Terry Brennan was one of Leahy’s Lads, the elusive runners, strong-armed passers and muscular linemen who propelled Notre Dame to four national football championships under coach Frank Leahy in the 1940s.
Brennan played halfback on two of those teams, and he starred in the annual rivalry with Army. But he was remembered most for succeeding Leahy at age 25, a move that startled the college football world.
Notre Dame announced Wednesday that Brennan, who was living in Wilmette, Illinois, has died at 93. It did not provide details.
Brennan took over a football program that had transformed Notre Dame from a small, largely unknown Roman Catholic institution in South Bend, Indiana, to a storied name in popular culture. But his coaching résumé was limited to three high school championship teams in Chicago and one year as Leahy’s freshman coach.
When Leahy retired and Brennan replaced him in February 1954, sports columnist Red Smith saw turbulence looming.
“He’s only 25,” Smith wrote. “By the time he’s 30, he’ll be a good deal more than five years older. Coaching Notre Dame is the most coveted job in football, and probably the most nerve-racking.”
At the age of 30, Brennan was fired.
He had coached four winning teams in five seasons. His 1957 team pulled off one of college football’s greatest upsets, a 7-0 road victory over Oklahoma, snapping its record-setting 47-game winning streak. But he had been faced with a reduction in athletic scholarships ordered by Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, who was determined to have Notre Dame viewed as a renowned academic institution and only secondly as a football powerhouse. Hesburgh had, in fact, taught Brennan at Notre Dame and had admired his intellect.
Brennan was probably doomed by his failure to win a national championship, something that Notre Dame’s alumni had come to expect virtually every year. And Leahy, in retirement, feuded with him, questioning the team’s fighting spirit.
Brennan’s firing, four days before Christmas in 1958, was widely condemned in the football world.
“Notre Dame won’t look very good in the eyes of the country,” said Louisiana State’s Paul Dietzel, the 1958 college coach of the year.
The Indiana Catholic and Record, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, said that the real losers in Brennan’s firing were “the priests and laymen at Notre Dame who were trying, successfully, we believe, to remake the public image of Notre Dame from football factory to first-class university.”
Terence Patrick Brennan was born on June 11, 1928, in Milwaukee. He was a high school football star, then made the Notre Dame lineup as a freshman in 1945, when most of the regulars were serving in World War II.
In the postwar years, Notre Dame, led by quarterback Johnny Lujack, vied with Army for college football supremacy. Brennan, playing on both offense and defense, made a key play in their 1946 game at Yankee Stadium, a matchup of unbeaten squads, intercepting a halfback option pass by Army’s Glenn Davis on the Irish 8-yard line late in the first period. The teams played to a 0-0 tie, but Notre Dame was voted national champion.
In the 1947 Army game Brennan ran the opening kickoff back 97 yards for a touchdown and scored again on a 3-yard run in the first period, sending Notre Dame to a 27-7 victory and another national title.
He led the Irish in receiving and scoring in 1946 and ’47 and he rushed for 1,269 career yards, but knee problems kept him from a pro football career.
Brennan coached Mount Carmel High School of Chicago to three consecutive Catholic league championships while obtaining a law degree from DePaul University in Chicago, then became Leahy’s freshman coach in 1953. Leahy developed health problems that season, leading to his retirement.
Brennan had trouble getting into Notre Dame’s stadium for his first home game as head coach, against Texas, when he encountered roadblocks funneling traffic. “The police wouldn’t let me down Notre Dame Avenue, nor would they believe I was the head coach,” he once recalled. “I guess I looked too young.”
Notre Dame went 9-1 and 8-2 in Brennan’s first two seasons as coach with players recruited by Leahy. But with the talent drying up in the face of scholarship restrictions and enhanced admission requirements for athletes, the Irish could no longer dominate. Notre Dame plunged to 2-8 in 1956, though quarterback Paul Hornung won the Heisman Trophy.
On the eve of the 1956 season finale, at Southern California, Leahy said: “It’s not the losses that upset me. It’s the attitude. What has happened to the old Notre Dame spirit?”
Brennan’s teams went 7-3 and 6-4 in the following two seasons, but with Notre Dame’s glory days clearly at an end, he was asked to resign. He was fired after refusing to do so, telling Sports Illustrated soon afterward that he didn’t want to be seen as “quitting and running out.”
He was replaced by Joe Kuharich, a Notre Dame guard of the 1930s who had been coaching the Washington Redskins. Kuharich never had a winning team in four seasons at Notre Dame.
Brennan became an investment banker in Chicago. He never coached football again.
Brennan in survived by four sons, Terry, Chris, Joe and Matt; two daughters, Denise Dwyer and Jane Lipton; 25 grandchildren and 32 great-grandchildren. His wife, Mary Louise, died in 2001.
Looking back at his firing, Brennan felt that criticism from Leahy had turned Notre Dame alumni against him. “Psychologically in his mind, if the person who followed him succeeded, somehow that took away from what he did,” Brennan told The South Bend Tribune in 1999. “I had absolutely no use for him.”
“It’s a real shame, kind of sad,” Hornung said of Brennan. “He could have been one of the great coaches in Notre Dame history.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.