September 18, 2014

100 Years Ago, Notre Dame-Army Changed Football Forever

On the afternoon of November 1, 1913, a pair of football teams representing all-male institutions of higher learning met on the Cullum Hall field at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. On that day, it is said, football changed forever.

For 18 students from the University of Notre Dame, a small Catholic college in northern Indiana, the trip began two days earlier, when they boarded a day coach in downtown South Bend, headed East on the longest football trek ever attempted at a school that began playing the game 25 years earlier. The captain of the Notre Dame squad, 25-year-old Knute Kenneth Rockne, reflected on his journey of the previous two decades. As a five-year-old, he was a new immigrant from Norway, learning English at the spanking new Brentano Elementary School in an area recently annexed to Chicago.

Now, he stood at the very heart of American pride – ready to take on the accomplished young men to represent an entire nation on the playing field. For most of them, it was a prelude to the battlefields on which they would fight in coming years. Men like Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley were honing their skills.

The game of football was evolving, from brutal “mass play” in which bodies crashed together on each play, hoping to gain a few inches, or feet, in the battle for position. Too often, the result included cracked skulls, busted limbs, bloodied faces. Death was one possible outcome. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt convened a meeting of football leaders and declared the game needed to change, or it would die.

Over the next few years, rules and strategies changed, and gradually an “open game” was played by more colleges. One element of change, the forward pass, was attempted by handful of schools, most notably by Coach Eddie Cochems at St. Louis University in 1906. But passing, by rule, was a risky proposition, and seen more as a desperation move than a means of consistently advancing the football.

Until that November day on the Plain of West Point. Rockne and his pal, senior Notre Dame quarterback Charles “Gus” Dorais, operated as coaches on the field for Irish boss Jesse Harper. And when Dorais declared, “Let’s open it up,” his teammates were ready. The 5-foot-7, 150-pound Dorais began flinging a series of passes, increasingly longer, to receivers running defined pass routes. When he let loose a spiral that followed a long arc into the arms of a racing Rockne, who finished the 45-yard-play in the Army end zone, the crowd – yes, the crowd at West Point – roared.

“Everybody seemed astonished,” Rockne would later write. “There had been no hurdling, no tackling, no plunging, no crushing of fiber and sinew. Just a long-distance touchdown by rapid transit.”

Dorais and Rockne, who had practiced their pitch-and-catch routine on the Lake Erie beach while working at Cedar Point resort in Ohio that summer, led Notre Dame to a shocking 35-13 upset of the Army.

Notre Dame, and college football, would never look back.

No longer would the game need to be a slugfest, a battle over small scraps of turf, in which only when positioned in the shadow of the opposition’s goal could an attempt for a score be made.

Now, the game had become artistry on an emerald canvas. Brains triumphed over brawn. A pair of small men – Rockne himself was just 5-foot-8, 165 pounds – could excel among giants. Deception, evasion, speed…these could be the answer to sheer muscle.

It all came together for Rockne that day. Before the month was over, he would have played in his final collegiate game. Now, he began to see his future as a coach, an innovator, and promoter of the game. A new game. Much more entertaining to those in the stands, those reading about it in the newspaper, and in a few years, those listening on the new invention, the radio.

The next fall, as assistant coach to Harper, a position that become essentially co-coach, Rockne was instrumental in implementing the Notre Dame shift, which positioned the four backs in such a way as that any of them could take the snap from center, and become runner, passer or receiver on the play. Teamwork, speed, precision, unpredictability. These became the four pillars of the Notre Dame backfield.

The goal was, yes, to win football games. But for Rockne, it was the start on another amazing journey. Before it ended, he became the unofficial spokesman for the sport. Traveling from coast to coast, he openly shared the “Notre Dame system” – detailing to aspiring coaches every detail of how he guided the Fighting Irish, after taking over as head coach in 1918.

His rise as a successful coach — his .881 winning percentage remains the highest ever among major-college coaches ¬¬— coincided with a period in which Americans had more leisure time and dollars than ever, and began flocking to sporting events as never before. Rockne took his teams to the nation’s major stadia, from Yankee Stadium in New York to Soldier Field in Chicago to the Los Angeles Coliseum. His “Ramblers” became a national phenomenon.

He was an advocate on anything that improved the fan experience at the game: contrasting jerseys for the teams; numbers on the backs of jerseys, and information game programs; announcers over loud speakers detailing the play; reasonable ticket prices, so that maximum number of people could be accommodated.

Between the years 1919 and 1929, under Rockne’s guidance, the season-long attendance for Notre Dame games grew nearly tenfold, from 56,000 to more than 550,000. Millions more followed along by radio. College football took its place alongside baseball, horse racing and prize fighting in the pantheon of favorite American pastimes.

In catching that first long pass from Dorais, Rockne noted “life for me was complete.” Perhaps so. Because the course for his career and life — like a long pass pattern on the Plain of West Point — was set in motion. There was no turning back.

 

 

Jim Lefebvre is an award-winning author and sports historian. This fall, he released his comprehensive biography Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne, available at www.CoachForANation.com. His first book, Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions, received three national honors for excellence. Jim also operates the website Forever Irish at www.NDFootballHistory.com.

Manti Te’o: A Mantle of Greatness

Following an afternoon of steady showers, the skies had opened into an all-out downpour on rain-soaked Notre Dame Stadium. Students romped with student-athletes, celebrating a dramatic goal-line stand that ended a classic, overtime victory against fellow heavyweight Stanford.

