Irish Football 101: The Ancient History of Notre Dame

Matt MattareCorrespondent IIIMay 13, 2011

We're almost a month removed from the Blue-Gold Game and a shade over 100 days from Notre Dames' kickoff against South Florida on Sept. 3. That's a lot of time to fill before we can actually dissect anything of real substance.

Once a week until fall camp, I figured I'd take a break from the lists, rankings and campaigns to elevate Bruce Heggie to legendary status and drop some knowledge on those who my not know the complete history of Notre Dame football.

Every Friday over the next couple months, I'll roll out a different segment in a Q&A format to help explain 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 of Notre Dame.

Q: I was born in the '90s. I know nothing about college football, but I know Notre Dame is the most famous team despite not playing that well recently. What's the story with how they originally became so popular?

A: Notre Dame football really burst onto the scene in 1913.

Jesse Harper, the head coach at the time, 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. Notre Dame set out for the East Coast to play Army, who was a football powerhouse at the time.

In those days, football consisted of running the ball 99 percent of the time and passing only in dire and desperate situations.

On that day in 1913, Notre Dame 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 Notre Dames' 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 worried about Notre Dames' meteoric rise (like Michigan...much more on this later), so they blackballed the Irish, wouldn't allow them to join their conference (the Western Conference, which is now known as the Big Ten) and 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. As the victories piled up, they won legions of fans across the nation. These followers that didn't attend Notre Dame, but they helped to form the rabid and national fan base that became known as Subway Alumni.

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

A: Rockne's teams compiled a winning percentage of .881 (still the best of all-time), completed five undefeated seasons and won three consensus National Championships.

He was tragically killed in a plane crash after the 1930 season on the heels of winning two consecutive National Championships.

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 of their four stars in the backfield: Harry StuhldreherJim CrowleyDon 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, 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: Who is "The Gipper," and what is his story?

A: "The Gipper" was a Notre Dame football player by the name of George Gipp, who played from 1917-20. 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 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, Gipp.

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 pregame 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 CliffsNotes 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 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 blackballed by the Western 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 1918-30, had five undefeated seasons, won three consensus National Championships and had a winning percentage of .881, the best of all-time. He was tragically killed 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, Crowley, 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. Grantland rolls in his grave every time Scoop writes an article.
* The "Win One for The Gipper" speech was delivered by 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."


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