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 22, 1924 - Chicago, Illinois
Northwestern head coach Glenn Thistlewaite peaked through the doorway of the concrete structure holding his football team at bay behind him. Glancing up at the sky he smirked and thanked the Heavens for such great weather. In front of the coach a giant grandstand soared up into the sky no more than 60 feet away from where he stood. The crowd was eager to find their seats but would have disagreed with Thistlewaite about the weather. It had rained all morning, a cold damp rain, and it hadn't stopped as game time approached.
Thistlewaite was in the midst of a great reclamation project at Northwestern as the school struggled in the early part of the Century but was now gaining steam in the coach's third season. Although they only beat one conference foe in his first two years and came into this game against Notre Dame with back-to-back shutout losses to Michigan and Chicago, Thistlewaite had already picked up 2 conference wins in 1924 and 4 total wins as well, the school's most since 1917.
So when the coach saw the downpour and the muddy field he knew his team would have a fighting chance to slow down the speedy and aggressive Irish 11.
Like Rockne, the Northwestern coach was in the early stages of lobbying for a new campus stadium but unlike the Irish coach his field was ridiculously small for a major team of the era. Northwestern Field in Evanston only held 10,000 people and back in 1920 when Rockne's team visited they rolled in mobile bleachers to increase the gate receipts. Thistlewaite knew his school stood to make a decent amount of money when Notre Dame came to visit but it didn't take him long to be persuaded to move the game off his campus.
Even before the Nebraska game Rockne was receiving pressure from Chicago alumni who told him his team could not play in the small Northwestern Field but instead he should move the game to the newly built Municipal Grant Park Stadium (re-named Solider field 2 years later) in downtown Chicago. The new horseshoe design with giant Doric columns towering over the field on the eastern and western entrances held four times as many people as Northwestern's stadium campus and had just opened 6 weeks earlier. With the skyrocketing fame of the Notre Dame team and a strong presence of the alumni of both schools in the Second City it was a no-brainer decision to move the game and make more money.
When game time arrived both teams trotted out lightly with puddles of water and mud splashing under feet as the largest crowd to ever assemble for a football game in Chicago sat glumly in the stands, most of the 40,000 fans impatiently awaiting the coronation of Rockne's team as the best in the land. Just like when the Irish visited New York earlier in the year a whole swath of important society members showed up in Chicago to watch Notre Dame. Most famous of all were a collection of the Democratic politicians that formed the Cook County Machine slowly beginning to control Chicago at the time, newly elected mayor William Dever, in addition to scores of Windy City mobsters such as Johnny Torio, Blaise Diesbourg, Hymie Weiss, Bugs Morgan, and a young 25-year old Brooklyn native named Al Capone who had recently moved into the nearby suburb of Cicero.
At kickoff the rain still steadily fell from the sky but it didn't stop Ralph "Moon" Baker from playing one of his best games of his young career. The Rockford, Illinois native spent the previous season at the University of Illinois but realized he'd always be in the shadow of then sophomore Red Granger as the Galloping Ghost led the team to a national title. As a result Baker transferred to Northwestern and was a big reason why they had won 4 games so far during the season.
Notre Dame took the ball first and the Shock Troops could barely muster a few feet let alone any yards. Following a punt Northwestern took over and Baker strung together several runs that brought them into Notre Dame territory. Even halfway through the first quarter the playing field was a sloppy mess but Baker kept charging forward and Northwestern was adept at faking plays to their young star. The drive stalled out at the Irish 27-yard line but Baker kicked a field goal to give his team a 3-0 lead.
Simmering with anger on the sidelines Rockne put in the first team and Four Horsemen to answer the points his team just gave up. Just as Glenn Thistlewaite had hoped the conditions plagued Notre Dame's speedy stars---especially Miller and Crowley who tried to run outside but couldn't find proper footing---and the Irish were forced to punt again. Layden let loose a great punt that sent Baker backpedaling inside his own 10-yard line but he broke a couple tackles and brought the ball all the way out to the Northwestern 38. During this drive the clock turned over into the second quarter and again Northwestern was moving the ball. On third down at the Notre Dame 31-yard line Adam Walsh raced to the edge and made a big stop on Northwestern's other star halfback and team captain Bob Weinecke. Showing off his multi-dimensional skills Ralph Baker nailed the field goal to give Northwestern a shocking 6-0 lead.
