Remembering when the Titans played Notre Dame at Briggs Stadium

This remembrance of a special event at University of Detroit is part of our occasional series called Detroit Mercy Moments, which retells stories of the unique history of University of Detroit, Mercy College of Detroit and University of Detroit Mercy. It was written by Fred Lauck ’65, ’69 based on news reports from the time and additional research provided by Raymond Rolak. An attorney, Lauck is also the author of “The Fightin’ Irish of Detroit, Fightin’ in the Streets…Fightin’ in the Courts (An American Story)” a history of the Irish influence on Detroit’s legal system. If you have a Detroit Mercy Moment to share, please click here www.udmercy.edu/faculty-staff/marcom/requests/moments.

News coverage of the big game.
News coverage of the big game.

Under the cool, night skies of a crisp October evening in 1951, a busload of Fightin’ Irishmen from the University of Notre Dame pulled into Briggs Stadium at The Corner of Michigan Avenue and Trumbull. Their mission: to do battle with Detroit’s fightin’ Titans.

Detroit played in the Missouri Valley Conference and Notre Dame was an independent and this game would help celebrate the 250th anniversary of the founding of Detroit.

The lights at the historic stadium lit up the sky over Detroit. The lights were also on in the old row houses in Detroit’s nearby Irish neighborhood, Corktown. Even the kids were up late, hoping to catch glimpse of their hard-hitting heroes… those tough and tumble, ready to rumble, hard scrabble footballers, about to do battle on the gridiron before 52,000 spectators, fans and other assorted onlookers.

It would be the first ever night game in the Notre Dame’s Fightin’ Irish’s history. Head Coach Frank Leahy’s young Irish team brought with them the glare of national media and a ton of talented players. But the game would be won or lost, on the field.

The ref blew the whistle. The foot hit the ball and the kickoff flew into the night sky. But, before the fans even took their first swig of Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey, Notre Dame’s Johnny Petitbon took the opening kickoff back 85 yards, streaking left, darting right and then accelerating “long gone” as bone crushing blocks reverberated throughout the stadium’s steel structure.

Petitbon was far from done. A few minutes later, Billy Barrett fielded a punt for the Irish, darted to his right and, at full speed, handed off the football to a crisscrossing Petitbon who converted that razzle-dazzle punt return into a 73-yard run to the house for another six points. Petitbon finished up the first quarter with a quick pitch right from quarterback Johnny Mazur, and accelerated around the Titans’ flank for a 39-yard third touchdown — less than 15 minutes into the game.

Overheard was a voice of a Paddy Moriarity with his distinct, Irish lilt, “I’ll be needing another wee sip of the Irish spirits, just to adjust me eyes to the brilliance of that Petitbon kid’s exploits. Bottom’s up, laddies.” And, no doubt, Moriarity was right on the money, as indeed Notre Dame scored again at the end of the half with Mazur’s tight-spiral finding tight end, Jim Mutscheller, with a 30-yard T.D. toss to put the Irish ahead at the half 26 to 0.     

Detroit’s first-year Head Coach Dutch Clark, himself a college and NFL Hall of Famer, motivated his young squad at halftime, as Detroit’s beleaguered Titans refused to quit and came back into the second half of play with plenty of emotional “never say die” fire and zip.

University of Detroit vs. Notre Dame football game on Oct. 5, 1951 at Briggs Stadium.
University of Detroit vs. Notre Dame football game on Oct. 5, 1951 at Briggs Stadium.

The Titan defense was especially strong in the second half, as they shut down two Irish scoring bids to hold visiting Notre Dame scoreless in the third period. The Titans even managed a score of their own on a 50-yard touchdown march, with halfback Bob Lippe exploding through Notre Dame’s goal line defense with a one yard plunge.  The Titans first extra point try was good, but a 15-yard penalty nullified it and the next kick fell short. But, Notre Dame wasn’t through yet.

Future Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner intercepted a pass from Titan quarterback Ed Gornak and ran it back 32 yards for a touchdown. Later, Notre Dame freshman Walt Cabral pounced on a Detroit fumble on the Titan 18-yard line setting up the final Notre Dame tally as Irish halfback, Paul Reynolds, ripped his way to the four, and then to the one. Irish freshman quarterback Ralph Guglielmi, took over and went the final yard on a quarterback sneak. Menil Mavraides kicked the extra point and the long expected showdown came to an end — the Fightin’ Irish of Notre Dame 40, the Detroit Titans 6. 

