Southern California’s Sweet Air, Orange Groves Lured Rocknes, Led to ND-SC Series

By Jim Lefebvre

As Brian Kelly gathers his battered troops for a trip to Los Angeles to conclude the regular season in Notre Dame’s 85th meeting with Southern Cal, rumors swirl around the fifth-year Irish head coach.

Speculation centers on this question: Wouldn’t a job as an NFL head coach seem more appealing than dealing with endless recruiting wars, academic suspensions, an uneasy fan base, and yearly sky-high expectations?

After all, in the NFL, when players drop from injuries, you simply hire some new ones. And you can lose six or sometimes seven games and still have a playoff team.

Ah, but this grass-is-greener mirage is nothing new. In fact, 90 years ago, on Notre Dame’s first-ever trip to sunny Southern California, it nearly ensnared legendary Irish coach Knute Rockne.

In the fall of 1924, Rockne and his Fighting Irish became a truly national phenomenon. From their victory over Army at the Polo Grounds in New York — after which sports writing giant Grantland Rice gave the “Four Horsemen” nickname for the Irish backfield — to the opening of the new Grant Park stadium in Chicago with a win over Northwestern, to huge victories over leading teams from the South (Georgia Tech) and the Midlands (Nebraska), Rockne’s “Wonder Team” had the nation buzzing.

The ND-USC series garnered national excitement. Here in 1927  George Herman "Babe" Ruth (wearing ND), Knute Rockne, sports agent Christy Walsh, Lou Gehrig (wearing SC), and USC coach Howard Jones.

The ND-USC series garnered national excitement. Here in 1927 George Herman “Babe” Ruth (wearing ND), Knute Rockne, sports agent Christy Walsh, Lou Gehrig (wearing SC), and USC coach Howard Jones.

After a 9-0 regular season, they embarked on a bowl trip for the ages – a three-week odyssey to and from southern California to play in the January 1, 1925 Rose Bowl. During that trip they were feted at each stop by Notre Dame alumni, Knights of Columbus, local fans, officials, and clergy. In the Rose Bowl game, before a packed house and a radio transmission that stretched coast to coast, the Irish used three defensive scores to upend mighty Stanford, coached by Pop Warner and featuring the great Ernie Nevers, 27-10, to cap a season which earned Notre Dame its first consensus national championship.

Here, from the pages of Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne, is how we described the aftermath:

On Friday, January 2, the Notre Dame traveling party enjoyed a tour of Hollywood and the motion picture studios. The Irish players, sore from the terrific battle, were able to smile through the festivities; all day, cameras clicked as the players met movie stars, who signed studio publicity photos for the players. The highlight was the meeting of the greatest of all stars – Rudolf Valentino – and the newly crowned king of college football – Rockne. Each resplendent in their finery, they chatted a bit and posed for a photo. Rockne’s easy manner made for pleasant exchange, though it was unlikely “The Sheik” had watched much football that or any other season. Still, the fact one of his motion pictures now had its name attached to Rockne’s star backfield made the few moments the two spent together a perfect finale to the 1924 season.

That evening, Leo Ward and the Notre Dame Club of Los Angeles hosted a first-class dinner-dance at the Hotel Biltmore, providing the players with their first real chance to celebrate. No expense was spared, and the players enjoyed what one called “one of the outstanding events of the trip.” By 7:30 the next morning, they were aboard the Daylight Limited headed to their next stop, San Francisco. But Knute and Bonnie Rockne stayed behind in southern California, for several days of relaxation and personal business. Notre Dame alum Angus McDonald had paved the way for the Rocknes’ stay, writing Father Walsh in mid-December that Rockne would need a break after the long, grueling season “for the sake of his own and his wife’s health.” McDonald noted that the coach was in a “highly nervous condition…I fear that unless he takes a rest he will break down.” Few alumni could address Walsh as McDonald did, suggesting the president “should let Rockne know that his absence from the university will not seriously interfere with anything, and thereby relieve his mind.” Walsh offered no resistance, and the layover was planned.

