A century ago this week, Notre Dame’s football team ventured from South Bend to play a premier opponent in a challenging environment; lost a game that included some controversial officiating; returned to receive accolades; and resolved to use the loss as a springboard to a greater future.
In October of 1914, Coaches Jesse Harper and Knute Rockne led 23 Notre Dame gridders onto the train, and “never before in the history of the school was a team given a more rousing sendoff.”
The destination was New Haven, Conn., where the mighty Yale Bulldogs awaited. Yale was the first name in football, power of all powers. It was where Walter Camp essentially created the game, and in 45 years, Yale had produced numerous national champions and All-Americans.
In front of 12,000 spectators at Yale Field — the adjacent 60,000-seat Yale Bowl would host its first game, the Yale-Harvard battle, a month later — Notre Dame put up a fierce fight, but fell, 28-0. The game was much closer than the final score indicated. At the end of both halves, Notre Dame had advanced to within inches of the Yale goal-line, only to have the referee halt action. (The timing of games was much less precise in those days, and subject to the referee’s discretion.)
In the game’s aftermath, Notre Dame’s coaches used the defeat to reinforce the proper attitude needed to approach a big game — and also introduced a strategic change that would alter how the school played football for decades to come.
Here is how we described it in the pages of Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne:
On the train ride back to South Bend, Rockne made an attempt to link the result to the players’ attitude going out to New Haven. “I know what was wrong with you boys today,” he sniffed. “You forgot to bring your scrapbooks with you. The Yale team didn’t know how good you were!” Later, Rockne would observe that the loss was “the most valuable lesson Notre Dame has ever had in football. It taught us never to be cocksure. Modern football can be dated from that game, as we made vital use of every lesson we learned.”
When the Fighting Irish arrived back in South Bend on Sunday, they witnessed an amazing scene. More than 1,200 students greeted them “as hearty a reception as they would if it had succeeded in defeating Yale. Every player was given a lusty cheer as he alighted. Then they got in machines, and a snake dance, which was about three-quarters of a mile long, followed behind them.”
The cheers finally subsided, though, and at Monday’s practice, it was back to work. Eichenlaub had been allowed to stop at his home of Columbus, Ohio for some rest, and Bergman was out with his injury. The rest of the Irish backs received instruction in a new twist of offensive strategy that Harper had learned from (Amos Alonzo) Stagg at Chicago—the backfield shift.
Stagg had begun experimenting with various shifts a decade earlier, and they had brought his Maroons success. In essence, shortly before the snap from the center, the four backs would shift from a standard T-formation to any of a number of other formations, such as a “box” with four corners. The snap could go to any of the four backs, creating tremendous versatility in the plays that could be run out of the formation. Ideally, all four backs would possess a variety of skills, as one individual might be called upon to provide interference on one play, and kick on the next. Dr. Henry Williams at Minnesota had also trained his team in the advantages of using the shift.
Harper and Rockne thus began that week to systemize the shift and make it Notre Dame’s own. Its main features would be deception and quickness and eventually, a syncopation, which had the players moving right up until the instant the ball was snapped; some argued that they were actually in motion during the snap. Rockne would later write that Stagg deserved “credit for this revolution in football that gave us the shift—the dramatic equalizer between ‘big’ teams and ‘little’ teams. The shift…was new and spectacular and gave the un-technical football fan a chance to see something of the game besides mass huddles, flying wedges and stretcher-bearers.”
Notre Dame men, Harper and Rockne argued, would be well-suited for the mental challenge in adapting to the shift: “It gives the small man, the clever chap, the quick mover and quick thinker a chance to play the game on equal terms with the big, bruising fellow.”
The backbone of the shift involved using brains, speed, and perfect execution to gamble for big yardage, rather than smashing into the line for a conventional gain of two or three yards, and plenty of bone-jarring collisions. Harper and Rockne were discarding the old “push and pull” system, in which both teams just slugged it out for one short gain, or loss, at a time.
“If you want to play that kind of a game,” Rockne noted, “you might just as well have a tug-of-war on the field and do away with intricate formations and signal calling.” Coaching the shift, and all its many variations and possibilities, engaged Rockne’s scientific and curious mind. As coach of Notre Dame’s ends, he added another twist to the strategy, suggesting that while the backs shifted, the ends “flex” to take a different angle in blocking their opposite number. Together, it was an entirely new approach to the game. Notre Dame football would never be the same.
In the years to come, especially after Rockne took over as head coach in 1918, Notre Dame football was known more for its shift than just about anything. Rockne, an intense student of timing and precision, had his four backs swinging into their new positions in such intricate syncopation that they seemed to be in constant movement.
For several years in the 1920s, the game’s Rules Committee tweaked the rules in an effort to get the Notre Dame shift to come to rest before the ball was snapped. But new rules or not, Rockne’s men made the Notre Dame Shift the most feared strategy of its era…and rode it to national championships in 1924, 1929, and 1930.