The Irish outgained their Detroit hosts in total yardage, piling up 402 yards with 284 yards on the ground and 118 yards in the air. Not counting his opening kickoff return of 85 yards and his razzle dazzle, crisscross punt return of 73 yards, Notre Dame’s Petitbon finished off the evening with 130 yards from the line of scrimmage on 13 carries. Testament to the ferocious collisions between ball carriers and tacklers, there were nine fumbles. Every fumble was lost, as the Titans scooped up five Notre Dame fumbles while the Irish recovered four of the Titans’ ball-handling miscues.

Though the loss was a short-term disappointment to Detroit Titans fans, the Notre Dame-University of Detroit clash was a long-term success that helped brand University of Detroit’s athletic program in the national consciousness. The red and white later rebounded with a nice road victory over Boston College, 19-13.

Putting the Briggs Stadium showdown together demanded a ton of effort and required the work of many dignitaries, luminaries, everyday Detroiters, sportsmen and sportswomen coming together. Their great teamwork and camaraderie made this standing room only game the Event of 1951. It is still remembered and is a spirited subject for talk among alumni 68 years later. It was a time when the word “America” stood for cooperation and working together with a common spirit, for a common cause, and the numerous contractual commitments, leases, transportation agreements, financial documents, revenue sharing agreements and special waivers parlayed the “what ifs?” into a “we did it.”

University of Detroit President Celestin Steiner, S.J. (1889-1971), a revered Jesuit and a tenacious University of Detroit football player from the 1920s, along with his counterpart, the President of Notre Dame Father John J. Cavanaugh, fully supported this historic night of “knock down, drag out” football. Another ambassador was Walter O. Briggs, the owner of the Detroit Tigers and Briggs Stadium. He was a great supporter of the University of Detroit (where a building still bears his name) and the city of Detroit.

Both Athletic Directors, Edward ‘Moose’ Krause of Notre Dame, and Lloyd Brazil of the University of Detroit (former Detroit Titan, 1928 All American halfback) were all-in, as were prominent Detroit luminaries and alumni Vince Banonis (Titan All American and Detroit Lion), Bob Ivory (Titan All American and Detroit Lion), brother John Ivory (Titan football and basketball player, Hall of Famer), Andy Farkas, (Titan All-American and Washington Redskin MVP of the 1942 NFL championship game), Louis Bridenstine (University of Detroit 1933, General Counsel and Vice President of General Motors) and orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Joe Drazek. 

The 1951 University of Detroit, Notre Dame game was not the first contest between the two schools. They met once before during the Roaring Twenties in 1927 at Dinan Stadium on the (then) new grounds of the University of Detroit’s McNichols campus. That game also saw an over-flowing crowd of over 30,000 fans who walked or drove to the game on a then unpaved Six Mile Road.  Notre Dame prevailed in that contest 20-0 under the immortal Coach Knute Rockne; Gus Dorais coached the Titans. Ironically, Rockne (an end) and Dorais (a quarterback) were Notre Dame teammates in 1913 when they were credited with “inventing” the forward pass and shocking a highly touted, undefeated, Army team from West Point 35-13. 

In 1928, the Titans, under Coach Dorias and led by All-American half back, Lloyd Brazil, went undefeated and untied, on their way to a spectacular 9-0 season shutting out seven of their opponents. They were called the Powers of the Midwest by famed sportswriter, Grantland Rice and, years later, were voted the mythical National Championship team of 1928.

There is a special plaque dedicated to Dorais (1892-1954) at the entrance of Calihan Hall by the ticket office. It is a Titan testament of the ages. Dorais’ was the longest tenured head football coach in Titans history. His vision, dedication, loyalty, energy, courage and commitment led to national prominence and steady growth. 

Although, the crashes, smashes, thumps and clashes of Titans football teams ended after the 1964 season, a legacy remains. It includes the professional football players who played their college days at the McNichols Campus from the late 1950s through 1964: Grady Alderman, Bruce Maher, Perry Richards, Jimmy Shorter, Steve Stonebreaker, Larry Vargo, Ted Collins, Doug Collins, Tom Beier, Tom Beer and Michael Haggerty. Fondly remembered are the exploits of Ted Marchibroda, who played a scrambling style of quarterback in the NFL-AFL. 

The exemplar of a Jesuit educational, academic excellence, athletic tradition and a legacy dedicated to greatness in all things, large and small, continues today with the growth, development and steady, uphill progress of the Titans basketball program with its new Coach, Mike Davis, and his son, star student-athlete Antoine Davis. He had about as good a freshman year as you could have. Freshman of the Year in the Horizon League, Freshman All-American team, broke Steph Curry’s three point record for freshmen and was third leading scorer in the nation averaging 26.1 points per game.

There are still great academic and athletic exploits left for the University of Detroit Mercy. When do we get a shot at Notre Dame’s basketball team? Bring it on! 

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