In 1924 Notre Dame won its first consensus national title in football and over a series of months transformed the program from a rising powerhouse into America's most beloved gridiron team. This story is based on true events.
Sunday October 19, 1924 - East 42nd Street & Park Avenue, Manhattan
At 8:30 in the morning inside the Belmont Hotel George Strickler's small Zenith alarm clock buzzed and he quickly shut it off. George was barely able to sleep following such an important victory over Army the day prior and after reading Granny Rice's post-game review coming home from the movies hours earlier. Sitting up in bed a flood of emotions filled his head. He was incredibly happy for his classmates for beating Army and also being able to watch the game inside The Polo Grounds. He was also grateful that he was one of the few members of the traveling Notre Dame party to receive his own hotel room. Such were the perks of knowing Knute Rockne personally.
Getting out of bed George made his way to the sink and splashed some cold water over his face. Staring into the tiny ornate mirror he had a moment of reflection. Growing up in South Bend he had always wanted to go to Notre Dame but the ache in his left knee on this morning was a painful reminder that his path there wasn't as easy as he'd wished. George's dad was the head butcher for the school, his family knew Coach Rockne well, and after a successful football career at the local South Bend Central High he gained admission into Notre Dame for the fall of 1921. The only problem was that he couldn't pay his own way. Without scholarship assistance George decided to enroll at Indiana University where he played football and got some financial help. Sitting out the customary freshman season he tweaked his knee in spring practice and left Indiana when the school year finished.
Taking advantage of his writing skills he'd developed in high school Strickler returned home and went to work for the South Bend News Times in their advertising department. After a year off from school he re-applied to Notre Dame and got the scholarship assistance he needed the second time around. Rockne had him stay with varsity but the knee problem soon returned. On the second day of practice George mangled his knee pretty badly and was sent to the doctors for examination.
"That's it you're done, kid," Rockne told him.
"Can someone operate on it?" George asked?
"We don't operate on knees around here," the Coach replied.
"I won't be able to stay at Notre Dame now," George said. "Without football I can't stay on scholarship and I will have to leave." He thought this was the end of both dreams but Rockne had other plans.
"You've worked for a newspaper before haven't you?" the Coach asked. George nodded thinking Rockne was sending him back to work at the News Times, his days at Notre Dame finally over for good. "Well then," Coach started up again. "Come see me tomorrow, I think we can work something out."
Just like that George Strickler became Rockne's publicity man. He wasn't paid by the school but he got a slice of the pie from the stories he sent to the papers and he was making far more than the upperclassmen football players who had the easiest and most well paying jobs on campus.
Staring in that mirror at the Belmont Hotel he was thankful to be in the position he held but he couldn't stop thinking about Rice's intro in the paper last night. After getting ready and packing his suitcase he made his way down to the hotel lobby to meet up with the team and take the train back home. With some time to kill he found a copy of the New York Times morning edition and there it was again.
"Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again."
This time he read the article all the way through. George placed the Times on the table next to him and thought about the long trip to South Bend when the idea hit him. "The Four Horsemen," he said quietly to himself. "That's it!" he exclaimed and hurried to the hotel's telegraph room.
The train carrying the Notre Dame football team and their party arrived in South Bend at 3:45 PM local time on Monday afternoon. For the second straight year the Irish would be making back-to-back trips East and this meant only 3 days of practice before the team left for Princeton back East on Thursday. So when the players stepped off the train from New York they were sent directly to the practice field having already missed classes for the day. Rockne had tried to persuade the school to keep the team in the New York area for the week but the priests would hear nothing of such a proposal just like the previous year when the team played Army and Princeton in consecutive weeks.
George Strickler hurried off the train but he wasn't headed for the football practice field, at least not yet. In the hotel in New York before he'd left George wired his father and told him to find him 4 horses to use for a couple hours. His father told him they'd be waiting at the livery downtown next to Olivia's Tavern when he got home. After a 10 minute brisk walk George corralled the horses, climbed on the largest animal, and led the other 3 toward campus.
It took some haggling but George convinced the security guard to let him through the gates and into practice when he arrived. Immediately the players noticed him and turned to look at the 4 horses trotting onto the field. George made his way toward a corner of the field far away from the action and waved over the photographer he'd asked to come.
"Hey Lou," he said. "Let me get these players. I want you take a shot of them on top of these horses."
"Alright," the photographer said laughing and shaking his head.
