennan’s legacy is his family of six children, seven grandchildren and thirty-one great grandchildren.
Brennan, now 93, has seems to come to terms with his tenure at Notre Dame and has attended Notre Dame games.
But his late wife, Kel, made sure that none of their six children went to Notre Dame.