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Book Review: Notre Dame and the Game that ChangedFootball

We interrupt this annual recruiting bonanza for a look back into history.


I received this book for Christmas and it is a recommended read if you:

A. Want to learn more about the early history of college football

B. Discover the brilliance of Jesse Harper

C. Love Notre Dame

The book’s full title is probably more appropriate because even though the classic 1913 game against Army is certainly a major aspect of the story, this is essentially a book all about Jesse Harper.

Most Notre Dame fans have a small amount of knowledge on Mr. Harper, but this book sets out to prove just how valuable and instrumental he was in the creation of a powerful football team in South Bend.

Here’s the focus of each chapter along with some of my comments.

1. The founding and early beginnings of the University of Notre Dame

The first chapter gives a short introduction into the early years at Notre Dame and the struggles Father Edward Sorin faced while funding and building a place of higher learning in what was then still very much a dangerous frontier land.

There isn’t a whole lot of information in here that would surprise those who are familiar with the roots of Notre Dame, but it serves as a nice precursor to the wild and untamed atmosphere in which Our Lady was built and also through which the game of football was born.

2. The Early History of Football

This was probably one of my favorite sections of the entire book.

I would venture to guess that most college football fans have a very limited knowledge of the early years of football in this country, but this chapter does a great job of explaining how the game was originally played, who it was played by, and how it started to slowly evolve into the 20th Century.

3. Injuries, Death and New Rules

This is very much a continuation of the previous chapter that focuses on the often brutal tactics used in the early years of football and how new rules were introduced to alleviate the amount of injuries and deaths that were piling up each season.

This part of the story is truly fascinating and the amount of people who were seriously injured or killed playing football during this time (late 1800’s through the early 1900’s) all across the country is flat out staggering.

It also looks at the creation of rules committees and how a somewhat fluid division was created between the teams of the East (Yale, Army, Harvard, etc.) and the teams of the West (Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State, etc.) over the drastic changes that would occur in the early years of the 20th Century.

Central to this story was Walter Camp who basically oversaw these committees and continuously blocked many attempts at introducing new rules regarding the forward pass. Camp was firmly entrenched in the Eastern camp that did not want to change the game all that much and favored the more run oriented/rugby style of game.

But the funny thing is, Camp was also credited for inventing and helping pass through many new rules at the same time and although he was often antagonistic towards the forward pass, he finally caved under the pressure of the changing times.

Ultimately, the game needed to be "opened up" because prior to the time period around 1905 or so, football teams basically ran at each other in the middle of the field like a wild rugby game. That is how so many young athletes died each season, and why the forward pass was needed to move defenders away from the middle of the field and line of scrimmage.

4. Harper Before Notre Dame

Jesse Harper was born in Illinois and ended up going to college at the University of Chicago where he was an outstanding athlete in football, but even more so in baseball.

A big part of Harper’s legacy is that he was coached at Chicago by the famous and influential Amos Alonzo Stagg, who was developing and introducing the forward pass to his football teams before 1910 and was one of the early innovators in college football.

After graduation in 1906, Harper took up coaching (not just football, but multiple sports) at Alma College until 1909, and then moved on to Wabash College until 1912.

During these years Harper molded himself into a man of principle, much like Stagg, who prided himself on having his athletes be students-first. Not only that, but he built up these two college programs, especially Wabash, and his efforts were lauded by many throughout the collegiate landscape.

5. Harper Comes to Notre Dame and the Important 1913 Season

This is where the book gets good for Notre Dame fans.

When Harper came to Notre Dame, the football team was in disarray. There was talent within the program (as will be evidenced by the upcoming season) but the financial situation was not a rosy one.

In fact it was so bad that many at Notre Dame thought the football program would be removed forever, can you imagine that?

One of the biggest problems was that the Big Nine or Western Conference teams (now the Big Ten Conference) were steadfastly refusing to schedule Notre Dame.

This blackballing was led by Michigan and it truly shows how big of bitches (for a lack of a better word) they were at the time, specifically their coach Fielding Yost.

Michigan actually left the Western Conference in 1907, charging the other members with participating with illegal players (athletes who were ineligible, not taking classes, being paid, etc.) and did not return until 1917.

Michigan came to Notre Dame in 1887 to teach the small Catholic school the rules of football, and proceeded to beat Notre Dame in the first eight meetings between the schools. In 1909, Notre Dame went into Ann Arbor and beat Michigan for the very first time.

Shortly after the game, Yost and his Michigan followers accused Notre Dame of…you guessed it, using illegal players. Yost cancelled the following season’s game between the schools and Michigan and Notre Dame wouldn’t play each other for another 33 years.

Although Michigan led the way in the boycott against Notre Dame, all of the other Western teams followed suit, and it was in this scheduling hardship that Harper stepped in to try and refocus the program.

Notre Dame had gone three full seasons without playing a Western Conference opponent and there was much money being lost, but that didn’t deter Harper.

He made some calls and did the unthinkable by adding South Dakota, Army, Penn State and Texas to the 1913 schedule, basically starting the national scheduling policy that would come to define Fighting Irish football in the coming decades.

And the amazing thing was Harper led the team to a perfect 7-0 record (the only coach in Notre Dame history to win every game his first year), including the surprising and historic dismantling of a heavily favored Army team and a season ending beat down of Texas in Austin.

Up until that point in history, Notre Dame was just a small school that nobody took seriously. The 1913 season was the first that put Notre Dame on the map and was the first step to making it America’s team.

Of course the forward pass was very instrumental in these victories, especially during the Army game, but Notre Dame also ran the ball a ton and was very good at it. What’s more, it wouldn’t take long for the other programs to catch up with this new style of play, so the advantages didn’t last.