What neither Walsh nor McDonald had counted on was a meeting the Rocknes would take with officials at the University of Southern California. The school’s football team was coming off a season filled with embarrassments: a fifth consecutive loss to the University of California; broken athletic relations with both Cal and Stanford over allegations of Southern Cal using ineligible players; and, following the cancelation of the Stanford game, a loss to little St. Mary’s, coached by former Notre Dame star Slip Madigan. Over six seasons, “Gloomy Gus” Henderson had a 45-7 record, but twice perfect seasons were upset with losses to Cal, and officials were ready to make a change – especially if they could nab the hottest coach in football.

Already, Bonnie Rockne had fallen in love with southern California. The sunny days, soft breezes, comfortable nights, open spaces and orange groves all spoke to a more relaxing existence than back in cold, snowy, sometimes stark South Bend. Here, kids could easily play outdoors year-round, with plenty of activities from which to choose. For Knute, now a celebrity himself, the idea of being around the movie stars and other notables had a certain appeal. And when they were taken on a tour of the recently constructed Coliseum, its columns and arches mimicking its Roman namesake, its huge field surrounded by nearly 76,000 bleacher seats, the Rocknes were all but sold. No more would Rockne have to dream of the far-off day when the authorities at Notre Dame and in South Bend could become perfectly aligned and the coffers full enough to erect a proper stadium. Here, he envisioned year-round use of the magnificent structure for not just football games, but track meets, athletic festivals, and coaching schools.

Southern Cal was willing to meet a number of conditions – and make Rockne a relatively wealthy man. This was vastly different from some of the other schools who had approached him. Northwestern, Iowa, Carnegie Tech – most of these were trial balloons being floated by schools officials hoping to get a read on Rockne’s willingness to leave South Bend. As recently as December, a prominent alumnus at Wisconsin made it known to Rockne he could take over as football coach and athletic director; but Rock didn’t pursue the lead, in deference to his great friend, Badger basketball coach Doc Meanwell, himself a candidate for athletic director. But this offer, from a land with so much to offer, this was different. Rockne’s pledge that he would never leave Notre Dame seemed long ago and far away, even after winning a national championship.

The Rocknes wrapped up their stay, said goodbye to the palm trees and sweet smells of jasmine, and headed back to snowy South Bend. On January 15, 1925, the Southern Cal comptroller wired Rockne that all of his conditions had been met. But the agreement soon took an awkward course. News of the offer made the Los Angeles papers, and then those across the country, before Rockne was able to meet with Father Walsh and attempt to get out of his long-term Notre Dame contract. Walsh, like many others, found out about the offer from the newspaper reports, and threatened legal action if it proceeded. Southern Cal officials apologized for the leaked story, but reiterated its desire to sign Rockne. In the end, though, Walsh’s bluff worked to scuttle the deal. Rockne feared legal action, and told Southern Cal he regretted the whole incident, since it might have put him in a negative light with some important Notre Dame alumni. A final shot came from one Southern Cal official, who noted that it was “almost criminal” for Notre Dame to hold Rockne to his contract, if it was clear Mrs. Rockne much preferred to live in Los Angeles.

In the end, Southern Cal didn’t get its man, but relied instead on a recommendation from Rockne to talk with former Iowa coach Howard Jones, who at the time held a 1-0 career coaching record against Rockne, having led the Hawkeyes to a 10-7 upset over the Irish in 1921 at Iowa City, ending a 20-game Notre Dame winning streak. In eight seasons at Iowa, the former Yale standout had crafted a record of 42–17–1. But a contract dispute escalated after the 1923 season. It seems that Jones’ wife was not fond of Iowa City, so Jones requested a contract that would require him to live in Iowa City only during the football season. The university balked, and Jones resigned as coach and athletic director. For the 1924 season, he coached football at North Carolina’s Trinity College, today’s Duke University. In 1925, he began his superlative 16-year run as USC’s head coach.

Check out the Order Information tab on how to get your own copy of the award-winning book.

Check out the Order Information tab on how to get your own copy of the award-winning book.

