Reflections from the Dome

A young Jess Harper in his University of Chicago letter sweater. He was a star halfback for Stagg's excellent teams in the early part of the century.

A young Jesse Harper in his University of Chicago letter sweater. He was a star halfback for Stagg's excellent teams in the early part of the century. (Photo courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives.)

 

This month's Reflections From the Dome will feature an exclusive interview with Jim Harper, the youngest son of coach Jesse Harper. Jim gives some great insights into his father's career at Notre Dame and tells stories of his experiences with some of Notre Dame's greatest heroes: Rockne, Gipp and Moose Krause.   Jim is a business manager with a long list of sports and celebrity clients. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

IL: How did Jess Harper get started in sports as a youngster?

JH: Dad grew up in a little town in Illinois called Paw Paw. His father was a sheep rancher, and he grew up like any other kid, the main thing they did was play baseball for the town team. And to my knowledge, he never played football until he went to Morgan Park Academy, a prep school, and when he was there, one of the teams he played against was had a quarterback named Walter Eckersall. They both subsequently went to the University of Chicago and played for Amos Alonzo Stagg. Dad played right half back and back-up quarterback. And at that time in the year 1905, Stagg used the forward pass. The forward pass was different than the way we do it today. Then the end would run to a spot, stop and catch the ball in his belly. Walter Eckersall was the starting quarterback and one of the premiere signal callers in the country. Dad was a substitute for him. In the 1905 game against Iowa, Dad scored 5 touchdowns, because the other team would kick the ball away from the star, Eckersall. He lost 14 pounds that day! Both Dad and Eckersall were speedsters and weighed about 160 pounds. There weren’t may big men playing ball at that time.

IL: To what extent were Coach Harpers methods and techniques influenced by Stagg?

JH: There was a strong influence. At Chicago, Stagg had a variation of the shift which was called a "short punt formation" in those days, and in that formation he used a backfield shift. Not like anything we used today or that we used in the thirties and forties. But it just a slight shift. When Dad went to Notre Dame, he expanded on that shift, putting the halfback outside the left or right end, depending on which side they shifted. In Stagg’s system, the halfback was inside the end. Now, Rockne’s great innovation on the shift was to move the ends out wider.

IL: Is there any truth to the story from "Knute Rockne All-American" about Rock getting the idea for the shift from watching a chorus line?

JH: Oh, that never happened. Never happened. Rock and the team may have been interested in the performance and how the girls moved, but that was it.

Dad played both football and baseball for Stagg. He played baseball as a centerfielder all four years, but because of an ankle injury, didn’t play football in his sophmore and junior years. One time Stagg saw him play intermural football and said "Jessie," no one but Stagg ever called him Jessie, "you’re coming out for the football team." That was his senior year. My father said that with Stagg, you always did what he told you to do. During the summer of his senior year, Stagg got him a job loading beef for the Swift Company in Chicago for $15 a month. From that experience, my Dad always said he would rather sell peanuts on a street corner than work for a corporation. That has always stuck with me and influenced my career a great deal. Now, he also had the hot dog concession for the football games and played semi-pro ball during the summers. That’s how he made his money.

IL: What did Coach Harper do after he graduated from Chicago?

JH: He got a job at a small school in Michigan called Alma College. Now in those days you coached all four sports: baseball, football, basketball and track. Dad had never played any basketball, never done any track other than just running around for fun. But he was very successful there and then went on to Wabash College in Indiana, where again, he coached all four sports. As a sidelight, Piggy Lambert who played basketball under Dad at Wabash was the basketball coach at Purdue, and coached John Wooden.

IL: How was it that Notre Dame became interested in Jesse Harper as a coach?

JH: An attorney who lived in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where Wabash was located, was a Notre Dame graduate, and was talking to Dad one day and the coach said, "Football should be made to pay for itself." This impressed the attorney and when he was in South Bend, he ran into Father Cavanaugh, who was the president of Notre Dame. The university at this time was having financial problems and losing money on it’s sports programs. Father Cavanaugh was impressed with the concept and said that he would like to meet this young man. So, Dad got on the Wabash railroad, went up to Notre Dame, met with the president and was hired on the spot to coach the four sports. Now, Notre Dame had played Wabash in football and although the "Little Giants" had only beaten the Irish once, they always played well, and in the 1911 game lost only 6-3. So, the ND administration was aware of him and his coaching credentials.

IL: You mentioned the forward pass and how your father had used it at Chicago...could you elaborate on that theme and how the pass developed?

