This months edition of Reflections from the Dome
is the fascinating story of how the great Notre Dame –
Southern Cal rivalry began.
We also give an account of the first Notre Dame - USC game
described by Rockne as "The greatest game I ever saw."
Elmer "Gloomy Gus" Henderson wasn't the most charming of all men. As a matter of fact there were those who said he had all of the charisma of a dyspeptic dragon, but he was a good football coach. In 6 years at USC, he had posted a 46-7-0 record for a win percentage of .868, and that's much better than just respectable. There was just one soft spot in the record. In those 6 years he had never been able to beat California. Rumor has it that whereas the alumni was more than happy to forgive old Gloomy Gus for his rather melancholy personality, losing 5 out of 5 to their arch rival Cal was unpardonable, and for this inadequacy he was unceremoniously dumped at the end of the 1924 season.
Whatever the reason, the search for a new coach was on. Naturaly the name Knute Rockne was the first mentioned. Southern Cal Secretary Stonier had approached him at that time with an offer to become USC's head coach. Rockne had thought kindly of the idea, primarily because his wife, Bonnie, had fallen under the spell of Southern California, and it was said, "What Bonnie wanted from Rock, she usually got."
Father Matthew Walsh, the president of Notre Dame, how ever, was under the spell of no one but Holy Mother, the Church, and the Notre Dame Alumni. He was not about to release a winning coach. Rockne wired his regrets. [At this point, Harold Stonier, executive Secretary of USC, sent Gwynn Wilson, the graduate team manager to talk Rockne into a football series between the two schools]
So when the two men [Rockne and Wilson] met amid the crunch of people in the lobby of the Lincoln Hotel, they were not strangers to each other. Rockne inquired, "What are you doing here?" "I'd like to talk to you about a football game," Wilson replied.
"Well, I can't talk to you now, but I'll get you a reservation on the team train back to Chicago, we'll talk about it on the way home," Rockne said. "In the meantime, I'll get you a couple of tickets to this ball game."
Wilson and his wife did attend the game, which Notre Dame lost 17 to nothing in a driving blizzard. Afterwards they boarded the team train to Chicago. Rockne, noted more for his cunning on the gridiron than his attention to social detail, had neglected to inform Wilson that the train was full and that the reservations" were in the team car. Rockne and Bonnie occupied the compartment in the forward section of the car, Wilson and his wife were given the only remaining space available
a single lower berth. Not that it really mattered, no one got much sleep anyway. Team trains then were not that much different than team planes are now, a few penny ante poker games, laughter if vou've won, conversation if you've lost . . . most of it right out of the locker room. Marion Wilson probably learned a few new words that night.
The breakfast call came at 7:00 a.m. the next morning. Wilson and his wife were invited to breakfast with Rockne and Bonnie. But try as he might, Wilson's attempts to talk of a football game were avoided by Rockne, who always managed to swing the conversation back to his team . . their injuries . . . their low morale because of the losses that year to Army and Nebraska. Lunch brought no better results, Rockne continued to shift the talk away from the game idea.
But Wilson was not about to be put off and after lunch he suggested that he and Rockne adjourn alone to the observation car where they would not be disturbed. There they talked of everything but the game; but after hours of conversation, Rockne could no longer avoid giving his answer. "Wilson, I'm gonna say no, and I'll tell you why. You know what they're calling my team in South Bend . . . all over the country, as a matter of fact?" Wilson shook his head. "Rockne's Ramblers," growled the Rock. "And I don't like it. We're gonna play at home more, I'm pretty sure I can get a game with the Western Conference.
Wilson knew that some of the big mid-western powers would avoid plaving Notre Dame, Rockne could rub some people the wrong way, but others of the Western Conference (later known as the Big Ten) would jump at the chance.
So as the train pulled into Inglewood Station just outside Chicago, Wilson began to feel that it had been a wasted trip. The team was to transfer to South Bend, and Wilson and his wife had planned on spending a few days with her relatives before making the return trip to Los Angeles. "Maybe in a couple years," Rockne said, "but not next year." The two men said goodbye and Wilson returned to his seat.
Gwynn Wilson was a 26-year old graduate manager, sent to bargain with the greatest football legend of the time. Later a director of the 1932 Olympics, and a founder and ass't general manager of Santa Anita race track until his retirement in 1960, Wilson remembers what happened next this way: "Marion thought it kind of strange that Knute had turned the proposal down flat, inasmuch as Bonnie had seemed so enthusiastic about coming back to Southern California for a game.
