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OFD Book Club: “Shake Down the Thunder” #1

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A seminal history of Notre Dame Football written in 1993.

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Graphic by Brendan McAlinden / @verypiratey

I can only imagine Murray Sperber’s excitement as he brushed aside mouse droppings in the sub-basement of the Hesburgh Library.

Sperber, an associate professor at Indiana University, found in cardboard boxes — unmolested for almost 60 years — the Notre Dame athletic department’s office files from 1909 to 1934, including the daily correspondence of legendary football coach Knute Rockne.

Sperber was attempting something no previous author had tried, as he explained in the introduction to the book, “Shake Down the Thunder,” that resulted from his research (Amazon, B&N, IU Press, eBay):

“‘Shake Down the Thunder’ is an explanation of how and why the games occurred, the rise of big-time college sport, the press and public that fed upon it, and the critics who tried to control and reform it. In addition, this book focuses on what none of the Fighting Irish football books mention - the complicated political and personal relations between and among administrators of Notre Dame; athletic department personnel; the schools, faculty, students, and alumni; and the dealings with the outside world, especially the press, the sports public and the educational establishment.”

Sperber is engaged in “serious scholarship,” in which “disclosing the truth is more important than perpetuating comforting legends.” (Preface, pg. xiii) This won’t be a continued hagiography of Rockne, as others have sought fit with their works. Sperber is here to correct the record, and tell the story of “an extremely smart man in a ruthless profession who built winning teams step-by-step, sometimes breaking rules, always seeing the world realistically.” (Introduction, pg. xx)

Here’s an example of how the myth has overtaken reality. If you’re an Irish football fan, you’ve likely heard the story about how the rivalry with USC started as a “conversation between wives” — Knute’s wife, Bonnie, and Marion Wilson, the wife of USC Athletic Director Gwynn Wilson.

But Sperber found the letter Rockne wrote to Oregon State Football Coach Paul J. Schissler regarding the scheduling of the USC game, and the Irish coach never mentions his wife or anyone else’s spouse (Notes, pg. 505). What he does say is:

“The Southern California officials came to South Bend and offered the authorities such a flattering guarantee that they could not turn it down.”

Sperber thinks the guarantee could have been “as high as $100,000” (almost $1.5 million in today’s dollars). To further throw cold water on the “conversation between wives” mythology, Sperber notes that no one from Notre Dame’s side — Bonnie Rockne or otherwise — ever mentioned an alleged conversation with Marion Wilson during their lifetimes (Notes, pg. 505).

Part One, examining the era between 1789 and 1918, is titled “What Though the Odds Be Great or Small.” It will encompass the book’s first nine chapters, although this post will only cover through Chapter Three.

We start with 1789 because that’s the year that Georgetown, the first Catholic university was founded. There were once 170 Catholic institutions of higher learning, but just 67 survived to the time of the book’s publishing in 1993. Sperber helpfully details the different religious orders that have founded Catholic schools — the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) have Georgetown, Xavier, Fordham, Boston College and Marquette; the De La Salle Christian Brothers started La Salle, Manhattan, and Saint Mary’s (California); the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians) founded DePaul and St. John’s (New York); the Franciscans have St. Bonaventure; and, of course, the Congregation of the Holy Cross created the University of Notre Dame. (Funny enough, the College of the Holy Cross is a Jesuit school.)

Sperber recounts Father Edward Sorin’s journey from France to Vincennes, Ind. and later, South Bend. What you may not have realized is that Notre Dame attracted far more primary and secondary students than it did to its college, at least initially. Sorin didn’t adhere to the traditional “Catholic” curriculum and offered courses in science, law and engineering, the latter two being the first offered at an American Catholic school of higher education (pg. 7).

As the rail lines improved, Catholic families — mostly of Irish and German descent — sent their boys to Notre Dame for the entirety of their formal education. Sperber plumbs Francis Wallace’s 1949 book, “The Notre Dame Story” for an anecdote about Sorin: He “disliked the Irish because they were ‘not obedient by nature.’”

