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.

From Humble Beginnings

By Jim Lefebvre

For any biography of a prominent person to be thorough, it must explain the place and time that produced the individual. With Knute Rockne, that means the Logan Square area of Chicago, where he lived from age 5 (after immigrating with his family from Norway) to age 22, in 1910, when he went off to Notre Dame and eventual national fame.

minnekirkenOn the Northwest corner of Logan Square sits Minnekirken, the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church of Chicago, built in 1908-12. Minnekirken, which means “Memorial Church” in Norwegian, serves as a reminder of a neighborhood heritage in which Scandinavians played a significant part. It’s the last church in Chicago to hold services in Norwegian, and a place where one can experience Norwegian culture in a very real way.

I was honored this past Saturday, May 10, to be the featured speaker at the church’s annual GrØt Fest (GrØt being a Norwegian delicacy, a tasty porridge.) There, I was able to share with an interested audience the details of this famous Norwegian-American’s formative years.

In this setting, he was most definitely Ka-nute, not the Americanized “Newt.” And several attendees noted that they weren’t big football fans. But it didn’t matter — we were there to simply explore how a place and time affected this man’s life and future.

We spoke of how Maplewood and Jefferson townships had just recently been annexed by Chicago, to help it grow to a million residents so that it would be able to host the Columbian World Exposition in 1893. How that same year, brand-new Brentano Elementary School welcomed little Knute and hundreds of immigrants like him, starting a rapid path of Americanization.

Church-1-Logan SquareThe Roknes attended nearby Immanual Norwegian Lutheran, part of the Hauge Synod (a strain of the Lutheran faith known to few seasoned members of Saturday’s gathering).

And we spoke of the neighborhood, definitely not yet a fully developed urban area when the boy Knute and his pals tromped through its open fields, enjoying long days of discovery and adventure. Eventually, they began running races and concocting athletic feats emulating the pole vault and shot put — a precursor to Rockne’s first athletic love, track and field.

It was a time of great excitement, when anything seemed possible. Chicago was fully roaring to life as an industrial giant and transportation crossroad, just a generation after its horrific fire. The modern Olympic Games in Athens provided a spectacle unlike any other in history.

And a youngster growing up in Logan Square, whose future vision would marry athletics with entertainment across a wide American horizon, began seeing his own possibilities.