Tale of the Coaching Tape: Nick Saban vs. Frank Leahy

Christopher Walsh

You may not have known that in addition to his illustrious football career Frank Leahy was credited with the now cliché quote of: "When the going gets tough, let the tough get going."

He also had a lot of success before becoming one of the most accomplished head coaches in Notre Dame and college football history.

As a tackle, Leahy played on Knute Rockne’s last three teams, two of which went undefeated and claimed national championships.

As an assistant coach, Leahy had one-year stints at Georgetown and Michigan State before he created the famous “Seven Blocks of Granite” line at Fordham, which included future NFL legendary coach Vince Lombardi.

As a head coach, he first made his mark at Boston College, where during his two seasons there the Golden Eagles only lost two games. The 1939 team earned the program’s first postseason invitation (it lost to Clemson 6-3 in the Cotton Bowl), and the undefeated 1940 squad that included future College Football Hall of Fame inductees center Chet “The Gentle Giant” Gladchuk, end Gene Goodreault, fullback Mike Holovak, guard George “The Righteous Reject” Kerr, and halfback Charlie O’Rourke.

Although Minnesota was considered the national champion, and Stanford also finished undefeated, when Boston College capped the season with a 19-13 victory in the Sugar Bowl against No. 4 Tennessee, which hadn’t lost a regular season game in three years under Robert Neyland, the team was greeted by an estimated 100,000 fans in downtown Boston.

“To me, this is the best football program in the world,” Leahy said at the time.

However, that didn’t prevent him from leaving for his alma mater, where Leahy created Notre Dame’s second dynasty. Although he shocked fans by switching the offense from the Notre Dame box to the T-formation due to the greater scoring possibilities, his first three teams won 24 games while losing three and tying three, and captured the 1943 national title.

While Angelo Bertelli won the program’s Heisman Trophy despite enlisting for the military before season’s end, Creighton Miller topped the nation in rushing with 911 yards despite skipping every day of spring practice to play golf.

Leahy later admitted, “He was the best halfback I ever coached.” To give an idea of how high praise that was, Leahy said of the 1949 team, which went on to win the national championship, “We’ll have the worst team Notre Dame has ever had.” Red Grange said about that same squad, “It’s the greatest college team I’ve ever seen.”

After spending two years in the Navy during World War II, Leahy returned to Notre Dame in 1946 and immediately had Notre Dame back in the title hunt. With Johnny Lujack leading the team it won controversial titles in 1946 and 1947 when the quarterback took home the Heisman Trophy, and was the consensus choice in 1949 when Leon Hart captured the award.

In Leahy's final season, 1953, Notre Dame went 9-0-1 to claim another title, only the coach collapsed due to a pancreas attack at halftime of the Georgia Tech game. He announced his retirement on January 31, 1954.

All but two of his 13 teams finished ranked in the final Associated Press poll, with eight in the top three, and three more between No. 5-11. Consequently, he has the second-best winning percentage in Division I history, trailing only the man who was his mentor, Rockne. They’re the only two coaches with 10-plus years of experience who have no more losses than seasons coached.

Frank Leahy on the cover of Time Magazine

Nick Saban vs. Frank Leahy

(Statistics through 2018 season)

Category Saban ; Leahy

Seasons 23 ; 13

Consensus national titles 6 ; 3-z

Top five finishes 9 ; 9

Top 25 finishes 16 ; 11

Overall record 232-62-1; 107-13-9

Percentage 78.5 ; 86.4

Losing seasons 0 ; 0

CFP/Bowl record 14-10 ; 1-1

Percentage 58.3 ; 50.0

Conference titles 9 ; NA

Conference record 138-42-1; NA

Consensus All-Americans 41 ; 23

First-round draft picks 34 ; 16

Record against ranked teams 82-40 ; 32-5-4

Percentage 67.20 ; 82.93

Record against top 10 teams 42-21 ; 22-3-1

Percentage 66.67 ; 86.54


National title seasons One every 3.8 seasons; 4.3

Consensus All-Americans (through 2013) 1.78 every season; 1.77

First round draft picks (through 2013 draft) 1.48 every season; 1.23

Average wins vs. ranked teams 3.57 each season; 2.46

Wins over top-10 teams per year 1.82 every season; 1.69

z-For the purpose of this article Michigan is considered the consensus national champion in 1947.

Some of the information in this report was also used in the book "Nick Saban vs. College Football."

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Comments (3)
No. 1-3
Beach Colonel
Beach Colonel

You used Statistics through 2018 season, yet for ratios/percentages you only used Coach Saban's through 2013, why?

Christopher Walsh
Christopher Walsh


They are actually through 2018, just mislabeled. Thanks for pointing it out.

Christopher Walsh
Christopher Walsh


They are actually though 2018. I didn't change the labels. Thanks for pointing it out.

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