Manti Te’o stood with his arm around his coach, Brian Kelly, explaining for a national audience what had just happened. “This team will scratch, claw, do whatever it takes to win….We walked into the overtime knowing he had to stick together and execute, and that’s exactly what we did.”

There was a knowing look in Brian Kelly’s eyes. As if to say, this man next to me represents excellence. Greatness. Perseverance. Humility. Everything we want here at Notre Dame.

Much has been written and said about Manti Te’o and his tremendous football instincts. His ability to be in position, anticipate the play, read the situation, react and be there. The key tackle, the timely interception. It was never more in evidence than on his third-down stop of Stanford’s Stepfon Taylor in that goal line stand for the ages. Again and again, he makes the biggest plays in the biggest games.

From a strictly football standpoint, it’s his knowing. Knowing what’s coming next. Knowing where to be, how to react. In ways that cannot be measured by statistics, he transcends the game. He is the defender par excellence on the nation’s best defense.

But it’s his knowing about the important things of life that may be even more impressive.

In describing his decision to return for his senior year at Notre Dame, Manti mentioned family members wondering: Wasn’t reaching the NFL your dream? “I said, ‘the NFL is my goal. My dream is to have an impact on the most people possible.’”

He went on: “Money can’t buy the memories I can build here with my friends and family. When I die I can’t take a big Cadillac, a big house or a Rolex with me. But what I will take are the memories of my senior year at Notre Dame.”

For the 2012 football season, consider the dream realized. Manti’s impact, along with his teammates, has been to remind a nation that champions can also be truly decent people – with tremendous passion for doing things the right way, and caring for one another.

“There’s no better combination of person and place than Manti and Notre Dame,” says athletic director Jack Swarbrick. “He embodies so many of the value that are fundamental to this institution. Everybody he touches is a better person for being around him.”

Adds defensive coordinator Bob Diaco: “He’s the type of person you don’t replace. His worth to the team is incredible. They get an example of how to work, how to behave and how you conduct yourself on and off the field.” In describing Manti, strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo uses the term “other-centered.”

Notre Dame has always existed both in reality and as an ideal. In football, that ideal is that championship-level football can be played by real student-athletes who go to class, manage their time, graduate in four years with a meaningful degree, and leave campus ready to make a positive impact on the larger world.

And Notre Dame’s connection to the larger world is played out in numerous ways. As the place “where the church does its thinking” for one. And where various programs reach out to meet the world’s needs, from supporting global justice in Cairo to rebuilding communities in Bosnia.

Nearly 120 years ago, a five-year-old made a voyage from Bergen in Norway to Ellis Island, and went on to create a quintessential life as a successful immigrant to the U.S. Knute Rockne became the face of a Notre Dame that knew its mission could not be contained by geography, and had to go coast-to-coast, impacting millions along the way.

It’s fitting that in a season where the Irish traveled back to Europe, and criss-crossed the continent from Boston to Los Angeles to Miami, the key individual is one who crossed another ocean to become Irish. It is not too much to say that Manti brings with him the sensibilities of the indigenous Hawaiian peoples – a simple grace, more concerned with caring for friends and family than with material possessions.

Manti may not win the Heisman Trophy. (He also hasn’t tried to trademark a nickname.) Voters are distracted by shiny objects, like offensive statistics – in a game where once again, we’re reminded that defense wins championships.

But we all know. We know he truly deserves the Heisman. That he represents everything positive one could ever hope to associate with college football.

And, most importantly, Manti knows. He knows he will not be changed by winning the trophy, or by not winning it. It really doesn’t matter to him. He knows why he came back for his senior year. He is on a path to impact many other lives. If he makes millions from pro football, which seems certain, he will no doubt use it wisely to help others.

Manti knows the importance of living every possible minute, and living in the moment.
During this incredible 2012 season, coming back to be part of the Fighting Irish, being their leader…he knew he had to be there.

What Notre Dame fans know is that Manti helped turned the page to the next chapter of greatness for this University and its football program.

Manti knew.

Underdog Irish Shocked Nation, OU in ‘57

By Jim Lefebvre
Forever Irish
www.NDFootballHistory.com

In the fall of 1957, the Notre Dame football team found itself in a most unusual situation – trying to recover from possibly the worst season in the history of the program.

The 1956 season had ended 2-8, and even though the Irish had produced the Heisman Trophy winner in Paul Hornung, they had suffered a string of one-sided losses to top teams: a 48-8 thrashing at the hands of No. 3 Iowa, and back-to-back home losses to No. 2 Michigan State (47-14) and No. 1 Oklahoma (40-0). The 87 points were easily the most ND ever allowed in consecutive home games.

When fourth-year head coach Terry Brennan gathered his troops together in the fall of 1957, there was a changed attitude. Greater dedication. A certain toughness. And more physical practices.

“In 1956, we had a younger team, and it was felt there wasn’t a great deal of depth,” says 1957 co-captain Ed Sullivan. “The coaches let up on scrimmaging, fearing for injuries. So we hit tackling dummies all week. Only come Saturday, those ‘dummies’ hit back, and moved in different directions that we weren’t used to from practice. And once that happens, it’s hard to adjust to.

“Football, then and now, is a game of fundamentals. You have to know how to block and tackle. And the only way to become proficient at that is to do it. Repetition. Day after day.”

