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.
December 23, 1924 - French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana
A few days after returning home from Pittsburgh following the last regular season game Rockne and his undefeated team were publicly offered a spot in the Rose Bowl by the Pasadena Committee. A win in that game would guarantee Notre Dame and the Coach its first consensus national title, except there was a small problem.
Stanford---the team offered the Rose Bowl appearance as the champion of the Pacific Conference---refused to play Notre Dame.
Pop Warner, the head coach of Stanford who had led the Pitt football program the year before and was in his first year in Palo Alto, put forth allegations of unfair recruiting and concerns about the validity of Notre Dame's academics. This sent Rockne into a rage of fury.
"That old hag Warner is the biggest hypocrite of them all!" the Coach cried out when he heard the news from the West Coast.
Warner originally rose to fame by coaching the controversial Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania where he became known as an extremely shady recruiter who kept his best Native American players on the field for well over 4 years. During Rockne's first year as an assistant at Notre Dame in 1914 his team defeated Carlisle 48-6 in Chicago and by the next year Warner had left for the University of Pittsburgh. Just a couple years later the Carlisle football team disbanded amid swirling controversy of player eligibility as various leaders and committees tried to clean up the game.
While Stanford balked at facing Notre Dame, Rockne tried hard to get the Rose Bowl committee to accept the University of Southern California as a replacement. The Coach was in contact with the USC athletic director and both men agreed to the game if Pasadena allowed it. Unfortunately, the Rose Bowl came back with an offer of Notre Dame versus Haskell but Rockne knew the Irish had nothing to prove against the less talented Indian school from Kansas.
Eventually, the pressure for the top West Coast team to play the country's perceived top team became too great and Warner buckled. The Rose Bowl offered more money to Stanford and Notre Dame (splitting 60% of the total gate receipts) and that was enough for the game to be played. Rockne was disappointed that he couldn't follow through on his promise to USC but he did relish the opportunity to beat Pop Warner. Plus, the Coach had other plans in mind when it came to the top football team in Los Angeles.
A couple weeks after formally agreeing to the game the Notre Dame football team, along with its coaches, managers, and Father O'Hara walked the streets of the French Quarter in downtown New Orleans. The team had departed South Bend two days earlier, and following a quick banquet that first night in Chicago, the city of New Orleans was throwing a festive parade for the visiting Irish.
It was a big risk Rockne was taking and it was quite surprising that President Walsh and the Board allowed the team to leave so early before the game. In New Orleans the team was just 4 days into a 12-day long trip that would take them to Los Angeles. Of paramount concern for the Coach was getting the Irish acclimated to the warmer climate but also getting the players to peak at the right time. Rockne was much more concerned with getting his players healthy and not driving them into the ground over such a long period of time. As a result, the Coach held loose and very informal practices during the first two-thirds of the trip to Los Angeles.
As the confetti rained down on the team and faceless citizens hollered from balconies to the left and right Rockne wanted to keep his team relaxed but away from the temptations that surrounded them. The parade would last only 90 minutes and when it was over the players would be holed up in the Croix House Hotel until the Coach called another run through on a nearby field behind their accommodations. In keeping with superstition and fear that some of the top players would get sick during the trip, Rockne had student manager Leo Sutliffe bring enough South Bend water for everyone to drink and the players were under strict orders to remain hydrated in the heat.
The fourteen piece jazz band that led the players through the unfamiliar streets blasted their music right through Bourbon Street, eventually turning down a narrow street and away from the bustling activity surrounding the bars and restaurants. The Notre Dame party would continue on for another 12 blocks until they reached their hotel and as they walked on the band members halted their tune and dispersed slowly in every direction.
Notre Dame ate a big team breakfast in New Orleans on Christmas Eve and departed west towards their ultimate destination. On Christmas morning the team rolled into Austin, Texas and spent the holiday attending a banquet at St. Edwards University. Officials from the nearby University of Texas had proposed an exhibition game against the Irish while they were in town but the Notre Dame administration vetoed any such plans. Instead, the train rolled on the next day and after making a brief stop in El Paso where the team was showered by praise from the local mayor, the team arrived in Tuscon, Arizona on the 27th and practiced at the University of Arizona for the next 3 days.
Arizona head coach James "Pop" McKale stood on the sidelines with Rockne as Notre Dame opened up practice on the 28th with some stretching.