"You see, while Rockne and I were talking in the observation car, Bonnie and Marion were also talking. Marion was a little bit shocked at the way the people in Nebraska had treated the fans and team from Notre Dame. Of course, in those days we considered visiting teams as guests in Southern California, rather than intruders. Why, we even used to have the hotel put little baskets of fresh fruit in their rooms during their stay in Los Angeles. "Anyway, Marion told me that Bonnie Rockne had liked the idea of coming out to California, and was sure that Knute would too. She suggested that I go back and try again. "Now there was no way I could go back there and knock on his door and start begging, but as it turned out, I didn't have to. "From where I was sitting I could see the door to Rockne's compartment. I kept watching it and pretty soon the door opened and Rockne walked out kind of twirling his cigar around between his thumb and forefinger. I had seen him do it often when he was under some kind of tension. He didn't come down the aisle to us immediately. He stopped and talked to some of his players, like maybe he didn't want to seem too anxious. Anyway, he finally sat down opposite me, and with a kind of sheepish grin on his face, he says to me, 'Gwynn maybe you'd better tell me about that game again.' "so I did, and he promised to call me the following morning after he had talked to Father Walsh. "Believe me, by nine o'clock the next morning, my nail were nearly chewed down to the first knuckle. Finally the telephone rang . . . It was Rockne. " 'Gwynn,' he said, 'the game is on."'
One week later, Father Matthew Walsh announced that the first game of what was to become the oldest intersectional football rivalry in the United States would be played in the Los Angeles Coliseum, December 4, 1926. The second would be played at Soldier Field in Chicago in the autumn of 1927. So the battle was joined . . . and for the next fifty years two proud universities would enter into yearly combat, neither asking for, nor giving quarter, with the national championship at stake no less than twenty times.
The next section is a description of the first Notre Dame - USC game in 1926. Rockne himself described it as..."the greatest game I ever saw."
In 1926, Rockne's undefeated Irish were rolling down on their second national championship like a runaway train when suddenly the locomotive was derailed, and by Carnegie Tech. Thrice beaten Carnegie Tech! After crushing every opponent in eight straight games, Notre Dame had expected no more than a tune-up in preparation for USC the following week. Instead, they were soundly trounced in what one sportswriter called, "one of the greatest upsets of all time." Now that may have been somewhat of an overstatement, but you could hardly have convinced Rockne of that, even if you could have found him. He wasn't in Pittsburgh, he was in Chicago watching the Army-Navy game.
The reasons for Rockne's absence were never clear. Only one man knew. That was Rockne - and he wasn't talking. To his eternal credit he assumed all of the blame, even though for a time he was the "laughing stock of college football." Probably he was at Soldier Field to scout Navy which would appear on Notre Dame's schedule for the first time in 1927. At any rate, he placed the team in the able hands of two assistants, "Hunk" Anderson, and Tommy Mills, with instructions to start the second team in order to rest the first team for the long trip and the following week's USC game. The strategy seemed sound, but the shrewd Rockne had been out-Rockned.
"Men, " Wally Steffen, the Carnegie Coach had shouted, "Knute Rockne thinks you so poor as football players, he's starting his second team against you, and he's so sure they'll win, he's not even here! He's in Chicago watching Army and Navy play some real football." Obvious as the ploy was, it worked. By the time the Notre Dame first team was sent in, the momentum was all on the side of Carnegie Tech and they won 19-0 going away. In the meantime, USC was having its own tune-up against Montana, with much better results. Coach Howard Jones flooded the field with reserves and annihilated the Grizzlies 61-0. Sometime in 1925, an unknown sportswriter with a flair for drama had christened Howard Jones' USC football team, "The Thundering Hurd." It was a nom de guerre calculated to strike fear and respect in the hearts of opposing teams as well as undying, loyalty in the breasts of the student body and alumni, but it was more fiction than fact. "The Thundering Herd" averaged less than 175 pounds per man and a little over 5 feet 10 inches in height. But what they lacked in size, they made up for in guts. Led by All-American quarterback, Mort Kaer, and SC's first All-American, Brice Taylor at guard, team captain Jeff Cravath at center and tackle Jesse Hibbs, the line, though small, was strong enough to play Jones' style of no nonsense football. They rarely passed and very seldom tried to fool the opponent with a reverse or trick play. Since Jones had taken the helm of USC football they had lost only three games. Because of his success, he had been signed to a new three-year contract on November 30, 1926. The 1926 team was considered by many to be the equal of any of the big Eastern powerhouses and had lost only one game, that to Stanford by one point, 13-12. Although meeting Notre Dame was a new experience for USC, it was not their first crack at an Eastern team. They were, in fact, undefeated in five inter-sectional games dating back to their 14-3 Rose Bowl victory over Penn State in 1923.