In ’57, the renewed focus on physicality seemed to work as ND started the season by shutting out in-state Big 10 foes Purdue, 12-0, and Indiana, 26-0. The Irish zoomed to No. 12 in the nation, went to Philadelphia and won a squeaker over No. 10 Army, 23-21. They came home and edged Pittsburgh, 13-7, to sit 4-0 on the season, ranked No. 5 in the nation.

The euphoria wouldn’t last, however. On Nov. 2, No. 16 Navy came to rainy Notre Dame Stadium and whipped the Irish 20-6. A trip to No. 4 Michigan State was next, and the Spartans again had a field day against ND, winning 34-6.

So the Irish were now 4-2 on the season and, dating back to the final game of 1955, a 42-20 loss at USC, had lost 11 of their previous 17 games. It was little wonder that they were nearly three-touchdown underdogs as they boarded a plane and headed to Norman, Okla., to meet the three-time defending champion Oklahoma Sooners.

By 1957, Bud Wilkinson was already a football legend – a walking embodiment of college football excellence, having been a part of six national championship teams. The Minneapolis native was a guard and quarterback for head coach Bernie Bierman at Minnesota, helping lead the Golden Gophers to three consecutive national championships from 1934 to 1936.

Wilkinson’s overall record as head coach at Oklahoma from 1949 through Nov. 15, 1957 was a Rockne-like 101-8-2. The Sooners had not lost since the 1953 opener, when Coach Frank Leahy and his top-ranked Irish came to Norman and defeated No. 6 OU, 28-21. After a 7-7 tie against Pittsburgh the next week, the Sooners beat Texas, 19-14 to start the most dominating run in college football history.

After closing out 1953 with nine straight wins, Oklahoma went 10-0 in ’54, 11-0 in ’55 and 10-0 in ’56. So far in ’57, the Sooners had ripped through seven opponents, outscoring them, 200-48. That made 47 straight wins for the Sooners, the all-time record in major college football.

Sullivan, the Irish captain and center, injured his knee the previous week against Michigan State, and was not part of the Notre Dame traveling party headed to Oklahoma, as each available spot was filled by an able-bodied player. But he managed to find his own way to Norman, and before the game he reached the Notre Dame locker room, only to be stopped by a security guard.

“They had to go get someone to identify me, tell them I was the captain of Notre Dame,” Sullivan recalled recently. “When I got into the dressing room, I think it had an impact on the guys. They didn’t expect me to be there, and now all of a sudden it’s, ‘how did he get here?’ I think it blew a lot of them away to see me show up.”

And the Irish were further fired up when they saw what Sullivan carried with him.

“We rolled out (hundreds of) the telegrams pasted together,” he said. “The students had gotten organized and sent all these telegrams, and I took them with me to the locker room. My message was, ‘The student body is here with me, supporting you.’ Well, the fellows were so excited, they nearly crushed Coach Brennan leaving the locker room.”

As for the game, Oklahoma “was expected to annihilate us, especially after what they had done to us the previous year,” Sullivan said. But he recalls that teammate Nick Pietrosante was “a big factor all day, on offense and defense.” On the winning drive, “it was Pietrosante to the left, Pietrosante to the right, all the way down the field. Then, on the winning play, it was a fake to Pietrosante and a pitchout to Dick Lynch, and he got loose and did the rest.”

Not only was Sullivan unavailable for the Irish that day, but so was his backup Bob Scholtz. That left the center position to third-string Frank Kuchta, from Cleveland. Kuchta performed admirably, and was named AP Lineman of the Week.

“That was just fantastic for Frank,” said Sullivan. “I was tickled to death for him. It was certainly the highlight of his college career.”

The same could be said for a whole bunch of happy Irish headed back to South Bend that night.

Here is how the game was covered by the AP and UP on the scene that day….

Lynch’s Run In Final Four Minutes Gives Irish 7-O Win
Notre Dame Ends Oklahoma Win, Scoring Streaks

By SAUL FELDMAN

NORMAN, Okla, (AP)- Oklahoma’s all-time record of 47 straight football victories was shattered yesterday by an underdog Notre Dame team that marched 80 yards on the ground in the closing minutes for the all-important touchdown and a 7-0 triumph.

Oklahoma, No. 2 ranked in the nation and an 18-point favorite, couldn’t move against the rock-wall Notre Dame line and the Sooners saw another of its national records broken- scoring in 123 consecutive games.

The defeat was only the 9th for Oklahoma Coach Bud Wilkinson since he became head coach at Oklahoma in 1947 and virtually ended any chance for the Sooners getting a third straight national championship.

Although the partisan, sellout crowd of 62,000 came out for a Roman holiday, they were stunned into silence as the Sooners were unable to pull their usual last-quarter winning touchdowns- a Wilkinson team trademark. As the game ended, when Oklahoma’s desperation passing drive was cutoff by an intercepted aerial, the crowd rose as one and suddenly gave the Notre Dame team a rousing cheer.

It was a far cry from last year when the Sooners ran over Notre Dame 40-0. The victory gave the Irish a 3-1 edge in the five-year-old series dating back to 1952.

The smashing, rocking Notre Dame line didn’t permit the Sooners to get started either on the ground or in the air. The Sooners were able to make only 98 yards on the ground and, in the air, just 47. Notre Dame, paced by its brilliant, 210-pound fullback Nick Pietrosante, rolled up 169. In the air, the Irish gained 79 yards, hitting 9 of 20 passes, with Bob Williams doing most of the passing.

Notre Dame’s lone touchdown drive, biting off short but consistent yardage against the Sooners’ alternate team, carried from the 20 after an Oklahoma punt went into the end zone.