6. The 1914 Season---Yale is Added

Notre Dame took a step back in record during Harper’s second year, but the program continued to grow under his leadership.

The big coup was just getting Yale on the schedule in the first place, a continuation of the Harper policy that Notre Dame was going to play anybody, anywhere, anytime.

Notre Dame ended up losing badly to Yale, while Army would exact revenge in 1914 as well, but a 6-2 record with losses to two national powerhouses wasn’t cause for much concern. The good thing was that Notre Dame was starting to make money again, even though they were paying to travel all over the country to play games.

7. The 1915 Season---Nebraska is Added

Harper kept working his magic and surprised everyone yet again by adding Nebraska to the schedule in 1915.

Notre Dame was truly turning into one of the best team’s in the country and once again beat a scrappy South Dakota team, traveled to West Point and beat Army for the second time in three years (Army didn’t play away games at the time, except versus Navy), and once again clobbered Texas in Austin.

Unfortunately, Notre Dame lost the bitterly contested game against Nebraska by one point and failed to give Harper his second undefeated season.

8. The 1916 Season---Never Scored Upon, Except for Army

It was amazing that Harper was putting so many tough opponents on the Notre Dame schedule, but the program became truly national and loved by so many specifically because so many of these big games in this era were played on the road in hostile environments.

In 1916 Notre Dame beat South Dakota and Michigan State on the road, and came through with a huge 20-0 victory over Nebraska in Lincoln to even the new rivalry series at one a piece.

Notre Dame did lose to a loaded Army team 30-10, but they did not let any of the other opponents score a single point during the season.

Notre Dame beat the other eight teams on their schedule by a combined score of 283-0.

9. The 1917 Season---Harper’s Final at Notre Dame

The 1917 season was Harper’s last before he left Notre Dame to become a cattle rancher, and it was a very successful one.

In addition to the annual Army game, Harper kept Nebraska on the schedule for a third year in a row and even added Wisconsin to the mix.

Notre Dame would go 6-1-1 in his final season, tying Wisconsin and losing to Nebraska (both on the road), but Harper had essentially built the program to such a point that the next coach would take it to unforeseen and incredible heights.

10. Harper and Rockne 1918-1931

The relationship between Harper and Knute Rockne is interesting and vital to the understanding of the rise of Notre Dame football in this era.

Rockne played under Harper and was instrumental in beating Army in 1913, and then joined the program as an assistant after graduation.

What is amazing is that Rockne made it no secret it was due to Harper’s efforts throughout the previous five years that he was so successful at Notre Dame.

What’s more, many in the Notre Dame community did not wish to see Rockne take over as head coach, but Harper all but demanded he be given the position.

Harper moved to his cattle ranch and basically disappeared from the spotlight, but he always kept in close contact with Rockne and attended a few away games throughout the 1920’s.

What’s fascinating about this part was how Rockne turned Notre Dame into such a powerhouse through rather shady means, with players like George Gipp (he stayed in a hotel, gambled all the time, rarely went to class) and a penchant for poaching talented freshmen from other schools and convincing them to transfer to Notre Dame.

In short, Harper truly loved his sucessor but he was not aware of the "football first" mentality that Rockne brought to school.

Yet, due to the success of the Notre Dame football program, the university was able to weather the Great Depression and build numerous buildings on campus. This undoubtedly helped Notre Dame to grow like no one could have imagined, and the football team was so successful financially that it wouldn’t see profits like this for another 50 years.

11. Harper Returns 1931-1933

Knute Rockne’s tragic death following the 1930 football season sent a shockwave throughout the world and Notre Dame called Harper to return to South Bend to help in the immediate transition period.

Harper filled the role of director of athletics and was instrumental in the hiring of former player Hunk Anderson as the next head football coach.

The biggest problem wasn’t necessarily losing Rockne per se, but that the culture on campus had changed so drastically since Harper’s departure nearly 15 years before. Harper was blissfully naïve so far away on his cattle ranch, but the administrators on campus were fed up.

In a move that would repeat itself in the future (famously in the 1950’s and 1990’s), the priests decided that the football team (and Rockne specifically) had too much power and it was time for them to assert control.

The hammer came down with vengeance as transfers were banned, players treated as students first, and most importantly, a major scholarship reduction was enacted.

As far as football was concerned, the results were disastrous.

Hunk Anderson still had a lot of talent left over from Rockne’s recruiting, but it wouldn’t take long for the self-imposed sanctions to take effect.

Anderson went 6-2-1 and 7-2-0 during his first two seasons, but a disastrous 3-5-1 1933 season sealed his doom. Notre Dame wouldn’t return to a true national power for almost another decade when Frank Leahy was able to gain control of the program.

In the end, the 1933 season was too much for Harper and he felt he had done his duty of getting Notre Dame back on track as a place where education was always a first priority. Although he undoubtedly felt bad about the repercussions that took place after Rockne’s death, they were still done with his blessing.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed this book primarily because of its in depth look at the early history of football and all of the great things I was able to learn about Jesse Harper.

The book could have been a little better organized and might have been better off being a straight biography of Jesse Harper, but all the pieces are there for an interesting read.

A fascinating part of his history is just how different Harper and Rockne were as people and how drastically different their coaching styles were, yet they remained closest of friends throughout their lives. It is one of those odd combinations that no one would have ever thought would work, but which built Notre Dame as a powerhouse in football.

Harper was inducted into the college football hall of fame in 1971 ten years after his death, and to this day remains one of the most underrated figures not only in Notre Dame history, but throughout the history of collegiate athletics.

Hopefully this book will serve as a strong reminder that Jesse Harper is indeed one of the pillars of Notre Dame history.