Friday, November 18, 2005

61* | by Jay

Roger Maris's record wasn't the only asterisked event in the fall of 1961. Today's the anniversary of another controversial outcome: Notre Dame's victory over 10th-ranked Syracuse on a "do-over" field goal with no time remaining.

Seventeen seconds were on the clock when the Irish hauled down Syracuse back, and eventual Heisman Trophy winner, Ernie Davis just short of a first down on their own 30, and the ball turned over on downs. Seventy yards from the end zone, the Irish were trailing 14-15, and had just seventeen seconds to get into field goal range.

Frank Budka, ND's sophomore quarterback, scrambled out of the pocket on first down, making it to midfield, but eating up nine precious seconds. Eight seconds left. Budka then hit George Sefcik who stepped out of bounds at the Syracuse 39. The clock showed three seconds remaining.

Placekicker Joe Perkowski lined up for the 55-yard try. The snap came back, and Sefcik, the holder, grabbed the ball, but was hit by the onrushing Syracuse end Walter Sweeney as Perkowski kicked. The ball came to rest far to the right, in the field of play. Apparently the game was over.

But then a flag fluttered onto the field -- the head linesman had called a foul on Sweeney, roughing the holder. They marked the ball 15 yards closer, and Pekowski got another chance, this time booting it through the uprights.

Thousands of students rushed the field, mobbing the Irish players and attempting to bring down the goalposts. The Irish had won, 17-15.

The next day, the commissioners of the Big 10 and the Eastern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (Syracuse's conference) issued a statement that the officials had erred in permitting the game to continue beyond regulation after the foul (the Big 10 and the EIAA had supplied the officials for the game.) They contended that the ball was not in Notre Dame's possession at the time the foul occurred, because the ball had crossed the line of scrimmage on the kick. Under an official rule interpretation, a period cannot be extended if the ball is not in the possession of the team against whom a foul is committed, and since ND had given up possession on the kick, there could be no extension of time for a second kick. That was their contention, anyway.

This kicked off a war of press releases. Father Joyce, then Executive VP at Notre Dame, issued the Irish response almost immediately.

"We are quite surprised at the developments following our last-minute victory over Syracuse. We felt and will still feel that the officials made the proper decision on the field. The infraction occurred before the clock ran out and before the ball was dead. Therefore, it seems mandatory that a penalty be invoked. It is strange that the officials now feel otherwise.

At any rate, the interpretation given to the basic NCAA football rules as it applied to the point in question seems to us to be both ambiguous and illogical."
Lew Andreas, the athletic director at Syracuse, then said this in a terse, two-sentence statement:
"It is certain that, except for the misinterpretation of the rule, the game would have ended with Syracuse ahead 15 to 14. The rule in question is explicit."
The interpretation apparently took no notice of a rule pointed out by Notre Dame which said that in the case of the field goal try, possession remains with the kicking team if a roughing penalty is accepted. Joyce was flabbergasted.
"The lack of logic in their ruling is overwhelming. The game didn't end the second the ball left the kicker's toe. The only way a penalty means anything in this case is another play."
But Father Hesbrugh, in a television interview, hinted at a possible forfeit.
"Obviously it is a question of interpretation of the rule. Everybody knows Notre Dame doesn't want to win a game if it really didn't. If the rules committee determines that we didn't, we'll act accordingly."
Both schools asked for a ruling from the NCAA. A couple of days later, the chairman of the NCAA rules committee, Gen. Bob Neyland of Tennessee, issued a one-man decision that the field goal was illegal, and the win, therefore, tainted. However, instead of rolling over, as Hesburgh hinted ND would, Joyce fired back again, sending a letter to the NCAA and asking for a judgment by the full NCAA committee. At ND's athletic banquet in early December, Joyce explained the stance they were taking. The Chicago Tribune covered the story:
The Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, Notre Dame's executive vice president and chairman of the faculty board in control of athletics, said tonight that the university had stood firm against the obvious gesture of giving away the disputed Syracuse football game because an important principle was at stake.

Expressing his reluctance to draw out a matter which had been decided by the players and the officials on the field, he said that he was discussing it only because he felt that the group before him expected and was entitled to a statement...

He said that it is up to the NCAA rules committee to clarify the rule so that never again will any school be put in the embarrassing position of Notre Dame.

"We were the team which was fouled, yet it was made to appear that we were attempting to squeak through to a questionable victory in one of the most exciting finishes ever," Father Joyce said.
Finally, a month later, the NCAA reviewed the rule again and issued an amendment. Under the amended rule, Notre Dame, as it did on the disputed play, would get an extra play under the same circumstances. Notre Dame and the officials on the field that day were proven correct. Today the amendment takes the form of the rule that a game may not end on a defensive penalty.

Thankfully, Father Joyce hung tough in the face of controversy, and in the end, the game went into the books as a clean, pristine Irish win.