One positive result of the back-and-forth over Rockne’s possible move to the West Coast was an agreement to begin a football series between Notre Dame and Southern Cal, beginning in 1926 with a season-ending game at the Coliseum. The every-other-year trip to Southern Cal to end the season became a jewel on Notre Dame’s schedule, and overshadowed any desire or plan to find a post-season game, which would become known as bowl games. And, indeed, the 1925 Rose Bowl was the last bowl game the Irish would play in for the next 45 years.

Instead, the trip west to meet the Trojans to conclude every other season became the premiere event, with major supporters of the Irish joining the train entourage in South Bend and along the way.

Knute and Bonnie Rockne would turn the trip into some vacation time, such as in 1926, when they steamed from California to Hawaii. So, in a sense, they enjoyed the best of both worlds – soaking up the sun among the palm trees, while still being employed by the university that had been Rockne’s home since 1910.

For Brian Kelly, it will be more like an either/or proposition. Escape to the pros, or stay at Notre Dame and face the many challenges that come with the job.




Without Camp and Stagg There Would Be No Rockne

Walter Camp

Walter Camp

We salute ESPN College Game Day for honoring college football’s roots by heading to Cambridge this weekend for The Game between Harvard and Yale.

Yale’s Walter Camp is recognized as the father of college football and his number one disciple Amos Alonzo Stagg brought the game “west” to the University of Chicago. And it was growing up in Chicago as a young boy that legendary coach Knute Rockne first learned the game.

Amos Alonzo Stagg

Amos Alonzo Stagg

Without Camp and without Stagg there would be no Rockne. The life of Knute Rockne could never be told without looking at the early formation of this great game that we love so much.

We invite you to read a sample chapter from our award-winning book Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne in which we chronicle the formation of the game. If you enjoy the chapter, consider ordering the entire book.

Sample Chapter – Football Comes West

Rockne Made Arizona Stop Part of ’24 Rose Bowl Trip

By Jim Lefebvre

Notre Dame’s journey to the desert to take on Arizona State on Saturday afternoon marks just the second time the Irish have visited the Sun Devils at their home field, the first being a 28-9 ND victory in 1998. The Irish have visited Tempe for four Fiesta Bowls, the most memorable (and only victory) being the 34-21 win over West Virginia on Jan. 1, 1989, to secure the 1988 national championship.

But the state of Arizona played a crucial role in a previous ND national championship team several decades earlier. En route to the Jan. 1, 1925 Rose Bowl game against Stanford, Coach Knute Rockne had his Irish stop for several days of preparation at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where they were hosted by Rockne’s good friend, UA coach Fred “Pop” McHale.

The follow recounts part of that spectacular Rose Bowl trip that included the stop in Arizona. The 1924 season is detailed in Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne and Loyal Sons: The Story of the Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions.

The backdrop to the historic 1924 season was an event from the spring of that year. The Ku Klux Klan, a rising power flexing its anti-Catholic muscles, planned a major rally for downtown South Bend, and hundreds of ND students, including several football players, took the bait and went up against the Klan in what became something of a melee. The Klan used the altercation to further enflame anti-Catholic passion, painting the ND lads as ruffians out to upset a group of Klansmen who had peaceably assembled.

Anyone who knew the facts realized this was nonsense, but the fact remained – ND had something of a PR problem on its hands. Rev. John O’Hara, prefect of religion at the time (akin to a dean of students) felt strongly that the nation must be shown a better image of Notre Dame. And Rockne presented him with the perfect platform – a powerful football team of clean-cut fellows who mowed down the strongest teams from across the land, in defeating Army, Princeton, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin, Nebraska.

As the word of Rockne’s “wonder team” led by the “four horsemen” took root among the nation’s sporting fans, O’Hara, with Rock’s blessings, hatched the idea of a cross-country trip to showcase and celebrate these outstanding young men, the best face of Notre Dame.

