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Frank Leahy always had Notre Dame standing tall and up straight

The legendary coach who led the Fighting Irish to four national titles was a stickler for details and discipline — on the field and at home.

October 19, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team run on the field before the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Soldier Field on Oct. 6, 2012.
Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team run on the field before… (Armando L. Sanchez / McClatchy-Tribune )

Notre Dame's football team is 6-0, so it is time to write about Frank Leahy.

When the Irish are successful, Leahy gets a piece of the credit for the winning legacy. If you are old enough to have heard of Leahy, you understand the fascination. If you aren't, pull up a chair and be amazed.

Leahy was Notre Dame's coach when Notre Dame ruled the roost in college football, starting with Knute Rockne's era. It is usually hyperbole when people are called legends. Not here. Leahy was a legend.

If he were alive today, he'd be 104 and sending notes to current coach Brian Kelly about the need to improve players' posture along the sidelines. He coached the Fighting Irish in the late 1940s and early '50s, winning four national titles, after playing on two national championship teams himself under Rockne. As the coach, he was 87-11-9 at Notre Dame, including a 39-game unbeaten streak.

When he died in 1973, he was 64 and Fred Leahy was 23. Fred lives in Riverside, is a food company executive in the City of Industry and is Leahy child No. 6, of eight. Fred was born in chaos in Long Beach, Ind., a suburb of Michigan City, during a storm that shut off electricity Aug. 31, 1949. Mom, the former Florence Valentine Reilly, gave birth at home while dad, Frank, hustled for water and held a candle and the rest of the family scrambled in the dark. Older sister Sue broke her toe and older brother Frank Jr. cut his head.

Fred was named after one of his dad's two best friends, Fred Miller, who began a little brewery in Milwaukee that carried his name and still does. Frank Leahy's other best friend was Rockne. Miller and Rockne died in plane crashes.

Fred will watch Notre Dame's game Saturday against Brigham Young at home, as he usually does. Nearby will be his leprechaun gnome, his superstitious 10-inch statue. There will be the usual invitees, good food and plenty of tension. If the game is close at the end, as it was in last Saturday's goal-line stand against Stanford, he will leave the room, walk in the yard and wait for cheers or groans to tell him what happened.

He lives Notre Dame football now. Years ago, when his daughter said she was setting her wedding date for Sept. 7, he convinced her to change it. That was opening football weekend. When he travels to South Bend, Ind., for business or games, he still runs into old-timers who shake his hand and tell him stories about his dad.

This joy at being a Leahy wasn't always so.

"When I was a high school player," Fred says, "I hated having to be the son of Frank Leahy. I wanted to apply to colleges under a fake name. But I got over it. Thirty years ago, I just embraced it."

So much so that, on several occasions, with his wife's blessings, he has sought out positions at Notre Dame, although never successfully.

"I love the place so much," he says, "I'd feed the squirrels."

Fred Leahy attended Notre Dame for one year before returning to attend to ailing parents in Lake Oswego, Ore., and graduate from the University of Portland.

Frank Leahy was a tough customer. Opponents had game results as proof. Fred Leahy has a lifetime of memories.

"He was gone a lot," Fred says, "so Mom made us write him letters. When he came home, he brought them with him, all corrected for punctuation and grammar."

One of Fred's brothers got hit in the head with a baseball. The cut needed 13 stitches. Frank Leahy suggested they just put some gum on it and get on with the game. One of his players took a shot in the mouth that knocked out six teeth. When the player balked at returning to the game, Leahy asked if he were there to play football or eat a sandwich.

It was not easy being in the Frank Leahy family. Mom was an alcoholic who finally beat the disease late in life. Oldest brother Frank Jr., was a top player who played little at Notre Dame because his dad had recruited another pretty good player at his position, Paul Hornung. Frank Jr. drank too much, smoked too much and died of emphysema at age 44.

Fred's summary of life in the Leahy family is a classic of all-encompassing brevity.

"Dad belonged to the world, and mom had eight kids," he says.

Fred says Frank Leahy never turned down an autograph request and drilled into his family the need to treat people equally and well.

"He wore the famous bow tie all the time," Fred says, "and that wasn't for any image reason. He knew, when he was out eating dinner, somebody would come over to the table, he'd get up and reach across to shake their hand and his tie would fall into the soup.

"When we went out to dinner, he'd eat ahead of time. People wouldn't leave him alone to eat, and he'd never turn anybody down. When dinner ended, he'd disappear into the kitchen and shake the hands of all the helpers."

A writer, seeking to characterize the presumed terror of failure with which Leahy's players existed, once asked star quarterback Johnny Lujack what Leahy was like after a loss. Lujack pondered the question and said, "I don't remember ever losing."

If 6-0 becomes 7-0 against BYU, imagine Kelly getting a handwritten note from Leahy, likely delivered from purgatory, suggesting his players do a better job of keeping their shirts tucked in.

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