93-year old Former Notre Dame Coach and National Championship Player Terry Brennan shares memories in "Though The Odds Be Great Or Small"
93-year old Terry Brennan didn't think people would want to read about his life and career. What? Brennan not only was an outstanding halfback at the University of Notre Dame in the 1940's and won two national championships under legendary coach Frank Leahy, but Brennan, at the age of 25, would then replace Leahy as head coach of the Fighting Irish in 1954. During his four-year tenure he coached the 1956 Heisman Trophy winner and eventual NFL and Green Bay Packers great Paul Hornung.
After much convincing from his family, especially his son Terry Jr., Brennan agreed to do a book about his time at Notre Dame.
Brennan Sr., co-writer William Meiners, Terry Brennan Jr. and Loyola Press made it happen with Though the Odds Be Great or Small: Notre Dame's 1957 Comeback Season and the Year that Changed College Football.
Coach Brennan would compile a 32-18 record over five seasons but was let go in 1958. The move was criticized by many, considering the team only had one losing season under the Milwaukee, Wisconsin native and he was a beloved former Notre Dame player known as "Dependable Terry" for his key touchdowns.
Terry Sr. was not feeling well enough to join SportsJam with Doug Doyle to talk about the new book, so his son Terry Jr. stepped in to provide the flavor of project.
Terry Jr. was a little boy when his dad became the head coach at Notre Dame.
"I remember flashbacks as a young child. I was two when he was named head coach. I was six when he was fired. But I remember things like he wasn't around much, there was lots of recruiting and he was recruiting nationally when it was a lot harder to get around nationally than it is today. For a long time and it's mentioned in the book, I thought he was living in the front hall closet because our TV was backed up to that. You know a lot of times I probably saw him more on TV than I did at home. I remember my mom asking me to go to a Notre Dame pep rally which was a big deal. I went to this probably at the age of four or five. It was in their old gym which was a snake pit and looked like a steam room. It was not a very comfortable place, too many people in a small space. I was unimpressed (laughing) and my mother reminded me of that. I was kind of a pain that evening."
On November 16, 1957, an unranked Notre Dame football team squared off against the No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners. It was supposed to be an easy Sooners win. But despite being 19-point underdogs, the Fighting Irish, guided by their young and tenacious coach Terry Brennan, maneuvered their way to a 7–0 upset, ending the Sooners’ NCAA-record 47-game winning streak.
Terry Jr. says his dad hasn't said much about the big upset through the years.
"Not all that much, he is a forward-looking guy, not a backward-looking guy. We had to spend a lot of time pulling this information out of him in writing the book. We finally got him to tell us about the defense he used again them (Oklahoma) which was really the key to victory. It's funny watching at the time 91-year old man describing what he was doing on the sidelines when he was in his late '20s but basically the defense would come out in its 5-4 setup and he'd put his hands on his right hip or his left hip to call for a stunt on either the left or right side which gave them an eight-man front which shut down the Oklahoma running game which was unparalleled at the time and a high-scoring offense. That forced them into throwing the ball which they were not comfortable doing. Any coach knows if you can get the other team to do what you want to and take them out of their game you got an advantage. They pressed that advantage and won the game and they dominated the game when you look at the statistics."
The final score was 7-nothing. The book mentions Oklahoma's legendary coach Bud Wilkinson gave credit to Brennan for the strategy that snapped his Sooners' 47-game winning streak.
Though the Odds Be Great or Small is really a "set-the-record-straight" kind of book.
"I'd say so. That's fair description. It really started with my late mother must have pestered him for at least 50 years to write about his stay at Notre Dame. He would refer to those years as ancient history. And really what happened when my mother passed away, we discovered a treasure trove of memorabilia that she had kept going back to high school. My wife computerized it all and we were finding things like a 1956 postmortem (recollection), single-spaced, eight or nine page postmortem. We found an unfinished handwritten autobiography. So once we read those and located them, we began to pester him again and we finally got to finish the project."
Brennan Jr., who admits he hasn't been fan of Notre Dame since he was six, feels the public should know that his father was not handed a good situation when he took over for Frank Leahy. Though the Odds be Great or Small is certainly not an homage to Leahy. Doyle asked Terry Jr. if he thought Notre Dame fans may have an issue with that?
