Notre Dame-UW, circa 1949 (UW Media Relations)
While awaiting the arrival of college football’s most revered team, the city of Seattle feared it wasn’t equal to the task. The Seattle of 1949 was not the thriving metropolis that it is today. Aside from the Smith Tower, there were no skyscrapers in the downtown sector. There was no Space Needle. There was no I-5 (In its place were neighborhoods, including a popular Greek restaurant, long since torn down and forgotten). There was no Kingdome or Safeco Field. There was no Softy Softerson.
As a whole, Seattle was an isolated blue-collar seaport town, bustling with dock
workers, longshoreman and retailers. With several thousand out-of-towners
arriving for the Notre Dame-Washington game, the Seattle P-I had a headline
that said: "BIG GAME HAS TOWN JITTERY".
Seattle hotels were booked up, and visitors had scramble as far as Edmonds
and Everett to find vacancies. Meanwhile, in the coffee shops, butcher
shops and corner groceries around downtown Seattle, the pervading fear was
that the Huskies would embarrass themselves on a national stage.
This game was primarily taking place due to Husky alum Dr. Alfred Strauss,
who lived in Chicago. He was famous for recruiting talented high school
players out of the Midwest and putting them on trains bound for Washington.
He had now wielded his influence to set up a home-and-home series with Notre
Dame. The year before, the Huskies had traveled to South Bend, and were
annihilated 46-0. Now the Fighting Irish were making the long journey to
Seattle, to what was considered the most isolated part of the continental
The 1949 Notre Dame team that arrived by train at Seattle’s King Street
Station was one of the greatest in history. They had gone 29 games in a row
without a loss. They were destined to win their fourth national
championship of the 1940s. And they featured that season’s Heisman Trophy
winner, Leon Hart. The Fighting Irish were arrogant and possessed a
powerful aura of invincibility, much like today’s USC Trojans. They were
also reputed for receiving preferential treatment from referees.
So the Huskies kind of cheated.
Washington coach Howie Odell compiled a film showing a montage of Notre Dame
players holding their opponents with no flag being thrown. Right before
kickoff, Odell and Washington athletic director Harvey Cassill secretly held
a meeting with the referees. Odell showed the film. No representative from
Notre Dame was present. The Fighting Irish would subsequently be flagged
eleven times against the Huskies, mostly for holding infractions. Their
legendary coach Frank Leahy would learn of the secret meeting during the
game and afterwards erupted in fury.
Each team ran out of tunnel, and the stands were packed with a standing room-only crowd. Husky Stadium had no upper decks in 1949, so it was just a
bowl. The student section proudly held up thousands of colored
mini-placards, in an effort to spell out a giant block W. Unfortunately,
due to an error by a student organizer, the arrangement was upside down.
Washington was also without its prized recruit Hugh McElhenny, who was
injured the week before against Minnesota. (The Huskies had also cheated to
acquire McElhenny, by outbidding the equally fraudulent USC Trojans.) On
missing this historic game, a glum McElhenny said to the Seattle P-I, “It
would have been a great thrill to score a touchdown against Notre Dame.”
Washington did stun the Irish early on with a dose of magic from the arm of
QB Don Heinrich. Husky Roland Kirkby lined up in the flankerback position
and got behind the Notre Dame secondary. Heinrich dropped back and threw a
perfect 40-yard pass that hit Kirkby in stride at the Irish 15-yard line.
Kirkby raced into the end zone for a touchdown, and the home crowd was
giddily incredulous to witness the Huskies beating Notre Dame.
(The next day, Seattle sports columnist Royal Brougham wrote- with an
unabashed pride missing in today’s sportswriters- “It was a score (UW 7,
Notre Dame 0) that must have must have caused no end of commotion in stadia
and sports centers around the nation as it was clicked off the news wire.”)
Notre Dame was not able to score until 2:00 left in the first half. But
when the second half commenced, the Irish established firm dominance.
Endowed with far superior talent and speed, Notre Dame pulled away to win
27-7. The most telling final statistic was that the Irish out-rushed
A former Husky named Walt Shiel, who had played fullback for legendary coach
Gil Dobie around 1910, was standing on the sidelines and was amazed by the
Notre Dame linemen.
“You don’t beat that combination anywhere,” he said. “I couldn’t help
admiring the way the Washington line fought against them, but there was
speed wherever Notre Dame needed it and that goes for the line as well as
those backs. What a great bunch of running backs!”
Reported the Seattle P-I: “The score might possibly have been greater than
(27-7), had not the Huskies fought them tooth and claw from opening whistle
to final gun; and had not the Irish just about beat themselves with one of
the most amazing succession of major penalties in local gridiron history.”
While speaking to reporters after the game, Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy
“How could that be a good game when we had to play four extra men?” he said
with an enraged tone of voice. “The officials today, all four of them,
tried their best to even up a football game… If it was intended to be an
instructional clinic, a representative of Notre Dame should have been
invited. I believe the entire procedure tended to send the officials into
the game with a superficial attitude.”
Prior to the game, Washington’s athletic department had entertained hopes of
turning the Notre Dame contest into an annual series, like Notre Dame-USC is
today. Leahy was soon quoted, however, as vowing that Notre Dame would
never play Washington again. A Seattle sportswriter named Mike Donohoe
called up Leahy to inquire.
“I have not at any time stated nor implied that Notre Dame will never play
Washington again,” said Leahy. “I would welcome a chance to play Washington
at some future time. Our athletics director, Moose Krause, makes our
schedules for us. I believe we are booked up through 1953.”
Washington and Notre Dame did not play again until October 7, 1995.
Derek Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org