As Levi’s® Stadium prepares to host the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship Game, it’s a perfect opportunity to recognize some of the notable San Francisco 49ers alumni who won a natty during their college careers.
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With that, we begin this “National Champions” series with one of the Mount Rushmore faces of 49ers history – Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana. Before becoming a four-time Super Bowl Champion, Montana led the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to a national championship in 1977.
It was an unorthodox year for Montana in that he started the season as Notre Dame’s No. 3 quarterback. But after an ugly home loss against Ole Miss in Week 2 and amid an early deficit against Purdue in Week 3, head coach Dan Devine turned to Montana. Montana led a comeback as the Fighting Irish ultimately topped the Boilermakers, 31-24.
Notre Dame still faced an uphill battle as it attempted to climb back atop the national rankings. A decisive, 49-19, win against fifth-ranked USC put the Irish back in the conversation among the best teams in the country. They’d go on to run the table for the rest of the season, securing a 10-1 record before a matchup against top-ranked Texas in the Cotton Bowl Classic. A 38-10 route of Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell and the Longhorns made the Irish consensus national champions.
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Below is a Q&A regarding Montana’s top memories from the season.
49ers.com: How would you describe that season, given the huge expectations going into the year?
Montana: “It didn’t get off to the start that everyone expected, but then we got things back aligned. We had a pretty good team. We should have never lost a game. We put ourselves in a bad spot losing to Ole Miss in the second game of the season. It was a battle climbing back up in the rankings. Beating USC the way we beat them (49-19) helped us get back up there. Still, nobody gave us a chance against Texas in the Cotton Bowl. They had every trophy – the Heisman (Earl Campbell), the Outland (Brad Shearer), the best kicker, the best punter – everything you could imagine. But our defense was pretty tough. I’m pretty sure nine of those 11 starters went on to be NFL starters.”
49ers.com: Were you surprised how much you handled Texas despite all the talent on its roster?
Montana: “We were all pretty confident in our ability to win the game, but I don’t think we thought it was going to get out of control like that. One of the biggest keys was Bob Golic on Earl Campbell. There’s a picture of Bob standing up Earl despite playing with a torn hamstring. Our defense played really well.”
49ers.com: What does it mean to be a national champion and how does it stack up to the rest of your football achievements?
Montana: “It’s one of those things that means more and more as the years go by. You look back and you recognize how difficult it was to get to that point. It was a pretty special time because we were in one of the top programs in the country. The friendships that I made were similar to those I made in the NFL. Winning a national championship is right up there with all of the Super Bowls. I keep that ring with all the rest of my rings.”