"They may. The reality is that my dad and Frank Leahy had a very respectful professional relationship as player and coach in their time. I think Coach Leahy had some bitterness after his departure from Notre Dame. I think unfortunately my dad was the target of that for a few years."
Terry Jr. explained why his father was at a disadvantage right from the start, especially with scholarships being drastically cut from when Leahy ran the show.
"Well I think Father (Theodore) Hesburgh (President of the University of Notre Dame at the time) had the right idea. He wanted to improve the academic standing at Notre Dame and he was ultimately successful in doing that. For some reason he thought deemphasizing football would aid in that reputation improvement. In reality it didn't and I think they realized that in 1964 when Ara (Parseghian) too over. They switched back to scholarships, the admissions process was a little less rigorous, the letter of intent was in place which was something my dad worked very hard for because you could sign a kid and he wouldn't show up in September and now you lost that scholarship. It's not like today where you replaced him. The academic requirements were strict. I think the other things that hurt were the inability to take transfer students and the inability to redshirt. So you're really operating under Ivy League rules with some scholarships. That would be the only difference. On the other side of the coin, there were no NCAA restrictions on scholarships. So a Michigan State shows up in South Bend with 120 guys on scholarship. Oklahoma could have a hundred guys on scholarship. Today everybody has the same number. It's an even playing field. So you were really asked to play a murderous schedule with one hand tied behind your back if not two."
The one highlight of Brennan's 2-8 1956 season was the performance of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Paul Hornung. Despite the difficult season, Hornung called Brennan a "great coach". Hornung would go on to play running back for coach Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers.
"He (dad) would say the same thing about the late Paul Hornung as well. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times. He was just an incredible guy and an incredible player and a guy my dad never had a problem with. He showed up every day, practice and every game, he is what he is said to be. He was spectacular."
Brennan would eventually take his knowledge to the broadcast booth where he was teamed with legendary announcer Lindsey Nelson. It was on December 7, 1963 that the CBS telecast of the Army-Navy football game featured the first use of instant replay on a live sporting event. CBS used a technique created by director Tony Verna to replay a touchdown run by Army QB Rollie Stichweh in the 4th quarter shortly after showing it live. The announcers on that game were Lindsey Nelson and Terry Brennan.
Brennan Jr., a long-time Mets fan, remembers watching his dad call football games with Nelson.
"We lived in Whitefish Bay, which was a suburb of Milwaukee, and he (dad) had all this sports information stuff would come continually to the house. He'd just throw it in the window seat in the living room and whatever game was coming up he'd dig through the window seat and find all the SID stuff and starts studying for the game. I went to a couple of the games and got to sit in the press box a few times. Lindsey Nelson, he was terrific, just an amazing class act."
When Terry Brennan Sr. turned 91, he received hundreds of well-wishing cards from all over the country, reminding the man who is referred to by many in the book as a "gentleman", that he is revered for what he did for Notre Dame on the playing field and on the sidelines.
"You know he was in an independent-living facility. I call it a geriatric college dorm. It had all sorts of activities, friendly people, games and things, but they were locked up during the pandemic and he was alone. And he's not a technological guy, so the phone was about it. And so writing the letters made a lot of sense. It was my brother Chris' daughter Colleen, my niece who came up with the idea and it was a good idea. For awhile they weren't going to take the letters in because nobody was touching things. It was pretty hairy, especially when you got everybody there who is probably 80-plus years old. But he very much appreciated that and you can tell that in the book."
Terry Brennan, Jr. says he's been working for the Jesuits for the last 18 years.
"I had a very good career in what I call the real world. Took a year off and got a Master's Degree in Anteebellum U.S. History from the University of Chicago and I wanted to give back. I spent 14 years as the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer of Loyola Academy which is a Jesuit high school in Chicago. It's the largest Jesuit high school in the country. And for the last four and a half years, I've been the Chief Financial Officer of Loyola Press and a board member.
You can see the entire SportsJam interview with Terry Brennan Jr. at https://fb.watch/7LxmxchbYT/.