1953 remains championship memory to Terps, Irish

Phil Jackman

September 15, 1993|By Phil Jackman

There are a couple of middle-aged team reunions scheduled this college football weekend and, while they might appear to be unrelated, such is hardly the case.

Down at College Park, while fans at the Terps-West Virginia version of roller-ball will be harkening back to the days of Maryland's national champions of 1953, worshippers in South Bend for the Notre Dame-Michigan State bash will be glorying in that 40th anniversary Irish juggernaut, too.

What a fabulous season it was hereabouts, the Terps rumbling past 10 opponents at a yield of just 30 points with the likes of Stan Jones, Bob Morgan, Dick Bielski, Bob Pellegrini and a returning backfield of Bernie Faloney, Chet Hanulak, Dick Nolan and Ralph Felton. They were young, too, these two-way players, only nine seniors dotting the roster.

Maryland sports publicist Joe Blair remembers it like it was yesterday. "Almost all season there was big controversy over who was best," said Blair. "There were a lot of great teams that year."

That wasn't the only controversy, who among about five teams was best. The college season started with a huge cloud over it, Life magazine coming out with a splashy article on how tough and inhuman the game was becoming on its players. Adorning the cover was a picture of Notre Dame lineman Jackie Lee, missing a couple of rows of front teeth.

The Irish opened up with a huge 28-21 victory over Oklahoma in a memorable "Here Comes Shannon" debacle, the teams coming off a 1952 season that saw them finish 3-4 in both wire service polls. Notre Dame took the lead in the polls, but Maryland hung tough while beating Missouri, Washington & Lee, Clemson, Georgia, North Carolina, Miami and South Carolina, registering four shutouts.

The teams entered the eighth week of the season with 7-0 marks and it was time for another controversy. Notre Dame, playing Iowa, found itself trailing by a touchdown near the end of both halves against the Hawkeyes. Enter tackle Frank Varrichione or, more accurately, "Faintin' Frank" Varrichione.

To stop the clock, Frank is alleged to have faked an injury (imagine) thus giving his team a chance to score, which it did twice, resulting in a 14-14 tie. Notre Dame's involvement immediately made it front-page news and some editorialists went so far as to hint that maybe the school should consider closing its doors so heinous was its football team's behavior.

As the great sportswriter Red Smith asked, "isn't it the same thing as stepping out of bounds to stop the clock?" Red, recall, was a Notre Dame grad.

The Terps moved into the top spot and finished off their unblemished regular season by whipping George Washington, Mississippi and Alabama. Notre Dame concluded its last season under coach Frank Leahy by drilling Southern Cal and Southern Methodist. But it was too late for a squad with a half-dozen All-Americans and the dream backfield of Ralph Guglielmi, Joe Heap, Neil Worden and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner.

The national champ then was voted at the end of the regular season and Maryland got the nod from both Associated Press and the then-United Press International. The Terps were scheduled into a New Year's Day Orange Bowl meeting with No. 4 Oklahoma and the Sooners prevailed, 7-0.

The difference was a 25-yard sprint to paydirt in the second period by Oklahoma captain Larry Grigg. Maryland was without its quarterback Faloney (sprained ankle) for about 95 percent of the game.

Never one to forget past exploits, Notre Dame fans were quick to point out that the Irish had beaten this very same Oklahoma team to open the season. While it had faced three teams in the top 10, the toughest foe on the Maryland slate and its only top 20 opponent was No. 11 Alabama.

But teams were rated off their regular season results and, besides, everyone knows what they say about statistics. The frustration was as thick as a London fog in South Bend as, it seemed, the Irish were getting awfully good at playing bridesmaid as their 3-2-4 rankings from 1952-1954 indicate.

Meanwhile, Maryland surrounded its 1953 title with final poll ratings of 4-13-12-3 before the Jim Tatum era (75-15-4 record) ended in 1955.

Given sports' predilection for nostalgia and old-timers and alumni games these days, it might have been interesting had they rounded up the cast of characters from those long ago squads for a contest to determine the real, on-field champion of that '53 season.

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