December 13, 2017

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.

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.

“Mr. Outside” Glenn Davis

I often tell friends and colleagues that I feel cheated–not having seen Ted Williams hit a baseball. Quite often, I also ponder what it would have been like witnessing Rocky Marciano throwing punches, Satchel Paige pitching in his prime, or Oscar Robertson putting up “triple-doubles” nightly. Now allow me to add a new one to my dream-filled “wish list”: I wish I could have seen Glenn Davis run with the football–or just run PERIOD.

At 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, Glenn Davis arrived at Army in 1943 with an athletic reputation much larger than his rather modest physical frame; he had earned 13 letters in four sports at Bonita High in La Verne, California, and had scored a remarkable 256 points on the gridiron during his senior year. After being sent home in December of 1943 by the military academy for failing a math course, Davis returned the following year and would team up in the Army backfield with a man named Felix “Doc” Blanchard to form possibly the greatest college duo to ever line up behind a quarterback. “Mr. Inside” and “Mr. Outside” they were called–Davis the latter for his blazing speed and ability to break huge plays around the end of the line. Just HOW good was this backfield? Blanchard garnered the Heisman Trophy in 1945 for his spectacular, bruising play (his backfield mate finished second) while the speedy Davis would win the prestigious award the following year; they both played effectively on the defensive side too–although their offensive prowess gave birth to yet another nickname: the “Touchdown Twins.” Oh, yeah–Army won national titles each year from 1944 through 1946 while posting a 27-0-1 record when the two stars were teammates.

Glenn Davis was a first team All-American in ’44, ’45, and ’46; he was also voted the AP male athlete of the year in his senior year–the first football player to gain that honor. He still holds the NCAA record for most yards per carry for a career (8.3), and scored 59 touchdowns during his football tenure at Army while compiling close to 3,000 yards rushing. Symbolic of his natural, overall athletic ability, Davis THREW five TD passes to Blanchard during their time together. He even had time to play a little baseball at Army too–hitting .403 in 51 games there while stealing 64 out of 65 bases. But it was football that defined Glenn Davis as an athlete. His coach, Earl “Red” Blaik, called him the best halfback he’d ever seen, while a former teammate–Bill Yeoman–relayed the following words to the L.A. Times back in 1983: “There are words to describe how good an athlete Doc Blanchard was. But there AREN’T words to describe how good Davis was.” And just HOW fast could Davis run? He ran a 6.1-second, 60-yard dash at Madison Square Garden in 1947, defeating Barney Ewell–who would win the silver medal in the 100 meters the following year at the Olympic Games in London. Again, I wish I could have seen a man named Glenn Davis run.

Ironically, Glenn Davis’ football fame and popularity would ultimately be his downfall. While filming a football scene at UCLA for the movie “The Spirit of West Point” (also starring Doc Blanchard) shortly after leaving Army, Davis tore ligaments in his right knee–and would never regain the blazing speed that defined his game. Yes, he did play for the L.A. Rams for a couple of years after fulfilling his military commitment, and also contributed fairly well to the squad that won the 1951 NFL championship. But “Mr. Outside”–as far as his athletic ability was concerned–was truly finished after sitting out the 1952 season due to the bad knee. He’d officially call it quits after an exhibition game vs. the Eagles in 1953–no longer able to run with the abandon and swiftness that once rendered him perhaps the most talented athlete in America.

Looking back on the life of one Glenn Davis, who died in 2005 of complications from prostate cancer at the age of 80, one might assume that his athletic accolades, incomparable speed, and celebrity status (he even dated Elizabeth Taylor at one time) would have imbued him with an unapproachable, “better than thou” attitude during his life–much like many ex-athletes we witness today. But Mr. Davis was always surprisingly modest–especially about his greatness on the gridiron–as witnessed by these words he relayed to the AP in 1995: “I wasn’t the kind of guy who liked to pick the newspaper up to find out how I was doing. I just did my thing the best I could.” In his post-football days, Glenn Davis worked for the Los Angeles Times–where he would often spearhead many charitable sporting events until he retired in 1987. Graciously, he donated his Heisman Trophy to Bonita High School before he died, where his athletic achievements/heroics are honored by the school’s athletic field bearing his well-respected name. In addition, the Glenn Davis Award is given out annually to the top high school football player in Southern California.

Glenn Davis was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1961. Along with Doc Blanchard, he was given the Doak Walker Legends Award in 2003 at a touching ceremony held at SMU. Lastly, he made the trip to West Point for the final time back in October 2004 to be inducted into Army’s esteemed Sports Hall of Fame. Quite frankly, he was the best athlete many people had/have ever seen–and perhaps the best I NEVER saw. An instant star the very first day he stepped foot on Army grounds in 1943, he seldom disappointed while on the gridiron–and remained a HELLUVA guy off it. As for Doc Blanchard, he passed in 2009. I’m sure that the memory of a man named Davis surely brought a smile to his face later in life.

Glenn Davis, I wish I could have seen you run.