Notre Dame vs. Army: The game that changed college football 100 years ago
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
In the fading twilight of a summer day in 1913, two fit young men played catch with a football on the Cedar Point beach. They had finished their shift as lifeguards at the Sandusky Resort in Ohio, and once they had limbered up, they set about practicing forward pass plays. One took an imaginary hike from center and the other began running from an equally imaginary line of scrimmage. The quarterback, 145-pound Charles “Gus” Dorais, then passed to his end, Knute Rockne, who had run a route that they had been repeating for 30 minutes.
Until darkness halted the waterfront session, they experimented with varying passes, short and long.
Both athletes were rising seniors at the University of Notre Dame, a small Catholic institution in South Bend, Ind. Along with other Notre Dame students, Dorais (pronounced Doh-ray) and Rockne worked all summer at the Lake Erie resort. In addition to lifeguarding, they also worked as night clerks and restaurant checkers. At the request of Jesse Harper, the incoming Notre Dame football coach, the two had brought a football with them to Cedar Point.
During their limited spare time, the undersized but strong-armed Dorais worked on his passing technique and timing. Rockne, a smallish, 145-pound end who had been elected captain of the 1913 squad, worked on catching the ball with his hands, instead of the arms and torso. Coach Harper wanted his new team to pass more often in the coming season. The NCAA had loosened the restrictions on forward passes in 1912, and changed the ball specifications to allow a slightly longer and slimmer model that was easier to throw. A few pioneers of the forward pass such as Harper wanted to “open up” the game from its line-plunging basics.
Onlookers on the beach found the passing drills a bit odd, but entertaining. A pretty young girl, however, paid less attention to the football than she gave to the young and affable Rockne. Bonnie Skiles, a waitress in Cedar Point’s Grill Room, soon fell into a summer-time romance with Knute (ca-nute), a Norwegian immigrant. They would later marry, with Gus serving as best man.
Rockne biographer Harry Stuhldreher, who was one of the legendary “Four Horsemen” at Notre Dame in 1924, described how the two players used the final minutes at night before sack time to create passing schemes. “They planned and worked out new plays in which the pass was the all-important feature. . . . It could be incorporated into a system of play along with the line buck, end run or kick.”
Dorais and Rockne also thought about how they would use the pass against Army in the fall, Notre Dame’s first encounter with the eastern powerhouse. Rockne had big plans for beating Army, and the screenwriters of the 1940 movie “Knute Rockne — All American,” envisioned that conversation with the following script.
DORAIS: Don’t be a sap, Rock. The Army will outweigh us twenty pounds to the man. We couldn’t lick ‘em if we took a shotgun along.
ROCKNE: All right, we’ll take a shotgun. . . . We’re going to pass the Army, Gus — we’re going to pass them dizzy!
DORAIS: Rock — if that works, it’ll make history!
No one, especially Gus and Knute, knew that the Notre Dame football team would actually make history on Nov. 1, 1913. But they did indeed 100 years ago this week, establishing a milestone in college football history. The game started one of college football’s most illustrious and influential rivalries, ushered in Notre Dame as a national powerhouse and, most importantly, showcased the forward pass as a winner both on the gridiron and in the box office. The college football entertainment colossus of today owes its success to multiple influences, and one of them is the first Army-Notre Dame game.
The deadly game
Most point to a game between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869 as college football’s beginning.
Although two versions evolved early — a soccer-like kicking game and a rougher, rugby-rules variety. Colleges soon coalesced around the rugby-style play, and by the 1880s, a line of scrimmage emerged, along with tackling, massive wedge formations and a scoring system of points.
Criticism of football increased with its appeal. Two arguments centered on academics — the game kept students from their studies, and colleges used non-students as players. For example, seven members of Michigan’s 1894 starting team had not enrolled. The other major disparagement focused on the game’s violence. In 1905, 18 football players died of game injuries, although only three resulted from intercollegiate play, and 88 college players suffered serious injuries.
A debate over college football’s dangerous direction raged through newspaper editorial pages and college boardrooms. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had played at Harvard, invited officials from Yale, Princeton, and Harvard to the White House. He attempted to use his bully pulpit to force changes in the game to make it safer. Other meetings followed, and to better confront the issues, colleges joined in 1906 to form the forerunner of the NCAA. Opponents of change argued the sport might become a “parlor game.” Others simply called football “a brutal, savage and murderous sport.”
The dialogue did result, however, in legalizing passing the ball and increasing to 10 yards the minimum gain required for retaining possession. In 1910, the football rules committee insisted on seven players on the line of scrimmage, banned interlocking formations, created four 15-minute quarters and reaffirmed the forward pass. The committee, however, restricted passers to a point at least five yards behind the line and limited the distance of a pass to 20 yards.
Two years later, the committee produced a set of rules that were closer relatives to modern football: passing was generally unlimited; each team had four downs to make 10 yards or lose possession; and touchdowns were worth six points and field goals three. Passers still had to stay five yards behind the line, a rule that lasted in college football until 1945.
Coach Harper arrived at Notre Dame and found a football program mired in financial problems.
Teams in the Western Conference, which later became the Big Ten, refused to schedule Notre Dame. They cited the university’s lax academic standards, but anti-Catholic biases were the more likely reason. Regardless, the meager gate receipts at South Bend games couldn’t support the team.