So when the invitation to meet Pop Warner’s Stanford team in the Rose Bowl materialized, so did O’Hara’s plan for a three-week odyssey to and from Pasadena. The trip would allow ND alums, local Knights of Columbus clubs, local clergy and the average fan to pay honor to the undefeated Irish. Stops were planned in Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, El Paso and Tucson, before arriving in southern California.

Coach Rockne and his undefeated 1924 team head west for the Rose Bowl, which included a stop in Arizona.

Coach Rockne and his undefeated 1924 team head west for the Rose Bowl, which included a stop in Arizona.

The fetes started in South Bend, where first a packed downtown banquet, then a rousing sendoff at the old Gymnasium, ignited unprecedented passion for the team. At 10:17 on Saturday morning, December 20, from a campus nearly deserted by students headed home for the holidays, the Fighting Irish started their journey, heading first to Chicago. Almost on cue, a winter storm featuring snow, cold and fierce winds slammed into South Bend. Rockne’s support of the long trip looked wise. At 8:15 Saturday evening the team, cheered by several hundred Notre Dame fans who had gathered, left Chicago on the Illinois Central bound for New Orleans. The first stop, at 8:50 Sunday morning, was Memphis, where a group of Notre Dame alums and Knights of Columbus met the Notre Dame party and escorted them to St. Peter’s Church for Mass.

Sunday afternoon in New Orleans, the temperature dipped below freezing and for a few moments, snow flurries fell for the first time in a decade. Despite the chill, more than 600 people gathered outside the Union Station long before the approach of the Notre Dame football train, anxious to get a look at the famous team. Among the crowd were Notre Dame alumni as well as students from Holy Cross College, which like Notre Dame was operated by the Congregation of the Holy Cross. The school was founded in 1849 – just seven years after Notre Dame – when five Holy Cross priests and brothers traveled to New Orleans from South Bend. In 1879, when Notre Dame’s Main Building burned to the ground and seriously threatened the continued existence of the school, the Holy Cross school of New Orleans sold a piece of its property for $10,000 and sent the money north to help Notre Dame rebuild.

As the train pulled in on the station’s outer track, cheers went up for the famous team and its coach:

“Rah rah rah rah”
“N-O-T-R-E D-A-M-E”
“Rock-ne Rock-ne Rock-ne”
“Yea Yea Yea”

Regular passengers at the station found it hard to maneuver through the huge crowd. As the Irish players stepped off the train, they were guided through the baggage room to waiting cars. Everyone wanted a glimpse.
“Say, isn’t that Harry Stuhldreher, one of the Four Horsemen?”
“Isn’t he simply grand,” one girl remarked of Adam Walsh.
“There goes Don Miller.”
“These boys are too good looking to be football players.”

The players appeared small, a local reporter commented. Not like a team that has gone through a season undefeated against some of the nation’s best elevens.

From the station, the squad was ferried by auto to the Roosevelt Hotel, where they were mobbed by well-wishers in the lobby. A “carnival crowd” pushed as they tried to get near the players; Stuhldreher had a large group offering congratulations. In the banquet hall, the players devoured a turkey dinner amid some short welcoming speeches. Monday morning, they arose for 8:30 Mass at Sacred Heart Church. After a breakfast at the Roosevelt, the team was taken on a boat ride through the New Orleans harbor aboard the Marie, the yacht of B.S. D’Antoni, president of the Loyola Athletic Council. After that, it was a luncheon at Holy Cross hosted by President Brother Matthew. By mid-afternoon, the Irish were on the field at Loyola University’s stadium, where some 500 fans gathered to watch the team go through its paces. Though it wasn’t a full scrimmage, fans were able to see the first unit mostly on defense, practicing against the anticipated Stanford plays. After practice, it was back to the Roosevelt for a performance by a group of Loyola students, then a huge banquet put on by Notre Dame and Holy Cross alumni.

