Noie: Notre Dame walk-on Bob Tull looks back on 1977 national championship run

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Filled beyond its borders with stuff waiting to be shared after so many years of being shoved to the back of some closet, a cardboard box sits on a side chair in the corner office that carries one heck of a view.

Out the west window is downtown South Bend. Barely a mile away from the city’s center is where the 61-year-old grew up and now owns a home. Out the south window on a day so clear that sunglasses should be worn to sit in the white-hot light bright room, is Father Bly Field. That’s the football home to his alma mater and his employer, South Bend Saint Joseph High School, where former Notre Dame offensive lineman and South Bend native Bob Tull serves as the school’s director of student affairs.

For now, the box sits, not touched or talked about. Not yet. Now’s not the time to go digging through it and rustling up memories of a magical college football season now 40 years in the rearview mirror. The 1978 Notre Dame graduate’s not quite ready to take another walk down Memory Lane, at least in terms of football.

How he’s sitting here, in this office, a Notre Dame man working on Notre Dame Avenue at his alma mater, that’s a story that first has to be told. Then the Notre Dame stuff. The 1977 national championship stuff. Some would say, the good stuff. Even great.

How did Tull, who bid Michiana good-bye some three-plus decades earlier, wind up driving back into town in the dead of winter with a job offer accepted and a house to find? Having called the Cincinnati area home for so many decades, Tull and his wife of 35 years, Meg, started thinking hard about their future in southwest Ohio. Was it where they really wanted to retire? Tull had spent decades teaching and coaching football at famed Moeller High School. He arrived there mere months before the head coach, Gerry Faust, would leave for Notre Dame.

Tull even followed Faust’s footsteps back to Northern Indiana. He spent three years (1981-83) coaching football at nearby Marian – his high school’s RIVAL – before returning to Cincinnati.

But Cincinnati didn’t hold his heart. South Bend did. It was his past. It would become his future.

Passing through town one day while dropping one of his seven children off at college, Tull stopped to see Saint Joseph principal Susan Richter. He brought with him a resume. If any openings were to come available, might Richter keep him in mind? Absolutely.

Three years passed. Nothing opened.

Tull then received an e-mail the Tuesday after last Thanksgiving outlining a job opening at Saint Joseph. Within a week, he was offered the position of director of student affairs. By January, Tull was settling into his corner office back at Saint Joe.

Back home.

“You couldn’t make this happen if you tried,” Tull said. “You trust in the Lord that things are going to work out. This was put in front of us by the Lord’s will.

“You couldn’t plan this.”

 A magical ride

What members of the Notre Dame football team could plan on was winning a national championship. Sometime, somewhere during their four years on campus, they would win at least one.

“When you come to Notre Dame, you expect to win national championships,” said Tull, who declined interest from several Big Ten and Ivy League schools to become a student on a college campus barely a mile away from his childhood home. “It’s Notre Dame. You’re supposed to be competing for a national championship every year. That was part of our job, that’s why you’re there, isn’t it?”

Tull was given the chance to chase a championship by the late Ara Parseghian. With a little help from assistants George Kelly and Wally Moore, both former Saint Joe coaches, Parseghian was persuaded to add Tull to the roster as a walk-on in the fall of 1974, his last season as a coach. Three years later, Tull, who figured he was just “a 6-foot-3, 235-pound piece of fresh meat” for the scholarship guys to knock around during the week in practice, was the third-string right tackle on a team that included Ross Browner and Vagas Ferguson, Luther Bradley and Bob Golic, Ken MacAfee and some floppy-haired backup quarterback from Western Pennsylvania named Montana.

“There were many great players on that team,” Tull said.

Tull played enough – at least 30 minutes of game action – to earn a letter in each of his final two seasons. He also left a lasting impression on his teammates. He wasn’t the biggest or the strongest or the fastest. But he had it.

“Bob is a great Notre Dame man,” team captain Steve Orsini told the Tribune via e-mail. “He was a great teammate who was dedicated, gave great effort, had a great attitude, was unselfish and was an overachiever.

“He loved Notre Dame and everything it stood for then.”

Nothing about the start of the 1977 season seemed special at the time to Tull. The Irish weren’t dominant. Far from it. Notre Dame barely beat Pittsburgh to start, then lost at Mississippi. Then trailed Purdue 10-0. The Irish were closer to 0-3 than on cruise control.