"Harry, Jim, Elmer, and Don come here!" George shouted after walking into the middle of the field. The players walked over and asked what the matter was. "I want to take your pictures on top of these horses. No keep your helmets on," George said after the players began to un-strap their headgear. The players climbed on top of the horses and the photographer took a few shots.
"Thanks guys, you can head back to practice," George said. "Lou, let me know when you have these developed and I'll come get them."
The players ran back to practice with Rockne yelling at them and their teammates scratching their heads. George hopped back onto the horse he rode in on and made the trek back to the livery to return the poor-fed beasts. Later that day he stopped at Rockne's office and got a good tongue lashing from the Coach for wasting precious practice time, but Rockne did ultimately agree that the publicity was a good idea. Within 48 hours the picture of Notre Dame's backfield atop horses spread like wildfire through newspapers across the nation. In an era of sports when newspapers were at the height of their powers the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame thrust Rockne's team into the spotlight and into the national consciousness like no team before them. The decision worked out pretty well for George Strickler as well. By the end of January he would earn over $10,000 on royalties from the famous picture and the money kept trickling in over the years too.
Knute Rockne had tried to schedule the Ivy League powers for several years after he was hired but none of those teams gave Notre Dame the time of day. Finally, in early 1923 the Princeton Tigers agreed to host the Irish in one of several turning points for Notre Dame football in this pivotal decade. It would be the third time in four years that the Irish would play two games in the East. Back in 1921 the team squeezed in a trip to Indianapolis against Indiana, a trip to New York for games against Army and Rutgers, before finally returning home to face Haskell---all within the span of 15 days. This "Around the World" trip didn't sit well with the Notre Dame Administrators and jeopardized Rockne's scheduling freedom. Nevertheless, Father Walsh and most of the faculty welcomed a game against prestigious Princeton with the widest of arms.
Last fall Notre Dame rolled into Princeton after shutting out Army and shocked the Tigers by the score of 25-2. The Irish snapped Princeton's 10-game winning streak and toppled the defending national champions with ease. The second time around the Princeton faithful were ready for Notre Dame and a more competitive game. All week leading up to the contest, with the help of the new Four Horsemen infamy, the press exploded with stories and features on Notre Dame. After several trips East over the years the hard work and winning for Notre Dame finally began to pay off in terms of popularity. Throughout the week numerous parties were held in New York City for Notre Dame, alumni clubs organized meetings, tickets were given out, and the Marquette Club was packed from day until night.
A crowd of 45,000 jammed themselves into Palmer Stadium on Saturday afternoon to watch 2 undefeated teams square off. Princeton had crushed Amherst to begin their season, tied a gritty Lehigh team, but came into this game having recently defeated Navy. Some intrigue was added when Notre Dame quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, nursing a shoulder injury that almost kept him out of the Army game, wasn't available against the Tigers. One week after becoming the Four Horsemen the suddenly famous backfield had to make due without its field general.
Notre Dame took possession of the ball first and junior Edward Scharer ran out as the quarterback for the Shock Troops. The crowd witnessed a rather uneventful scoreless first quarter as the Irish second unit couldn't get much going and the Princeton players even less. In the second frame sophomore Gene "Red" Edwards came out as the quarterback along with the Notre Dame starting lineup.
"Okay, Red we're going to make this easy," captain Adam Walsh said. "We'll block up front and you can mix up giving the ball to Elmer up the middle and to Jim and Don on the edge. Nice and steady and we'll eventually break through."
"Hit them hard on the edge too," linemen Noble Kizer chimed in spitting on the ground near his cleats. "They are weak on the outside where we can use our speed."
Once the starters hit the field Notre Dame had little trouble with the Tigers and halfback "Sleepy" Jim Crowley would rumble for a career day. Each team had only moved the chains twice in the opening quarter but the tables turned heavily in the Notre Dame's favor thereafter. Immediately, the Irish took the ball and began knifing through the Tiger defense.
Sleepy Jim dashed left for 16 yards then through the right tackle for another 8 yards. Edwards hit Miller for a 12-yard completion and Rockne's Rockets were off. The Princeton faithful in the crowd sunk in their seats feeling that dark cloud descend upon their team's chances again as these Westerners unveiled a form of speed and precision that had tamed the Tigers last season and was doing so again on this afternoon. Before the patrons could exhale their anxiety Notre Dame was deep in Princeton territory and Crowley finished things off with a 16-yard touchdown run. Layden missed the extra point but the Irish completely changed the momentum after replacing the Shock Troops.