"What have you got on Stanford?" the Coach asked.
"Well you know Warner quite well," McKale said. "They like to pull out some tricks from time to time just like Warner did while at Carlisle. Their biggest weapon though is Ernie Nevers. He's a big ol' kid probably a little over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds."
"That's bigger than anyone on my starting line," Rockne said. "Does he do anything on offense except play fullback?"
"It's not exaggeration to say he does it all," the Arizona coach replied. "He grew up in Minnesota, played some high school ball in Wisconsin, and moved out to California before coming to Stanford. They say he's the best athlete in the Pacific Coast Conference. Warner will try and pound you up the middle with Nevers as long as he can stay healthy enough to run."
"I had heard he was having a bunch of problems with his ankles, is that right?" the Coach asked.
"That is correct. He actually broke an ankle during a pre-season scrimmage, and then broke the other against Montana which caused him to miss this last California game."
"Any update on his progress?" Rockne inquired.
"I've heard he just recently started practicing but very lightly," McKale said.
"Oh I see," the Coach replied. "I've heard that Cleaveland is going to play too?"
"Yeah he's been cleared to play," McKale said talking about the other star Stanford running back who had been suspended for the season finale by the Pacific Coast Conference because of an academic issue. Playing without Nevers and Cleaveland and still tying California at Berkeley was a big reason why the Rose Bowl didn't hesitate to invite Pop Warner's Indians team.
"Well it's nice to see other institutions paying some mind to class work," Rockne said with a hint of sarcasm. "With all the complaints my boys get you'd think they sat around playing cards all day."
That line sent James McKale into a deep laugh while Rockne grinned and placed his hand on the Arizona coach's shoulder. The Irish players had finished stretching and were congregated over by the multiple large jugs filled with South Bend water that manager Sutliffe had brought out onto the field.
"I'm worried about the heat," Rockne said suddenly changing his expression. "We just got out here and the team already looks tired. It was 87 degrees before we got on the field, do you think it will be worse than this in Los Angeles?"
"I really doubt it," McKale replied. "You'll get a nice dry heat practicing here. This will prepare your team very well. Once you get into California it will be much cooler and you'll get some relief from the ocean breeze."
"Well thanks for the information Pop," the Coach said. "Stick around and watch practice. I want to hear your thoughts on our team. We'll have to go out to dinner before we leave and talk a little more about Stanford."
"Sure you got it Rock."
On the first of January 1925 the sun was fully overhead the San Gabriel Mountains bathing the players from Notre Dame and Stanford in California light as they warmed up on the field. The previous day the Irish had arrived in Los Angeles to the welcome of 5,000 fans and admirers but today the adulation and parades stopped. The team was 2,000 miles from home and had been away from campus for nearly 2 weeks---they certainly didn't come this far to lose.
This was the 11th edition of the Rose Bowl Game, a post-season game that began for the first time following the 1901 season. In order to help fund the Rose Parade the Pasadena Committee came up with the Tournament East-West Football Game and invited undefeated Michigan to play Stanford on January 1, 1902. In that first game Fielding Yost's Michigan team beat up the Indians so bad (49-0) that the Pasadena Committee decided not to host a football game again until the 1915 season.
That first game and all others until the 1922 season were played at Tournament Park, a literal park in Pasadena that was built up over the years to host big football games. For the 1917 and 1918 seasons no college teams were invited but instead various military bases squared off against each other during the First World War. By the early 20's Tournament Park was getting too small to hold the growing post-season game and so the Pasadena Committee set about building a new stadium a few miles to the northeast.
Following Ohio State's 1920 shutout loss to California in the Rose Bowl Game the Western Conference had enough and instituted a post-season ban on all its league members which opened the door to the Pasadena Committee inviting teams like Penn State, Navy, Alabama, and Notre Dame from the East. On this day as the Irish invaded north Los Angeles the Rose Bowl Stadium was hosting its third Rose Bowl Game. Following the 1922 season Cal declined the bid and USC took it instead---the Trojans beating Penn State 14-3. The year prior to Rockne's Rockets showing up Washington and Navy tied 14-14.
By the time the players finished their warmups and came back out to the field the temperature had soared all the way to 90 degrees. Knute Rockne entered the field behind his team and worried whether the practice in Arizona and the slow acclimation to southern heat would be enough on this unseasonably hot January day in California.
