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Reflections from the Dome

Elmer Layden (hat) is seated on the bench at Notre Dame Stadium. Benny Sheridan (8) sits along side the head coach.

Elmer Layden (hat) is seated on the bench at Notre Dame Stadium.
Quarterback Steve Sitko, ’40 wearing #8 sits along side the head coach
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This month's edition of Reflections From The Dome features a chapter on Coach Layden from the book Great College Football Coaches of the Twenties and Thirties by Tim Cohane.

Elmer Layden

THE CLIFF DWELLER COACH

In the years 1934 through '40 when Elmer Layden served as Notre Dame's athletic director and head football coach, Joe Petritz, then N.D.'s sports information director, told him, "Elmer, as an athletic director...history will prove you great." Petritz was alluding to Layden's success as a schedule-maker, especially his ability to make profitable football dates with Western Conference schools.

Layden, renowned from his playing days as the lean, swift fullback of the Notre Dame Four Horsemen backfield of 1924, restored Iowa and Purdue to the schedule. He arranged games with Ohio State, Minnesota, and Illinois for the first time. As his biggest coup, he got Fielding H. (Hurry Up) Yost, Michigan athletic director and former head coach, to visit the Notre Dame campus. Yost had never got along with Knute Rockne; now, out of his visit, emerged home-and-home football games.

But what of Elmer Layden, the Notre Dame football coach? He too, the record insists, enjoyed success:

1934, 6 – 3- 0, 1935, 7 -  1 - 1,  1936, 6 - 2 - 1, 1937, 6 - 2 - 1, 1938, 8 - 1 - 0, 1939, 7 – 2- 0,  1940, 7 - 2 - 0,  TOTALS 47 – 13 – 3.

It's a natural reaction, after scanning that column, to ask: "Why did Layden leave Notre Dame?" Answer: the Very Reverend I. Hugh O'Donnell, president of the university, offered him only a one-year contract; a new policy, the priest said, to affect all lay employees. (Previously, Layden had worked under contracts for two and five years.) Soon after, Layden signed a five-year contract to become commissioner of the National Football League at $20,000 a year, close to double his salary at Notre Dame. In 1946 he became a sales executive with the General American Transportation Company.

Despite his winning record, some elements of the alumni, subway as well as real, were dissatisfied. The Win-'em-All school, the "dynostaurs," looked back fondly on the all-conquering Knute Rockne teams of 1919, '20, '24, '29, and '30, which had laid strong claims to the mythical national championship. Frank Leahy would bring back such records in the forties. Nevertheless, looked at in historical perspective, Elmer Layden's coaching job at Notre Dame was excellent.

Notre Dame football was nurtured on miracles and lived with cliff-hanger games. As a cliff- hanger coach, nobody-not Rockne, not Leahy, not Ara Parseghian-surpassed Layden, if indeed, matched him. On November 2, 1935, at Columbus, Ohio, Layden's Notre Dame team came from behind for a last-ditch 18-13 victory over Ohio State in what was to become probably the most talked of single game in football history.

Copy of the original letter that resulted in the famous 1935 Notre Dame – Ohio State game.

 

Ohio State and Notre Dame were both undefeated. The Buckeyes were deserved favorites, yet N.D.'s 5-0 record, against Kansas, Carnegie Tech, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh, and Navy, in which the Irish allowed a total of only 16 points, signified a respectable short-ender. Ohio State usually sells out its home games, but none had ever fired up Columbus like this one. Despite the depression, the 81,0l8 tickets were soon grabbed up.

The buildup for the Buckeyes gave Notre Dame a pregame psychological advantage, and Layden took full advantage of it. In Rockne's day, the South Bend Tribune had run an occasional football column under the by-line of Bearskin; nobody knew who Bearskin was, but many suspected Rockne himself. The prime purpose of the column was to deflate any egos that might need it. Layden exhumed Bearskin, and assigned Petritz to writing it. Bearskin's prime target was halfback Andy Pilney, whose talent had been plagued by fumbles. He was accused of having the largest scrapbook on campus.

When writers asked Layden for a prediction, he said, "We'll be lucky to hold Ohio State to 40 points." A Columbus newspaper ran this as a page-one headline.

