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New Book Looks at Early Notre Dame Football History

by Randy Snow

Originally posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Wednesday, January 30, 2008

In the new book, Notre Dame and The Game That Changed Football, author Frank P. Maggio explores the early days of Notre Dame football, focusing on the years 1913-1917. During this time period, the team was lead by a young coach by the name of Jesse C. Harper.

The game referred to in the title of the book is the November 1, 1913 game between Notre Dame and Army. At the time, Notre Dame was a little known school from the Midwest. Army, a football powerhouse, scheduled the game expecting an easy win. Many schools on the east coast knew little or nothing about the Catholics, as the team was known at the time. But that all changed when Notre Dame traveled to West Point and defeated Army 35-13. Harperīs squad shocked the football world by using a relatively new element to the game, the forward pass. Fans and the media marveled at the precision passing of Notre Dame quarterback Gus Dorais, whose favorite target was an end by the name of Knute Rockne.

The forward pass was legalized in 1906, but many teams in the east seldom used it. They concentrated on the run, as they had always done, in order to dominate and control the game.

Prior to 1906, football was such a violent sport that many players were seriously injured and even died as a result of playing the game. President Theodore Roosevelt even stepped in and threatened to invoke an executive order banning the game of football if changes to the game were not made. The American Football Rules Committee made several changes to the way the game was played, including adding the forward pass in April of 1906.

Notre Dame already had a pretty good football team when Harper took over in 1913, but their schedules had been comprised of many inferior teams each year. Harper changed that immediately by filling the teamīs 1913 schedule with quality football opponents from around the country including Army, Penn State and Texas.

Harper played football for legendary football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago and graduated in 1905. He was recommended for the head coaching position at Alma College in Alma, Michigan by Stagg in 1906. It was at Alma that Harper began teaching the virtues of the new "open style" of play that was brought in with the forward pass. He had been perfecting the passing game for several years prior to coming to Notre Dame.

What I found most interesting about the book was not just reading about the early days of Notre Dame football, but the description of life in general at the time. Teams traveled by train to their away games and took along their own food to save money on the trip. In 1913, when Notre Dame was on the road at West Point playing Army, the students back in South Bend had to gather outside the downtown telegraph office to get an update on the game. A sign was posted in the office window announcing the halftime score (Notre Dame led 14-13) and some time later, the final score was posted. The news sent the students dancing and celebrating in the downtown streets.

Two years later, in 1915, technology had advance to the point where a telegraph line was set up in the school gymnasium at Notre Dame during away games. One of the male students would read the play-by-play of the game as it came in over the wire to the students and fans who had gathered in the gym. Today we can see all the football games we want, from all over the country, via satellite TV or the Internet, and we can always listen to games on the radio. How spoiled have we become?

Harper was not only the head football coach at Notre Dame but he was also the basketball coach, the baseball coach, the track coach and the schoolīs athletic director. It was Harper who recruited George Gipp and brought him to Notre Dame. Gipps first season on the football team was 1917, the last season Harper coached at the school. Harper also recruited another player by the name of Earl "Curly" Lambeau, a fullback who shared the backfield with Gipp during the 1918 season. Lambeau only played one season at Notre dame and later went on to help found the Green Bay Packers of the NFL.

Harper resigned after the 1917 season and was replaced on the football team in 1918 by his assistant coach, Knute Rockne. Rockne had been Harperīs assistant football coach since 1914. Knute Rockneīs own success as the head football coach at Notre Dame has overshadowed Harperīs accomplishments over the years, but there is no denying Harperīs contribution to the university and to the football team. Both men are now enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame, located in South Bend.

Rockne and Harper remained close friends even after Harper left the school to manage his father-in-lawīs cattle ranch in Sitka, Kansas. The two wrote many letters to each other and visited when they could. In 1925, Rockne published his autobiography and dedicated the book to Harper.

On March 31, 1931, Knute Rockne died in a plane crash on his way to California. The plane went down in a field near Bazaar, Kansas, about 100 miles from Harperīs cattle ranch. It was Harper who drove to the crash site and identified the body of his longtime friend. Several days later, Harper was one of the pall bearers at Rockneīs funeral.

Harper returned to Notre Dame in 1931, after Rockneīs death, and became the schoolīs athletic director once again as the school tried to recover from the tragic plane crash. He remained in the position until early 1934. It may be as a football coach that Harper is best known, but his career as a cattleman away from football was also filled with many honors. Not only is he enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame and the Wabash College Athletic Hall of Fame, by he is also enshrined in the Kansas Cattlemanīs Hall of Fame as well as the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City.

Author Frank P. Maggio brings a passion for all things Notre Dame to his book as only an alumnus can. He graduated from the universityīs School of Law in 1963. The forward of the book is written by Jesse Harperīs son, Jim Harper, and the introduction is written by legendary college football broadcaster Keith Jackson.

More on Jesse Harper

Another recently published book, Forward Pass: The Play That Saved Football, by Philip L. Brooks, tells the story of how the forward pass came to be in football. It also features coach Jesse Harper and chronicles his career in coaching at Alma College and Wabash College prior to his taking the job at Notre Dame.

To read my review of Forward Pass, click here.

You can also read about my 2006 trip to visit the grave of Knute Rockne in South Bend by clicking here.


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