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OFD Book Club: “Shake Down the Thunder” #3

Jesse Harper’s gamble opens the door for Knute Rockne.

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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 third meeting of the club, and we’ll cover Chapters 8-11 today.

Father James A. Burns and football coach Jesse Harper both made high stakes bets. Father Burns’ paid off handsomely, while Harper’s was a severe miscalculation.

Burns, the first Notre Dame president with a doctorate, wanted to make his university “the Yale of the West” and sought accreditation from the most powerful agency at the time, the North Central Association.

The NCA’s basic standards included “a productive endowment of not less than $200,000”; Notre Dame had almost nothing saved by 1920, so the president-priest turned to the Rockefeller Foundation for assistance. The organization pledged $250,000 to the university if it could raise $750,000 in two years — the equivalent of offering $3.27 million for raising nearly $10 million today.

Father Burns established a lay board of trustees and an alumni club network, enlisted Knute Rockne to solicit graduates for financial help and also sought and received contributions from the Knights of Columbus and South Bend citizens.

In Burns’ four year term, Sperber said the priest “took the school from a debt of $73,000 and no appreciable endowment to the absence of debt and a million-dollar endowment.”

Meanwhile, Harper’s financial fortunes were heading in the opposite direction.

Harper left his post as athletic director and head football coach in 1918 because “the pressure by the alumni to do nothing but win, win, win... You do not have any easy games.” (pg. 61)

But Sperber rejects that “standard explanation,” noting that the university did not have a constituted alumni association during Harper’s time and that a coach that scheduled tiny Alma College for four consecutive years could hardly complain about how hard it was to win.

“Harper’s decision to resign was based, in part, on his feelings of uncertainty about the future of college sports. With America’s participation in World War I there was already talk of canceling the 1918 football season, and many universities, including Notre Dame, were experiencing difficulty funding their academic programs, never mind their college sports sideline. Harper’s family owned the thirty-thousand-acre Ranch of the Alamos in Kansas, with thirteen hundred head of cattle and a number of producing oil wells. Beef prices were increasing and the sky was the only limit on oil. Thus, Jesse Harper decided to leave intercollegiate athletics in the hope of making a lot more money in ranching than he could imagine earning as a coach and A.D. at Notre Dame or elsewhere.”

Beef and oil’s fortunes seemed inversely related to Notre Dame’s gridiron prominence in the 1920s, and Harper would later admit in letters to Rockne, his protégé, that he had blundered.

As for Rockne, Sperber notes that the Norwegian’s decision to choose between becoming a famous scientist or legendary coach is Hollywood hokum perpetrated by his widow, Bonnie. Harper attempted to correct the record around the release of “Knute Rockne, All American,” noting that it was President John Cavanaugh that had put Rockne in the chemistry department at the prep school because “he would not have enough to do assisting in football and coaching track.” (pg. 57)

Harper gave Rockne “free rein” in running practices, and the assistant assumed “full charge” when his boss skipped the 1916 Nebraska game in order to continue wooing Western Conference officials.

Chet Grant, a player on that team, recalled:

“Rock is supposed to have wagered that we would score more points in any one period than Nebraska would score in the entire game. He ran the game, certainly, upon that principle. When we entered the fourth period, the score was 18-0 in our favor, but his bet was still a heavy risk because we had distributed our scoring among three periods, six points to the period. ... To protect his bet, Rock held out from the final quarter his less experienced quarterbacks in fear that they might, in their exuberance to make a showing, ... fumble.”

Rockne was wooed by Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State) and verbally agreed to the coach there for the 1918 season. But then Harper hit the farm, and Notre Dame reeled their assistant back.