After Mass and breakfast Tuesday morning, the team returned to Loyola for another brief workout, consisting of passing and kicking, a signal practice and dummy scrimmage. Before departing for Houston on the Sunset Limited just after noon, Rockne thanked New Orleans for its gracious reception, but added that once in Houston, the social calendar would be cleared out and the players would get down to work in preparation for the big game. He also changed the team’s itinerary, skipping the stopover at El Paso in order to get more quickly to Tucson, where he felt the team could establish a base of operation more conducive to working up to game readiness.

Unusual weather continued to precede the team’s travels, as Houston was under a mantle of ice from a storm that dropped temperatures to 22 degrees, the city’s lowest reading in years. Local trains and telegraph services were out, leaving Houston “cut off from the rest of the world,” according to one report. The idea of acclimating the team to warm southern weather was not working out. But the traveling party pressed on, rolling over Southern Pacific lines on the Sunset Limited and pulling into Houston late Tuesday night. They were greeted by the local Knights of Columbus and taken to the Bender Hotel. A noon banquet on Wednesday, December 24, honored the team, after which a practice at the Rice Institute field elicited more pessimism from Rockne. The team looked soft and slow, he told reporters, due to too many rich meals at banquets and not enough physical exertion.

On Christmas Eve, Father O’Hara tried to lighten the mood by playing Santa Claus for the fellows, giving them each a token of the school’s admiration of them. The team attended midnight Mass at Sacred Heart Church. For most of the players, it was the first Christmas away from home. “It will be hard times not to spend Christmas at home,” wrote Elmer Layden to loved ones. Wrote fellow Horseman Don Miller: “While I am sorry that I cannot be home during the Holidays, I am thankful for the chance to see the Pacific.”

When Knute Rockne stepped off the train in Tucson, he looked up at a bright blue sky and broke into a wide grin, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. Finally they had encountered the mild weather he had hoped for. Minutes later, after a member of the welcoming committee gave him the schedule of receptions, dinners and banquets, his mood darkened. Rockne thought that his club was already showing the physical and psychological effects of too many feasts on the trip and that the players needed a different regimen. His hosts explained that special care was being taken to feed his players healthy food and allow them plenty of rest, and he again smiled and gave his approval.

The stop in Tucson was originally scheduled for two days, December 29 and 30, but with El Paso off the itinerary, the team would spend four days in the Arizona city. No place on the tour was more excited to be hosting the Irish. In early December, representatives of Tucson and the University of Arizona lobbied Notre Dame officials to consider taking the Southern Pacific route west and to spend some time in their area. The university offered thorough accommodations, including use of all its athletic facilities, especially its well-maintained football field.

The chef at the Santa Rita hotel, Notre Dame’s headquarters, was given instructions on what to prepare for the players. Each player’s diet was to be strictly monitored, and even the banquets would consist of simple foods. The players could purchase cigars for souvenirs, but they were expected to refrain from smoking them.

The team’s train pulled into Tucson early Saturday morning, December 27, and by the afternoon, 1,500 local fans were watching the Irish at their first workout on the university field. A simple meal followed, and the players were in bed by 9 p.m. On Sunday, the team attended mass said by Father O’Hara at the Cathedral. Originally, there was no practice scheduled for Sunday, but Rockne decided to add one to make the best use of the good weather and available time.

“We have been giving alibis for four days,” the coach scolded his players. “We are going to get down to business. We’ve got a reputation to uphold and we are going to win from that coast gang.” The players practiced blocking, tackling and running back kicks. For the final portion of the workout, the stands were cleared of onlookers so that the Irish could practice some plays they planned to use against Stanford. After the session, Rockne expressed satisfaction with the workout, saying his players were returning to form.

The local press hailed the Irish players as regular college students who happened to play football well; many had their school books along, preparing for final examinations which awaited them in mid-January back on campus.

100 Years Ago, ND Shifted From Notable Defeat

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.

Sound familiar?

Knute Rockne guided Notre Dame to three national championships with an offense built around the famed "Notre Dame Shift."

Knute Rockne guided Notre Dame to three national championships with an offense built around the famed “Notre Dame Shift.”

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.