Time after time, Pietrosante picked up the necessary yard when he needed it as the Irish smashed through the Oklahoma line. Notre Dame moved to the 8 and the Sooner first team came in to try to make the third Sooner goal line stand of the day. Pietrosante smashed four yards through center and Dick Lynch was stopped for no gain. On the third down, Williams went a yard through center

Then Lynch, who had failed to score from the one-foot line in the second period, crossed up the Sooners and rolled around his right end to score standing up. Monty Stickles converted to give Notre Dame the upset and end collegiate football’s longest winning streak.

The closest Oklahoma could get to Notre Dame’s goal was in the first quarter when the Sooners’ alternate team moved to the 3 before being held on downs. In the third period, brilliant punting by first string halfback Clendon Thomas and alternate quarterback David Baker kept Notre Dame back on its own goal line but the Sooners couldn’t capitalize.

Thomas set punts down on the Notre Dame 15 and 4 and Baker put them down on the 3 and 7 and waited for the breaks that have come the Sooners’ way in the past to help them keep up their streak through 47 games. This time there were no breaks as Notre Dame shook off last week’s jitters that saw the Irish fumble away the ball five times to let Michigan State have an easy 34-6 victory.

Pietrosante scored almost a third of Notre Dame’s rushing yardage as he made 56 yards on 17 carries. Lynch was just two yards behind with 54 in 17 carries while the best any Oklahoma player could muster was 36 yards in 10 tries by first string halfback Clendon Thomas.

Williams completed 8 of 19 for 70 yards. In Oklahoma’s last minute desperation drive, third string quarterback Bennett Watts made 2 of 3 for 31. Notre Dame was the last team to beat Oklahoma, at the start of the 1953 season on the same field that it smothered the Sooners yesterday. Then coach Frank Leahy’s Irish beat Oklahoma 28-21. The next game, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh tied 7-7. Then, the Sooners set sail through the 47 games until Terry Brennan’s Irish stopped the string yesterday.

Wilkinson, the nation’s winningest, active coach, had amassed 101 victories in his 10 years at Oklahoma. There were 3 ties. Yesterday was his 8th loss.

Oklahoma started out as if it would stretch its string to 48 at the expense of the Irish. It marched the first time it got its hands on the ball from the Sooner 42 down to the Irish 13 but the big Notre Dame line stiffened on the 13.

Oklahoma continued to play in Notre Dame territory the rest of the first quarter and had another chance when a Notre Dame fumble with 9 minutes gone was recovered by right guard Dick Corbitt on the Notre Dame 34. However, the Sooners were stopped cold and finally Baker had to punt on fourth down.

In the second quarter another Sooner drive got down to the 23 but on the first play second quarter, starting back Carl Dodd fumbled. The ball was punched around in the Sooner backfield and Pietronsante finally smothered it on the Notre Dame 48.

Then Williams started his passing attack to three different receivers and piloted the Irish down to the 3 with first and goal. Pietrosante picked up a yard in each of two plunges, Frank Reynolds went to the one foot line and then Jim Just was held for no gain.

Then Notre Dame came back with its bruising ground game and moved to the 16. With fourth down, Stickles came in for his fake kick but instead hit Just on the six for a first down. It was then on the second play that Reynolds pass was intercepted by Baker in a desperation lunge in the end zone.

“They Were Just Better”: Wilkinson
Lynch scores winning touchdown around end.

NORMAN, Okla. (UP)- Some may have called Notre Dame’s upset 7-0 decision over Oklahoma yesterday “The luck of the Irish”, but victorious coach Terry Brennan said simply “we just played 60 minutes of good football against a great team.”

Brennan and the entire Notre Dame squad emphasized that the triumph was the result of a great team effort combined with superb scouting.

Coach Bud Wilkinson in his usual sober tone said it was a tough job to accept defeat in the face of his team’s brilliant 47-game winning streak. “They were just better than we were yesterday,” he said. “They deserved to win.”

Brennan said he could not single out any individual as the key player but said quarterback Bob Williams; guards James Schaaf and Allen Ecuyer and tackle Don Lawerence were the stalwarts “if anyone has to be mentioned personally.” “It feels great to beat a grand team and for the first time we played 60 minutes of football and we came down here to win,” Brennan said in a dressing room jammed with with wishers. “Oklahoma is a great team and must be considered as good as any we played. We just happened to have one of our best days and I don’t believe anyone could have beaten us.”

Brennan said that every play in Notre Dame’s touchdown drive was engineered by Williams. Dick Lynch, who scored the the touchdown was probably the happiest fellow among the Irish. “That is the shortest but best touchdown I’ve scored this season. Monty Stickles blocked out the end and Pietrosante took care of the outside halfback. I believe we could have gone 95 yards on the play if we had been at the other end of the field.”

Brennan, asked if he would have called a field goal on the fourth down play instead of a run, replied, “No, we decided at the half to go all the way. We were afraid Oklahoma could go all the way anytime they had the ball and felt that it would take a touchdown to win.”

Williams explained the winning play thusly. “They were in tight, real tight, just waiting for me to give the ball to Pietrosante. Well, I just faked it to him and tossed out to Lynch and it worked like a charm.”

Wilkinson said Oklahoma really never had a chance to score. ”They had our pass receivers covered very well,” he added. “We had time to throw the ball but couldn’t get anybody open.”

Asked why he put his third and fourth stringers into the game near the finish, Wilkinson said, “I just thought they might do better.”

