Herb Juliano

One of the most interesting characters in the early history of Notre Dame football was Pat O'Dea. He was a great player and kicker for Wisconsin at the end of the century and was hired as Notre Dame's coach in 1900. He did a good job with the team, and in two years posted a 14-4-2 record against some of the top teams of the day. An incident after one game, however, almost brought an end to the Notre Dame football program...

Coach Pat O'Dea and his 1900 Notre Dame football team. Pat is in the back row, center, with hair parted down the middle.


If you were to study a photo of the Notre Dame football team of 1901 it would reveal several subjects of interest. For instance, you can see Louis "Red" Salmon, Notre Dame's first football star who, after setting records in 1903 which lasted until Allen Pinkett broke them in 1985, became head coach in 1904. Also pictured is James Faragher, who also coached the Notre Dame teams of 1902 and 1903 following his playing days and immediately preceding Salmon. But focus your attention on the young man in the upper right-hand corner of the photo and you will see a coach who, before he disappeared mysteriously from the scene in 1903, could conceivably have spelled the end of football at Notre Dame.

Pat O'Dea was a football star shining fifty years too soon. The first time Pat O'Dea kicked a football on the University of Wisconsin campus, the reaction of spectators was so violent that he thought he had committed some sort of public offense. In Pat's day, field goals were drop-kicked, not held, and his proficiency at doing this earned him the name "The Kangaroo Kicker." He had everything which goes to make up a modem athletic idol - personal charm, magnificent appearance, supreme skill and a spectacular specialty. Playing football as he did for Wisconsin from 1896 to 1899, his name would be on the lips of every sports enthusiast. In 1954 a University of Wisconsin sports writer wrote: "Just imagine a college player today drop-kicking four field goals in one game, or being credited with fourteen field goals in one season, or sending punts booming down field 80 to I 00 yards, or booting field goals 65 yards away from the goal posts." The records kept at the turn of the century fail to do Pat O'Dea justice.

Patrick John O'Dea was born in Melbourne, Australia, and was an athletic luminary at Victoria High School and Krew College in his native city. His father owned a stock ranch and Pat lived the typical young rancher's life when not in school. He soon became one of the fastest backs and greatest kickers in the Antipodes and, at the age of 16, was chosen as an All-Australian halfback.

A reference to just one of his kicking feats in 1899 proves O'Dea's greatness. Wisconsin was playing at Minnesota in mid-November and the Badgers, though favored to win, were held to a scoreless tie in the first half and the stalemate continued into the third period.

Knowlton of Minnesota got off a punt of only 30 yards and O'Dea, playing safety, called for a fair catch, but his 50-yard field goal attempt was wide by a narrow margin. The events which immediately followed were thus described in the Minneapolis Journal:

"Minnesota brought the ball in 25 yards and again Knowlton punted. The ball flew straight to O'Dea 10 yards beyond center and with Gil Dobie right under it. Great was the surprise of the Minnesota men to see O'Dea dodge an attack from Dobie and then deliberately kick a drop from the center of the field. A nicer kick could not have been made and Wisconsin had a score, 5-0."

The play broke the heart of the Minnesota team and Wisconsin went on to win, 19-0. Yet this almost unbelievable play was only briefly noted in "Tbe Field Goal Record, 1873-193 I," in the Official Intercollegiate Football Guide in this casual manner "40 yards, by P. J. O'Dea (Wisconsin) vs Minnesota, Nov. 18,1899."

The field, at that time, was  110 yards long, goal line to goal line. As stated by the Minnesota paper, O'Dea caught the ball 10 yards beyond center, which means 65 yards from the Wisconsin goal. Dobie, the Gopher end, who later became a famous coach, always maintained afterwards that O'Dea's kick was the greatest individual play he ever saw in any football game.

Describing it, Dobie said that, after eluding him, O'Dea ran toward the sideline, not kicking until several Minnesota players converged upon him. The kick, therefore, was at a difficult angle, made harder by the fact that O'Dea, a right footed kicker, was running toward his own left.

Some newspaper accounts of the play gave the distance of the kick as 60 yards and none which reported the game placed it less than 55 yards.

In 1900 Pat O'Dea was signed to coach Notre Dame, after he had proven himself to be one of the great stars in the drive of the Wisconsin Badgers to national honors. In 1896 and 1897 the Badgers were the outstanding team in the Western Conference, and in 1898 and 1899, O'Dea received national acclaim as one of the driving fullbacks in college football. Walter Camp selected Pat on his All-America team in both those years.

