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Book wakes up the echoes of ex-Notre Dame coach Terry Brennan’s ouster in 1958

The former Fighting Irish football standout, hired at 25 to replace legendary coach Frank Leahy, revisits the stunning end to his star-crossed tenure in “Though The Odds Be Great Or Small.”

Terry Brennan, shown with his Notre Dame team in 1954, was hired at 25 years old to replace the legendary Frank Leahy. In five seasons, Brennan went 32-18 (.640) before being replaced by NFL-tested Joe Kuharich.
Sun-Times

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Some wounds never quite heal, even after more than six decades.

For 93-year-old Wilmette, Illinois, resident Terry Brennan, his dismissal at Christmas 1958 after five seasons as Notre Dame football coach seems to fall under that category. The former Fighting Irish football standout, hired at 25 to replace legendary coach Frank Leahy, revisits the stunning end to his star-crossed tenure in “Though The Odds Be Great Or Small,” published this week by Loyola Press.

“I think truly there’s some bitterness there,” co-author William Meiners said in a phone interview. “He was pretty hurt by this thing.”

While the book focuses mostly on 1957 and Notre Dame’s quick turnaround after an injury-marred 2-8 season, a somewhat reluctant Brennan, along with Terry Brennan Jr., did wade into some of the circumstances surrounding his controversial dismissal.

Coming off a 6-4 final season that pushed his career mark to 32-18 (.640), Brennan had just received a public vote of confidence in Chicago from Notre Dame athletic director Moose Krause.

Despite dealing with university-imposed scholarship and recruiting limitations during his tenure, Brennan was soon dumped in favor of NFL-tested Joe Kuharich, a longtime friend and former Notre Dame classmate of Rev. Edmund “Ned” Joyce, Notre Dame’s executive vice president.

After coaching Mount Carmel High School’s powerhouse football team while completing law school at DePaul, “Dependable Terry” had the late Rev. Theodore “Ted” Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s youthful president, to thank for both his incredible opportunity and the end to a promising coaching career.

Despite multiple offers to coach elsewhere, on the college level and in the NFL with Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, Brennan would limit his football contributions to some national television work in the 1960s. He went on instead to a career as an investment banker.

In roughly six hours of in-person interviews over three days, just before the arrival of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, Brennan proved to be a mostly helpful if reluctant book subject. He termed his departure “ancient history” but still made clear his misgivings with the attempted damage control on Notre Dame’s part, both at the time and in the ensuing decades.

“That generation, they’re not ‘lay on the couch’ type guys who tell you all their feelings,” Meiners said. “I didn’t get a ton of that. That’s just his temperament. He’s not a boastful guy. Never has been. I would suspect he had to be talked into [the book project].”

Meiners, founder and publisher of the journal Sport Literate since 1995, was given access to Brennan’s detailed postmortem of the 1956 debacle, as well as 40 handwritten pages from the mid-1990s that were a reflection on his abortive coaching career.

In addition to fresh interviews with numerous eyewitnesses from Brennan’s time at Notre Dame, on and off the field, Meiners skillfully interweaves published accounts from a nascent Sports Illustrated and many other outlets from that transitional period.

In one of his post-firing interviews, Brennan told Sports Illustrated that Notre Dame followers “who hope for a return to the good old days are being very unrealistic.” He used the phrase “strange, strange business” to describe the profession he was leaving behind.

Four Notre Dame national titles later — the last one in 1988 — Brennan’s prediction doesn’t hold up as well as his sterling reputation for honor and dignity.

“They wanted [Brennan] to resign, which he wouldn’t do,” Meiners said. “That would have made it look like he was quitting. He didn’t want to do that.”

A certain air of mystery remains when it comes to Brennan’s dismissal, its timeline and the rationale behind it. While Brennan is given another opportunity to bat down some of what he views as revisionist history, Fathers Hesburgh and Joyce, the power combo that built Notre Dame into an academic and athletic juggernaut during their long concurrent tenures, died in 2015 and 2004, respectively.

“Ten years ago probably would’ve been even better to [write] it,” Meiners said. “Then maybe you can reach out to Hesburgh at that point. ... More than one thing can be true at once.”