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OFD Book Club: “Shake Down the Thunder” #2

Jesse Harper innovates, while Rockne gets all the credit

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Graphic by Brendan McAlinden / @verypiratey

Welcome back to the One Foot Down Book Club, where we are reading Murray Sperber’s “Shake Down the Thunder” (Amazon, B&N, IU Press, eBay). This is the second meeting of the club, and we’ll cover Chapters 4-7 today. Here’s the previous installment.

At the turn of the 20th century, Notre Dame was still pretty geographically isolated from South Bend. “The mile of land between the university and the city of South Bend is the most valuable property Notre Dame has,” a popular expression at the time said. There were forests, fams and a cemetery surrounding the campus.

The isolation strengthened bonds inside residence halls and the men inside enjoyed cheering for their football, baseball and track teams, win or lose. It, therefore, is reasonable that two brothers — Michael J. and John F. Shea — would try to translate that school spirit into song. Their “Victory March,” Sperber says, was considered a co-equal among other school cheers until band director Joseph Casasanta rearranged its tempo in the 1920s and “it began to gain its preeminent position.” (pg. 25)

Michael, the musician, told the Scholastic — a student-run publication — in 1935 that he was “greatly surprised” by the march’s staying power because he considered it “very amateurish.” (pgs. 25 & 509).

When Michael Shea died in 1940, his eulogist said:

“He, more than any other student of his time, caught in his soul that indefinable but inspirational something that has become celebrated all through the nation and...characterized as ‘The Spirit of Notre Dame.’”

Chapter Five takes a closer look at Notre Dame athletics between 1900 and 1912. Baseball was still the best known sport at the university, and the team played exhibitions against both the Chicago White Sox and Cubs. Meanwhile, the football team typically played club teams or high schools. (Sperber notes, with incredulity, that Pat O’Dea, Notre Dame’s coach, actually played against his own team when he suited up for the South Bend Athletic Club in the university’s 1901 opener.)

The football team typically traveled no farther than Pittsburgh, although they did venture to Lawrence to play the University of Kansas in 1904. After subsisting on captains to coach the team, the school hired Thomas Barry from Brown to coach the 1906 squad. Barry was a success, but left the university after two years because, he said, he wanted to practice law out west. Barry, however, turned up coaching at Wisconsin in 1908.

The university got lucky in its 1909 hiring of Frank “Shorty” Longman, a former Fielding Yost acolyte. The Western Conference had not only rejected Notre Dame’s application for membership the prior year, but its members refused to schedule them.

Father John W. Cavanaugh, the school’s president, was willing to reach out to small, local colleges to fill the schedule. But Longman was considerably more ambitious.

Michigan had left the Western Conference over disagreements about eligibility, so Longman reached out to his former coach for a matchup. He also arranged meet-ups with Michigan Agricultural (now Michigan State) and a contest with the Pittsburgh Panthers at Forbes Field.

Longman’s “Catholics” defeated Michigan for the first time in nine tries, 11-3, thanks to some stellar running and the recovery of two onside kicks. Yost, Michigan’s coach, downplayed his former player’s “David vs. Goliath” victory, telling the press (pg. 31):

“We went into the game caring little whether we won or lost.”

Following a 7-0-1 season, Notre Dame’s supporters claimed their team had won the “Championship of the West.”

In 1910, Notre Dame had planned to ship its entire undergraduate student body to Ann Arbor for the rematch against the Wolverines. But Yost scuttled the plans when he pulled out of the game “on the eve of the first whistle.”

Yost refused to play the “Catholics” because two of their players had participated with Whitman College, then subsequently enrolled at Notre Dame as freshman and, in essence, reset their eligibility. The Michigan coach was correct, but a hypocrite. After all, he was starting two players that had also previously played for another college and should have exhausted their eligibility (pg. 33).

Michigan and Michigan Agricultural were now refusing to play Notre Dame, which was running out of gridiron partners. The university turned to fellow Catholic schools to fill their football slate and begrudgingly included Marquette, which had welched on a baseball game guarantee earlier that spring. The season was a financial disaster, and the bottom line wasn’t much better against considerably smaller schools in 1912.

Fr. Cavanaugh was once again pushing to play small potatoes to minimize expenses, but the students, alumni and even CSC priests were vehemently opposed. Cavanaugh instead invested $5,000 (approximately $130,712 in today’s dollars) in hiring Jesse Harper to coach football and baseball and run the athletics department’s business office.

When Notre Dame hired Harper, his first priority was clear: the extricate the Catholic school from the scheduling box into which its midwestern foes had placed it and, in so doing, regularize the athletic department’s finances.

Harper’s 1913 schedule is ambitious. The coach writes to West Point to gauge interest in a game and Army — recently dropped by Yale — offers the “Catholics” $1,000 to come east. Harper also added road trips to State College (Penn State) and Austin (University of Texas).

Harper’s Wabash teams, owing to their diminutive stature in relation to their opponents, often employed the forward pass to find an advantage. The new Notre Dame coach, therefore, was interested in employing similar tactics against the physically imposing Cadets. The “Catholics” fine tune through their passing attack in home matches against Ohio Northern, South Dakota and Alma College, before using the pass game to spread out Army’s bruising defensive line and score the upset, 35-13.

Notre Dame did not invent the forward pass. Their defeat of Army did not revolutionize college football, Sperber said, and it didn’t really even change the way the “Catholics” played football (pg. 40).

The final ironic footnote to the movie myth is that Knute Rockne, as a coach, used the pass sparingly. He frequently said: “The sweetest thing in football is a completed pass, but the sourest is an intercepted pass. The pass is like a lot of dangerous things in life...if it cannot be controlled, it’s wisest to say away from it before it ruins you.”

Historian Edward Wakin, writing in 1963, declared the win over Army to be “the greatest single miracle in the history of Catholic higher education” because it made Notre Dame “into a household word.”

Besides gaining in popularity, Notre Dame’s football team had turned a profit for its first time — $1,364. The university again applied for Western Conference membership, but the organization’s representatives argued that the school’s success was actually problematic.

Winning consistently, they said, suggested “lack of faculty control” and “systematic cheating,” in Sperber’s words (pg. 42). The author argued that this loss was more significant to the program in the long term than its victory at West Point.

For 1914, Harper sought and obtained another $1,000 guarantee from Army for the Catholics to return to West Point and also got Yale to pony up $700 for a game in New Haven. Harper also agreed to split half the gate at Chicago’s Comiskey Park with Carlisle, the Indian team coached by Glenn “Pop” Warner. Notre Dame’s coach and business manager provided complimentary tickets to reporters in exchange for them to hype up the game and one Chicago Tribune scribe — Walter Eckersall, a former player — was even installed as a referee for the game.

To make the game more spectator-friendly, Harper and Warner agreed to put numbers on players’ backs. The non-stop promotion worked; the game drew a crowd of 12,000 and raked in $10,175 for the schools to split.

The “Catholics” were defeated in two of their three East Coast games, losing to Yale (7-2) and Army (9-0) to finish the season, 6-2.

With the Carlisle game being a lopsided contest and Cartier Field being too small to attract most reputable programs, Harper faced a tough task in 1915. Army said yes again, but Yale and Michigan declined invites. A proposed Syracuse matchup in Chicago never materialized.

Harper moved mostly to his west and south, playing Nebraska, Creighton, Texas and Rice, with the only blemish in an eight game season being at the hands of the hosting Cornhuskers while they “hoped for a break in the Big Nine boycott.”