Down the western sideline Ernie Nevers jogged lightly kicking his knees high and loosening up. Stanford's best player wasn't going to miss this game and his damaged ankles were taped so tightly he'd be unable to feel his legs by the time the game was over.
Even in the biggest game of his life the Coach stuck with his strategy of playing the backups first. When the Shock Troops hit the field and received the ball they were met with stiff resistance and forced to punt after picking up just one first down. The Indians took over and Nevers began his game-long act as a human battering ram plunging straight into the Irish line. Slowly but surely Stanford pushed Notre Dame back with 3 methodical first downs. The Irish stiffened and forced a field goal attempt from 38 yards that was missed by Nevers.
With a few minutes left in the first quarter after Stanford sucked 9 minutes off the clock it was time for the Four Horsemen and the Seven Mules to take the field. The 55,000 fans stood and cheered the famous players but their entrance into the game was spoiled after quarterback Harry Stuhldreher lost a fumble on the second play of the drive. Taking over inside the Irish 20-yard line Stanford was in good position to score a touchdown but Walsh, Kizer, and the rest of the Notre Dame front held the Indians without a first down. This time though, Nevers connected on the field goal to give his team a 3-0 lead.
The second series for the Four Horsemen showed why they were so beloved by fans and dangerous to opponents. In just 4 plays, 2 of them long passes, Notre Dame moved the ball to the Stanford 7-yard line as the first quarter came to an end. Two plays into the second quarter and the fullback Elmer Layden crashed through the line for the touchdown. The future Irish head coach missed the point after but came up big a couple of series later on defense.
On second down at their own 42 Stanford tried a pass down the middle of the field but Layden picked it off, weaved his way through traffic, and found the endzone. This time he made the extra point to give Notre Dame a 13-3 lead.
The next Indian possession suffered the same fate. Stanford picked up a couple first downs but a Nevers pass was intercepted by Stuhldreher. The Irish couldn't capitalize on the opportunity this time and were forced to punt. Determined as ever, Nevers crashed the line again and again slowly moved the ball towards the Notre Dame end zone in an attempt to close the deficit. Yet again, a turnover killed the Indians' chances. With the first half winding down Stanford held the ball at the Irish 14-yard line but Cleaveland lost a fumble after a jarring hit by Adam Walsh.
During halftime Rockne remained concerned about his team despite the 10-point lead. The weather was really affecting some of the players and Stanford was able to move the ball with regularity. The Coach knew he would have to play more than just his starters in the second half and that he could rely on his depth to overcome the heat.
In the locker room during the break Rockne waited to speak to his team. The players sat mostly silent. Some re-wrapped some limbs while others re-tied their cleats.
"Alright men," Rockne said walking through the door as his assistants came in behind him. "We have a lead but we have to play better in the second half. Stand up to their running attack! You have to fight back and stop the runs up the middle. Do that and we will be victorious. Now let's go get ‘em!"
Showing signs of fatigue from the heat the players' entrance back onto the field was not nearly as enthusiastic as usual. When the ball was kicked off Stanford marched right down the field and into Irish territory. The Indians were stopped at the 29-yard line but missed a field goal. If that wasn't bad enough Stanford forced a Notre Dame punt, started another solid drive, and missed yet another field goal. In the middle of the third quarter Nevers and the Indians had outplayed the Four Horsemen but they still trailed by 10 points.
If those missed field goals didn't demoralize Stanford the next few minutes certainly would. Notre Dame was unable to pick up a first down and punted from inside the 20-yard line. The athletic Cleaveland went back to catch the ball but lost it for a second in the sun. The ball ricocheted off his right shoulder and bounced perfectly into the arms of senior end Edward Hunsinger who galloped 43 yards for a touchdown. Layden nailed the PAT and the Irish led 20-3.
Some momentum was grabbed a couple of series later when a Stuhldreher pass was intercepted by Stanford. The Indians took the ball right to the goal line and Nevers was able to punch it in to get his team back within 10 points. The tide was turning on the ensuing drive when a pass by Crowley was intercepted by Stanford. Once again, the Indians moved deep into Irish territory. The fourth quarter had begun and Stanford stood at the 8-yard line with a first down. They gave the ball to Nevers 4 times in a row but he could not score, being stopped on fourth down just inches away from the goal line.
