It was Nov. 28, 1964, and it was easy to cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish came to the Coliseum with a 9-0 record, a No. 1 national ranking and a Heisman Trophy winner with a rags-to-riches story. It was to be the cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae, a final time to shake down the thunder.
Instead, it turned into a game for the ages, a legendary classic between schools that will meet in football Saturday for the 84th time. The shocking and controversial defeat for the Irish happened 48 years ago and remains etched in the minds of thousands of fans, both Irish and Trojans.
It was the ultimate Irish wake.
A Pacific Palisades businessman named John Huarte, who was then the Heisman winner for Notre Dame, was asked this week when he finally got over it. “I still haven’t,” he says.
Similarities for Saturday’s matchup at the Coliseum are striking. Notre Dame is 11-0 and No. 1. USC is 7-4 and dangerous.
Huarte had come to Notre Dame a prep star from Mater Dei High, in strange times. It was the Joe Kuharich/Hughie Devore era. Neither coach moved the team, nor did their teams move the ball. They were quickly making the Fighting Irish into a former powerhouse.
These were also the days of a movement among priests and faculty at Notre Dame to de-emphasize football. The future appeared to be a string of 2-7 seasons, as 1963 had been. Symbolic of that was the hiring of a coach from academically excellent, athletically challenged Northwestern University. The prevailing sentiment among students and alumni was that you hire a football coach from Alabama and a psychology dean from Northwestern.
Ara Parseghian turned out to be a good choice for football and psychology.
He had no incumbent quarterback but quickly identified the skinny, sidearmed-passing kid from California who had thrown only a handful of passes his sophomore and junior seasons and had yet to earn a varsity letter. Huarte was to be the next big thing. Not just a game-to-game thing. Parseghian went all in.
“A few days before our first game, against Wisconsin,” Huarte says, “Ara takes me aside and says that if I make a mistake, it won’t matter. I’m his quarterback. You have no idea what that means to a guy in that spot.”
Three months and nine games later, Huarte was a household name in sports. He kept throwing touchdown passes to another Californian, Jack Snow, who had also been overlooked by the previous coaching regimes. Notre Dame was a football power again. The grumblings from the Administration Building, on top of which rests the Golden Dome, quieted at about 6-0.
The week of the USC game, Huarte was shaving in his dorm room and his roommate answered the ringing wall phone that served the floor. His roommate returned, told him to wipe off the shaving cream and take the call that would tell him he had won the Heisman. In those days, there was no sitting with other finalists while TV cameras delivered phony drama designed for the benefit of ratings and sponsors selling deodorant. Just a phone call.
“We got to California and we figured we’d just roll over ‘SC,” Huarte says. “That’s what we’d done with pretty much everybody else.”
The Trojans were 6-3 and had a shot at the Rose Bowl with a victory. Coach John McKay tried to fire up his team by faking outrage when Notre Dame moved into the hotel the Trojans usually used before that game.
Outrage turned to reality when Huarte hit an outstretched Snow for a touchdown pass and the Irish took a 17-0 lead into the half. But Mike Garrett kept rushing for chunks of yards and quarterback Craig Fertig kept moving the Trojans. And it came to pass that USC, trailing 17-13, faced fourth and eight at the Irish 15, with 1 minute 33 seconds left.
Wide receiver Rod Sherman convinced McKay he could get open on a play called 84z Delay. He got the one-on-one coverage he needed, Irish defender Tony Carey slipped on Sherman’s break and Sherman slithered away, winning touchdown in hand.
The college football world shook, and the game took its place in legend.
Fertig saw nothing. He was plowed under moments after he released the ball by defensive lineman Alan Page. Years later, Page became the chief justice of Minnesota.
Irish backers were livid. Notre Dame scored a touchdown in the second half on a one-yard dive by Joe Kantor. But an official called holding on tackle Bob Meeker and the score was nullified. After seeing films, Irish backers went from livid to enraged.
“Meeker didn’t hold,” Huarte says. “He didn’t even touch anybody. He just kind of fell down.”
Fertig knew Huarte from their high school days. He went to see him after the game and found Huarte, alone in the shower, water on, sitting on a stool. Hours later, Fertig was in a similar mood. The conference picked Oregon State, not USC, to go to the Rose Bowl.
Fertig died in 2008. Sherman had a serious stroke Nov. 2 and is on a long road to recovery. McKay died in 2001. Parseghian will turn 90 on May 21.
Huarte, the founder and semiretired president of Arizona Tiles, says he will go to the Coliseum on Saturday, spend “three or four hours” walking around to tailgate parties, and then go to the Bel Air Bay Club in the Palisades, where he and his wife will put on a party for 40 to 50 people and watch on a big-screen TV.
“Everybody’s a little older now,” Huarte says. “It’s hard to climb around the Coliseum.”
Also, for Huarte, still hard to remember.