90 Years Ago Today: “Outlined Against A Blue-Gray October Sky…”

To celebrate the 90th anniversary of the famed game between Notre Dame and Army played at the Polo Grounds in New York City on October 18, 1924, award-winning author Jim Lefebvre has shared a chapter from the book Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne on his web-site Forever Irish. The chapter captures the magic and wonder of the atmosphere that surrounded the city and the Notre Dame team as they came to New York to take on the vaunted Army team.

4 Horsemen_Classic_GBBY-45F0944

From Jim’s book:

“Grantland Rice, in the evening twilight and gathering chill, sat at his typewriter in the Polo Grounds press box and pondered his opening. Something about Strickler’s halftime comment and the imagery of horses stuck in Rice’s mind when he reflected on the Notre Dame backfield. He recalled the 1923 game at Ebbets Field, when an out-of-bounds play brought to mind the possibility of being trampled by a runaway team of horses. It all clicked. His fingers hit the typewriter keys:

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.

A cyclone can’t be snared. It may be surrounded, but somewhere it breaks through to keep on going. When the cyclone starts from South Bend, where the candle lights still gleam through the Indiana sycamores, those in the way must take to storm cellars at top speed. Yesterday the cyclone struck again, as Notre Dame beat the Army, 13 to 7, with a set of backfield stars that ripped and crashed through a strong Army defense with more speed and power than the warring cadets could meet.”

For information on how to order Coach For A Nation, click here.






100 Years Ago, Rockne First Patrolled ND Sidelines

On Saturday, Oct. 3, 1914, the Notre Dame football team opened its season with a home game against Alma College of Michigan, the school where second-year ND head coach Jesse Harper had begun his coaching career eight years earlier.

Assisting Harper on the Notre Dame sideline that day was 26-year-old Knute Rockne, making his coaching debut. The previous season, Rockne had served as captain of the Fighting Irish, and something of a mentor on the field. Now, he was guiding the players – in particular, the line – who had been his teammates a year before.

Rockne’s status as leader of the 1913 team, his love of the game and all its nuances, and his enthusiasm all made him much more than a typical assistant coach.

In fact, the Notre Dame Scholastic started its “Season Outlook” by reporting:

“With Assistant Coach Rockne in command, the football season started in with a rush early in the month. Realizing that Notre Dame is facing the hardest schedule, not only in her own history, but in the whole country this year, all the veterans of last year’s Varsity, Freshman and all inter-hall teams, were back early, and ready for work.”

The preview article concluded with this assessment of the Notre Dame coaches:

“Coach Harper displayed his powers last fall and immediately assumed an equal place with Yost, Stagg, Daly, Houghton and other leading coaches of the day. As an able assistant, we are safe in saying that no better man could have been picked than Rockne. “Rock” was one of the best ends that ever handled a ball, and his expert manipulation of the forward pass forced Walter Camp to give him an All-American position. Rock is admired and respected, not only as a coach but as a gentleman. As Mr. Harper puts it, “Notre Dame is very fortunate in having Rockne.” Besides assisting in football, Rock will have full charge of the track team.”

It had been a whirlwind few months for Rockne – or, in other words, normal life for him. In the spring of 1914, he plunged headlong into the coaching game, guiding the football team in its spring drills. In June, he received his bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame. A month later, he married Bonnie Skiles in Sandusky, Ohio. And, he was accepted into medical school at St. Louis University.

But there was a sticking point. Med school officials at St. Louis were cool to the idea of Rockne doing some coaching while attending to his studies. It was clear his plan wasn’t going to work out. Notre Dame put forward an offer to keep the bright young man on its campus. Rockne would become head track coach, assistant football coach and teach chemistry in the prep school, for a total stipend of $1,000 per year.

Around the game time, a small Catholic college in Dubuque, Iowa (today’s Loras College) was looking for a football man to head up its athletic department. Dubuque hired Charles “Gus” Dorais, Rockne’s teammate, quarterback and close friend.

Rockne and Dorais concocted a story that they had “flipped a coin” to decide who would take which job. This tale was repeated in numerous accounts of both men’s lives down through the years. Only years later did Dorais reveal that it was a lark, a story “made up for the newspapers.”