Pinned deep Notre Dame was forced to punt and again Stanford had great field position. However, making up for his mistake earlier Crowley stepped in front of a pass and intercepted Stanford at midfield. The Four Horsemen backfield still couldn't get anything going and were forced to punt. It was a fine defensive performance by Stanford but they couldn't cash in on any points and time was running out.
With 5:18 left in the game one of the Four Horsemen made sure to drive the final nail in Stanford's coffin---even if it wasn't on the offensive side of the ball. Nevers rolled to his right and tried to hit a streaking teammate up the seam but Elmer Layden tipped the ball in front of the intended receiver and intercepted the pass. For the second time in the game, Layden raced through bodies and crossed the goal line for a pick six just as Nevers dived at his feet to no avail.
That was the end of the scoring for the 1925 Rose Bowl Game. The teams exchanged punts and the game ended with a 27-10 Notre Dame victory. Despite never gaining a first down in the second half the Irish took advantage of Stanford's six total turnovers in the win. The Indians out-gained Notre Dame by 119 yards but it wasn't enough to defeat the Irish. For the third time in Rockne's young career he led his team to an undefeated season and this time they'd take home the school's first undisputed national championship.
After the final whistle a few thousand fans ran onto the field slapping the Notre Dame players on the back and swarming Rockne as he made his way to the locker room.
"Way to go Coach!" one screamed.
"Congrats on the season, Rock!" another yelled.
With the sun still shining brightly over top the Rose Bowl the players wiped the sweat from their faces and congratulated their teammates and opponent whenever they encountered each other in the mass of surrounding fans flooding the field. The wild celebrating would be saved for later but now the team just wanted to get out of the heat and away from the frenzied crowd.
Notre Dame returned to South Bend on the afternoon of January 7th completing their three week trip across the country to play in the Rose Bowl and being met by thousands of students, fans, and locals in the train station. After a few hours the party returned to campus and everything was finally unpacked. The 1924 season was officially complete.
On the way home the team made several stops which allowed communities to coronate the Irish as national champions. At this point, nearly 3 months after the famous Four Horsemen photograph hit newsstands, the Notre Dame team was perhaps the most popular college football squad in American history. They were toasted in Los Angeles the day after the Rose Bowl, attended mass at St. Patrick's Church in San Francisco, and were given an enormous civic parade in Denver.
Back on campus Leo Sutliffe had one more responsibility to perform before calling it quits and returning to his dorm room. Striding up the wide steps into the Main Building with the sparkling dome on top he walked quickly to Father Cushing's office. Knocking on the open door the Notre Dame bookkeeper looked up as Sutliffe handed him a piece of paper.
"There you go Father," the manager said.
"Let's take a look," Father Cushing replied.
Sutliffe folded his arms and stared at a picture on the wall waiting to be dismissed.
"What is this?" the priest asked. "All it says is ‘Money received: $15,000, Money spent: $14,985, and Money returned: $15. Where are all of your receipts, young man? Don't come back until you have all this money accounted for."
Leo didn't protest but knew exactly what he needed to do.
Just down the quad Rockne sat in his office with George Strickler by his side. The duo would have two large matters to face in the coming weeks and the first would trickle to the press within a matter of days.
"The morning after the game I visited with the athletic director and school president of Southern California," the Coach said. "They have given me quite a lucrative offer but I have declined it. Nevertheless, the papers don't know that I have refused."
"Okay," Strickler said apprehensively. He wanted to tell the Coach that he was getting used to this business more by the day but didn't utter those words.
"We'll see how everyone reacts. I just want you to be ready to write anything when the time comes," Rockne said.
"Sure, no problem," George replied.
A few days later word would leak that Rockne interviewed at USC but the Coach deftly swatted away any criticism in addition to helping Southern Cal find a new head coach. USC listened to Rockne and hired Howard Jones the coach who was fired by Iowa after the 1923 season which led to the rumors of the Coach leaving for Iowa City. This relationship would bear fruit for both programs as the Irish finally scheduled USC for the 1926 season beginning the country's greatest inter-sectional rivalry. The decision worked out pretty well for Southern Cal too as Jones would lead their program for 16 seasons winning 7 conference titles, 4 national championships, and earning a 5-0 mark in the Rose Bowl.
