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.
Saturday November 8, 1924 - Sturtevant, Wisconsin
The Canadian Pacific Railway train chugged through the darkness of the barren Wisconsin land carrying the Notre Dame football team and hundreds of fans back across the state border to the city of Chicago. In the private railcar bringing up the rear of the long train Knute Rockne sat with his assistant coaches and a collection of wealthy alumni soaking up yet another victory on the season.
"Another fine victory," assistant head coach Tom Lieb said.
"We really battered them up front," line coach Hunk Anderson quipped.
"To the team!" Lieb said raising a toast.
A clink of glasses filled the railcar and Rockne sat there with his whiskey swirling around holding the drink up after the toast. For a coach that currently had the world at his fingertips he looked surprisingly worried. He stared at the drink held up in front of his face lost deep in thought. The rest of the car had continued talking but then Rockne snapped out of his trance and spoke up.
"The question is can we batter Nebraska up front?" he asked.
Silence filled the room. Out of respect the members in the car waited for the Coach to finish his thought. Rockne then moved his glass to the table and continued.
"After watching today's game...I think we can," Rockne said smiling.
The crowd erupted again and more toasts were made as the train crossed into Illinois and approached the Windy City where the team and company would transfer trains and head east to South Bend.
A giant following of Irish fans and alumni had made their way to Madison earlier in the day expecting a tough match against the University of Wisconsin but the Badgers offered little resistance. Notre Dame had a short but tragic history against Wisconsin including major blowouts in the series' first 3 games in 1900, 1904, and 1905. When Rockne's Rockets traveled northwest into Wisconsin on this Saturday his school was winless in 4 opportunities and had failed to score a single point against the Badgers in the series history.
That changed pretty quickly for this 1924 meeting.
Wisconsin had been a very strong program at the start of the decade but their power had waned in recent years, dropping the last 3 games of 1923 and coming into the game against Notre Dame with a 2-1-2 record and a 21-0 loss to Michigan on the road the previous week. The contest marked Notre Dame's annual student road trip and a Wisconsin record crowd of 40,000 squeezed into Camp Randall Stadium to watch Rockne's Rockets perform. Before the game the bands from each school marched on the field playing ‘On Wisconsin' and the Notre Dame Victory March to the delight of the patrons.
The game started out innocently enough for the Badgers. Although the Notre Dame Shock Troops kicked a field goal early in the contest, Wisconsin was driving deep into Irish territory as the 1st quarter was coming to a close. With 1:18 left in the opening period and the ball on the Notre Dame 12-yard line Rockne made the call to the starters. Up came a roar from the thousands of visiting Irish fans as Miller, Layden, Walsh, Kizer, Hunsinger, and the rest of the top unit ripped off their coats and sweaters and ran onto the field. Wisconsin put up a valiant effort, earning a first down to the 7-yard line but they ultimately settled for a field goal after several runs at the goal line.
The Badgers mustered 3 points but just like the previous week against Georgia Tech it would be the only points Notre Dame would allow as the first team came in and completely wiped out their competition.
Don Miller started out a big day with a 24-yard score early in the second quarter and right before halftime Stuhldreher connected with Miller for a 28-yard score to make it 17-3 at the break. In the second half the onslaught didn't stop as Layden crashed in from 6 yards to make it 24-3. Wisconsin head coach Jack Ryan paced the sidelines and stubbornly continued to kick the ball off to Notre Dame after each Irish touchdown. Per the rules, the team scored upon had the choice to kickoff or receive the ball and Ryan foolishly had too much confidence in his defense in an era where pinning your opponent deep and forcing a punt was top-notch strategy.
Notre Dame got the ball again and scored a touchdown late in the 3rd quarter---this time Miller made it his third of the game. At 31-3 Rockne emptied his bench and the Irish backups tacked on another touchdown to win the game 38-3. The Irish moved to 6-0 and had given up just 13 points on the season.