JH: A little known fact is that Army used the forward pass in 1912 prior to the 1913 Notre Dame-Army game. But they used that old method of the passer throwing to a stationary target. And Dad being a center fielder, would often have to run away from the batter to catch the ball. Now the gloves you had in those days were basic leather gloves that you’d buy in a dime store, and you’d have to catch the ball with both hands, since there was no pocket in the glove. So you would run away from home plate and catch the ball over your shoulder on the dead run. Dad sent Rockne and Gus Dorais the quarterback to the beach at Cedar Point, Ohio where they were lifeguards. He gave them a ball, which in those days was shaped like a rugby ball, so you couldn’t grip it. Dorais had a small hand, about a size seven. So Dad sent those boys to the beach to learn how to catch the ball on the dead run. He also advised them to catch the ball with soft hands and wrists limp, so the ball wouldn’t bounce off.

IL: Tell us how the Notre Dame happened to schedule Army in 1913?

JH: How ND scheduled the Army game is and interesting story and it’s been bandied around different ways. As Director of Athletics, Dad had the responsibility to schedule games, and he wrote to many schools requesting play dates for 1913 because he was having trouble getting games. The Army wrote back that they had an open date on November 1. Dad wrote back to them and said send me $1,000 to make the trip. It’s been stated in various accounts that between 16 and 19 boys made the trip. Dad always said it was 17.

Now here’s how the pass was a key in the game plan that beat Army in 1913. Notre Dame had a fullback named Eichenlaub who was about 200 pounds. Army used a seven diamond defense at that time. So Dorais would pass the ball to Rockne, opening up that backfield, pulling those defensive men back and then send Eichenluab through the center of the line. Tore the Army line to shreds. That’s what won the ball game for them.

IL: Coach Harper coached two of Notre Dame’s greatest icons, Knute Rockne and George Gipp. What were his impressions of these famous players?

JH: Well, the story of how Rockne met Gipp on campus kicking a ball around is another one of those far fetched tales. Gipp played his freshmen year under Dad, and in 1917 freshmen could play for the varsity and he got his varsity letter that year. Lot of people don’t know that. I got tickled, I met Ron Reagan when he was running for president and I said, "Ron, as George Gipp, who was your first coach at Notre Dame?" "Oh, Rockne..." said Reagan. "No it wasn’t" I said, "It was my father, Jesse Harper."

IL: How about your father’s impression of George Gipp?

JH: My father said that George Gipp was the greatest natural athlete he ever coached or ever saw. Gipp was a drinker, a gambler, you you had to fight to get him to class. And he was a great baseball player. He came to Notre Dame originally to play baseball but he could have excelled in any sport. He was better in Dad’s opinion than Jim Thorpe or Red Grange. Thorpe was a better track athlete but as far as baseball and football, Gipp was superior.

IL: Could you tell us the story of how Rockne was hired as head coach at Notre Dame?

This is what Dad told me about Rockne being hired as head coach following Dad’s departure from Notre Dame. Dad’s office in those days was in the field house, and very small, maybe 10'x10' in size. Enough for a small desk and one extra chair. And Father Cavanaugh would always come down to his office to discuss who the new coach would be. And Dad would always recommend Rockne. And every so often Father Cavanaugh would come down and talk about this coach and that coach, and Dad would always say, "Well, he’s a good coach, but Rockne is better." After four or five of these visits, Father Cavanaugh would say, "Jesse, why are you always recommending Rockne?" Dad said: "Not only is Rockne the best coach for you, but I had promised him this job in 1916, or else he would have taken a head coaching job elsewhere." Father Cavanaugh’s response was, "That’s good enough for me, he’s our new head coach." Now, that is virtually a verbatim quote from my father.

IL: What was the relationship like between Coach Harper and Rockne?

Rockne and my Dad were closer than any two brothers I’ve ever know. Closer than he was with his own brothers. He was a marvelous guy. See, Rock and Dad where only two years apart in age. Rock was 26 when he graduated from college and Dad was 28 when he started coaching at Notre Dame. They had a set of minds that just ran parallel. They were on the phone a lot. Dad knew everything that Rock was going to do. And he always called Dad "Coach" and everybody I ever knew always called Rockne, not Knute, but "Rock." And to me, he was Uncle Rock. Now, the last time I saw Uncle Rock was in 1928, I have a picture of he and Dad in our front yard at the ranch in Kansas. Whenever he would fly to the Southern California, he would stop and see us. And when the plane crashed in Bazaar, Kansas, that was 125 miles away from our ranch. At the time newspaper reporters were calling the ranch wanting to know if it was true that Rockne was dead. Dad didn’t know anything about it...so he drove up to Bazaar and identified the body. He accompanied the body by train back to South Bend and was one of the pall bearers at the funeral. Now, Father O’Donnell, who was president at the time, was student in 1916 when Dad was coach. And he hired Dad then and there to replace Rockne. O’Donnell wanted him to be football coach and athletic director but he said no, that he’d been out of football too long, but that he’d come back and be athletic director and coach basketball and baseball. Because Rock had everything in his head. He didn’t have stuff written down. He was not a well organized man, paper wise. And so Dad took over and did a tremendous job of straightening out the business affairs of the athletic department. But he could only do it for three years 'cause he had a cattle ranch to run.