Jim Lefebvre writes at Forever Irish (www.NDFootballHistory.com). He is author of the award-winning book Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions, and is currently working on the definitive biography of Knute Rockne, entitled Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne, scheduled for release in 2013.

History Renewed at Soldier Field

When Notre Dame renews its storied rivalry with the Miami Hurricanes Saturday night in Chicago’s Soldier Field, it will happen within the hallowed confines of a site that has seen its own iconic place in Notre Dame football history. It will be only the 12th Notre Dame game to take place at the landmark lakefront stadium, but the previous 11 include some of the most well-attended and classic matchups in college football history.

The Irish are unbeaten at Soldier Field, with a mark of 9-0-2. Eight of the games took place between 1924 and 1931, as college football’s – and Notre Dame’s – burgeoning popularity drew massive crowds of the well-off alongside the lunch-bucket brigade.

The first game featured Knute Rockne’s “wonder team” of 1924 – led by the Four Horsemen and the Seven Mules – which was scheduled to play Northwestern at that school’s home field in Evanston, a place seating about 15,000. But just days before the game, it was switched to the new Grant Park stadium (not yet named Solider Field). Here is how we described it in Loyal Sons:

One of the crowning jewels for Chicago was the opening of the new $5-million Grant Park stadium, along the lakeshore south of the “loop district.” Designed by Holabird and Roche, its Classical Revival style used the Greek Doric order, the most distinctive feature being a pair of systole colonnades along the east and west sides. Each colonnade, flanked by tetra style templates, was built with a double row of 32 columns.

The great edifice was declared ready to use in late summer, with about 35,000 seats completed and construction on seating sections continuing. On September 6 and 7, the stadium was dedicated when crowds of 45,000 and 50,000 gathered for the annual Chicago Police Department track and field meet. In the coming weeks, the stadium would host a great variety of civic events, from a children’s parade circus to the Chicago Day program, when men of Troop A of the Fourteenth Cavalry charged with their horses through rings of fire.

A committee of the local American Legion suggested that the new stadium be named in honor of Chicago’s soldiers who served in the world war. A group of Gold Star mothers, who had a plan for another memorial nearby, argued against it. On October 17, the Chicago Tribune editorialized that “Soldiers’ field is the best name for the Grant park memorial to ers’ Field,” they said, “where the youth of the nation can compete in health-giving games is the best memorial to a soldier whose first requisite to serving hmen of the world war. Soldiers and young men are alike the world over.” The name was also backed by the executive committee of the World’s War Veterans.  “Soldiers’ Field,” they said, “where the youth of the nation can compete in health-giving games is the best memorial to a soldier whose first requisite to serving his country is a good physical condition.”

The first football game at the mammoth new field was the 1924 Public League High School championship game. Then, on Armistice Day, the “Catholic college championship of the Midwest” was contested between Columbia College of Dubuque, Iowa, coached by ex-Irish star Eddie Anderson, and St. Viator of Bourbonnais, Illinois, a frequent foe of Notre Dame reserve teams. A rainstorm turned the field into a mud hole, and the teams sloshed their way to a scoreless tie.

The new stadium was as ready as it could be. During the week, Northwestern’s movable bleachers were installed at the north and south ends of the gridiron, adding several thousand seats to the site. Officials decided several thousand more could be admitted to standing room areas. Workmen also thickly dressed down the field with hay to protect the turf.

On game day, though, the new field showed the effects of the recent snow and rain and was in poor condition. Players slipped and slid in pre-game warm-ups, while the heavily bundled crowd, many arriving at the stadium for the first time, struggled to find their seats.

The game itself was a defensive tussle on what became a mudbath of a field. Tied 6-6 in the second half, ND got the winning score when Elmer Layden intercepted a pass and returned it 45 yards for a TD. Layden later left the game with an injury, and his famous mates were fortunate to close out the 13-6 victory, one of the closest calls in a perfect season that included lopsided wins against strong teams like Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

On the short train ride back to South Bend, the Irish were quietly mulling the close shave they endured when a swaying inebriate burst into their car. The conductor asked him to show his ticket, but the man scoffed. “Where are you headed?” the conductor asked, “New York, Toledo or Cleveland?”

“I don’t know,” replied the disoriented rider. “I guess I’m not going anywhere.”

Jim Crowley didn’t miss a beat, commenting, “He must be one of the Four Horsemen.”

Three years later, Soldier Field hosted the second game of the ND-Southern Cal series, and first to be played in the Midwest, as a massive throng of 120,000 set the record for the largest crowd to watch a football game. It was the season-closer, on November 26, years before USC would request a trip to the Midwest earlier in the season.

The size and makeup of the crowd was featured in page after page of articles and photos in the Chicago newspapers. Celebrities and politicians were numerous. The Chicago Tribune also reported: “Not all of the boxes were occupied by notables and society folk, for the gangsters and detectives called off their shootings until after the game and were out in almost full force except a few, who didn’t have tickets and were left in jail, but all the ‘big shot hoodlums’ were there, behaving just like gentlemen.”

Notre Dame edged the Trojans, 7-6, in a game marked by controversy. Late in the fourth quarter, ND’s Charlie Riley fielded a USC punt near the Notre Dame goal line, bobbled the ball and crossed into the end zone, where he was hit hard, knocking the ball out of bounds. The officials ruled it a touchback. USC players and coaches stormed the field, insisting it should have been a safety and an 8-7 Trojan lead. Instead, ND won 7-6.