Princeton tried to rally but their effort was for naught. Following 1 first down the Tigers punted back to Notre Dame and Crowley was sent through the barrel of a cannon again. Notre Dame slowed down their attack---the effects of the intense matchup with Army apparent---but kept moving the ball at will. As the first half was winding to an end the Irish scored again on a long run by Crowley but it was called back by a holding penalty and the score remained 6-0. Like the previous week the halftime score did not indicate the domination that had ensued on the field once Rockne's best took the field.
Any halftime adjustments by Princeton head coach Bill Roper were swiftly countered by Rockne when the teams resumed action. The Tigers were forced to punt and then Notre Dame went back to work. Again, Princeton was saved by a bit of fortune as the Irish drove down inside the 10-yard line but turned the ball over on downs. Roper's Men then tried to counter and crawl out of their own end. Notre Dame was having none of it. Another Tiger punt gave the Irish the ball near midfield and this time Crowley made it count with consecutive runs bringing the ball to the Princeton 7-yard line.
"This one's coming to you again, Jim" Edwards said after seeing the play-call from Rockne on the sideline. "You got us all the way here, bring us home."
Crowley did just that for his second score of the game. The extra point was missed again but as time leaked into the fourth quarter the 12-0 Irish lead was mighty strong. Crowley led another handful of dazzling runs in the last frame before the backups took over but a fumble at the Princeton 12-yard line cost Notre Dame even more points. It didn't matter. The game fizzled to an end, the Tigers bruised and battered, and Notre Dame getting their second and third teams some more experience.
When it was over Princeton had gained 1 first down in the second half and just 4 the entire game, while allowing 24 to the Irish. The 12-0 victory didn't look impressive without examination but Princeton never carried the ball past the Notre Dame 32-yard line, and they allowed Jim Crowley to gain 250 rushing yards. For the second straight year Coach Rockne could sleep secure with his team's back-to-back defeats of Army and Princeton on the East Coast. For Princeton, their stranglehold as a national power finally showed signs of weakness, and never again would they play Notre Dame in football.
Georgia Tech was a Southern power under head coach John Heisman and the Golden Tornado even won the 1917 national championship after a perfect 9-0 record. Heisman left for the University of Pennsylvania after the 1919 season and William Alexander took over ultimately winning 3 straight conference titles to begin his coaching career. That's why when Rockne was able to schedule Tech in the winter of 1922 it was a small coup for his program. The first Notre Dame visit to the Deep South was certainly daunting and menacing from a football perspective but the cultural clash brought passions to a high when the Irish visited Atlanta.
The second revival of the Ku Klux Klan was spreading rapidly through southern Indiana and the group had its headquarters not far from the Georgia Tech campus. When Notre Dame rolled into town and stole a 13-3 victory, racial epithets were slung and serious violence threatened against the Catholics, despite many of the Notre Dame players not being Catholic. Even with the highly charged atmosphere and disrespect Rockne knew his team could use the tough Tech squad on their home schedule and in 1923 the Tornado returned the favor by visiting South Bend. Eager to defeat Georgia Tech again the Irish gave ‘em a 35-7 pounding---their worst loss in 5 years---that sent Alexander and his Southern Gentlemen cowering back to Atlanta.
In May not long after Rockne signed a 10-year contract with Notre Dame more problems began with the KKK. The Klan intended to march up from southern Indiana and on to Notre Dame on May 17th to hold a rally. On the morning of the planned rally hundreds of Klansmen flooded the train station downtown and even though the South Bend police chief did not give the KKK a right to march the students at Notre Dame decided to take preventative action. Racing south down into town the students harassed the Klansmen, stole their robes and hoods, while giving some of their members a little bit of the fisticuffs. The KKK members holed up in a building downtown and after a couple days the rally was cancelled without any serious injuries or deaths.
Against this backdrop the Tech team from Georgia made their second trip to South Bend in as many years on the first of November in 1924. It was Homecoming weekend for Notre Dame and a school record 23,000 fans packed into Cartier Field although some nervousness grew among them when it was learned quarterback Harry Stuhldreher would miss a second straight game with his shoulder injury. The Tornado came into the game with a 3-1-1 record beating Oglethorpe, Virginia Military Institute, and Penn State while drawing Florida and losing to Alabama 14-0 the prior week.
The crowd grew anxious when Tech's wonderful young fullback Doug Wycoff rumbled against the Shock Troops and set up a field goal on the game's opening series. For the first time all season the Irish trailed an opponent.
"Would this be the embarrassing loss we all feared?" the patrons whispered in the stands. Rockne was 24-0 at home and the students hadn't seen a loss in South Bend in nearly 20 years.