As Gwynn Wilson and Secretary Stonier had hoped, the game that was to shoot USC into national prominence was by no means ignored on the West Coast. Although the game was scheduled for Saturday, December 4, the headline in the Los Angeles Times on November 17, 1926, read "COLISEUM SOLD OUT FOR NOTRE DAME-USC CLASH."
Rockne, in his usual wily manner, was not about to let his boys forget about the Carnegie Tech defeat, nor would he let them take USC lightly. Instead of bringing his team directly to Los Angeles for practice, he had planned two stops along the way for workouts and would not disembark in Los Angeles until the eve of the game.
From the Los Angeles Times, December 1, Dateline Tucson, Arizona: "Knute Rockne and his Notre Dame football players of assorted nationalities, jokingly referred to as the 'Fighting Irish,' blew into this town this evening on a blast of red hot atmosphere which ought to acclimate them and possibly raise a few blisters. They get their initial work-out tomorrow, December 2, on the University of Arizona gridiron."
While Rockne and his group were tuning up, Jones and his team were not idle. Another quote from the L.A. Times, December 2, 1926: "If Knute Rockne's Notre Dame gridders defeat USC at the Coliseum Saturday afternoon, the South Bend boys will have to step high, wide and handsome. This was proven conclusively last night when Howard Jones sent his Trojans through their last scrimmage of the season for the benefit of a few privileged onlookers. The Cardinal and Gold athletes displayed speed and power in abundance . . . last, but not least by any means, Morley Drury ran signals with the varsity for the first time since injuring his knee in the California game more than a month ago."
Howard Jones, in his normal quiet manner, had little to say before the game, but felt that his team would be ready. Rockne, always the canny strategist, was trying to convince the Trojans in particular and the world in general that the 1926 Irish were a rather scrubby lot. "If we could have ended the season about a week ago, we would have been all right, but the boys are pretty well fagged out now and we're just taking a chance. I don't know how the boys will hold up, but they'll try," said Rockne.
A capacity crowd of 76,000 fans was on hand for the game and tickets normally selling for $3.00 per seat were being scalped at $1.00 a yard line and there were plenty of takers. When the "Thundering Herd" galloped onto the field, a cheer went up that some said could he heard in Santa Monica, 20 miles away. The bookmakers, however, were more impressed with Notre Dame's reputation than home town loyalty. They installed the Irish as a ten point favorite.
In the first quarter neither team was able to advance the ball deep in the other's territory. Notre Dame Quarterback Charles Riley passed for fifteen yards to Dahman. Mort Kaer returned the Notre Dame punt 20 yards and later rolled 17 yards off tackle. The first quarter of the game was scoreless.
Early in the second quarter, Kaer quick-kicked on second down. Notre Dame took over on their own 26-yard line. With Christie Flanagan, team captain, Tom Heardon and Harry O'Boyle now in the game, and Riley still at the controls Notre Dame began to move. The highlight of the drive was a split buck to O'Boyle, who went 27 yards over Hibbs, down to USC's 16 yard line. Kaer who made the saving tackle seemed to be the only Trojan who was not completely fooled. The ball was placed down on the right of the field and Riley, with three blockers leading, raced around left end for the score . . . a 75 yard march. O'Boyle's point after was partially blocked by Cravath, but the tip gave the ball just the lift it needed to be good. Notre Dame led 7-0. After the exchange of punts after the kickoff, Kaer made a 30-yard run off left tackle which seemed to bring the USC offense to life.
All American, Mort Kaer sweeping right end for USC
After Kaer made two yards on a line plunge he passed successfully to Al Behreridt for 38 yards. Notre Dame co-captain Gene Edwards made the saving tackle on his own one. Kaer then went off left tackle for the score completing a 71-yard drive.