"For now I want you to start on a nice recap of the Rose Bowl and mention some of the big plays made by Layden and the others," Rockne said to George.
Just as the Coach finished his sentence Leo Sutliffe came rushing in.
"Father Cushing wants receipts from the trip," Leo said handing Rockne the slip of paper.
Rockne scribbled something on the paper and handed it back to Leo.
"Just give it back to him," he said.
Sutliffe took the paper and hustled back to The Dome. Father Cushing was surprised to see him so quickly and put on his reading glasses.
"That was awfully quick," the bookkeeper said taking the note. Scanning down to the bottom he read:
The expression on the priest's face moved from inquisitive, to anger, and to acceptance.
"That's fine, you can go now," Father Cushing said.
Leo Sutliffe turned around and smiled as he left.
Back in Rockne's office George had left and the Coach sat at his desk alone. He looked to his left and out towards the quad and chuckled at Father Cushing requesting receipts from their three week trip. "That is so typical of Father Cushing," he thought. He could laugh now but the financial dilemma facing the school would become a huge burden for Rockne in the coming years.
Although the trip was technically successful from a football and financial sense, the University would soon buckle under the pressure coming from the college athletics reform movement of the decade that sought to remove the money from the game and put a greater emphasis on the student aspect of education and amateurism. If Rockne had thoughts of more Rose Bowl games in the future he would be mistaken. The 1924 game against Stanford would be Notre Dame's lone post-season game for nearly 50 years as the school avoided the huge pay days dangled in front of their face for half a century.
Not that the lack of post-season play would really hurt Notre Dame or Rockne's ability to compete. The Western Conference was in the midst of a post-season ban that would last until after World War II and spurred by the success and popularity of the 1924 squad the Irish football program would continue to rake in huge sums of money through the remaining of the Roaring 20's.
At the start of the decade Notre Dame was barely making money from playing football but in an era in which an average house cost $8,000 the Irish were able to add $250,000 in revenue from the 1924 season---more than doubling the profits from the previous season. The team earned a combined $60,000 from the Eastern trips to play Army and Princeton, $27,000 against Northwestern at Grant Park, $25,000 against Carnegie Tech at Forbes Field, and a huge $52,000 from the Rose Bowl Game. In December before the team made their trip to California the New York Yankees signed a deal with Notre Dame to play the 1925 Army game in Yankee Stadium for an upfront pay-day of $60,000 too.
As Rockne sat in his office he could envision the success his program would have in the future but also foresee the battles he would have to fight from outsiders and also from members within the Notre Dame community. The Coach was an ardent supporter of the growing game of football and would fight tooth and nail to have his way against all detractors. The large amount of money his team earned in 1924 would go towards several repair projects on campus and would single handily finance the building of Dillon Hall. By the end of the decade Rockne's football team would be earning nearly $1 million per season which would allow the University of Notre Dame to remain much more financially afloat and have no problem building a new football stadium even in the midst of the nation-wide Great Depression.
Rockne saw all the good his program was doing for the school and he wanted everyone to remember that fact when charges of commercialism were thrown at his team. Athletic departments at school like Michigan were keeping their profits to themselves but at Notre Dame the money was controlled by the University and not Rockne.
These fights would come in due time but for now the Coach leaned back in his office chair and smiled proudly remembering the great season his team had just finished. In other post-season games undefeated Penn traveled to Berkeley and lost to California 14-0, West Virginia Wesleyan beat SMU 9-7 in the Dixie Classic held in Dallas, and Southern Cal would beat Missouri 20-7 in the Los Angeles Christmas Festival. At the top of the game Notre Dame stood as the unquestioned national champions with a 10-0 record.
Rockne would always remember the enigmatic George Gipp and those first two undefeated teams very fondly while shortly before his tragic death the Coach would admit his final 1930 team was his best to date. But this 1924 team was the one to really change Notre Dame. The Four Horsemen and the Seven Mules were the tipping point for the program that sent Rockne and the Fighting Irish soaring to amazing heights and the team that made the Irish America's Team.
Staring out the window the Coach soaked in the glory his team had just created but before long this rare moment of reflection would be replaced by his normal fast-paced life. There would be speeches to give, players to scout, and spring practice to coordinate. 1924 was an amazing year but preparations to coach a young 1925 team would begin almost immediately. Rockne would barely sleep on this night but he'd hit the ground running once the sun rose.