February 18, 2018

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.

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.