But I’ll tell you this, that job saved our cattle ranch. They paid Dad $12,000 a year to be Athletic Director, and I think they had paid Rockne $8,500 a year. Of course Rockne had other income from his speaking appearances and his promotional work for the Studebaker company. He would go to sales meetings for the company and never mention the work automobile, never mention sales, just talk football. And right after the meeting, the sales would go climbing. He could motivate people in a phenomenal way. But he was a tremendous guy. He was very warm and friendly. He deserves all the credit he got.

IL: Why did Coach Harper leave in 1933?

JH: Years later when I told my father that I'd like to be a coach myself, he said: 'Sit down right now and we're going to have a man-to-man talk, and I'm going to tell you why I left Notre Dame. It wasn't because of the school or anything, but I could see the handwriting on the wall. I could see the pressure by the alumni to do nothing but win, win, win, regardless of what you did to the boys or the school.

'That"s why I left. You don't have any easy games at Name Dame. Every team that plays you is up. Every team that beats Notre Dame has a successful season. It's just a crazy, marvelous sport, the finest sport we have. It does more to develop character in men for future life than any olher sport. But I had to leave Notre Dame because winning was getting too important there:"

IL: Coach Harper was also friends with another Notre Dame legend, Moose Krause. Could you tell us about their relationship?

When Moose became athletic director at Notre Dame, around 1941, he would recommend something to the athletic board and in those days neither the coach nor the AD was on the athletic board, it was all priests. And the vice president of the university was head of the athletic department. Now, when Moose would make a recommendation, the priests would say that, well, Rockne didn’t do it that way. So, finally he got tired of this and called Dad on the phone one day out at the ranch, and said that this is what they keep throwing at me. And Dad would ask what they were saying. Moose would tell him and Dad would say, "No, here’s the way it was." Then Moose would go back to the next meeting and contradict the priests and they’d ask how’d he find that out? Moose never told them who his inside source was. Moose and Dad became great friends that way.

Athletic Director Harper and football coach Hunk Anderson in Notre Dame Stadium in 1931.

Athletic Director Harper and football coach Hunk Anderson in Notre Dame Stadium in 1931. (Photo courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives.)

 

IL: What do you think was Coach Harper’s biggest contribution and his legacy to Notre Dame football?

JH: The main thing Dad did at Notre Dame was that he required a GPA of 77% for a player to remain eligible. Now when he left and Rockne took over he gradually dropped that average down. After Rockne’s death, when Dad went back as Director of Athletics, he put that rule back in. And Hunk Anderson, who became the head coach after Rockne’s death never forgave Dad for that because it limited his recruiting drastically.

He also [in 1913] reorganized the Notre Dame athletic department into a money making operation. He started intersectional football which gave ND its national reputation, changed the concept of the forward pass from hitting a stationary target to a moving one, but most importantly to establish the concept that the players were primarily students and secondarily football players. He also felt strongly that your word is your bond. He had absolute honesty and integrity in his dealing with his players and in business.

IL: What were his feelings for Notre Dame in later years?

JH: Dad had a great love for Notre Dame. He wasn’t a Catholic, he was a Presbyterian. The only time I knew Dad to go to church was for funerals, and Rockne’s was one of them. He wasn’t even in church for his wedding. They were married at my grandfathers house. But there at Notre Dame, he would always take the team down to a little chapel for a prayer. He was as religious as anybody I ever knew without going to church. He believed in the Golden Rule and he lived it. He never went back on a deal, and if he ever committed to something he did it. Now, I don’t know if there was ever a contract signed between Dad and Notre Dame in 1931, 32, and 33. That’s the way it was.

IL: What was his greatest thrill as the Notre Dame coach?

Greatest thrill as Notre Dame coach was beating Army in 1913. That and having his players graduate.

IL: Any last thoughts?

Well, I remember back on ranch in southwestern Kansas, come Saturday, my brother who did attend ND and I and Dad would sit down in front of the old Atwater Kent radio and we started listening to football games on the east coast all the way across to the west coast, every Saturday in the living room. But he never had any aspirations to get back into coaching, he was a cattle rancher now, and that took all his energy. He did follow the Irish, though. They were always his team.

Jesse Harper died in 1961 at his ranch in Kansas. He was later inducted into the Helms Football Hall of Fame, the All American Football Hall of Fame as a coach and as an athletic director, The National Football Hall of Fame as a coach, and he’s also in the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. He was at one time president of the Kansas Livestock Association.

 

 

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