The ’27 USC game also helped propel forward plans to built Notre Dame Stadium. Rockne had been lobbying university administrators for years that a replacement for rickety Cartier Field could help bring big-time opponents and large crowds to campus. In 1928, it was proven the previous year’s USC game was no fluke, as another estimated 120,000 – including a paid crowd of 103,081 – turned out in Chicago for a 7-0 win over Navy.

In 1929, as Notre Dame Stadium was being built, Soldier Field hosted three Irish victories, over Drake, Wisconsin and USC, en route to ND’s second consensus national championship. The USC game, on November 16, was like many that season in that Rockne, confined to a wheelchair or gurney due to severe phlebitis, played a limited role. With the scored tied 6-6 at the half, he was brought into the locker room and made a brief speech, after which Joe Savoldi scored the winning touchdown early in the second half. USC scored on a long run but missed the point-after, and the Irish escaped with an exciting 13-12 win.

In 1930, the Irish breezed through their first eight opponents, playing five games at new Notre Dame Stadium, before the undefeated season came down to games against its two biggest rivals – Army and USC. The Irish had played Army 16 times since 1913, with the first nine games at West Point, then seven contests in New York City. But this time, with a long trip to the West Coast looming the following week, Notre Dame asked Army to visit the Midwest, so the Cadets traveled west for a November 29 game at Soldier Field.

The crowd estimated at 110,000 – with 103,310 paid – was pelted with snow and rain under dark, low-hanging clouds. Yardage was at a premium, and the teams appeared headed toward a scoreless tie. Until, with less than six minutes left, Notre Dame executed what they called “the perfect play” in which a number of blocks were completed with exact precision, and the ball carrier Marchie Schwartz was escorted by end Tom Conley and fullback Moon Mullins on a 54-yard TD run. The conversion made it 7-0.

But in the final minute, Army blocked a Notre Dame punt and recovered in the end zone for a TD. Army’s extra point attempt was described this way in The Big Game: “Notre Dame sets up a nine-man line against the conversion attempt and the forwards crouch for the savage lunge…A frail, blond kid named Chuck Broshous stands bare-headed on the 12 yard line, arms outstretched, waiting to drop-kick. He has wiped the ball with his sweatshirt to improve his chances. He opens his hands as a signal for the snap and the line meet. The ball never gets off the ground. Notre Dame’s complete wall is in on him and the swarm inundates the pigskin and the lightweight Cadet.” Final, ND 7, Army 6.

The two ties at Soldier Field were a 0-0 deadlock with Northwestern in 1931, and a 13-13 final against Great Lakes in 1942. It was another 50 years before the Irish returned to the stadium, when they downed Northwestern 42-7 in 1992. The last visit prior to Saturday was a 42-7 win against the Wildcats in 1994.

Chicago’s great edifice will again shine on Saturday night. The spirits of Rockne, the Four Horsemen, and other Irish greats will surround Coach Kelly, Manti Te’o and his mates as they strive to create more ND history in the Windy City.

******

Jim Lefebvre writes at Forever Irish (www.NDFootballHistory.com). He is author of the award-winning book Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions, and is currently working on the definitive biography of Knute Rockne, entitled Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne, scheduled for release in 2013.

Visiting the Land of The Gipper

We used Notre Dame’s bye weekend to make a long-anticipated trip to the Copper Country of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – the area that gave us George Gipp and several other ND standouts of the Knute Rockne era. It was research for our upcoming biography on Rockne…and a great reminder of all the unique places that are part of the Notre Dame story.

Back in the 1910s, the copper mining industry was at its peak in the area, and copper helped fuel a burgeoning economy and population in the region. Some 90,000 lived in Houghton County, including the cities of Houghton, Hancock, Calumet and Laurium.

Calumet High School alone sent to Notre Dame not only Gipp, but Heartley “Hunk” Anderson, who would become Rockne’s great confidante, assistant coach and ultimately his successor as head coach of the Irish; fellow lineman Ojay Larson; hockey-football athlete Percy Wilcox; and a few years later, Dominic Vairo, captain of the 1934 Irish, and Larry Danbom, starting fullback in the mid 1930s.

The Gipp Memorial is a beautifully designed and maintained V-shaped park that features a monument made of rocks from the shores of nearby Lake Superior. A Notre Dame flag is proudly flown above the memorial, which also features plaques and a path of paving stones in the shape of a football. A visitor can’t help but be moved by the civic pride evident in the hometown of one of the all-time greats of college football.

Gipp’s childhood home at 432 Hecla Street in Laurium stills stands, as does Hunk Anderson’s on Tamarack Hill at the edge of Calumet. And a significant portion of Calumet High – including an impressive and classically outfitted assembly and study hall – dates back to the late 19th century.

School board president and local historian Bob Erkkila was our tour guide extraordinaire, and he made sure we saw it all. Some hockey side trips were also fascinating – to Houghton’s Dee Stadium, birthplace of U.S. professional hockey; the Colosseum in Calumet, the oldest continually-operating indoor ice arena in North America; and George Gipp Arena in Laurium.

Friday night, we joined a good crowd at Agassiz Field to watch the Calumet High School Copper Kings take on rival West Iron County. The Copper Kings roster is dotted with names like Torola, Kariniemi, Lahnala, Pieti, Mattila, Tanskanen, Erkkila, Eskola, Helppi and Lasanen, speaking to the great Finnish heritage that worked the mines.

A full moon rose just over the pine trees that ring one end of the field. Before the game, the Calumet band takes the field single file, seemingly from between the pines. The color guard is front and center. Time for the National Anthem.