The train carrying the team and students arrived in South Bend just past 9 o'clock and was met by over 2,000 fans cheering in and outside the station. Rockne's wife Bonnie met her husband at the station and handed him a few telegrams as they walked to their car.
"They're mostly just congratulations from the usual suspects," Bonnie said.
"Oh," the Coach said climbing into the jet black Cole Sedan.
"There might be one in there you'll be awfully interested to read," she said starting the motor and smiling at her husband. Rockne looked at her quickly and then shuffled through the telegrams. At last he found it.
MOST INTERESTED IN YOUR TEAM AFTER TODAY'S VICTORY OVER WISCONSIN. MANY CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR TERRIFIC SEASON AND UNBLEMISHED RECORD SO FAR. WOULD LIKE IT VERY MUCH IF YOUR CLUB COULD MAKE IT TO CALIFORNIA ON NEW YEAR'S DAY PENDING THE REST OF YOUR SCHEDULED GAMES. WE SHOULD CONTINUE CORRESPONDENCE. PLEASE SPEAK WITH YOUR SCHOOL OFFICIALS ON THIS MATTER.
"So do you think it will happen this time?" Rockne asked his wife.
"I should hope so Knute," Bonnie said. "I would really like to visit California."
"I know you would," the Coach replied.
"But you know," she said turning down a side street towards their home. "You still have more games to win."
The time had finally arrived. Nebraska week. Defeat the Cornhuskers and glory would be inching closer as the landscape continued opening a path for Notre Dame to be the top team in the land. After the games on November 8th the national contenders had been whittled down to just a small group of teams.
Stanford was looking very strong at 6-0 and they were set to finish the season at California who had just fallen to 6-0-1 after a tie up in Seattle against Washington. Yale was strong as usual but had already tied Dartmouth and Army so the Bulldogs were sitting at 4-0-2 and likely out of the picture. Dartmouth was having a great year at 6-0-1 but their schedule was weak and they only had one more game on the season to go against lowly Cornell. Pennsylvania was another hot team at 7-0 but their schedule also left a lot to be desired. SMU was a surprise team too. Although they were unbeaten SMU recently tied Arkansas as well as Texas a few weeks earlier so that hurt their chances. Army had just defeated visiting Florida but the Cadets looked left out with the loss to Notre Dame and a tie with Yale. Missouri shocked the country defeating Western Conference favorite Chicago to start the season but the Tigers ruined their perfect record with a loss at Nebraska. The final contender might be the best of them all. Alabama sat at 7-0 and had just given up their first points on the season in a 42-7 win over Kentucky.
The Cornhuskers came to Notre Dame having lost their first two games of the season---first to Red Granger and Illinois and then an upset loss to Oklahoma---but the Farmers came in hot with wins over Colgate, Kansas, and Missouri. Rockne went 3-0-1 against Nebraska in his first four seasons but the last two losses, both on the road over the past two seasons, never left his mind.
A new record crowd of 26,000 fans poured into the wooden bleachers of Cartier Field on the east side of Notre Dame campus for an event so popular that Chicago's WGN Radio showed up to broadcast the first Irish home game over their airwaves. During warmups Rockne's team was flying through their drills in typical fashion while their proud Coach looked on. One of Nebraska's assistants, a large round man named Frank Brown, approached Rockne on the sideline.
"Hey there Rock," Brown said extending his hand.
"Frank Brown the pleasure is all mine," Rockne said shaking his hand.
"I've read quite the scouting report on your team," Brown said. "Which ones are the starters?"
"Any of ‘em," Rockne replied with a wide grin.
"Oh, yeah?" Brown said laughing. "Imagine that! I guess we'll just have to play hard for 4 quarters no matter what."
"You always do, Frank," Rockne said.
"Alright, good luck Rock," he said.
"You too," Rockne said walking away. The Coach was generally pretty affable before games and wasn't known to shy away from conversation with the opposing team's coaches but today was different. He was glad the conversation with Brown ended quickly.
"Livergood you're late on your shift!" he shouted at his halfback going through a run play.
