ND’s 1973 team captains. (L-R) Mike Townsend, Dave Casper and Frank Pomarico (Courtesy Photo: Susan Casper)
Editor’s Note: The 1973 National Championship team recently celebrated its 50th Anniversary of that season. Frequent contributor to Fighting Irish Preview, Frank Pomarico, author of Ara’s Knights, was one of the Captains of that team. Here he recounts some of the events of the reunion and how much Coach Ara Parseghian meant to him and the team.
It had been fifty years since Notre Dame safety, Luther Bradley ripped the helmet off of USC receiver, Lynn Swann, on the first play of our game with the Trojans in 1973, one in which the Irish won 23-14. It was the weekend of October 14-15, 2023 and I had just finished walking my poodles, Beau and his son Paddy on the ND campus. The colors of the fall were really coming to a peak as they always do when USC comes to town.
This was to be a little bit different USC visit. Because it was the fiftieth anniversary of the ’73 game, and Notre Dame was hosting our team for a reunion.
Our win over USC that year propelled us to a National Championship, which we clinched on New Year’s Eve in the Sugar Bowl with 24-23 victory over Alabama. I was one of three captains of the team. Dave Casper was the overall team captain; Mike Townsend was defensive captain and I was the offensive captain. All three of us were expected to be back for the reunion which would include dinners and tailgates and many chances to visit with all our brothers and their families.
We were a unique group of players at Notre Dame mostly because we were all coached by Ara Parseghian. Ara passed away in 2017 so he couldn’t be there physically, but, his spirit was definitely there.
Needless to say, Ara was a very good football coach, a Hall of Fame coach—but he was an even better human being. He was a manifestation of everything Notre Dame wanted to be noted for: character, class, integrity, and charisma. He shared these characteristics with us, his players, and his legacy has lived on in these past fifty years as we have gone on to make a difference in other people’s lives in many different ways. Ara thought of a great day as one in which you could help people who couldn’t return the favor, doing so out of the goodness of your heart. Or, maybe you could help two or three people that day. He instilled this practice in all of us.
Ara was a great coach, but, to me it seemed that coaching was just the vehicle he used to reach people and put them on the right track. He could have been a governor, senator or even the president of the United States. That’s how organized and charismatic he was. He had tremendous focus and discipline to make things happen, all in the service of others. In some ways he reminded me of President John F. Kennedy. As with JFK, there was a sense of Camelot that seemed to travel with Ara. He was a person who when he came into a crowded room people would say “I don’t know who that person is, but I want to meet him.”
Ara’s coaching philosophy was rooted in four basic principles: faith, pride, discipline, and loyalty. He recruited people who he knew could live by these principles. He didn’t just want good football players, instead he wanted people to be a part of his family, the Notre Dame family. By the way, the faith I’m talking about here wasn’t about religion. It was about the goodness inside of a person along with the desire to do the right thing as much as possible. He wanted positive-thinking people who had manners and respected others. After Ara assessed those parts of a person’s character, he looked for people who were hungry to compete. If recruits had these raw elements as a person, Ara felt he and his staff could mentor them into a team.
Ara worked us hard in practice and expected us to us to give our full attention to our classroom studies. We did that and I believe nearly every player on Ara’s teams graduated from Notre Dame, which was his main goal. He also expected the same work ethic and discipline from our student managers and trainers who he considered a part of the team too. What a gift it was to play top level college football and graduate with a solid degree to take with us in our life after football!
After four years in Ara’s program we had developed a lot of pride and we all held on to it. Also, we wouldn’t have been able to succeed without the discipline Ara insisted on. What did that mean? First of all, it meant establishing goals and determining how we could achieve them. For Notre Dame football players, this meant being in good shape physically, academically sound, and not getting into trouble on and off campus. The idea of not getting into trouble was not just an individual rule. We were expected to look out for each other. If we saw someone associated with the team going off the grid and doing something that would hurt them personally or the team as a whole, we did what we could to get that person on the right path. That’s why I used the word “brothers” to describe my teammates. We treated each other as we would a family member. This is why Ara’s program was so special. If you were part of Ara’s family you felt special. You carried that unique training to your life after football.
People in Ara’s program got things done and everyone learned the basic principles of preparation and hard work. The players were loyal to Ara because he was as fair as possible. Ara would always make an educated decision with input from the other coaches as well as the captains if needed, whenever he would have to discipline a player. Ara always made the final decision and it was always fair. We knew he always had our interest at heart.