On the sidelines Rockne called a timeout to gather his men after the kickoff shot through the end zone, while the other side of the field saw Northwestern's team in a state of ecstasy. Years later after becoming an All-American and leading Northwestern to an astonishing Western Conference title in 1926, Baker would remark that his greatest thrill on the football field was kicking these two field goals and gaining a lead on mighty Notre Dame.
Back on the Notre Dame sideline Rockne had his 11 starters huddled near the bench.
"The running game isn't working in this slop and the opponent is stuffing everything once they know we can't beat them with long runs," the Coach said. "Harry I'm going to need you to start loosening up their defense with some passing. Can you do that in this weather?"
"Sure can, Coach!"
"Now, we're going to run the ball on the first two plays and if we're still stuck in neutral I'm going to call a pass play down their left side. Now let's go!" the Coach cried.
Still fuming from the made field goal minutes earlier, Walsh sprinted out onto the field and was the first one to the ball, his big feet stomping water all around him. With his teammates lagging behind the Irish captain turned and shouted, "Come on you mules, the Horsemen are waiting!"
On first down Crowley tried to run in between the tackles and ends but was tripped up for just over a yard. Second down saw Layden punch through the line for 3 yards but the Irish were left with a 3rd and 6 still inside their own 30. Utilizing their confusing shift Stuhldreher faked the ball to Layden and rolled out to his right before launching a pass back to his left. The ball soared through the air, fighting through the drops of rain, but it was thrown too softly and bounced 4 yards behind Miller who was open down the sideline.
Halftime was approaching and Notre Dame still stood shutout with their perfect season showing cracks in the foundation. A scrappy Northwestern team with a couple stars and plenty to prove was taking advantage of the weather conditions and proving a more than formidable opponent. Backed up against a wall the Irish would show some fight and climb back into the game before the break.
First, Notre Dame stopped Northwestern and forced a punt. Baker pinned the Irish deep but a couple of runs finally opened up and Notre Dame found some momentum. On the third play of the drive Rockne called another pass and this time it connected. Stuhldreher faked a toss to Miller and found Crowley running down the seam for a 72-yard completion. On the next play Stuhldreher kept the ball and plunged in the end zone to tie the game. The crowd erupted at the first Irish score and Layden nailed the point after to give Notre Dame a 7-6 lead.
With the partisan Notre Dame crowd injected with energy you could see the wind being sucked out of the sails of the Northwestern players. They'd played the Irish perfectly, and nearly took a lead into halftime while shutting out the Four Horsemen in the process, but the crafty Notre Dame playmakers found a way to get on the scoreboard. After another punt by Baker the half ended as the Irish ran out the clock early in their drive.
Despite taking a halftime lead and stealing some momentum before the break Rockne was not happy with his team. The Coach let the team linger by themselves longer than usual before entering the locker room and speaking to them. With a few minutes before they had to run back out on the field Rockne swung open the door and calmly walked in.
"Well men that wasn't our best effort," he said. "I know the field is poor but we have to fight through it. We don't have any excuses. We are the better team! Perhaps you'd like for them to read all of your press clippings and fold over but they won't. We have to fight!"
The Coach paused and wiped his mouth.
"Some great things are within our grasp. If you want to be great you can't lose games like this. Do you want to be great?"
The locker room remained silent.
"Do you want to be great!?" Rockne shouted.
The players let out a terrible yell, jumped up and out of the room for the second half.
If the halftime speech was meant to jolt the team out of their funk it didn't work. Still the rain came down and Notre Dame couldn't muster enough offense to threaten Northwestern territory. Stuhldreher connected on a couple nice passes but 3 drives ended in punts during the third quarter. One of those punts was taken back 32-yards by Moon Baker and on the subsequent drive the future All-American missed a crucial 30-yard field goal.
