Leahy, Francis William ("Frank")

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LEAHY, Francis William ("Frank")

(b. 22 or 27 August 1908 in O'Neill, Nebraska; d. 21 June 1973 in Lake Oswego, Oregon), successful football coach at Notre Dame who replaced a legend, Knute Rockne, and became a legend himself.

Leahy was one of eight children of Francis Leahy, a rancher and farmer, and Mary Winifred Kane. Shortly after Leahy's birth his father moved the family to Winner, South Dakota. Given Leahy's coaching success, much was later made of his hometown's name. Like many youths on the plains, Leahy began work early. At six years of age he rode a hay rake from sunup to sundown for a dollar a day. He also helped his father round up and herd horses, sometimes riding many miles into Montana. He talked his way onto the Winner High School football team as an eighth grader, once convincing an official to eject a player so he could play the final few minutes of a 108–0 loss.

Underaged and undersized, young Leahy boxed grown men in fairgrounds exhibition prizefights. He once stayed on his feet all three rounds with Ace Hudkins, who narrowly lost a middleweight championship bout during his professional career.

Leahy's father, though not formally educated, supplied the family with plenty of books. He challenged his offspring to find a word in the dictionary that he could not define. Reportedly they never could. Leahy also enhanced his considerable vocabulary by consulting the dictionary daily during much of his adult life. He is also said to have developed a stilted, Victorian way of speaking as a result of his voracious reading of popular pulp fiction in his youth.

As he progressed through high school, Leahy became a more than adequate halfback. Feeling he needed additional credits after his graduation from Winner High in 1926, he moved to Omaha, Nebraska, to live with his brother Gene Leahy, who had played football at Creighton University. Leahy enrolled at Omaha Central High School that fall and played another year of football, legally or illegally. Because of his size, now 180 pounds, he was made a tackle. He did so well it was eventually revealed that he was a "post graduate" player.

In 1927 Leahy arrived at Notre Dame as an unrecruited player. He had modest success as a college football player, and he was elected class president. During his sophomore and junior years Leahy was switched between center and tackle. He was not a starter but did play enough as a junior to earn a monogram (letter). His senior season ended before it began when he injured a knee in preseason practice. Leahy was free to move about the practice field, and he observed all coaches, especially Knute Rockne. When the 1930 season was over, Rockne needed to go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for treatment. He asked Leahy to go along to have his knee repaired. The invitation may have changed the face of college football.

Leahy and "Rock" shared a room, and they spent hour after hour discussing football. Leahy lamented to Rockne that he wanted to be a college coach but that his brief career, only one season of much action, probably precluded that. Rockne, who would be killed in a plane crash before he could coach another season, flipped a dozen letters on Leahy's hospital bed and said, "Take your pick." All were seeking assistant coaches. Leahy chose Georgetown.

That fall, 1931, the Hoyas played Michigan State, coached by the former Notre Dame star Jim Crowley. Crowley was so impressed with the play of Georgetown's line that he asked Leahy to join his staff at Michigan State. Leahy accepted. In 1934, when Crowley took the coaching job at Fordham, Leahy followed. Leahy enhanced his reputation by developing the famed "seven blocks of granite" line. Included in that storied unit was the future coaching legend Vince Lombardi.

In July 1935 Leahy married Florence V. "Floss" Reilly. They eventually had eight children. In February 1939 Leahy was offered and accepted the head coaching post at Boston College (BC). At BC, Leahy's fabled pessimism surfaced in the media. A game was scheduled in New Orleans, Louisiana, against Tulane, and Leahy bemoaned the trip, saying, "We'll be stiff and sore from all that inactivity on the long train ride, while Tulane will have been sharpening up practicing." BC won 27–7. Later, when an Idaho team traveled east to play BC, Leahy lamented: "We won't have much of a chance. Idaho will be well-rested from their leisurely train ride." BC won 60–0. Before the existence of "spin doctors," Leahy could "spin" with the best of them. After two seasons and two bowl games with BC, Leahy was called back to Notre Dame in 1941.

In his first year at his alma mater, only a 0–0 tie with Army marred a perfect season. It was the first unbeaten season since Rockne's last, 1930. Leahy shocked Fighting Irish traditionalists in 1942, when he scrapped Rockne's oftimitated box offense for the more modern and open T-formation. The Irish record of 7–2–2 only gave critics more cause to call for his job. The next season Leahy's lads went 9–1, losing the last game, 19–14, to a powerful service team, Great Lakes Naval Training State. Still the Irish were voted national champions. Leahy then enlisted and saw service in the Pacific with the U.S. Navy during World War II.

When Leahy and a group of mature players returned from service for the 1946 season, the Irish embarked on a thirty-nine-game winning streak and added three more national championships. When Purdue snapped the streak in the second game of 1950, it was a harbinger of Leahy's worst season, a record of 4–4–1. The 1951, 1952, and 1953 teams compiled 7–2–1, 7–2–1, and 9–0–1 records respectively, but Leahy was accumulating critics if not outright enemies—some right in South Bend. The coach's eternal pessimism—"We'll be lucky to get a first down this year"—in the face of great results alienated many, but nothing compared to the firestorm surrounding the 1953 14–14 tie with Iowa. Twice Notre Dame used fake injuries to gain timeouts to allow them to score as the first and second halves were about to expire. Fake injuries were part of every coach's repertoire, but because it was Notre Dame and Leahy, a furor arose.

On 31 January 1954 Leahy announced his resignation for "health reasons." True, he had collapsed and was administered the church's last rites during the 24 October 1953 Georgia Tech game, but "coaches' burnout" was only part of the story. Notre Dame and its new president Father Theodore Hesburgh were concerned about tarnishing Notre Dame's image with a win-at-all-costs approach. While Leahy was advised by his doctor to resign, evidence later showed the physician was pressured by university officials to make the recommendation. Consumed by arguably the most high-profile position in sports, Leahy stepped away from the game at age 45 with an enviable record of 107–13–9.

Leahy tried several business ventures and was even named general manager of the Los Angeles Chargers in 1960, the first year of the American Football League (AFL). But he never came close to the glory that was once Notre Dame football. Leahy spent his last years in the Portland, Oregon, area, where he died of leukemia. He is buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Portland.

Leahy, the man from Winner, wanted to win too much to suit some. But he was perhaps second only to his mentor Rockne as the keeper of the Fighting Irish football tradition of excellence. His winning percentage of .887 ranked second to Rockne's .897 among all who coached college football. Leahy was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1970. He is believed to be the first person from the field of athletics named a Knight of Malta by a Roman Catholic pope.

Leahy wrote a technical football book, Notre Dame Football (1949). Wells Twombly wrote a biography of Leahy, Shake Down the Thunder (1974). Leahy's life and career are discussed in Edwin Pope, Football's Greatest Coaches (1955); Francis Wallace, Notre Dame: From Rockne to Parseghian (1966); William Gildea and Christopher Jennison, The Fighting Irish (1976); and Jack Connor, Leahy's Lads (1994). An obituary is in the New York Times (23 June 1973).

Jim Campbell

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