Cliff Brown: A Notre Dame Pioneer
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – On Jan. 7, sophomore Everett Golson will attempt to tie a Notre Dame record by winning his first 11 starts as the Fighting Irish quarterback (originally set by Bob Williams from 1949-50).
Maybe the most refreshing aspect of this potential milestone is Golson is known as a quarterback – not “a black quarterback.”
That’s not how it was for Cliff Brown, who became Notre Dame’s starter as a sophomore in 1971, the man who bridged Joe Theismann (1969-70) and Tom Clements (1972-74). Theismann was a Heisman runner-up for the No. 2 team in 1970, and Clements directed the 1973 national title.
Brown died from a massive heart attack last week at age 60. Funeral services are planned for Saturday, Dec. 22, in Harriesburg, Pa.
“We’re all sad he’s gone,” said classmate Frank Pomarico, a guard and tri-captain for the 1973 national champs on which Brown was the No. 2 QB. “He walked with a great confidence and with a lot of pride, but he was a good guy and a good teammate.”
A star athlete in multiple sports at Middletown High in Harrisburg, Pa., Brown began his college career in an era when the SEC was not even integrated while bitterness remained in the South regarding the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. As late as 1974, Sports Illustrated had a cover photo of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Joe Gilliam with the headline “Pittsburgh’s Black Quarterback.”
Black football players back then were stereotyped mainly for the “speed” positions — running back, receiver or defensive back – but quarterback or middle linebacker were taboo because they were “face of the program” spots that required more leadership or “cerebral” work.
Even Notre Dame’s 1966 national champs had only one black player on the roster: defensive end Alan Page. Head coach Ara Parseghian and his staff made a concerted effort to bring more black players into the Catholic school that didn’t even admit females until 1972, and one of the first breakthroughs was in 1968 with about a half dozen in the recruiting class, including future All-Americans Tom Gatewood (split end) and Clarence Ellis (cornerback).
Brown displayed his athletic wares first as a kicker, booting a 51-yard field goal as a freshman in the 1971 Blue-Gold Game, and later in his career he was a kickoff specialist. He started the season as a kicker in 1971, splitting time with future NFL veteran Bob Thomas before Thomas took over the duties.
Notre Dame was Sports Illustrated’s preseason pick in 1971 to win the national title, but the huge question mark was who would replace Theismann. Pat Steeenberge started the year there with Bill Etter, but both suffered injuries, with Etter tearing up his knee at Miami early in the fourth game. Brown was inserted in place of Etter right after the injury and directed a 17-0 victory against the Hurricanes. The following week, Brown made his first start, a 16-0 victory against a bowl-bound North Carolina team in which he threw a touchdown pass to Gatewood.
The next week, Brown was only 10 of 27 in a 28-14 loss to USC while throwing three interceptions, with the Trojans returning one of them for a touchdown. Backfield coach Tom Pagna wrote in the “Era of Ara” that no Notre Dame player in his time had to endure more on the outside than Brown because of breaking the barrier.
Pagna said among the comments he would hear included, “Are they forcing you guys to play a black quarterback?” or “Get that n- out of there!”
Brown improved as a runner and passer as the season progressed, including a 56-7 win at Pitt and a 21-7 victory against a quality Tulane team in which he completed 15 of his 19 tosses, passing for one score and running for another. But in the season finale, it fell apart in a 28-8 loss at LSU. Notre Dame finished 8-2 and placed out of the AP and UPI Top 10 for the first time in Parseghian’s eight seasons.
In an interview with The Harrisburg Patriot-News’ David Jones, 34-year-old Leonard Brown, the older of Cliff’s two sons, relayed a story that his father shared for the first time with them not long ago. The night before the LSU game, Brown and a few black teammates took a stroll outside their Baton Rouge hotel for a little relaxation.
“At first, the streets were deserted,” Leonard relayed to Jones. “But my dad told me that within a few minutes, word must’ve spread that they were out there. The streets got crowded. And every guy had a pistol in his waist.
“One guy said, ‘Don’t think this is the only place we’ll have guns,’ trying to scare my dad, as if they were going to have their guns in the stadium.
“He was strong and driven in so many ways. Those trials he experienced, the way society was then, his parents never being there from a young age, all of it drove him.”
“It’s tough to come in as a sophomore like that when you began the season as the No. 3 quarterback, but he gave it everything he possibly could,” Pomarico said. “Maybe he was expected to do more than he was able to do because people were used to seeing Theismann.”
The following year, sophomore Clements – who could not be with the varsity in 1971 because it was the last year the NCAA did not permit freshman eligibility – beat out Brown for the starting position by the opener and the rest of his career. Clements had his own share of growing pains as a sophomore when the Irish again finished out of the Top 10 with an 8-3 mark. This included the 40-6 Orange Bowl loss to Nebraska in which Clements was 9-of-22 with three interceptions.
However, Clements displayed more consistency than Brown did as a sophomore, and he was the future of the program.
The staff remained confident in Brown as an ideal insurance policy at quarterback, but it was similar to the current situation with Golson moving ahead of the incumbent Tommy Rees. Like Rees, Brown also won the respect of his teammates for the way he handled the demotion.
“Nobody likes to get beat out, but he took it well,” Pomarico said. “I remember talking with Tom Pagna about it and how he said it could have been an explosive thing. He could have started some problems in the locker room and caused dissension by saying things like, ‘They’re not playing me because I’m black,’ and it could have been sticky in that time. But he supported the decision as being best for the team and always took the high road.”
Brown finished his career with a national title while working behind Clements in 1973. It wasn’t until 1987 that another black quarterback lined up for Notre Dame, and Tony Rice (1987-89) would direct a school record 23 straight victories and a national title in 1988.
Senior Kevin McDougal nearly directed another national championship in 1993 while becoming the all-time passing efficiency king in Notre Dame history.
From 1998 through 2003, Jarious Jackson (1997-99), Arnaz Battle (first two games of 2000 before getting injured) and Carlyle Holiday (2001-03) all took the throttle at Notre Dame as quarterbacks, with Jackson in 1999 breaking Theismann’s 29-year single-season record in passing yardage.
This year, Golson joined Theismann and Jackson as the only two Irish quarterbacks to pass for at least 2,000 yards and run for at least 300 in one season.
The game and attitudes have changed much since Brown’s era. R.I.P, No. 8.
- From the University of Notre Dame