"While Columbus was having pregame revelry," Layden wrote," a train pulled out of South Bend carrying those students who could afford a train ride and a ticket to the game. Each year there was a student trip, and the Ohio State game had been selected for 1935.

"A few of our players were also on this train," Layden pointed out. "We carried only forty players on trips; that was all we were permitted. But when a boy could pay his own way on the student trip and was willing to carry along his own uniform, we welcomed him to join us on the bench. That way he didn't have to buy a ticket.

"Among the handful of players on the student trip, lugging his uniform for his ticket of admission, was Jim McKenna, our fourth-string quarterback. When he arrived at the stadium, he had a devil of a time getting the guards to find one of our student managers to let him into our dressing room. Lucky for us he did get in, because as it turned out, we were to need him badly."

Ohio State punts during game action at the 1935 Notre Dame – OSU classic.

 

Ohio State dominated the first half to lead 13-0. Layden gave no emotional pep talk, but as calmly as possible pointed out mistakes. He started the second half with the second team that had Frank Gaul at quarterback and Pilney, Bearskin's target, at left half.

Pilney this day played up to his potential. It was his 47-yard return of a punt through an open field that brought the ball to Ohio's 13. On third down Pilney passed to Frank Gaul on the 1-yard line to set up a score by Steve Miller. The extra point was missed, so Ohio State led 13-6. A fumble aborted another N.D. drive on the 1, and the Irish had to start again from their 21 with only three minutes to go.

Andy Pilney, hero of the Ohio State game.

 

A third-down pass from Pilney to Wally Fromhart brought N.D. to Ohio's 38. Elmer Layden's brother Mike was in at right halfback. If anything, Elmer had leaned over backward in not using Mike. Mr. Layden, [Elmer’s father] however, had advised him: "If you want a winning team, play your best ten men and your brother ." Mike now proved his parent right by catching a touchdown pass from Pilney. A bad pass from center messed up the extra-point try. With less than two minutes to go, Ohio State led 13-12. Notre Dame tried an onside kick but Ohio got the ball at midfield, and there were only 90 seconds left.

("One widely told story," wrote Layden, "is that my wife was sitting up in the stands near Father John O'Hara, Notre Dame president, who took this moment to console her by saying, 'Don't worry, Edythe, Elmer and his boys have done a fine job.' To which she is supposed to have replied, 'That's easy for you to say, Father, your job doesn't depend on it.' ")

Then came the decisive break. Ohio's Dick Beltz tried an end run, was swarmed over, and shaken lose from the ball. Since Notre Dame center Hank Pojman was the last to touch it before it went out of bounds, the Irish were in possession of it on their 45. [Editor’s note: in 1935, the rule stated that the team of the last player to touch the ball before it went out of bounds gained possession] The clock was stopped.

Layden sent in Gaul with a pass play. Pilney, his receivers covered, elected to run. Five Ohio State players had a crack at him and missed. Finally three others drove him out of bounds on the Buckeye 19; he received a severe leg injury on the play and had to be removed.

To replace him, Layden sent in a halfback with the classical name of William Shakespeare. (One of the Bard's plays is titled All's Well That Ends Well.) Layden also sent in a quarterback, Andy Puplis, with another pass play. Fifty seconds remained. Shakespeare faded and passed. For a split second Dick Beltz seemed about to intercept the ball, but the luckless fellow couldn't hold it. This made it second down, with 19 yards and 40 seconds to go.

Layden had run out of quarterbacks-or so he thought. At that moment, assistant coach Chet Grant came running up with Jim McKenna, the fourth-string quarterback who'd paid his way on the train. The play he was sent in with was a reverse pass on which the two ends crossed. Again Shakespeare faded. Then he threw. And then Wayne Millner leaped in the end zone and caught the ball. Notre Dame had won, 18-13.

The crowd was so shocked that many did not leave their seats for several minutes. In the press box, author-sportswriter Frank Wallace, who as an undergraduate had been sports publicist for Rockne, was doing a dance with Bill Cunningham, Boston sports columnist, who had played center at Dartmouth. When Wallace asked Cunningham why he was so excited, Bill said he'd just heard that his alma mater had beaten Yale for the first time.