Clearly, Harper and Notre Dame wanted Rockne to stay on campus and begin his career guiding Notre Dame’s track and football athletes.

For the season opener at Cartier Field on Oct. 3, 1914, Notre Dame was missing a couple of star players – fullback Ray Eichenlaub and the captain, tackle Keith “Deak” Jones, both out with injuries. But they were able to prevail against Alma. For the 13th straight year, Notre Dame won its season opener, this time trouncing the visitors, 56-0.

The Rockne Era of coaching at Notre Dame was underway.

ND 1914 Line(1)

Photo and credit

Assistant coach Knute Rockne, far right, guided the members of the 1914 Notre Dame line, who were his teammates the year before. From left, they are: RE Rupert Mills, RT Ralph Lathrop, RG Charles Bachman, C Freeman Fitzgerald, LG Emmett Keefe, LT and Captain Keith “Deak” Jones, LE Allen “Mal” Elward.

—Photo courtesy of the six children of Jerry Hickey (1919-1999) and Rosemarie Lubbers Hickey (1926-2013), who purchased Knute Rockne’s former home at 1417 East Wayne Street in 1957 and lived there until Ro’s death in 2013.

Rockne To Be Inducted in Rose Bowl Hall of Fame

The 1924 Notre Dame football team, featuring the Four Horsemen and Seven Mules, played and defeated a gauntlet of some of the top teams in the nation — Army, Princeton, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin, Nebraska — en route to a 9-0 regular season. They were dubbed “Rockne’s Wonder Team” and awarded recognition as national champions by several selectors, even before heading out to Pasadena to meet Stanford in the January 1, 1925 Tournament of Roses game.

Notre Dame's win over Stanford in the 1925 Rose Bowl cemented ND's first national championship title.

Notre Dame’s win over Stanford in the 1925 Rose Bowl cemented ND’s first national championship title.

When Rockne’s men defeated Pop Warner and his Ernie Nevers-led Cardinal, 27-10, before a packed house of 53,000 at the Rose Bowl, it cemented the ’24 Irish as Notre Dame’s first consensus national champs.

Now, 90 years later, Knute Rockne takes his place among the top all-time Rose Bowl players and coaches. Yesterday, Rockne was announced as one of the three 2014 inductees into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.

Rockne will be inducted along with UCLA Coach Dick Vermeil and Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter. The Rose Bowl Hall of Fame, created in 1989, now has 113 inductees.

Notre Dame’s journey to and from the 1925 Rose Bowl was unlike any bowl trip in history—a three-week cross-country odyssey which showcased the “Wonder Team” to adoring fans and proud ND alums in more than a dozen cities. The story is told in great detail in the books Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame’s 1924 Champions and Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne.



100 Years Ago Today: Notre Dame Commencement 1914

By Jim Lefebvre

100 years ago today, on Monday June 15, concluding three days of campus celebrations, final Commencement exercises were held before a packed house at Washington Hall for the Class of 1914 at the University of Notre Dame.

Among the degrees awarded:

“The Degree of Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy is conferred on Knute Kenneth Rockne, Chicago, Illinois.”

1914 Notre Dame graduate Knute Kenneth Rockne.

1914 Notre Dame graduate Knute Kenneth Rockne.

Elsewhere on the program, Charles Emile Dorais of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, was one of 38 graduates awarded a Bachelor of Laws degree. Dorais was one of a handful of graduates to present Bachelors’ Orations, delivered in Washington Hall on the morning of Commencement Day. His talk, entitled, “The Regeneration of the Individual,” quoted Plato and Socrates and celebrated individual freedom and natural law.

One striking aspect of the 1914 Commencement was the seemingly low number of graduates, even considering total enrollment at the time was barely over 1,000. Fewer than 100 bachelor’s degrees were awarded.

It’s instructive to remember that continuing through college and gaining a degree was far from a given once a student stepped onto a campus. Numerous students, at Notre Dame and elsewhere, had their college work interrupted by financial stress, family situations, military service, and the prospect of work that didn’t require a college degree.

