There is nothing quite like being hated and also envied in the sports arena. Some examples are the Yankees in baseball, the Patriots in football, Tiger Woods in golf, the Celtics and the Lakers, once upon a time, in the NBA and Notre Dame in football.
While the institution has not dominated college football as it did in the heyday of yesteryear, there remains an allure and a mystique about the Irish who have often experienced a love/hate image. When there was talk about Notre Dame joining the Big Ten, there were a few member schools which rejected the idea. It had to do with some detractors yielding to the notion that Notre Dame looked down its nose academically at others.
Some antipathy for Notre Dame was the fact that, in some circles, it was easy to find anti-Catholic sentiment. More than likely, it was mostly a case of old fashioned jealously. Religion, however, became a decided asset for the football program which got underway in 1887 and gained extraordinary traction when Knute Rockne became the football coach in 1918. If football ever put an institution of higher learning on the map, it was Notre Dame. Every Catholic kid, coast to coast, wanted to play football for the school once Rockne made Notre Dame a household word. Many of them did as the Irish became a dominant collegiate power.
There was a time in the Bible Belt when many schools (whose leadership was predominately non-Catholic) were bent on hiring a Note Dame player to coach their team. Everybody wanted to employ the Notre Dame Box which was the rage of college football at that time. That is how Harry Mehre wound up at Georgia. There were others including Frank Thomas at Alabama, Jack Meagher at Auburn and Rex Enright at South Carolina. Coaches with Notre Dame ties were scattered across the country.
Mehre, who followed the Four Horsemen at Notre Dame, was a colorful character who married an Athens girl, Hallie Kilpatrick, whose brother, Buster, was a Georgia quarterback who became a pre-eminent lawyer in Atlanta. It was Kilpatrick’s tax expertise which was instrumental in helping Rankin Smith, owner of the Falcons, sign Tommy Nobis when Bud Adams of the Houston Oilers was waving wads of cash. The Falcon’s tax deferred compensation contract offered more net dollars. It was Kilpatrick who would influence Vince Dooley’s decision to spurn Oklahoma’s generous overture in late 1965. Kilpatrick and UGA countered with tax sheltered annuities which made cogent sense to Dooley who remained with the Bulldogs.
Sitting and talking to Mehre, who captained both the Notre Dame football and basketball teams, was always fulfilling. He laced every conversation with humor. In the late Sixties in Georgia’s old press box at Sanford Stadium, when he was writing a column for the Atlanta Journal, he always arrived early, enjoying a Poss’ BBQ pork sandwich and a Coke while reviewing the rosters and flipping through the game program.
One day, as I walked by, he cupped his hand to his ear and said, “Listen! They still remember the old coach. Hear them yelling, “Coach Mehre, Coach Mehre.” After a minute or so, I realized that it was the Coca Cola carriers shouting, “Cokes here, Cokes here.”
It should not go unnoticed that the recruiting of so many players from north of the Mason-Dixon line would likely not have come about if there had not been faculty members who influenced the establishment of Catholic churches in Small-town, America where so many universities flourished.
The parents of players like Sinkwich and Trippi and countless others were not going to allow their sons to go to any community where they could not attend mass.
Georgia’s Wallace Butts and Notre Dame’s ultra successful coach, Frank Leahy, became close friends and traded campus visits. When Leahy was named head coach of the College All-Star game, he brought Butts to Chicago as one of his assistants. Leahy was influenced by Butts’ knowledge of the T-formation which became the preferred offense following World War II.
Like Butts, Leahy was highly quotable with his affection for humor. Leahy once advised an assistant, anxious for a head coaching job, to apply “... at Sing Sing Prison.” When the chagrined assistant asked, “Why?” Leahy said: “You will have every cop in America recruiting for you, your players usually stay more than four years, and all of your games will be played at home.”
Loran Smith, of Athens, the long-time sideline radio voice of the Georgia Bulldogs, writes a regular column.