And then….the Victory March, as played by the Calumet Copper King High School band.

You could almost feel the spirits of Gipp, Anderson, Larson, Wilcox, Vairo, Danbom. The links to the past, the strength of tradition. These are the cornerstones of Notre Dame football… yesterday, today, tomorrow.

It was perfect.

******
Jim Lefebvre writes at Forever Irish, at www.NDFootballHistory.com. He is author of the award-winning book Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions, and is currently working on a definitive biography of Knute Rockne.

Realignment Solution: The Big 76

OK, I’ve tried to keep this quiet up till now, but can’t hold out any longer.

My source absolutely swears this is true.

You know how last week, University of Connecticut president Susan Herbst said, “Geography no longer matters in college football.”

Then, like, was it yesterday – West Virginia joined, or maybe wanted to join, or thought it joined its natural allies by becoming the Xth member of the Big XII.

Well, here goes. The real plan, the one everyone’s keeping under wraps, is to create the (wait for it)….

SuperDuper MegaMax Conference America/USA/Galaxy/Universe.

The Big 76, for short.

My source can’t be named because he/she/it is not authorized to comment on anything outside of his/her/its department at Target.

But don’t worry, this is really happening.

Seventy-six teams in one conference – horseradish, you say? Wait a minute, my cynical friend, this thing actually makes some sense.

Here’s how it’ll work…

There will be nine divisions of eight teams each. (Well, actually, one division has 12 teams, but you’ll see why).

For an eight-game conference schedule, each school will play one game per season – selected at random by a computer in Opalocka, Florida — against one team from each of the other eight divisions.

No games against your own division’s teams?

Well, no, not every year. But every ninth year, after completing the round-robin against the other divisions, you get to play the other seven teams in your division, plus one at-large opponent who must be at least five states away.

Of course, the greatest news is that this all sets up perfectly for what everyone has always wanted – a true, settle-it-on-the-field college football playoff!

It’s simple.

The top 52 teams automatically make the round of 64; with 24 schools competing for the final 12 spots.

Games continue Saturday after Saturday, as the field is pared to 64, then 32, then 16, 8, 4, and finally – the National Championship Game, approximately March 1.

Don’t you see, it flows seamlessly into March Madness. And the champion (assuming it comes from the top 52 schools) must only win six playoff games to claim the title.

OK, I know you’re all on board with this, and can’t wait to see which division (don’t you dare call them conferences – there’s only the SDMMCA/USA/G/U) your favorite school will end up in.

So here they are….

 

Brainiacs Division

All of these schools rank in the top 25 of U.S. News’ rankings of leading national universities. In fairness, so does Cal and USC, but they were placed elsewhere, as you’ll see….and no doubt agree.

Duke

Northwestern

Notre Dame

Rice

Stanford

UCLA

Vanderbilt

Virginia

 

That-Smell-is-Manure Division

All of these rank in the top 15 of leading Biological / Agricultural Undergraduate Colleges and Universities in 2010, from uscollegeranking.org. Here, Bessie…

Illinois

Iowa State

Michigan State

Nebraska

North Carolina State

Purdue

Texas A&M

Virginia Tech

 

Cool Schools Division

Admit it, knowing what you know now, don’t you wish you had gone to school in Madison, Boulder, Berkeley, Austin or one of these other cool locations? Awesome, dude.

Arizona State

California

Colorado

Florida

Michigan

Oregon

Texas

Wisconsin

 

God and Country Division

You got your Baptists and Catholics, your Methodists and Mormons, and some fightin’ men and women. Now let’s play some gol-dang football.

Air Force

Army

Baylor

Boston College

Brigham Young

Navy

Southern Methodist

Texas Christian

 

Miscreant Division

Each of these schools is currently, has been or should be under investigation by the NCAA for various misdeeds. 12 teams are in this division, the powers-that-be hoping that in any given year, 8 might be eligible for the playoffs. A six-team limit of former SEC schools was placed on this grouping.

Alabama

Auburn

Boise State

Florida State

LSU

North Carolina

Ohio State

Oklahoma

Ole Miss

South Carolina

Tennessee

USC

 

Roundball Division

These schools are much more likely to show up in the Elite Eight of hoops than the fantastic new ExtraSuperCool Eight of the college football playoff tourney.

Arizona

Connecticut

Indiana

Kansas

Kentucky

Louisville

Syracuse

Wake Forest

 

Cant-Get-There-From-Here Division

This is where it really gets fun, as grade-school students from all across the country follow along in a special online Geography unit, seeing how teams travel cross-country for days to arrive at destinations such as Lubbock, TX, State College, PA or Pullman, WA.

Iowa

Kansas State

Mississippi State

Oklahoma State

Penn State

Texas Tech

Washington State

West Virginia

 

NFL Doubleheader Division

Going to see the Dolphins, Vikings, Seahawks or five other NFL teams? See if you can check out the local college eleven as part of your weekend. Tickets are usually not a problem.

Cincinnati

Georgia Tech

Houston

Miami

Minnesota

Pittsburgh

South Florida

Washington

 

Nothing-in-Common Division

It was a very long day when the highly-secret Gang of Several put together and named these divisions (Nobody from the B10G or whatever it’s called was allowed in the room).  They could find nothing similar, or remotely clever, about these eight leftov—er rather, remaining, teams.

Arkansas

Clemson

Georgia

Maryland

Missouri

Oregon State

Rutgers

Utah

 

So there you have it…. Remember, you read it here first.