The reunion weekend turned out to be even better than we could have imagined. On Friday, the team started to arrive in to South Bend. Two of my teammates and classmates, Dan Morrin and Joe Alvarado, were the main organizers of the reunion. Both have become very successful businessman and have been philanthropic in every aspect of their lives. That evening, we had a great reception at the Schivarelli Lounge in Notre Dame Stadium. I recognized everyone’s face, but their heads were now covered with gray or white hair or had no hair at all. We told old stories and listened to our brothers talk about their kids and grandkids.
There were about ninety players, managers and trainers back for the reunion and all we were all happy and grateful to be there. We have lost twelve players from the team who have passed. However, we did invite their families to come to the events and many of them did attend.
Saturday was game day and we were all looking forward to being introduced on the field during the first quarter. But before we went to the stadium we had a tailgate dinner in Jordan Hall. This is where we really had a chance to visit and share memories from fifty years ago. Naturally, one of the first things that came up was our own game with USC in 1973. USC had won the National Championship in 1972 and would win it again in 1974. It almost seemed that whoever won that game had the greatest chance to win the National Championship.
Luther Bradley’s hit on Lynn Swann had set the tone that day and we were off from there. One play that I will never forget was the first play of the second half, which was a buck sweep left. Quarterback Tommy Clements faked to the fullback to freeze the linebacker and Gerry Dinardo and I, the two guards who had been teammates since grade school, pulled out to run interference for our fastest running back, Eric Penick, who cut inside our blocks and raced 85 yards to the north end zone giving us a lead we wouldn’t relinquish. Eric was present at the reunion. He has recently authored A Notre Dame Man: The Life, Lore and Runs of Eric Penick that includes stories about the 1973 season
Many have said that when Eric scored it was the loudest Notre Dame Stadium has ever been, before or since. After beating USC that day we really started believing we had a special team that if given a chance, could go all the way. What we couldn’t believe was that fifty years had gone by! Now in 2023, we were no longer starters or backups we were just members of a great team that all had a modest ring on their finger signifying we were the 1973 Notre Dame National Champions. Our rings weren’t fancy because we weren’t a fancy group. We still aren’t! We knew our team was the best in 1973 and that’s all that mattered.
When we were getting ready to go over to the stadium Joe Alvarado asked the captains to say a few words about our season and Coach Ara Parseghian. Joe asked that I speak first. I shared with them many of the same things about Ara that I have mentioned in this article. Looking out at my teammates I could recognize in their eyes how much Ara meant to us all.
As the event drew to a close and all were going to the stadium we hugged and kissed on the cheek as we knew we might never see each other again. When we got to the stadium and walked around the field we realized up close how this really wasn’t our stadium anymore. I remember when we were in college and met players who had played for Rockne and Leahy, we thought “Wow these guys are old now.” Now we were those old guys!
Besides that, the game atmosphere was much different from 1973. Now it is a Hollywood production with artificial grass, fireworks, and smoke cannons going off introducing the current team. The wholesome afternoon games that weren’t always televised had provided a mystique of the Notre Dame football program that seemed lost, or at least from another time. The media now controls every aspect of the game: the time, the day, the length of the game. Notre Dame football is now a full media production. It’s okay, but gone are the days when people would huddle around a radio to listen to Ara’s Army marching down the field making another score. There was something both wholesome and mythical about those years. Fans had to use their imagination to paint the scene presented by the radio announcer like Tony Roberts. I’m not complaining. I love to see the Irish on TV. It’s just different. A different time.
During a timeout in the first quarter we heard the stadium announcer say “Ladies and gentlemen, on the north side of the field we have the 1973 Notre Dame national championship football team coach by Ara Parseghian.” A big cheer from the crowd went up and we stepped out onto the field with our chest out, standing tall, and knowing that we were once the kings college football. It was great moment, but, not as great as the lifelong friendships we developed with teammates and being coached by Ara Parseghian.
Now it’s definitely time to pass the torch to a new generation of champions and spend time with our families kids and grandkids. As we reflect back on all those years, we realize the basic values of life are love, family, and making a difference in other people’s lives. Ara Parseghian made us vividly aware of those things.
Let me leave you with this final thought: One of life’s great secrets is to believe in yourself. Have faith that the Creator lives within your mind and soul. Every positive action you take represents the Creator within your consciousness, every kind and good deed you do is the Creator God living through you. If you recognize this, you will be at peace.