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OFD Book Club: “Shake Down the Thunder” #4

The origins of “Fighting Irish,” making Cartier Field more attractive and scheduling Big 10 teams

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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 fourth meeting of the club, and we’ll cover Chapters 12-14 today.

These chapters detail what Sperber terms Knute Rockne’s “first phase” as athletic director and coach. “He had moved Notre Dame football from its depleted wartime state of 1918 to national recognition in 1920. Most importantly, he has poised N.D. football for its amazing takeoff later in the decade.” (p. 104)

Jesse Harper had left his successor with a practically empty schedule in 1918, so Rockne — like his predecessors — tried to make in-roads with Western Conference teams. The coach agreed to take his team to West Lafayette for a contest with Purdue, the first such meeting between Notre Dame and any Big Ten team in 11 years. Rockne’s men made the 110 mile trip southwest the following year as well, but then convinced the Boilermakers to come to Cartier Field for the university’s first ever homecoming event in 1920.

With Notre Dame’s recent success, Rockne was finding dance partners harder to find.

“His coaching colleagues were less concerned with Notre Dame’s educational standards than its football team’s abilities. Rockne saw the problem clearly — his squad ‘was too powerful to be a set-up’ but didn’t have enough ‘prestige to make it an attraction,’” (pg. 87-88)

Rockne’s plan to earn prestige was contingent on him making Cartier Field a more attractive venue for visitors. For an athletic director who too often lacked an adequate supply of uniforms and tape, Rockne didn’t want to live on the margins anymore. He made an aggressive outreach to prominent South Bend citizens, asking them to purchase $5 season tickets ($80.33 in today’s dollars) so that the athletic department could upgrade its facilities and attract better opponents to town.

Throughout the summer of 1919, Rockne continued his personal efforts, often strolling around downtown South Bend with his pockets full of tickets, distributing them to newsstands, cigar shops and luncheon counters, as well as peddling them to individuals. He repeated his personal ticket-selling campaign during the next few years and, combined with the success of his teams, he made Notre Dame football popular in South Bend. (His willingness to mix with the “locals” also set a precedent in the city against which all subsequent N.D. football coaches have been measured.)

(In fairness to Bob Davie, Rockne never had to deal with temperamental hot-dog dispensers.)

Sperber’s 12th chapter details the lack of a definitive “Fighting Irish” origin story, which is well-traversed ground.

Detroit Free Press via

The Detroit Free Press’ Edward “E.A.” Batchelor was among the first to use the then-unofficial nickname in a major newspaper account when he wrote in 1909: “Eleven fighting Irishmen wrecked the Yost machine this afternoon. These sons of Erin, individually and collectively representing the University of Notre Dame, not only beat the Michigan team, but they dashed some of Michigan’s fondest hopes and shattered Michigan’s fairest dreams.”

The “Fighting Irish” moniker wasn’t universally accepted, however. When an alum wrote to the student magazine in 1919 complaining that the nickname didn’t make sense since many of the players were not of Irish descent, a return letter urged the man to cease “grumbling” and be thankful the team wasn’t called “the Polish Falcon or the Spanish Omelette.”

Francis Wallace, a student press agent for Rockne who later became a sportswriter, tried to make “Blue Comets” stick starting in 1923. But he gave up two years later, admitting his “synthetic” attempt at creating a lasting name had failed. He instead normalized the use of “Fighting Irish” in the pages of the New York Post and, later, the New York Daily News.

Sperber says Rev. Matthew Walsh, the university’s president, leaned into “Fighting Irish” to “short circuit” the slurs that had been used in absence of a bona fide nickname (pg. 82).

The university authorities are in no way averse to the name ‘Fighting Irish’ as applied to our athletic teams. ... It seems to embody the kind of spirit that we like to see carried into effect by the various organizations that represent us on the athletic field. I sincerely hope that we may always be worthy of the ideals embodied in the term ‘Fighting Irish.’

Other tidbits:

  • An amusing anecdote about mis-hearing “Hoosier” as “whose ear”
  • Tipperary Terrance and Clashmore Mike origin stories
  • The slimy side of college football: journalists-as-game-officials and “athletic scholarships” paid for by generous alumni
  • Harvard turning down Notre Dame, scheduling Valparaiso and then Rockne putting Valpo on the 1920 schedule just so he could beat them by more than the Crimson would.