Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Irish Football 101: The Ancient History

Much to my complete and utter joy, this fall my little cousin Jenny will be enrolling as a freshman at the University of Notre Dame. She's not a huge football fan so as a responsible big cousin I feel obligated to bring her up to speed on what will certainly become part of the fabric of her life from this September on: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football.

Every Monday over the next couple months I'll be rolling out a different segment each week that will help explain in a Q&A format the program's history, legends, rivalries, gameday rituals and more through the eyes of a lifelong die-hard Irish fan. Without further ado, I present to you the first installment of Irish Football 101: The Ancient History.

Q: I was born in the 90's. I know nothing about college football but I know Notre Dame is the most famous team in spite of the fact that they haven't been that good recently. What's the story with how they originally became so popular?

A: Notre Dame football really burst onto the scene in 1913. The head coach at the time (Jesse Harper) wanted to boost the profile of the football program--something that wasn't easy to do considering it was a small Catholic school in the middle of nowhere. ND set out for the east coast to play Army who at the time was a football powerhouse.

In those days football consisted of running the ball 99% of the time and passing only in dire and desperate situations. On that day in 1913 ND changed the face of football forever by unleashing an aggressive passing attack that was incredibly efficient. Gus Dorais completed 12 of his 14 pass attempts for over 200 yards--many to star end and future Irish coaching legend Knute Rockne--as Notre Dame stomped the heavily favored Army Black Knights 35-13. You could call it ND's coming out party.

Five years later Rockne took the helm as head coach. Over the course of his 12 years he transformed Notre Dame from a nice little program to a powerhouse and the most popular team in the country. Programs in the Midwest became worried about Notre Dame's meteoric rise (like Michigan...much more on this later) so they blackballed the Irish, wouldn't allow them to join their conference (the Western Athletic Conference, which is now known as the Big Ten), and many refused to even schedule them for games.

This collusion forced Rockne to take his troops on unprecedented road trips across the country to find opponents. The scrappy underdogs from South Bend took on any and all challengers--from Army in the east to Southern Cal in the west--and quickly become one of the best teams in all the land. Thanks to these coast-to-coast road trips Notre Dame received unparalleled national exposure and as the victories piled up they won legions of fans across the nation. These followers that didn't attend ND but helped to form the rabid and national fanbase became known as Subway Alumni.

Q: What were the highlights on the field of the Rockne Era?

A: Knute Rockne had a winning percentage of .881 (still the best of all-time), completed five undefeated seasons, and won three consensus national championships. Tragically he was killed in a plane crash after the 1930 season on the heels of winning two consecutive national championships in 1929 and 1930. Under his watch Notre Dame's program was elevated into the elite of college football and his teams introduced terms like "The Four Horsemen" and "Win One for the Gipper" into the lexicon of American sports.

Q: The Four Horsemen?

Grantland Rice, one of America's most famed sports writers, attended the Notre Dame-Army game in 1924 in New York City. Notre Dame defeated the favored Black Knights in large part because thanks to the efforts of their four stars in the backfield: Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller, and Elmer Layden. Inspired by their performance he penned the following paragraph:

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

(Sidenote: How did sports journalism devolve from Grantland Rice to Scoop Jackson over the last century?)

When the quartet arrived back in South Bend Knute Rockne's student publicity aide had them pose for a picture atop horses while in their uniforms. It's now one of the most famous and recognizable pictures in sports history. The Four Horsemen (and the less publicized players who blocked for them, known as the Seven Mules) led Notre Dame to a perfect 10-0 record that season, resulting in the school's first recognized national championship.

Q: And who is "The Gipper" and what's the story behind him?

A: The Gipper was a Notre Dame football player by the name of George Gipp who played from 1917-1920. He was an incredibly versatile athlete who played halfback, quarterback, and even punted. He set a whole slew of records over the course of his career and some still stand to this day (such as his staggering career average of 8.1 yards per carry). After the final game of his senior season he contracted strep throat and pneumonia and tragically died less than a month after he last took the field.

Some people say he got sick from giving a punting clinic in terrible weather after his final game. Others insist that he became ill when he got back to campus past curfew after a night of drinking, got locked out of his dorm and Washington Hall (where he commonly used to sleep off those post-curfew nights), and had to sleep out in the cold November night. WNG will go with the latter story. Rage on, Gip.

Eight years after Gipp's death Notre Dame was playing the mighty Army Black Knights at Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame was in the midst of their worst season in Rockne's illustrious coaching career and the expectation was that Army would thump the wounded Irish. Before the game Rockne addressed his troops and revealed that on George Gipp's deathbed he had asked Rockne for a favor.

"Gip said to me, 'I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy.' The day before he died George Gipp asked me to wait until the situation seemed hopeless--then ask a Notre Dame team to go out and beat Army for him. This is the day and you are the team."

Rockne's speech ignited the Irish. Trailing 6-0 at halftime, Jack Chevigny scored a touchdown in the second half and exclaimed, "THAT'S ONE FOR THE GIPPER!" Notre Dame punched in another touchdown and shocked Army with a 12-6 victory. After the game the details of Rockne's epic pre-game talk leaked to the press and "Win One for The Gipper" was forever immortalized.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A lot to digest? I can appreciate that. As a tip of the cap for those that needed CliffNotes to get through high school English (oh stop acting like YOU actually made it all the way through Crime and Punishment) I'll include a condensed summary at the end of every entry.

* Notre Dame burst on to the national football scene when they defeated Army 35-13 in 1913. The victory was spurred on by the implementation of a passing attack unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.
* Notre Dame was black-balled by the Western Athletic Conference (fueled by Michigan's desire to kill ND's program) and forced to travel across the country to find opponents. This played a large role in Notre Dame developing a national fanbase, sometimes referred to as the Subway Alumni.
* Knute Rockne coached the team from 1918-1930, had five undefeated seasons, won three consensus national championships, and had a winning percentage of .881, the best of all-time. He was killed tragically in a plane crash in 1930 on the heels of two consecutive national championships.
* Grantland Rice coined the term "The Four Horsemen" to describe the Notre Dame backfield of Stuhldreher, Crowly, Miller, and Layden after they dismantled Army in 1924.
* Grantland Rice is one of the greatest writers in American history. Scoop Jackson is one of the worst. Every time Scoop writes an article Grantland rolls in his grave.
* The "Win One for The Gipper" speech was delivered by Knute Rockne to his team before playing a heavily favored Army team in 1928. Inspired by their coach's story the Irish went out and upset Army 12-6.
* George Gipp's last words on his deathbed may or may not have been "Sorry I party."


  1. Gus Dorais, not Dorian.

    Also, could have mentioned the "Notre Dame Shift" along with the four horsemen. That manner of shift became outlawed as a result of Rockne's success with it.

  2. Corrected Dorais. I appreciate the feedback and thoughts on "the shift." Pump as much additional knowledge as you can into the comment sections of these posts--there's no way I'll be able to hit everything!