With 11 minutes to go in the game the score remained 7-6 but Northwestern was creeping toward midfield trying desperately to take a lead. On second down they tried a rare pass and would pay dearly for the mistake. Baker took a pitch and tried to hit an open receiver across his body but Elmer Layden stepped in front of the pass and rumbled 68 yards the other way for a back breaking touchdown. Jim Crowley missed the PAT and the Irish clung to a 13-6 lead.
The teams exchanged punts and time was running out for Northwestern. With 4 minutes to play Notre Dame began a drive that was their best of the day. Stuhldreher connected on 3 passes for 72 yards and with a minute to play the game was all but over. Stuhldreher would fumble the snap and lose the ball at the opponent's 5-yard line but there wasn't enough time for Northwestern to mount a comeback. They heaved 2 passes and tried to run on third down and came up short. Another heave on fourth down fell harmlessly onto the wet ground and Notre Dame escaped their Grant Park premier with a close 7-point win and kept their perfect season intact.
Carnegie Tech was founded in 1900 by Scottish-American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie as a place for local Pittsburgh steel workers' sons to educate themselves. A dozen years later the blossoming school was handing out 4-year degrees and beginning to dip its toes into the competitive world of major college football.
In the coming years the Carnegie Tech football team would improve tremendously but in 1924 they were still considered a weaker team at the national level. The Irish had faced Carnegie in the previous two seasons and won by a combined score of 45-0, so there was little fear of being upset for this season finale. That careless attitude would make Notre Dame pay 2 years down the road when Rockne didn't even bother traveling to Pittsburgh in order to scout USC late that season. Carnegie Tech shocked the world with a 19-0 win over the Irish and ruined what could have been a national title for Notre Dame. Carnegie Tech would then hand Rockne his only home loss two years later in 1928 as well.
Back in 1922 Knute Rockne was successful in getting the game with Carnegie moved to the large Forbes Field and the schools made the same agreement again in 1924. The large steel structure, the first of its kind built in the country, was the home to Pittsburgh Pirates baseball in the Major Leagues and the University of Pittsburgh football team. Carnegie had long been overshadowed in the region by the more powerful Pitt football team who had won a national title in their second season playing at Forbes and an additional 4 more championships in 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1920 under head coach Glenn "Pop" Warner.
Warner had slipped to 4 defeats with Pitt in 1923, lost to Carnegie that season, and quickly fled out west to coach Stanford. The new Pitt head coach John "Jock" Sutherland also lost to Carnegie in 1924 so they were certainly not a complete pushover for Notre Dame in late November. This would be Pittsburgh's last season in Forbes Field before they built their own new Pitt Stadium just blocks away, so Carnegie Tech's regular season ending showdown with Notre Dame would be one of the last big football games in the stadium until Art Rooney would found the NFL's Pittsburgh Pirates (later re-named Steelers) in 1933.
On November 29, 1924 it was an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon when Notre Dame arrived at Forbes Field for what was to be a regular season finale tune up for a bowl game. The Irish had never participated in a postseason game of any kind but they knew long before the trip to western Pennsylvania---where they'd increase their popularity among the emerging Coal Mine Alumni---that the Rose Bowl was all theirs if they finished 9-0. The previous week Pop Warner's team from Stanford had tied California in Berkeley and the Rose Bowl had already picked Stanford as their first representative. Now they waited on Notre Dame.
Unfortunately the first half in Pittsburgh didn't go according to script.
On Notre Dame's first possession the Shock Troops moved the ball down to the Carnegie 14-yard line but were stopped and had their field goal blocked. After forcing a quick punt by Carnegie the Irish had their own punt blocked and the ball squirted out of bounds near mid-field. On the second play of that next drive Carnegie's quarterback William Chesterton threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to give his team a shocking 6-0 lead over Notre Dame.
Rockne remained patient and knowing he would need his team as healthy as possible for any postseason opportunities he decided to keep the backups in the game after falling behind on the scoreboard. Once again, the Shock Troops moved the ball downfield but the drive stalled out at the 22-yard line. It looked as if the fates were starting to turn against them when Notre Dame had a second field goal blocked by Carnegie.
