Thursday, October 04, 2007

The trip that made Notre Dame Football | by Pat

One of the major subplots in Saturday's game against the UCLA Bruins is the return of the Fighting Irish to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1925. Much has been written about the '25 bowl game and how a collection of legendary players and coaches on both sides took part in a matchup that produced the very first national championship for Notre Dame. But what is usually overlooked is just how important the game truly was for that little Catholic school from northern Indiana.

Before I get started with this particular trip down memory lane, I highly encourage you to go back and read this excerpt from Being Catholic, Being American: The Notre Dame Story, 1842-1934. I will quote parts of it for this post, but if you want the entire story of the 1925 Rose Bowl trip and the month-long Notre Dame barnstorming event that surrounded it, this is a fantastic account. Similarly, Chris Dufresne has an excellent history of the game in a recent LA Times article.

The buildup to the Rose Bowl started in October. Rose Bowl officials wanted Notre Dame to play, but had some trouble finding an opponent that wanted to play them.

The committee had persuaded itself that the present Pacific Coast Conference champion, Stanford, would refuse to play against Notre Dame for the same reasons that the University of California, Berkeley, had refused in 1921: the alleged professionalism of some of the Notre Dame players and the alleged low academic standards of this Catholic university.
At this point, the University of Southern California, runner-up in final Pacific Coast Conference standings, offered its team as an alternative to Stanford. However, a better financial guarantee from the Rose Bowl Committee persuaded the academic and athletic leadership of Stanford to reconsider their position. In late November, the West Coast school agreed to play Notre Dame in Pasadena for an even split of 60 percent of the net gate receipts, which in the end amounted to payments by the Rose Bowl Committee of $52,000 each to Notre Dame and Stanford.
The president of Notre Dame, Father Matthew Walsh wasn't too keen on the idea of a lengthy road trip out to California, but was talked into it by Father John O'Hara, the University's prefect of religion.
O'Hara had a special gift of being able to talk Walsh into almost anything, and the matter of a trip to the Rose Bowl was a case in point. O'Hara saw the Rose Bowl invitation as an almost providential opportunity to counter the extremely negative Klan-inspired image of Notre Dame as an institution populated by well-to-do Irish American Catholic thugs and hooligans who were not serious about academic pursuits. More than that, if properly organized and managed, O'Hara believed, the Rose Bowl trip might well turn out to be the most successful advertising campaign for the spiritual ideals and practices of American Catholicism yet undertaken in this century.
With that ambitious goal set in mind, it was quickly determined that a quick rail trip to and from South Bend to Pasadena would not do. Rather, the Notre Dame team would criss-cross the country on a month-long journey that featured stops all over the map. From South Bend the team traveled to Chicago for a brief pit stop and then, on December 20th, departed south towards Memphis. After a welcoming day stay in Memphis the team continued southward to New Orleans for a two day stop that included a yacht trip on the Gulf of Mexico. It was also in New Orleans that the team started to prepare for the Rose Bowl matchup with Stanford. Unfortunately, the Irish did not get off to a good start.
In between social events, Rockne even managed to hold several workouts for the players in the Tulane stadium, one of which was an utter disaster. The players were so stuffed with oysters and creole food that they could barely run. Rockne was so angered by the physical condition of the team that when two first-team linemen, Edward Huntsinger and John Weibel, broke his ten o'clock curfew to buy postcards in their hotel lobby to send to their families, the coach ordered them to pack up and return to South Bend. Only an eloquent plea for mercy by the team captain, Adam Walsh, and perhaps a kind word from O'Hara caused Rockne to relent and allow the two curfew breakers to continue the trip.
Once free of the tempting lures of creole food and hotel lobby giftshops, the Notre Dame caravan traveled on to Houston, where they celebrated Christmas. After that was a six-day layover in Tucson, Arizona.
The team also endured four days of vigorous football practice at the University of Arizona stadium. In Tucson the Notre Dame coaches were joined by Edward "Slip" Madigan, a former Rockne player, who was then head football coach at St. Mary's College in the Bay Area. Madigan had scouted Stanford for Rockne and had noted a sideline screen pass that the Stanford coach used two or three times a game. Quickly Rockne devised a defense for this pass play. While in Tucson he drilled his defensive backs, especially Crowley and Layden, to recognize situations when the play might be used and to cope with it.
Several thousand fans saw the Irish off from Tuscon on December 31st and from there the team traveled to Pasadena for the New Year's Day showdown. The battle was a meeting of two giants. In one corner, Knute Rockne, the Seven Mules, and his suddenly famous Four Horsemen. In the other, Stanford coach Pop Warner and his unstoppable All-American Ernie Nevers.

Thanks once again to the tireless work of tjnd88, here is video footage of the showdown in Pasadena.