In Rockne’s case, a deciding point came two years earlier, in May of 1912, as he was nearing completion of his sophomore year at Notre Dame. Word came from home that his father, Lars, had died suddenly. 24-year-old Knute packed his grip, left campus, and assumed it was for good. Certainly, he assumed, he would need to stay home in Chicago and help provide for his mother and four sisters.

It was then that his two older sisters stepped forward and insisted Knute continue his education; they would enter the work force (echoing a new social trend in the country) and keep the household going. Shortly after the funeral, Knute returned to the campus that would be his home the rest of his life.

The 70th commencement of the University of Notre Dame opened on Saturday evening, June 13, 1914, when the Honorable Eli Watson, former U.S. congressman from Indiana, “delivered a powerful and eloquent oration” decrying the perceived ills of socialism. At Monday evening’s final exercises, the commencement speaker, U.S. Sen. Joseph E. Ransdell of Louisiana, spoke at great length, and with great force, about the scourge of divorce in American society.

A more positive tone was struck in between, at Sunday morning’s Baccalaureate Mass. “At 7:55,” the Scholastic reported, “the academic procession, composed of the graduating class in cap and gown, faculty in their professorial robes, and clergy in surplice and biretta, formed in the corridor of the Administration building and moved slowly through the east wing of the University Chapel where Solemn Mass was celebrated.”

The Rev. Francis H. Gavisk of Indianapolis delivered the baccalaureate sermon, which the Scholastic noted for “the excellence of his address, its practical character, and significant appropriateness.”

At one point, Father Gavisk intoned:

“See how social service can be ennobled by Christian motives of action. The Catholic young man should, moreover, recognize his debt of gratitude to all that went before him, to his parents, to his teachers, to his University, to his community – all the complex factors that have made his opportunities possible. He is the heir of the accumulated treasure of public good that has been amassed for him, and his ambition should be to add to that store all that he can to make for better civil, social and religious life. This is the true public spirit. All perhaps can not take a leading part in public life in the commonwealth and in the Church, but all should have the spirit of public service, to make the world in which he lives a little better for his having been in it, to make the Kingdom of God in his own environment all the stronger and more glorious for his part in it. No man worthy of the day can sit idly by and be self-centered in his own private interests. The truest ambition is so to employ life as to be of the greatest service to others.”

We can envision 26-year-old Knute Kenneth Rockne, who came to Notre Dame four years earlier, self-conscious as “the lone Norse Protestant,” taking in the words of Father Gavisk, his invitation “to employ life as to be of the greatest service to others.” Rockne had certainly made the most out of his opportunities in four years on campus – as a scholar and athlete, a musician, a thespian, a leader, and an all-around good fellow.

In the years to come, starting in the fall of 1914, when Rockne began his teaching and coaching career as assistant football coach, head track coach and chemistry instructor in Notre Dame’s prep school, this special son of Notre Dame would teach, guide, and lead hundreds, then thousands, then millions as a disciple for the good and proper role of athletics in the American academy and national culture.






IPPY Awards Day In NYC: Rockne Would Love It

All of us at Great Day Press congratulate author Jim Lefebvre, who is in New York City today to accept the bronze medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY) for our book Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne. The IPPY is awarded for excellence in independent book publishing. This is the second IPPY for Lefebvre and Great Day Press. Loyal Sons: The Story of the Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions won a similar bronze medal when it was published in 2008.

ippy_bronzemedal“We are honored to have received this national award,” Lefebvre said. “And we would like to think that Coach Rockne is here with us in spirit. New York City was such a central element to his life and the times that shaped football and our country’s history in the early 20th century. Let’s not forget, Rockne almost left Notre Dame to accept the head football coaching position at Columbia. How different would Notre Dame football history have been had that happened?”

For a complete list of all the 2014 IPPY winners, click here. Coach For A Nation is Category 65: Sports/Recreation/Fitness. For information on how to order an autographed copy of the book, click here.