Red Barber, later famous as a baseball announcer, was broadcasting the game. In the pandemonium, his Notre Dame spotter had run out of the box screeching to join the celebration on the field. It was ten minutes before Red could find out who caught the final winning pass.

Dozens of other stories grew out of the game. Somebody finally got around to pointing out that the Shakespeare to Millner pass play was pulled off by two non-Catholics.

The following week, Northwestern, coached by Lynn O. (Pappy) Waldorf, upset the Irish at South Bend, 14-7. To carry the literary nomenclature one step farther, the winning pass was thrown behind Shakespeare to a fellow named Longfellow.

A 6-6 tie with Army and a 20-13 victory over Southern California closed out the 1935 season at 7-1-1. The closest Notre Dame came to a perfect season under Layden was 1938. The Irish, captained by guard Jim McGoldrick, won their first eight games: Kansas 52-0, Georgia Tech 14-6, Illinois 14-6, Carnegie Tech 7-0, Army 19-7, Navy 15-0, Minnesota 19-0, and Northwestern 9-7.

"Aside from our opening game with Kansas," Layden wrote, "all of them had been tough, close games. Five of them had been sellouts. We arrived in Los Angeles being hailed as the prime candidate for national champion. The Los Angeles Coliseum was filled to capacity with 104,000, the largest crowd we ever played before, and the sixth sellout of our season. And we lost, 13-0."

(The 7-0 victory over Carnegie Tech, the Tartans' only regular-season loss, involved costly forgetfulness by an official, John Getchell. With Tech in possession near midfield, the Tech quarterback asked Getchell what down it was and was told "third." So he called a running play that failed to make first down. Now Getchell told him that it had been a fourth down, and turned the ball over to Notre Dame, which then moved to the touchdown of a 7-0 victory. Coach Bill Kern and the Tech players naturally put up a howl. Later, however, in a gesture of sportsmanship and in recognition that Getchell, despite his error, was a fine official, Tech selected him to be one of the four to work its Sugar Bowl game with Texas Christian. )

The restlessness of a large segment of Notre Dame rooters was increased by the failure to make a perfect record in 1938, followed by late-season disappointments in 1939 and '40. Both years the Irish won their first six games; both years they ended up 7-2; both years the first defeat was inflicted by Iowa, coached by a onetime Notre Dame end under Rockne, Dr. Eddie Anderson.

"From both games," Layden recalled, "I drew criticism for my choice of starting halfbacks. Our left halfbacks generally carried the burden of passing and ball carrying. I also liked a halfback who could punt. I had two great left halfbacks in 1939-Harry Stevenson and Benny Sheridan.

"Harry was the better punter, a good passer, but a bit slow afoot. Benny was the shiftier runner. The 1939 Iowa game was played on a clear, sunny day. I went most of the game playing Harry when my critics felt I should play Benny. The next year, on a cloudy, windy, wet day, I went most of the way with Benny when my critics thought I should have played Harry. 

Lack of undefeated seasons reduces a team's chances for All-America notice, and so it was with Layden's seven years. Some were tapped, however; besides Shakespeare and Millner, the last-scene heroes at Ohio State, there were ends Earl Brown, Bud Kerr, and Chuck Sweeney, tackle Joe Beinor, guard John Lauter, and center Jack Robinson. By his election to the 1940 team captaincy, Milt Pupil certified his stature, for it had been a 25-year-old Notre Dame tradition that the captaincy should go to a lineman.

During Layden's regime, Notre Dame decided that a player must maintain a 77 average, seven points above passing, to remain eligible. Layden was opposed at first, but learned to live with it easily enough ..."I can't remember losing a single outstanding boy because he couldn't make the average. I will confess that a few did give me some anxious moments, but it all worked out for the best."

Layden was hampered, however, by a restriction Father O'Hara laid down related to recruiting procedures. The head coach could not leave the campus to sign up any prospects; the boy had to come to the campus.

