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Notre Dame Football Firsts - First Spring Game

South Bend spring

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Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne Standing with Team Captain
Coach Knute Rockne (left) and Captain Glenn Carberry (right) of Notre Dame looking over their squad of over seventy men, which includes no regulars of last year. The South Bend university’s big game will be at West Point this year.
Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

I started thinking, as I’ve been writing my series on Notre Dame firsts, I wonder when the first Notre Dame spring game was? ... and so I did some digging. I found, in Murray Sperber’s book, Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football, that the first Notre Dame spring game was in 1922. Here’s an excerpt from the book ...

By spring practice of 1922, the N.D. coach, by nature optimistic and full of self-confidence, looked forward to the new season. The Chicago Tribune state his most serious problem: “The disqualifications [of players] together with graduations ... wreck Notre Dame’s chances in football during the coming seasons. Coach Knute Rockne will not have a single regular around whom to build the 1922 eleven.”

The N.D coach set about constructing a new team from inexperienced sophomores, and the eventual results, two years later, were the Four Horsemen and Seven Mules. But during spring practice 1922, when he had the departing varsity suit up against the young players for the first Notre Dame “Spring Game” and he watched as the vets mauled the youngsters, he acknowledged that he has many hours of practice ahead. Yet, working with the malleable sophomores was easier than trying to deal with the war vets and semi-pros, and he admitted that he was “glad” when the latter group left, adding sarcastically, “They know more football than I do.”

Despite the predictions of a terrible season, the Irish ended up going 8-1-1 in the 1922 football season ... not too shabby, eh?

September 30: Notre Dame 46 - Kalamazoo 0
October 7: Notre Dame 26 - Saint Louis U 0
October 14: Notre Dame 20 - Purdue 0
October 21: Notre Dame 34 - DePauw 7
October 28: Notre Dame 13 - Georgia Tech 3
November 4: Notre Dame 27 - Indiana 0
November 11: Notre dame 0 - Army 0
November 18: Notre Dame 31 - Butler 3
November 25: Notre Dame 19 - Carnegie Tech 0
November 30: Notre Dame 6 - Nebraska 14

Here’s one more excerpt from Shake Down the Thunder about Rockne’s coaching innovations of the 1920’s:

In the early 1920s, Rockne began to perfect the famous “Notre Dame shift” — pre-snap movements by the backfield so that they were in motion as soon as the ball was in play. In the 1921 Army game, the West Point coaches became so upset with the N.D. shift that they threatened to call the game at halftime; Rockne magnanimously switched to a shotgun formation for the second half and his team continued to pile on the points.

Rival coaches considered Rockne’s shift illegal and, in 1922, pressured the Rules Committee of the coaches’ association to legislate against it. Then the N.D. coach discovered a loophole in the new rules and created an improved version of his offense. The shift controversy continued through the decade, and each time the Rules Committee changed the regulation, Rockne went around or through the new rules — and also accused the committee of discriminating against him and his Catholic institution. For some administrators and faculty at the Big Ten and Ivy schools, this ongoing dispute confirmed their view of Notre Dame football as an “outlaw” program.

Are you headed to South Bend for the spring game this weekend? What is your favorite part of spring game weekend? I’d like to say the weather, but we all know that spring in South Bend is anything but spring (be sure to pack your winter clothes ... you just never know what you’re going to get in April, or May for that matter, in South Bend).

Next week I’ll cover Notre Dame’s first match-up against Michigan State, 1897.

Cheers & GO IRISH!