One game changed everything. A home game. Against Southern California.

The game was business as usual during warm-ups. But when Tull and the rest of the offensive linemen made their way into the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel, turned left and prepared to climb the stairs to the locker room, everything changed.

They heard the guys on defense, who had gone in minutes earlier, carrying on like they had just won the game. In a way, they had. They also heard two words, repeated over and over in some crazy pre-game chant.

“Green Machine!”

“Green Machine!”

“Green Machine!”

“We get to the top of the stairs and everybody is waving the green jerseys,” Tull said. “It was a crazy few minutes. The energy in the room was already unbelievable playing USC. To come back down and take the field with the green on, we were sky high.

“From USC on, you knew there was a little something more special going on.”

Notre Dame rolled over USC, rolled through the rest of the schedule and rolled to the school’s 10th national championship. This weekend, Tull and many of his teammates from 1977 will be on campus to commemorate that season. They’ll share laughs. Hugs. Tears. Trade stories. Remember the moments. The games. But most of all, Tull just wants to be around everyone, to catch up on what life is like today.

If they talk football, fine. But it’s not what defines them. Not anymore. Real life came calling. It’s about wives and kids and grandchildren and careers. Maybe some football talk. Maybe.

“The first few times we’re together for reunions, you miss it out there,” Tull said. “Wouldn’t you like to get back out there? Yeah! That fades quickly. Now it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, can you believe we ever did that?’

“Who’d ever want to go back out there now?”

Winning it all

And now, to the box.

Thirty minutes into his mid-week office chat with a visitor, Tull rises from his chair and heads toward the cardboard box. Still there on the chair. Its contents waiting to paint a picture of that season. Tull produces a 1977 team picture. There he is in the front row, seated next to MacAfee and right in front of Montana. Another photo shows Tull and the rest of the seniors on the squad seated together in the Cotton Bowl before the national championship game against Texas.

Tull continues to talk, continues to dig. He finds a green commemorative 7-Up bottle from the 1977 season. A framed photo of a Sports Illustrated cover after fifth-ranked Notre Dame beat top-ranked Texas, 38-10. Then a cassette tape.

On it is a recording about a little blue nun, often referred to as the ballad of the Sugar Bowl. It's a song recorded by Alabama fans who believed that there was no way that an 11-1 Notre Dame team should be crowned the nation’s No. 1 team over 11-1 Alabama. As the song goes, the final AP poll was determined by a vote from a group that includes priests, a bishop and even a little blue nun. Seriously.

What else is in there? What isn’t? There's a color photo of a smiling Tull still in full uniform on the floor of the Cotton Bowl, snapped just after the game. There’s another picture of Tull and some of his buddies – 10 of them, none football players, but just regular students – who made the trek to the Texas State Fairgrounds for the Texas game from New Jersey in an old RV.

Following the Cotton Bowl win, Tull declined a plane ride back to the Midwest, bid his family farewell, hopped into the RV and headed back to New Jersey. The trip had to last at least a couple of days.

“It seemed like it lasted a couple hours,” Tull said.

The guys and the RV were somewhere in Arkansas when they decided to make a pit stop. Someone bought a paper. In was a story about Notre Dame being crowned national champion by the Associated Press.

“We all thought it was going to happen,” Tull said. “That was the first time we found out about it.”

Tull’s national championship ring sits in the same closet as his green jersey. He doesn’t wear it often. He’s ready and willing to talk about 1977, but also understands that it’s 2017. Not that a Notre Dame football fan lives in the past. ...

“Where’s Rockne when you need him?” Tull said with a smile.

Tull’s done and lived a lot since. A lot that doesn’t have to do with football and rings and jerseys. For that, he’s grateful. For his life. For this weekend. For a chance to look back and remember. The moments. The people. The memories.

Eventually, the box will go back in the closet. By the green jersey. And the national championship ring. The weekend will end and Tull will get back to the paperwork in his office.

But the memories won’t soon fade.

“There are a lot of great things that have happened,” Tull said. “The reunion helps put it in perspective. It was a grand moment.

“It was special.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Beating rival USC while wearing green jerseys helped propel Notre Dame toward the 1977 national championship. That Irish squad returns to campus this weekend to celebrate their 40-year reunion. (Photo courtesy of Notre Dame).