This may have been a decisive factor in the case of Marshall Goldberg, the All-America back from Elkins, West Virginia, who chose Pittsburgh over Notre Dame. Goldberg spearheaded Pitt's national championship-level teams from 1936 through '38, and had a big part in 1936 and '37 victories over the Irish. Something else was lost by Goldberg's choice of Pitt; one Notre Dame supporter, a moving-picture producer, had promised that if Marshall matriculated at Notre Dame, he would make a movie called Goldberg of Notre Dame.

Goldberg at full, Dick Cassiano and Hal (Curly) Stebbins at halfbacks, and John Chickerneo at quarter constituted Pitt's Dream Backfield of 1938, which probably got more press notices than any other backfield in history except Notre Dame's Four Horsemen: Elmer Layden, Jim Crowley, Don Miller, and Harry Stuhldreher. Layden, a three-sport star at Davenport (Iowa) High, was steered to Notre Dame by Walter Halas, older brother of George Halas, founder, general manager, and coach of the Chicago Bears. Layden believed that there never could have been a more homesick boy than he was. His freshman year he went home several times, made many phone calls, and not until he started the 1922 Army game at West Point (a scoreless tie) was he sure he'd stay at South Bend.

Not until late in the 1922 season, against Carnegie Tech, did Layden, who had been an alternate left halfback, become the starting fullback, when Paul Castner broke a leg. "Layden," Rockne said, "I want you to play fullback." Layden pointed out that there were already two fullbacks who weighed more than he did: Bill Cerney and Bernie Livergood. "Never mind," Rockne said, "I need a small fullback because our line opens small holes."

In his playing prime Layden weighed 162; Crowley and Miller were each 164 and Stuhldreher 158. They beat Carnegie 19-0, but lost at Nebraska the next week. Their record in 1923 was 9-1, losing only to Nebraska, and in 1924, 10-0. Their first touchdown against Carnegie came on a freak. Said Layden: "Rock started the shock troops against Carnegie, and they worked the ball down to the 5-yard line. Rock called Harry and me over to him and said, 'I'm sending you in.' Thinking it was fourth down, he gave Harry a pass play to call. I was to be the receiver.

"In we went and Harry immediately discovered it was only third down. Now in those days we did not huddle; the huddle still was several years away. Harry called signals from behind the center in our basic T formation, then we shifted and the play was under way. "Harry decided since it was third down, he wouldn't pass, but rather send me on a fullback buck into the line. As he called this signal and we shifted, I sensed the change in plans at the split second Bob Reagan centered the ball. The ball bounced off my knee, sailed five yards forward and landed on the goal line, where our end, George Vergara, fell on it for a touchdown. Now you know why I can tell my grandchildren that I had a hand in scoring the first time I played with the Four Horsemen. Or should I say a knee?"

Layden saved his last game for his finest, the 27-10 victory, New Year's Day, 1925, in the Rose Bowl against Coach Pop Warner's Stanford team that had the legendary fullback Ernie Nevers. Layden scored 18 of Notre Dame's points. He scored three touchdowns and set up the fourth with his punting.

Layden went over from the 7 to give Notre Dame a 6-3 lead. With Nevers as steamhammer, Stanford drove deep into Irish territory. Edward P. (Slip) Madigan, coach of St. Mary's and a former Notre Dame guard under Rockne, had scouted Stanford for his alma mater; he had noted that in scoring territory, the Indians liked a screen pass by Nevers into the flat. Layden, recalling this, played wider than usual. Gus Dorais, sitting on the bench next to Rockne, pointed it out. Rock replied, "He knows what he's doing...”

Sure enough, Nevers tried the screen pass, and when it was deflected by Chuck Collins, N.D.'s left end, Elmer was in position to grab it off on the Irish 20 and return it 80 yards for a touchdown. Crowley converted to give N.D. a 13-3 lead at halftime.

In the third period, Layden's 55-yard punt was fumbled on the Stanford 20 and grabbed by the right end, Ed Hunsinger, who ran it in for a touchdown. Crowley again converted; 20-3. Then Stanford intercepted a pass on N.D.'s 27, whence Nevers blasted to the 3 and passed to Ted Shipkey for a touchdown. Murray Cuddeback converted; 20-10.