Sorin was 28 when he founded Notre Dame, which Sperber says explains the relative youth of his successors. (He seems to overlook Fr. Hugh O’Donnell, who was 55 or 56 when he ascended to the presidency.)

The first chapter ends with Sorin’s perseverance in the midst of tragedy: “If it were all gone,” he reportedly said of the blaze that consumed the Main Building and some ancillary buildings, “I should not give up.”

In Chapter Two, we’re reminded that college football wasn’t the first sport at Notre Dame — or even its first sport of distinction. The university had a baseball team by 1867; future Hall of Famer “Cap” Anson attended Notre Dame’s high school and was on a club squad.

College football was largely unregulated when it first began and, a decade into its existence, there was a real problem with “tramp athletes.” Tramps came in two kinds: There was the practice of soliciting community members to play on your team and the practice of a college “borrowing” a player from a fellow college.

The lack of standard college admission procedures and playing eligibility rules created hopscotch transfers of athletes from school to school as well as playing careers that extended well beyond four years. The famed Fielding Yost was a lineman for West Virginia University in 1896 when he “transferred” to Lafayette for its crucial game against Penn. After helping Lafayette win, Yost returned to West Virginia. A few years later, when he became coach at Michigan, Yost brought in many “tramp players” as well as the graduate coach of Stanford to star on his first Wolverine squad.

I have a feeling we’ll be hearing from Yost again!

At the end of the chapter, Sperber asks a question worth contemplating:

“When college football developed into two tiers — the rich Have schools and the small Have-Nots — and the latter remained with or fell back to an informal, student-based version of the sport, why did Notre Dame — still poor and with a small student body — go on to win national championships and field many of the most powerful teams in college football history?”

Part of the answer is alluded to in the introduction (p. xxi), when Sperber writes,

“No imitator could match Notre Dame’s unique formula: a rich athletic culture, fan identification based on ethnicity and religion, an innovative and charismatic coach, a phenomenal won-lost record, powerful media allies, an immense number of supporters throughout the country, and most important of all, the invention of the formula.”

In Chapter Three, Sperber explains how Notre Dame differed from other Catholic universities because they existed outside the “direct papal loop.” Translation? While Notre Dame saw itself primarily as a vessel to mold “student character through religious training,” they also offered science classes.

Sperber explains (pg. 16):

The nature of ND’s parochial education, as well as the imperative of keeping the school financially afloat, resulted in an open admissions policy. The priests welcomed any boy of any age who sought Catholic training and could play in cash or labor. They also accepted non-Catholics who wanted a basic education in a religious environment.

While Notre Dame shifted its emphasis to the university program around the turn of the 20th century, the “admissions standards remained loose.” Knute Rockne, a Lutheran, had dropped out of high school to work at a post office. The Norwegian had saved enough money to pay for college, and was attracted to Notre Dame, Sperber argues, because of its “reputation as a ‘poor boy’s’ institution, a place where students with little money but a willingness to work for their tuition, room and board could succeed.”

In 1895 — 15 years before Rockne came from Chicago — Minnesota, Purdue, Wisconsin, Northwestern and others established the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives for the purposes of creating uniform rules for intercollegiate sports. Notre Dame immediately applied, Sperber says, but was rejected due to it being “not large or serious enough and also because of its vague eligibility rules.”

In response, the university amended its “athletic constitution” to limit participation on its teams to only “bona fide” students taking a full course of studies. The ICFR — rebranded the Western Conference by the press — subsequently admitted Iowa and Indiana. Notre Dame re-applied in 1908, the same year Michigan dropped out because Yost didn’t want to tighten the eligibility rules.

Notre Dame was at an inflection point. Would it continue to try to appease the WAC’s vague whims or pursue an independent course?

Join me next week for a discussion on Chapters 4-7.