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Notre Dame Football: The First Time The Irish Almost Wore Green Jerseys

Knute Rockne scuttles his own plans to wear green versus Princeton.

Knute Rockne
United States Library of Congress

The origin of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish wearing green jerseys begins with a major scoop - and ends with a head fake.

Walter “Eckie” Eckersall dropped a preseason bombshell when he wrote on Sept. 13, 1923 in the Chicago Tribune:

When Notre Dame meets Princeton on the latter’s gridiron on Oct. 20, in one of the most important intersectional football games of the year, Coach Rockne’s eleven will case aside a time honored custom and instead of wearing blue jerseys, the Hoosiers will wear a bright green.

There’s little doubt that Eckersall was tipped off by Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, who idolized the former Chicago Maroons quarterback. (Rockne once said of Eckersall: “The first time I learned a football was not only something to kick, but something to think with, was when I saw a great football player in action for the first time.”)

While the Irish donning green jerseys has become synonymous with big games in the past 40 years, Eckersall said Rockne’s primary motivation was tactical.

The playing field at Princeton is surrounded by high walls of the stadium. As the sun gets lower, shadows start to fall across the gridiron. If both teams wore dark jerseys, it would be almost impossible for the forward passers to hurl the ball with any degree of accuracy to their teammates eligible to receive them. This precaution is only one of the many indications which show the game will be among the hardest fought of the season.

While this change may have come as quite a shock to Irish fans, Rockne told the Associated Press two days before the Princeton game that he was moving forward with his plan.

Sportswriters hyped the game as a clash of gridiron greats, with both teams winning their first two contests of the season. The Princeton Tigers, it was reported, were preparing for this game with the intensity of a matchup against the Harvard Crimson.

Henry Farrell, a United Press correspondent, said temporary bleachers were being erected to increase the capacity of Palmer Stadium. What once held 40,000 could hold up to 55,000 on gameday.

“If the weather is good, it is probable that every seat will be taken,” Farrell wrote the day prior to the game.

Farrell said “the ‘Micks’” - his term for the Notre Dame squad - “have notified the Princeton athletic officials that they will wear green jerseys with green stockings for the occasion.”

In his preseason report, Eckersall said 36 “bright green” jerseys had been ordered and would be taken east just in case they were needed for the Army game the weekend before the Princeton skirmish.

Rockne didn’t use the green jerseys on Oct. 13 against Army in New York City and he didn’t use them against Princeton the following Saturday.

“As the referee’s whistle shrilled, Notre Dame’s trim but husky griders peeled off their gray ‘T’ shirts, disclosing the time honored jerseys of dark blue,” wrote The Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s George Trevor. “Evidently, the story that Rockne intended to equip his men in Nile green jerseys was nothing but the yarn of an overzealous press agent.”

It seems everything about the game was hyped. There were no green jerseys. Thirty thousand - not 40,000 or even 55,000 - attended the game. And Notre Dame ran “riot at Princeton’s expense, burying the Tigers under the humiliating tally of 25 to 2,” Trevor wrote in the Oct. 21 edition.

Trevor had opined before the game that the green jerseys may not bring luck, echoing contemporary Irish fans who think the green is a cursed color.

“It remains to be seen whether this shift from regulation colors will jinx Notre Dame as it apparently jinxed West Point,” wrote Trevor in the Oct. 18 edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eage. “It’s a safe guess that the Cadets won’t want to wear those canary jerseys for many a long day.”

So when was the first green jersey game? I had thought it was the Princeton game until today. My newest guess brings an interesting twist to the story.

The New York Herald Tribune’s report on the Oct. 16, 1926 matchup between the Irish and the Penn State Nittany Lions included this tidbit: “The traditional blue of Notre Dame was forsaken when it was found that the Nittany team had jerseys almost identically as the same as those worn by the home team. The vivid emerald green used by Rockne against Princeton a few years ago replaced the regular sweater.”