For the past 12 months his team had been preparing for this game. There were signs all over the locker room reminding the players of their defeats against Nebraska the previous two years. In a sign of solidarity that would be repeated over the coming decades the student body shared in the players' determination to defeat their nemesis with stirring pep rallies held all week long.
When warmups finished the players jogged back into the locker room and the Notre Dame Band took the field playing several songs and finishing with the Victory March. A cold breeze floated through the air but affected the crowd little as they packed in near each other with seemingly the whole town in attendance. The coldness seemed to prolong the pre-game festivities but before long both teams came running back out to do battle.
Rockne, resolute as ever, stuck with his season-long plan and started his backups. As soon as the ball was kicked off and the Cornhuskers took possession the Coach's patience with his bulky second team would be tested. Notre Dame stopped Nebraska on their first possession but fullback Bill Cerney fumbled the punt return and the Cornhuskers took over on the Notre Dame 12-yard line. Two plays later Nebraska bullied their way down to the 4-yard line and without giving the Shock Troops their own offensive series Coach Rockne went to his top players.
"First team!" Rockne yelled out without moving a bone in his body.
Normally the players would have been huddled on the bench in their coats and sweaters waiting for more action to play out but today they stood ready with their helmets on, especially after seeing the turnover and Nebraska so deep in their territory. Once the Coach gave the signal they dashed out onto the field.
"We've got to stop them here," captain Walsh said. "Harry, make sure you stay close to the line and pick off any short passes over the middle. We need to keep them out of the end zone."
The players lined up and the crowd stood on their feet waiting for the smashing thud of leather helmets and human bones. Nebraska hiked the ball, halfback John Rhodes shook free from an Edgar Miller tackle and in for the touchdown. After such a buildup and anticipation the crowd jeered and moaned loudly hoping this wasn't the start of another Nebraska nightmare.
The worry continued when Notre Dame took the kickoff and couldn't make a first down. A few boo's rained down from the stands but the Irish defense stood its ground and forced a punt by Nebraska. As the first quarter neared an end neither team has mustered much of an offense but the Farmers clung to a 6-0 lead. At this point it would be the last memory the crowd would ever have about Notre Dame losing the game.
In 6 lightening quick plays Notre Dame took the ball and placed it at the Nebraska 8-yard line. From there Harry Stuhldreher kept the ball and scored a touchdown on a great fake to Crowley. Nebraska punted again and on the second play of the ensuing Notre Dame drive Stuhldreher hit Don Miller for a 75-yard touchdown reception sending the crowd into an eruption that could be heard for miles. The Irish stoned Nebraska's offense yet again and heading into halftime the crowd was cheering wildly with a 14-6 lead for the home team.
The enthusiasm and clapping continued right through halftime and when the team's came running back out it was time for some more Miller magic. Layden pounded up the middle for just 3 yards on first down but Miller burst through the left side for 46 yards and followed that up with an 18-yard touchdown run to the same side. The next Irish drive stalled out after a fumble at the Nebraska 7-yard line, but that turnover couldn't stop the tidal wave in favor of Notre Dame. The fourth quarter arrived, Nebraska had done nothing on offense all day, and Rockne had no intention of pulling his starters.
With 10 minutes left to play Jim Crowley took a pitch to the left, cut back against the grain, and rumbled for a 70-yard score to make it 28-6. A few minutes later the Irish forced another punt and methodically moved down field letting the fullback Layden plunge in from 2-yards out. Even with a missed extra point Notre Dame led 34-6 and cruised to victory with the backups coming in only during the last minute of play. When the final whistle blew Nebraska stood bruised and battered giving up 23 first downs to their opponent and only mustering two during the entire game for themselves. The players ran off the field with confidence in their step as if they'd just played the school's junior varsity squad. Meanwhile the crowd and surrounding campus area turned into a mad house. Finally, revenge against Nebraska was complete.