Sensing the momentum shifting toward Georgia Tech, Rockne stood up off the bench.
"Starters!" the Coach barked foregoing the usual full quarter the Shock Troops would play in favor of responding with his best talent.
Out came the Four Horsemen without Stuhldreher and captain Walsh still nursing his hand injuries. Any anxiety that still remained in the crowd dissipated quickly as Notre Dame cruised down field and Crowley connected with Miller for a passing touchdown. Tech was stonewalled and shortly after the Irish marched down the field and Layden punched in a score again. For the latter half of the second quarter Rockne put the Shock Troops back in and Wisconsin-born John Roach made a tremendous run and scored yet a touchdown for the Irish. At the half Notre Dame led 20-3 devastating the Tornado after the visitors' initial scoring drive.
During halftime several prominent Notre Dame Alumni presented Knute Rockne with a brand new Studebaker Big Six Phaeton, driving the emerald green and black top car onto the field much to the delight of the crowd. The local South Bend automotive company had been major contributors to Irish football since Rockne solicited businesses in the area to buy season tickets when he first became head coach. Rockne was great friends with Studebaker president Albert Erskine and 4 years later the company would manufacture a car in the Irish coach's name.
The festive atmosphere continued in the second half even though Notre Dame didn't score in the third quarter. The Irish controlled the game, mixing in players from the first three teams, and eventually in the final period backup halfback Bernard Livergood scored on a 17-yard touchdown run and Roach followed that up with a beautiful touchdown reception from Scherer. The final whistle came and Notre Dame won 34-3, blitzing Georgia Tech with all unanswered points and moving to 5-0 on the season.
In the locker room after the game the Coach had to reel in his players and keep them focused.
"That was a fine performance out there men," Rockne said. "Heck of a run we're on now. That's three straight tough opponents and I commend your effort in dispatching all of them. The work's not done yet though, men!"
The Coach paused for a second stretching his neck out of his tight collar ready to deliver the rest of his post-game speech. Behind him Stuhldreher stood in street clothes eager to fast forward to the next game where hopefully he would be healthy enough to play. To his left Adam Walsh ignored the pain in his hands and stared at Rockne with an intensity that could frighten even his own teammates.
"We're half way there but we must remain focused!" the Coach barked. "We must remain focused! There is no other option! Next week we will travel to Madison and we will play well."
The room remained silent.
"Okay, get some rest," Rockne continued. "We'll take care of some injuries and go light on Monday but we'll be back to tough practices the rest of the week."
The players began taking the tape off their hands and wrists as the Coach exited the locker room. The various hanger-ons and reporters who sneaked into the locker room now hounded Rockne as he stood in the hallway.
"This is 3 impressive victories in a row against 3 really good teams, how do you feel about your club right now?" a reporter asked.
"Well, I'd like for us to get a little healthier but I've been very pleased with our effort so far. Today we got a glimpse of some of the younger men playing in big situations and they passed with flying colors," Rockne said.
"Coach, what are your thoughts about traveling to Wisconsin next week?" another reporter asked.
"It will be a great challenge," the Coach answered. "We haven't been up there since my last year as an assistant under Jesse Harper. We also haven't had much success up in those parts and I'd like to rectify that situation. I know their stadium was destroyed by fire a couple years ago and I look forward to taking our men into their renovated home and playing very well."
"Any worries about looking past Wisconsin?" a reporter shouted alluding to Notre Dame's grudge match against Nebraska in 2 weeks time.
Rockne had been walking slowly among the crowd and stopped to answer the question. As he paused George Strickler weaved his way through the throng and handed the Coach the ghost written commentary to that weekend's games which would be sent to dozens of papers in Rockne's name.
"We will be well prepared for the Badgers," the Coach replied. "I expect a strong showing at the game from our Chicago alumni and our boys will be plenty focused on beating the opponent in front of them next weekend."
With that statement Rockne stepped away from the group and was followed down a corridor by Strickler and a couple of the Coach's favored journalists where they'd hash out some more formal quotes for the papers. Entering a small room Rockne sat down with one hand in his lap and the other scanning the paper from Strickler. He was confident with his team but he knew too well not to get content with the season so far.
For the fourth time in six seasons his football team started the season 5-0 and the stars were finally looked like they were aligning for that first elusive national championship. However, the upcoming games on the schedule against two Midwestern powers would go a long way to capturing that title and pressure Father Walsh to listen to the Rose Bowl committee if they made an offer to Notre Dame.