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.