Under O'Dea's regime the Irish reached out for regional prominence by scheduling and defeating the strongest teams in the midwest. The Irish student body went wild with joy as the team ran up overwhelming scores and under O'Dea's guidance they saw Notre Dame's first great star, Red Salmon, develop. At the end of the 1901 season, Pat's second, after Notre Dame had defeated both Indiana and Purdue, the campus news magazine SCHOLASTIC printed: "Nine 'rahs for Coach O'Dea, Captain Fortin and the moleskin heroes who struggled so nobly for the Gold and Blue, and on last Saturday won for us the championship of Indiana."

But then came trouble.

Following the "regular" season, the last game of the 1901 season pitted Notre Dame against the professional South Bend Studebakers. For some reason known perhaps only to himself, O'Dea dropped the Notre Dame team like a bad habit a week before the game and crossed over to the Studebakers camp. The Irish, left in the hands of their star player, Red Salmon, were hardly expected to make a game of it. But Salmon proved more than a match for his former coach O'Dea. While preparing for this game, Salmon brushed up on several outdated kicking statutes that had been in the rules book, but ignored for years. Armed with these, Salmon devised a series of weird and complicated plays that drove the pros crazy. They were all legal plays, but nothing the opponents had ever seen. At the gun, the Studebakers were wrecked on the tailend of a 22-6 score.

The South Bend locker room exploded. The surprised and humiliated Studebakers blamed O'Dea for not knowing what to expect from his own team. O'Dea blamed his Studebaker cohorts and a brawl ensued with serious punches thrown.

The incident cast a dark shadow over the Golden Dome. University President Father Morrissey fired Pat O'Dea and called Red Salmon into his office. "Do you really need a coach?" asked Morrissey. "Don't you know the game yourselves?" 'The question was phrased in the form of an order. Salmon got the message. No more football coaches at Notre Dame. By the next Autumn, however, cooler heads prevailed and James Farragher, a former player, was named coach. Indeed, after two seasons under Farragher, Salmon himself took the reins of the Irish in 1904. By that time, however, Pat O'Dea had disappeared mysteriously from the scene.

Fast-forward to 1934 and enter Judge John Eggeman. Judge Eggeman, during his student days, played center on the Notre Dame football teams and was also manager of athletics. It was he who went to Madison, Wisconsin, to hire Pat O'Dea to coach football at Notre Dame for the very modest salary of $500 per year.

One night in Chicago in 1934 the Judge attended a dinner in honor of the renaissance of a man who claimed to be the famous Pat O'Dea of Wisconsin football fame and former Notre Dame coach of 1900 and 1901. Judge Eggeman had already had correspondence with the professed Pat, according to a very interesting story which appeared in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel of November 3rd of that year:

"Despite doubts expressed by others, Judge John Eggeman, former Circuit Court Judge, is certain that the great Pat O'Dea, famous Wisconsin football star, who was missing from 1903 until just a few months ago, is still alive and is the one who is now known as Charles J. Mitchell, California lumber man. O'Dea, known as the "Kangaroo Kicker,"  whose gridiron exploits have been as memorable in the traditions of football as were those of "Pop" Anson in baseball history, mysteriously disappeared from South Bend where he was engaged in law practice, about 1903."

"It was rumored that he had drowned when a ship was sunk during the war, and also rumored that he had been scalded to death in Missouri. Several months ago, Charles J. Mitchell, of Westwood, California, declared, as many others before had declared, that he was Pat O'Dea. A brother, Andrew, and Pat's wife expressed doubts that Mitchell was the one he claimed to be. The Judge, however, following his personal meeting, affirmed his conviction of O'Dea's truth and identity. In a letter to the Judge, Mitchell, or O'Dea, wrote: "Yes, John, it is I in the flesh."

There was one other thing that helped convince Judge Eggeman that this Pat O'Dea claimant was authentic. In replying to the Judge's letter, significant details were given descriptive of the campus incident of raising the tin elephant on the campus flagpole.

The Judge added: "I might say that I was graduated in 1900 and about four years thereafter I was walking on the front porch of the administration Building with Father Morrissey when he said to me, "John, during your time you always knew what was going on at the University of Notre Dame. On the morning of your graduation day I came out on to this porch about 5:30 in the morning and saw hanging at the top of the flagpole a large tin elephant and I have never been able to learn who the boys were that did this terrible thing. And if any of them connected with this incident graduated from the University, even at this late date, I would revoke their diploma."

I confessed that I was one of the guilty boys and instead of becoming angry he looked at me and started to laugh and all was forgiven, for I still have my sheepskin hanging on the wall in my office.

This action upon the part of Father Morrissey, however, was not unusual. All he ever asked for was the truth and when he received the tnith he was always ready and willing to forgive.

And that's the story of one of Notre Dame's most colorful and interesting coaches.

To read previous installments of Herb's archive please click below:

September 1998
October 1998
November 1998
January 1999
March 1999
May 1999
July 1999
August 1999
October 1999