Brice Taylor took too much time on the extra point and it was blocked. The first half ended Notre Dame 7, USC 6. There was no score in the third quarter. USC missed an opportunity when 1eft end Morris Badgro caught a 40-yard pass from Kaer, but was ruled offside by Referee Frank Burker and the ball was brought back to USC's 35 yard line. What might have been a USC advantage was nullified by a penalty. A few minutes later Notre Dame's Flanagan intercepted a Kaer pass to end the drive.
In the fourth quarter USC got the break it needed when Al Scheving blocked a Flanagan punt and Cravath recovered on USC's 43-yard line. Don Williams, a 165 pound sub-quarterback, carried the ball eight straight times down to the Notre Dame 5-yard line. On his ninth carry, Williams went in for the score. So punishing were his runs that Flanagan had to be helped from the field. He was replaced by John "Butch" Niemiec Morley Drury's extra point attempt hit the left upright and bounced back. No good. USC 12, Notre Dame 7.
O'Boyle returned the kickoff to his 25 yard line and then on first down Riley, with two men leading interference, ran to his right and then suddenly on the dead run rifled a pass to Niemiec for a 28-yard gain. On the next play another pass attempt by Riley was picked off by USC's Manuel Larraneta to end the drive.
The Irish defense held, but so did the Trojans'. Butch Niemiec was forced once more to punt from his own 25 yard line. Howard Elliot received and returned it to Notre Dame's 40 yard line, but lost the ball to Notre Dame on a fumble. With just six minutes to play and the ball on Notre Dame's 42 yard lines the crafty Rockne looked down the bench at a frail looking youngster wearing No. 11. "Get in there, and do your stuff," crackled Rockne.
Into the game went Art Parisien, replacing Riley at quarterback. The crowd was stunned. Chuck Riley was the backbone of the team, and to remove him at this crucial point seemed suicidal on the coach's part. But Rockne was playing his hole card, and it turned out to be an ace.
Little Art Parisien was not over a 148 pounds soaking wet. Six weeks before he had been smothered under an avalanche of Northwestern football beef and carried from the field with what was diagnosed as a bruised heart. Doctors advised Rockne not to let him play and Rockne hadn't planned to. He had brought the boy west only as a gesture of kindness. Notre Dame had the ball and needed a touchdown. Parisien, a great left-handed passer, could not be left in the game long enough to take a beating. He had to move the team down the field for a score or be removed. On the very first play on the hidden ball trick (in the single wing attack of those days this could also be described as a spinner play), Parisien hit the center for four yards.. On the next play he passed to Butch Niemiec for a 35-yard gain and a first down on USC's 20 yard line. O'Boyle went out of bounds to the left without gaining. Diamond then was thrown for a 3 yard loss by Bert Heiser when he attempted to circle left end. Frank Hogan replaced Miller for Notre Dame. John Fredericks then replaced Notro Dame's All-American Bud Boeringer at center.
Notre Dame now had a third down on USC's 23 yard line Parisien took the ball from center and ran far to his left. The USC defense sensing a run, came up and Parisien fired the ball to Niemiec who was wide open on the five yard line Niemiec easily ran the ball in for six points. Cravath blocked Niemiec's try for' extra point, but it didn't matter . . . Notre Dame had the game won 13-12, and Parisien had done it. He had taken his team 60 yards in 6 plays, Vince McNally replaced him on the play after the kickoff, them intercepted an SC pass to preserve victory and end the game.
The game was a contrast of teams and style. Notre Dame with a deceptive shift, hid the ball effectively. Their passing and misdirection plays were highlighted by the brilliance of individual performances. On the other hand, USC, with powerful drives over tackle, amassed an almost unbelievable number of men ahead of the ball carrier and rarely varied their attack with a forward pass. They relied instead on their remarkable speed and drive, led by the running of Kaer and Williams. The teams were so equal that first downs were the same, ten apiece. The totals show that yards from scrimmage were Notre Dame 162 and USC 132. However, Notre Dame gained 132 of these yards passing, whereas USC gained only 39. In the locker room after the game, Jones and Rockne met and shook hands. "Well, we almost did it," said Jones. "Congratulations, Knute." "Thanks," smiled the Scandinavian coach of the Fighting Irish, "It was the greatest game I ever saw."