As the fourth quarter opened, Nevers led another drive but this time he was stopped on the goal line. Layden had to punt out, to the Stanford 48, and with Nevers blasting again, the Indians went 22 yards to the Notre Dame 30. Again Nevers tried the screen pass, again Layden intercepted and returned it all the way, 70 yards. Crowley converted to make it 27-10, the final score.

Nevers, a great All-America fullback and competitor, respected on both sides of the scrimmage line, relived those two interceptions by Layden many times. He reminisced:

"The two plays that can never be erased from my memory were the two accurate passes I threw to Layden. One good for 80 yards and a touchdown, and the other for 70 yards and a touchdown. A total of 150 yards in two tries and two touchdowns makes the passing combination of Layden of Notre Dame and Nevers of Stanford the best in Bowl history ."

Layden had demonstrated his threat as an interceptor in an earlier victory over Northwestern 13-6, when he picked off Ralph (Moon) Baker's aerial and returned it 40 yards for the clincher touchdown.

Few fullbacks ever matched Layden in the quick start and swiftness. That is how he managed to get by at 162 pounds spread over 5 feet, 11 1/4 inches. In later life, he took on a few pounds but remained gaunt-looking and came to be known as "The Thin Man." People introduced to him often said, "You must have been heavier when you played." Then Elmer would have to explain that as a player he was 20 pounds lighter.

Layden took a Bachelor of Law Degree at Notre Dame, considered law as a career, and passed the Iowa bar exam while coaching Columbia College in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1925 and '26. His Columbia record was 8-5-2; his 1925 team beat Luther for the Western Interstate Conference championship.

(Columbia had been known as St. Raphael's and St. Joseph's, but a newspaper headline, "Luther Trounces St. Joseph," prompted a change of name. Later it was renamed, for the last time, Loras, after its founder, Matthew Loras, bishop of Dubuque.)

Layden's work at Columbia attracted the attention of Duquesne, which signed him in 1927 to a two-year contract at $6,500 a year. At Duquesne, he learned how to make a little go a long way. The Dukes had only 11 numbered jerseys, and only enough spare parts for 35 makeshift uniforms. The athletic field, built over an old brick yard, looked less like a gridiron than a dump. At one end a 500-foot cliff made extra-point kicking a costly equipment item. (Duquesne, however, played its home games at Forbes Field.)

The biggest problem was squeezing enough dollars out of the budget to give scholarships. Despite the handicaps, Layden's seven-year record at Duquesne was 48-16-6. His 1928 team, which had an 8-1 record, pulled off a large upset at Washington and Jefferson, 12-6. His 1933 team beat Miami 33-7 in the Festival of Palms game, as the Orange Bowl was then known.

Probably the best player he ever recruited at Duquesne was Mike Basrak, an All-America center, whom he never got to coach. Aldo (Buff) Donelli, a center he switched to fullback, was also a star soccer player, who would have shone as a modern place-kicker, using the soccer sidewinding approach. Donelli later proved himself a fine head coach, with Duquesne, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Boston University, and Columbia.

By 1934 Notre Dame was seeking a head coach to replace Heartley W. (Hunk) Anderson and Father John O'Hara, chairman of the athletic board, approached Layden. (Later, Father O'Hara was the first Holy Cross father to become a cardinal.)

"We signed a contract," Elmer said, "on a table Father O'Hara told me was more than 100 years old and that his mother had brought from Ireland. Next to signing over the Blarney stone itself, this must have been as appropriate a place as you could find to sign up a coach for the Fighting Irish."

Elmer Layden in 1956.

 

Elmer Layden's 16-year coaching record of 103 victories, 34 defeats, and 2 ties for a percentage of .733 placed him No.29 among the coaches in football's first century who served ten years or more. Broken down, the record reveals:

Loras (1925-26) 8-5-2

Duquesne(1927-33) 48-16-6

Notre Dame (1934-40) 47-13-3

To prove that fame is fleeting, even for the  Four Horsemen, Layden likes to tell the story of is grandson, Elmer Layden III, who was playing his first football in grammar school. His coach old him, "You know your grandfather was one of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame?" When little Elmer got home, he asked his mother, Mom, what's a Horseman of Notre Dame?"

 

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