Sorry, gotta go. My source is headed to the Witness Protection Program and needs a lift.

Something about not having his/her/its license yet.

 

Jim Lefebvre is a college football author and historian.  His book is the award-winning Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions. Jim writes mainly at www.NDFootballHistory.com.

 

ND’s First Night Game Was Also in Michigan, in 1951

History will be made Saturday night at Ann Arbor when Notre Dame takes on Michigan in the first night game in the history of Michigan Stadium.

It will be the first of a record five night games for the Irish this season, including the first night matchup against USC to be played at Notre Dame Stadium (October 22).  Notre Dame has played four night games in a season six previous years, beginning in 1990 and including the past two seasons.

Overall, this will be Notre Dame’s 94th night game in history. The Irish have a record of 58-33-2 in the previous 93.

Ironically, the very first night game Notre Dame ever played was also in the state of Michigan, just shy of six decades ago.

On Saturday night, October 5, 1951, a capacity crowd of 52,371 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit watched the Irish romp past the University of Detroit Titans, 40-6.

The home to baseball’s Tigers at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull already had a long history. The site, first known as Bennett Park, hosted the first Tigers home game in 1896. On September 24 of that year, Bennett Park became the site of Detroit’s first night baseball game.

The park was later rebuilt as Navin Field; then, in 1938, it was expanded and renamed Briggs Stadium for new Tigers owner Walter Briggs. That season, it also started hosting pro football, and was home to the Lions until 1974 (having been renamed again as Tiger Stadium in 1961).

The University of Detroit Titans had a consistently respectable football program through the first half of the 20th century.  Legendary Notre Dame quarterback Charles “Gus” Dorais led the Titans as head coach from 1925 through 1942, posting a record of 113-48-7.  Detroit dropped football for the war years of 1943 and 1944, but Dorais continued coaching at Briggs, guiding the NFL’s Lions from 1943 through 1947.

In 1951, Coach Chuck Baer’s Titans were coming off a 6-3-1 mark in 1950, with wins against Villanova and Oklahoma State. They opened 1951 with three straight home games, defeating Toledo, 34-32, and falling to Houston, 33-7, before the Irish arrived.

The Irish were coming off the worst season in Coach Frank Leahy’s tenure, 4-4-1 in 1950, but started ’51 strong with a 48-6 thrashing of Indiana at Notre Dame Stadium.  Neil Worden, sophomore fullback from Milwaukee making his varsity debut, smashed across for four touchdowns in a 35-point second quarter. Johnny Lattner contributed a TD and an interception.

The Irish had surprised the football world in the Indiana game by unveiling their new “I” formation backfield.  All four backs –- quarterback John Mazur, halfbacks Bill Barrett and John Peitibon and fullback Worden — lined up in a row perpendicular to the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame's new "I" formation was unveiled a week before the first night game in 1951.

Under the lights of Briggs Stadium, Notre Dame got its first score before many in the huge crowd had settled into their seats. Petitbon, a senior sprinter from New Orleans coming off an injury-plagued junior year, took the opening kickoff and raced 85 yards down the right sideline for a TD.  Before the first quarter was over, Petitbon added touchdown runs of 80 and 39 yards, and the Irish led 20-0; they made it 26-0 before halftime on a TD pass from Mazur to Jim Mutscheller.

Lattner, primarily a defensive specialist in ’51 before starring at right halfback the next two seasons, picked off Ed Gornak’s pass and raced 32 yards for a fourth-quarter score. Third-stringer Ralph Guglielmi snuck over for the final TD as the Irish triumphed, 40-6.

The loss would propel Detroit to a 4-7 record that season; Notre Dame finished 7-2-1.

During those years, Detroit was one of a number of Catholic universities playing major college football.  The Titans’ schedule included regular matchups with fellow Jesuit institutions Marquette, San Francisco, Boston College and Fordham, as well as Villanova and Duquesne.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, was decades into a tradition of playing top schools nationwide, and leaving the other Catholic schools to battle it out with one another for the honor of being the nation’s No. 2-ranked Catholic football squad.

In fact, the Briggs Stadium game was Notre Dame’s only meeting with a fellow Catholic school during a stretch of nearly a half-century, between a 12-6 victory over Loyola of New Orleans to open the 1928 season (the last at Cartier Field) and the 1975 season opener against Boston College at Foxboro, Mass., a 17-3 Irish win.

Four years and two nights after the Detroit game, the Irish played their second night game, a 14-0 win at Miami.  Most of ND’s earliest night games were away contests in Southern locations, and many seasons in the 1950s and 60s included no night games.

When the Irish won the 1973 national championship with a 24-23 triumph over Alabama in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, it was only the 15th night game in school history.

The era of night games at Notre Dame Stadium began on September 18, 1982, with a 23-17 season-opening victory against Michigan.  The game was made possible with the advent of Musco Mobile Lighting, a company from Oskaloosa, Iowa. The ability to bring in portable lights also made possible late-afternoon kickoffs, in addition to a string of truly “prime time” night games from 1982 to 1990.

Two other night games in that stretch were victories over Michigan – 19-17 in 1988 and 28-24 in 1990 – giving Notre Dame an all-time record of 3-0 vs. the Wolverines in true night games going into Saturday.

 

Jim Lefebvre is the author of the award-winning book Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions.  He also edits the website Forever Irish at www.NDFootballHistory.com, and the e-newsletter Irish Echoes.