The enormous pregame promotion and publicity notwithstanding, both Notre Dame and Stanford lived up to their respective football reputations and gave the 53,000 fans crowded into the Rose Bowl the great individual and team performances that they had come to see. Notre Dame defeated Stanford 27 to 10, but the issue was in doubt until the closing minutes of the final period. Even though the Notre Dame defense could not contain the running and passing of Stanford's huge fullback and All-American candidate, Ernie Nevers, it was a few timely spectacular defensive plays that won the game for Notre Dame.
Those defensive plays credited with winning the game were the contributions of Four Horseman Elmer Layden, who had three interceptions (picture, left) and returned two for touchdowns, and Edward Huntsinger, the player nearly sent home in New Orleans, who recovered a fumble and ran it back for a touchdown. Both of Layden's interception turned touchdowns came after he read the Stanford screen pass that "Slip" Madigan had drilled the Irish on in Tucson.

Paul from Classic Ground has the copy of an AP article about the game for those looking for a more in-depth recount of the game itself. There are more anecdotes about the game to be found here and here.

With the Rose Bowl victory and an undefeated season in hand, the Notre Dame team was greeted like conquering heroes in Hollywood.
The day began with a grand tour of Hollywood and its studios. Movie stars and starlets were present and waiting for the team. Photograph opportunities were abundant. Movie stars posed with players, and photographers captured the moment. Agents handed out studio publicity pictures of their clients, and the stars were there to autograph them. This very busy day ended with an elegant dinner dance for the team and traveling party hosted by the Notre Dame Alumni Club in the Hotel Biltmore in Los Angeles. It was an affair to remember, described by one the participants as "one of the outstanding events of the trip." If O'Hara can be believed, through all of this socializing in circumstances rife with the most dangerous sort of temptations, the players always deported themselves as good Catholic gentlemen. They were a credit to their university and to their religion and probably an utter astonishment to some of their Hollywood hosts.
Among other stars, Rockne and the team met Rudolph Valentino. It was Valentino's 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that inspired ND student publicity manager George Strickler to suggest a catchy intro for Grantland Rice's now famous recap of the 1924 Notre Dame-Army game.

With the party in Los Angeles winding down, the Notre Dame traveling party re-boarded their private train and trekked up the coast to San Francisco. After a few days sightseeing, the train started the journey back east. The first stop was in Salt Lake City were the team took in an organ concert at the Mormon Tabernacle. From Utah they rode into Cheyenne, Wyoming for a day of parades and barbecue before setting off for a momentous stop in Denver, Colorado.
A huge crowd thronged the Denver railroad station to greet them. In the first rows of this crowd was a large group of mothers of Notre Dame students from the Denver area and elsewhere in Colorado. Behind the mothers were rows of attractive, well-dressed young ladies who surged forward to decorate the players with flowers and kisses. Liberated from the young ladies by Alumni Club leaders, the team and coaches were piled into Packard cars and driven up Seventeenth Street through the heart of the financial district. They received continuous ovations from crowds lining their route, which ended at the Denver Athletic Club. The Notre Dame party escaped into that facility, where they were able to rest and get some refreshment.

That evening, the Notre Dame team and coaches were honored at a grand banquet held in the University Club of Denver. They formed a receiving line and stood in it for almost two hours. Everyone in Denver of any standing from the governor of the state on down passed through it. Over two hundred attended the banquet, including college presidents, football coaches, newspaper publishers, and sports writers. Notre Dame colors were everywhere, and Notre Dame songs were sung.
After earning rave reviews from the Denver press, the Notre Dame team traveled on to Lincoln, Nebraska for another banquet before finally pulling into Chicago on January 8th. From there the traveling party split up for a few days before all meeting back in South Bend on January 12th; some 24 days after embarking on the lengthy journey.

The trip accomplished nearly every goal that Fr. O'Hara and Rockne had set out to fufill. Not only did the team bring home the win, legions of newly minted subway alumni of varying Catholic ethnicities sprung up all over the country and began to form the base of what is now a vast national following. Of course, despite the wild success of the trip, the time spent was a bit too much for some in the Notre Dame administration and starting in 1926 and not ending until 1970, the Fighting Irish football team was not allowed to participate in any post-season bowl game for fears of academic negligence.

Although the momentous October matchup against Army (and the accompanying Grantland Rice article) earlier that season is usually noted as the start of Notre Dame football as national phenomenon, it was the whistlestop Rose Bowl tour that really generated wide support for the program. The national awareness and broad, fervent fandom for Notre Dame never would have reached the levels they have if not for that cross-country trip and a win at Pasadena's Rose Bowl that ultimately produced Notre Dame's first national championship. It truly was one of the most noteworthy and significant games in the history of Notre Dame football.