A Year Unlike Any Other

By Jim Lefebvre

The Notre Dame-Clemson game is the talk across much of the college football world this week. Today on College Sports Nation (XM Sirius), hosts Mark Packer and Brady Hoke were analyzing Clemson’s unusual 16-day layoff prior to hosting the Irish Saturday. Packer delivered this item: it’s the longest in-season layoff for Clemson since 1918.

Notre Dame first year head coach Knute Rockne with his 1918 team.

Notre Dame first year head coach Knute Rockne with his 1918 team, which included Curley Lambeau and George Gipp.

Hmmm. 1918. What major events dominated the fall of 1918? Well, first there was the Great War raging across Europe. And then the worldwide Spanish Influenza epidemic, which killed millions of people, had hit the U.S.

It wasn’t just Clemson (which played no games between an Oct. 5 battle with Georgia Tech and a Nov. 2 visit to South Carolina). Travel bans were put into effect across the nation, severely limiting college football. Overnight travel, especially, was off limits. So games were postponed, re-scheduled, cancelled. Colleges scrambled to find fill-in opponents, especially military units. Most schools saw their October schedule completely wiped out.

At Notre Dame, the football team traveled to Case Tech in Cleveland for a Sept. 28 game – then didn’t get another chance to play until a Nov. 2 visit to in-state rival Wabash College. Four more games did get played in November, and the Irish finished 3-1-2 under first-year head coach Knute Rockne, with a backfield that included George Gipp and Curly Lambeau. One of the ties came against the Great Lakes Naval team led by George Halas.

Here is how we described this most unusual football season in the pages of Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne, in a chapter entitled A Year Unlike Any Other:

A Year Unlike Any Other

For more information on the book, click here.

Notre Dame-Texas Goes Back More Than A Century

It’s been nearly two decades since Notre Dame met the Texas Longhorns on the gridiron, but their rivalry goes back much further than that. Back to the days of Knute Rockne…the playing days of Knute Rockne.

Knute Rockne in his Notre Dame playing days.

Knute Rockne in his Notre Dame playing days.

Their first meeting, in 1913, marked the final game in which Rockne would pull on a Notre Dame jersey. Earlier that season, Rockne and 17 teammates made an historic trip to West Point, N.Y., where they shocked the Cadets of the U.S. Military Academy, 35-13, in a game that changed the way football would be played going forward. For Notre Dame, still a small men’s school from the Midwest, to be taking on another major trip was remarkable.

Said a South Bend newspaper at the time: “That (coach and athletic director Jess) Harper is going to put Notre Dame athletics on a higher plane seems certain, and though nothing definite has been arranged, it is probable that the gold and blue will be marched against opponents of the first class in the near future.”

Here is how the season-ending trip to Texas happened:

“It was a two-game Thanksgiving week trip to close out the season and Rockne’s career. The squad left South Bend early on the morning of Friday, Nov. 21, to arrive in St. Louis on Saturday for a meeting with the Christian Brothers College, coached by Luke Kelly, star and captain of the 1911 blue and gold. With a heavy rain beating down on the players continuously, Notre Dame found itself scoreless deep into the second quarter. But Dorais came through with a 40-yard punt return for one score, Eichenlaub smashed through for another, and Dorais completed a long run for a third. Notre Dame won, 20-7. The team boarded the train with Austin, Texas its next destination. There, the Notre Dame squad had a friendly base of operations. St. Edward’s College, a school also run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross, opened its campus and practice field to its northern brothers. For three days, Harper’s men could recuperate from the battle of St. Louis and prepare to face a team, the Texas Longhorns, that claimed superiority in the southwest, having defeated Oklahoma and the Kansas Aggies in their previous two games. Overall, Coach Dave Allerdice’s team was 7-0 on the season, and supremely confident.

“The novelty of a strong northern eleven descending on Austin, and the unblemished records of the two teams, created tremendous interest in the game, and a large throng crowded Clarke Field on a warm, though sometimes rainy Thanksgiving Day. Notre Dame traveled with its own water, but at times the heat seemed like it would overwhelm them. On an early possession, Dorais faked a pass and ran 15 yards for a score. His kicking was a a factor, as he booted three field goals and two kicks after touchdown, for a total of 17 points. Notre Dame was never seriously challenged, throttling the Longhorns, 29-7. Rockne would tell this tale of his final game as Notre Dame’s captain:

A giant hunchback tackle had been treating me rough when he was sent in a s sub toward the end of the first half. He left me with a limp so that in the rest between halves, I dreaded returning, getting myself set mentally, for thirty minutes of hell. I’ve played against many strong linemen; but never against one as strong. This man was a murderer. In that – to us – terrific heat, he smashed into me like a ton of animated ice. I was glad when the half ended.

