By Jim Lefebvre
Charges of using ineligible players. Controversy and counter-charges. A big-time college football game canceled just days before kickoff. Fill-in opponents and shocking results. It was all part of the 1924 college football season, culminating in Notre Dame’s victory over Stanford in the Jan. 1, 1925 Rose Bowl.
While preparing his team for a November 8 game at Wisconsin, Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne also kept an eye on the rest of the college football landscape. The first six weeks of the season had weeded out several contenders for top honors. In the East, Yale and Pennsylvania drew the most interest. In the far West, California, Leland Stanford, and Southern California had risen to the top. Notre Dame had put itself into strong consideration with its 5-0 record. Yet, in the past few years, the Irish and their fans had read and heard about several possible invitations to postseason games that either never materialized or were declined by the school for a variety of reasons. Early in the week before the Wisconsin game, reports surfaced that Notre Dame would be invited to play in the annual Tournament of Roses game at Pasadena, California. Rockne was quick to tamp down the rumors. “If any such game is being arranged between Notre Dame and a western team, it is news to me,” he averred, adding that the report sounded “like the annual bunk.” In the next several days, though, the headlines blared: “Fighting Irish Play in California New Year’s Day.”
Meanwhile, Gwynn Wilson, graduate manager of the University of Southern California team, announced to the press that his team would meet Notre Dame in the annual Pasadena classic. The announcement followed long distance telephone conversations between Wilson and Rockne. Notre Dame’s faculty board of athletics met and ratified negotiations for the game. Southern Cal already had one “postseason” game scheduled, against Syracuse in Los Angeles on December 6. Scheduling Notre Dame, one report noted, “means the opening of athletic relations with Notre Dame that will see a return contest in 1926 or 1927 either at South Bend or at the Grant Park stadium, Chicago.” On the practice field, there was a new bounce in the Irish’s step, as described in the News-Times: “Thirty-six years of football prestige at the school of the Fighting Irish is now preparing to stand validation in one of the greatest football classics of all time. The announcement came with joyous suddenness, but the hugeness and importance of it all is too much for many of the players and students who are still groping through the mist of happy anxiety, hardly daring to trust their senses of sight and hearing and not quite able to reconcile themselves to the fact that the ‘wonder team’ will be the feature attraction at the Tournament of the Roses.”
But in the far west, a season of controversy and intrigue was unfolding, putting into doubt Notre Dame’s opponent for the game at Pasadena on New Year’s Day. Late in October, a major rift over player eligibility pitted the University of Southern California on one side and the Bay Area schools—the University of California and Leland Stanford—on the other. On Monday, November 3, the controversy took another shocking turn when Southern Cal announced its executive committee had voted unanimously to cancel the game with Stanford and gave $50,000 in ticket sales to the Palo Alto school to avoid the threat of a lawsuit. Both teams scrambled to find replacements who could show up to play in five days.
Stanford brought in the University of Utah and scored an easy 30-0 victory to improve to 6-0 on the season. Southern Cal figured to do the same against St. Mary’s from Oakland, coached by former Notre Dame star Edward “Slip” Madigan. But, as one report noted, “debacle succeeded disaster,” and St. Mary’s stunned the Trojans and 27,000 fans at the Coliseum, 14-10. Southern Cal had the ball at St. Mary’s 1-yard line on third down when the final gun sounded. The Trojans, who just days earlier had announced they were to play in the Tournament of Roses, now found themselves with back-to-back losses, broken relations with the two northern California schools, and the loss of a major payday from the sale of tickets for the Cal game. The Los Angeles City Council made a last-ditch attempt to keep Southern Cal headed to Pasadena, but the plea went nowhere. Stanford had all the momentum in the battle for the Pacific coast slot vs. the Irish.
In the Notre Dame administrative offices, the bid to Pasadena and convincing victories over Wisconsin and Nebraska led to a whirlwind of activity. While President Father Matthew Walsh clearly understood the financial benefits a postseason trip might provide, it was Father John O’Hara who recognized the huge potential public relations opportunity the trip held. The trip to Pasadena provided a singular chance to make the school and its Catholic affiliation even more visible. O’Hara’s popularity on campus and his abounding energy and enthusiasm made him a natural to take the lead in planning the preparation for the trip to Pasadena. The trip, O’Hara decided, would showcase Catholic pride and achievement to alumni, alumni clubs, local Knights of Columbus councils, and football fans in the South, Middle West, and West.
As for the game itself, it was St. Mary’s coach Madigan who again played a vital role for Notre Dame. Madigan had scouted Stanford, and informed Rockne of Pop Warner’s frequent use of passes to the flats by the great back Ernie Nevers. In the New Year’s Day game at the three-year-old Rose Bowl stadium, the Irish were on the lookout, and Elmer Layden intercepted two such passes and returned them for touchdowns, leading Notre Dame to a 27-10 victory that completed a 10-0, national championship season. Rockne’s “wonder team” was celebrated from coast to coast, and Notre Dame football never looked back.
Portions of this article were excerpted from Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne, by Jim Lefebvre. Copyright 2013, Great Day Press. Used with permission.