An hour and a half after the game the stadium sat quietly on the edge of campus as if the mass hysteria from earlier had never happened. Inside his office to the west Rockne sat with his assistants talking over the game when George Strickler walked in with a handful of telegrams for the Coach.
"Thank you George," Rockne said.
Strickler nodded and took his seat at the edge of the desk. The four assistants talked among themselves as the Coach sorted through his papers.
"Well would you look at that," Rockne said smiling.
"What is it?" asked line coach Anderson.
"One of my birds went down to Birmingham this weekend to watch the Alabama game. Looks like the Tide lost 17-0 to Centre College."
"How ‘bout that!" assistant Lieb said.
"That's another undefeated team out of the picture," George chimed in.
"Any other important scores in there?" Lieb asked.
"Yale beat Princeton 10-0," Rockne said looking intently at his papers. "Dartmouth beat Cornell too. I think that's their last game of the season isn't it?"
"Yes it is," Anderson replied.
"Penn still hasn't lost but they just tied Penn State," Rockne continued. "Army tied Columbia as well."
"I can't complain with the outcomes of this weekend's games!" Lieb said smiling and pounding his fist on the desk.
"What else do we need to watch?" George asked.
"California and Stanford are the cream of the crop in the Pacific Conference," Rockne said. "They should have easy victories later today but that old hag Warner takes his boys up to Berkeley next weekend."
"The winner almost assuredly will be invited to the Rose Bowl," Anderson said.
"Definitely," Rockne replied.
A knock on the slightly open door surprised the coaches and in walked Father Walsh wearing a black Cappa that enveloped most of his body.
"Father Walsh nice to see you," Rockne said standing up.
"Hello everyone," President Walsh replied. "I want to congratulate everyone on a fine game today and an even better season. I won't take long but I wish to speak with the Coach alone if that is no trouble."
George along with the coaches mumbled that it was okay and left the room without a fuss. Father Walsh closed the door behind them and approached the Coach's desk. The tall man with a thin face was the mirror opposite of Rockne and his size clearly conveyed the metaphor of which man ultimately had the power at Notre Dame. The President extended his hand and the two men shook.
"Congratulations again on a fine season," the priest said.
"Thank you," Rockne said.
"I've come here to speak about a subject that's been sensitive between us for quite some time," Father Walsh said. "With your team at 7-0 and staring at an undefeated season I'm sure there will be plenty of excitement to make the trip to Los Angeles for the New Year."
Rockne leaned back in his seat with a serious look on his face. This was the beginning of a conversation he'd had for the past 3 years and he was not pleased to have it again.
"I won't ask you if you've had contact with the Pasadena Committee as I'm sure you already have," the President continued. "What I'd like to depart on you today is that for the first time I believe the Board will accept a trip, shall it be extended, to play in the Rose Bowl Game to start the year."
"Is that so?" the Coach said with some surprise.
"Now, if the invitation is in fact extended will you be behind the decision to play out West?" Rockne asked.
"After careful consideration I have decided that the positives outweigh the negatives on this issue," the President said. "Your team is becoming more and more popular and the money that is made is doing a lot of good for the school. A trip to California, while certainly expensive in its own right, could mean a lot for this academic institution."
"I'm glad you feel that way, Father," Rockne said. "I appreciate the support but as you know we still have 2 more games to win to finish up the season."
"I trust you'll have your men playing to the best of their abilities," Father Walsh said.
"That is our plan," Rockne replied shaking the priests hand as they both stood up.
"Well good luck," the President said. "I will stay in contact with you on this matter and once it turns to December and hopefully everything has played out as we hope we can design a plan for how the team will get there."
With that the head of Notre Dame exited Rockne's office and the Coach invited his assistants along with George back in his office to tell them the good news. Following the big win over Nebraska the invitation to the Rose Bowl would be a mere formality at this point. The final two games of the season weren't expected to be competitive and the Irish team had turned into a true juggernaut.
Preparations for next week's opponent would begin later that day but first Rockne had to persuade Northwestern to move the game from their campus to Chicago's new large downtown stadium.