In the second half, a cool northerner blew in, and with the temperature comfortably reduced, everything was rosy. We scored two touchdowns and the game seemed in the bag. But the Texas coach returned the hunchback to the line, and the hunchback returned to me. He knocked my poor, sweating, ill-treated carcass sideways, backways and always. Suddenly I had an idea. Elward, my substitute at end, was just ten minutes short of the sixty minutes big-game play necessary to win a football monogram, emblem of team membership.

I called to the coach: ‘Send Elward in; he needs ten minutes for his monogram.’

‘Darned nice of you,’ said the coach as I hurried out of the game.

‘If that hunchback does to Elward what he’s done to me, he won’t think I’m so nice!’

It was a self-deprecating way for Rockne to describe the close of his playing career. But his teammates, and all observers, made no mistake about his contributions to the team, as a leader, as a fearless defender, and as a ground-breaking, long-distance pass receiver.

From that point forward, Rockne’s contribution to football would be not as a player, but guiding men with a relentless work ethic, creative genius, and indomitable spirit.

Excerpted from Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne (2013, Great Day Press), by Jim Lefebvre. All rights reserved.

Of Hesburgh, Sorin, Rockne, Place, and Purpose

A raw, biting wind swept across the Notre Dame campus last Wednesday afternoon, as folks gathered outside the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Large speakers played the sounds of the proceedings inside, the funeral for President Emeritus Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C.

“And I will raise you up…on the last day,” the refrain echoed across campus.

Father Theodore Hesburgh

Father Theodore Hesburgh

In a matter of minutes, an amazing sight unfolded. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Notre Dame students began pouring out of their residence halls, to line the procession route along St. Mary’s Drive, from the Basilica to the Holy Cross cemetery, where Father Ted would be laid to rest among his fellow religious, marked by the same simple cross.

The long lines soon formed and filled both sides of the entire route, with students mostly awaiting the procession in silence. As the minutes went by, some jumped in place to ward off the cold. Finally, all stood respectfully as the cortege passed.

The vast majority of those invited guests attending the funeral braved the cold to walk to the cemetery. One could spot many familiar faces. There goes Father Jenkins. Coach Holtz. Coach Faust. Muffet McGraw. Alumni head Dolly Duffy. Senator Joe Donnelly.

And after they had all passed by, the students simply turned and began the march back to their dorms. Like paying their respects in the visitation lines the previous day and night, or saying a prayer at the Grotto, they had participated in another part of this historic memorial.

It was then the irony struck: the final journey for Father Ted was one of a just a few hundred yards. When so much of his life had been traveling far and wide, promoting human rights and social justice across America and the world.

Many remembrances of Father Ted included the joke that was common in his later years as ND president: “What’s the different between God and Father Hesburgh? God is everywhere, and Hesburgh is everywhere but Notre Dame.”

Father Edward Sorin

Father Edward Sorin

In that way, Father Ted resembled two other seminal Notre Dame figures: founder Rev. Edward Sorin, and Knute Rockne. If there were ever three men on the go, it was Sorin, Rockne, and Hesburgh.

Sorin would make the arduous journey back to Montreal (and occasionally even to Paris) to continually advocate for Notre Dame, and raise funds for her expansion. Rockne became legendary by leading the Fighting Irish – first as captain of the 1913 squad, then as coach – to play in far-flung locations, his teams getting the nickname “Rockne’s Ramblers.”

But beyond football season, Rockne was always on the move, speaking to a variety of audiences, primarily on the benefits of healthy athletic competition, and teaching his “Notre Dame system” to eager coaches at gatherings from coast to coast. He created a common language of sportsmanship and benefit from athletics that is almost taken for granted today.

Coach Knute Rockne

Coach Knute Rockne

The thread is unmistakable. All three men, in different eras and in different ways, helped make Notre Dame what it is today. And that meant travel, a lot of it.

While the campus of Notre Dame is indeed a special, blessed place, its spirit and mission cannot be confined to 1,200 acres in northern Indiana. The connection is to the larger world; the mission to serve and lead wherever there is a need. Close you eyes and think of your favorite installment of the “What would you fight for?” series of stories.

I was privileged to meet with Father Ted during the research phase for my two books, Loyal Sons and Coach For A Nation. His simple encouragement was, “Do good work.”

His lesson to all of us would add: “Wherever that takes you.”








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.