The Coach had enough. Standing up off the bench he called for his starters in between the possession switch.
"Let's go with the starters!" he barked. "Elmer you stay here."
The fullback of the Four Horsemen stood at the end of the bench nearest Rockne with his large coat thrown over his shoulder pads. Layden had aggravated his shoulder and sprained his knee in the sloppy Grant Park the previous week and the Coach wanted to keep him out of the lineup if at all possible.
"Livergood get in there," Rockne said motioning out to the field.
Bernard Livergood was a talented senior, some said he was as good or better than Layden. At most other school's he would have been the star and carried the ball 15 times a game but at Notre Dame he was relegated to a backup role. Still, he played a lot and this was yet another opportunity for the Stonington, Illinois native to prove his worth.
With the first team on the field it didn't take long to grab the momentum. The Irish recovered a fumble and Stuhldreher connected on 2 passes while Livergood charged up the middle to the 8-yard line. On the next play Crowley swept to the right and tied the game with a touchdown. A three-and-out gave Notre Dame the ball again and Stuhldreher hit 3 passes in a row to advance deep into Carnegie territory. Following a Miller run for 12 yards the Irish quarterback faked the ball to Livergood and kept around the left edge for a touchdown.
There were less than 2 minutes left and the Irish had seized momentum back with their starters like they had done so many times during the season. However, the half didn't end well. Notre Dame dominated defensively and forced a punt but Miller fumbled at the Irish 12-yard line that set up a Carnegie touchdown. Neither team could hit their extra points so the clubs jogged into the locker rooms tied up 13-13 at half.
Always the master of player psychology Rockne hid his anger at the team for nearly doubling their defensive points allowed on the season in one half against Carnegie Tech. Instead, he remained calm and addressed his club with respect.
"We didn't have a few breaks go our way in the first half men," he said. "We've been doing a good job moving the ball but we have to make our own breaks when we get down in their end. Don't get lazy on defense, either. Stay focused on the task at hand."
Looking around the room Rockne could tell he needed to say no more. The players were embarrassed to be tied with such an inferior opponent and the anger could be seen on their faces.
"Good, let them be angry," the Coach thought. "Better them than me."
Any illusions Carnegie had about defeating Notre Dame on this day were obliterated in the third quarter when the team's came back on the field. The Irish forced Carnegie's fifth straight punt and Stuhldreher returned it to his own 48-yard line. Continuing his fine day Stuhldreher hit 3 more passes on the drive with the last coming on a 9-yard touchdown pass to Crowley. A sixth straight punt by Carnegie was brought back by for a touchdown by Livergood, and a seventh punt the Irish took and marched down for another score.
With 2 minutes and 14 seconds left in the third quarter Carnegie Tech stood dazed and confused as Notre Dame led 34-13. Realizing how well his team was playing defensively, Rockne waited for the quarter to end and then emptied nearly his entire bench in the fourth quarter. The teams would each score another touchdown in the final frame, and while Carnegie Tech had the notoriety of scoring more points against Notre Dame than any other opponent, the Irish were more than happy to finish their season with a resounding 40-19 victory.
Notre Dame had traveled to many places over the previous dozen years or so seeking out the best competition the country had to offer. Although the school leaders vetoed some of the longer trips it was a fact that Rockne and his team were comfortable traveling all over the nation to play football. Since joining the staff as an assistant Rockne had seen Notre Dame travel 350 miles to play in St. Louis, over 600 miles to play in Nebraska and Atlanta, over 700 miles to play in New York and New Haven, and even as far as 1,200 miles to play games in Texas.
If Notre Dame accepted the invitation to play in the Rose Bowl it would be the biggest undertaking to date for the growing football power. Rockne's team would have a month to rest up and prepare for the biggest game of their lives but the school had to figure out a way to get the team 2,000 miles across the country. As usual, the Coach had a detailed plan ready to go as to how the trip should be made.