Harper had coached at Wabash College, also in Indiana, through the end of the 1912-1913 academic year. Nevertheless, he began in the winter to write major football universities and colleges throughout the east and south in search of opponents with big reputations and big gate receipts. Penn State agreed to a 1913 game, as did both the University of Texas and South Dakota University. Harper wrote the U. S. Military Academy on December 18, 1912.
“My letter to West Point,” Harper recalled later, according to author Frank Maggio, “arrived at a time when the Army-Yale series ended somewhat abruptly. And the Cadets had an open date.” Army agreed to a Nov. 1, 1913 game, and offered Harper a $600 revenue guarantee.
The Notre Dame coach successfully negotiated $1,000 because several Eastern teams had refused to play Army in light of its admissions policy.
West Point recruited players who had exhausted their eligibility at another college, and gave them three more years of varsity play. Academy officials said they needed the extra time to train officers to fight in wars. For example, halfback Elmer Oliphant played three years at Purdue before graduating in 1914. He was a two-time, first-team All-American at West Point in 1916-1917, and entered the College Football Hall of Fame in 1955. Army’s recruiting practices finally grated on the Naval Academy so badly that in the late 1920s, Navy refused to play Army.
Army had begun using the pass in 1906 and played Eastern teams that threw the ball. But the predominant passing strategy was to occasionally call a pass play to set up the run or create a bit of uncertainty in the defense. The pass was not, to use a modern phrase, a featured part of Army’s game plan.
Notre Dame started the 1913 season with an Oct. 4 rout of Northern Ohio, 87-0, in South Bend. Two other home games followed — a 20-7 victory over South Dakota, and a 62-0 win against small Alma College from Michigan. Harper used those games to sharpen his passing game, one that he had used at Wabash. Army would be next.
“The morning we left for West Point,” Rockne later wrote, “the entire student body of the university got up long before breakfast to see us to the day-coach that carried the squad to Buffalo — a dreary, all-day trip.”
The students saw a severely underfunded and undermanned squad of 11 regulars and eight substitutes. Harper could only afford 14 pairs of football shoes, and many of the players had unscrewed the cleats and wore the shoes on the train. Each carried his own gear as well as a box lunch prepared by the nuns on the university’s cafeteria. They had none of the equipment trunks that the Ivy League teams traveled with and, according to Rockne, their only extra equipment was a “roll of tape, a jug of liniment and a bottle of iodine.”
From Buffalo to West Point, the team traveled in sleeping cars, with the regulars on the bottom bunks, subs in the uppers. They arrived at midday on Halloween, ready to play only tricks on the Army team.
The academy arranged for the Notre Dame players to eat lunch and change into their uniforms in Cullum Hall before a light afternoon practice. As they arrived on Cullum Hall Field, the Hoosiers marveled at the lush gridiron.
“Most of the players visiting the playing field,” recalled Army cadet Willet J. Baird in a widely quoted account, “expressed no end of amazement and joy over the fact that the field itself was very smooth, well-marked, and resembled the appearance of a well-kept lawn.”
On the next day, five thousand people, including the Army chief of staff, Major Gen. Leonard Wood, filled the wooden bleachers. It was a cloudy and cold Saturday afternoon. Admission was free, and many of the spectators simply stood along the sidelines. A mere 11 years and a world war later, the two teams played in front of 55,000 in New York’s Polo Grounds.
In the first quarter, each team probed the other’s defense in a seesaw battle typical of the era’s games. But then Dorais completed a 40-yard pass to Rockne, who caught the ball on the run at the 2-yard line and scored on the next stride. Dorais made the extra point and Notre Dame was up 7-0.
Rockne later admitted to faking an injury on the three plays leading up to his score. When the Army defender began ignoring him, Knute told Gus that the hook was set. “Everybody seemed astonished,” Rockne wrote later of the long pass. “There had been no hurdling, no tackling, no plunging, no crushing of fiber and sinew. Just a long-distance touchdown by rapid transit.”
Dorais completed six straight passes in the first quarter, a remarkable offensive spurt for the time.
Army scored in the second quarter when Vernon Pritchard completed a pass to left end Jack Jouett on the Notre Dame 15, setting up a touchdown a few plays later. The Cadets scored again, but only after four line plunges from the 6-inch line. Halfback Benny Hoge missed the point after, and Army led 13-7.
Notre Dame immediately countered with a four-play, 85-yard scoring drive. Dorais threw to Rockne for 25 yards, halfback Joe Pliska for 35 and halfback Charles Finegan for 20. Pliska then ran the ball into the end zone from the 5-yard line, and Dorais made the extra point. Notre Dame, 14-13.
The first half ended on an Army interception, but Dorais was six for eight in the second quarter.
At halftime, Harper was concerned that the lead wouldn’t hold up. “I told Gus to keep throwing,” the coach said according to Maggio. “We figured it was the best chance we had. Gus could throw the football as well as any man that ever lived.”
Both teams played conservatively in the scoreless third quarter, and Dorais threw one incomplete pass. However, the spunky Notre Dame quarterback ended an Army drive with an interception of a Pritchard pass in his team’s end zone.
The “Westerners” dominated the fourth quarter. “There was no stopping Notre Dame now,” wrote the New York Times reporter afterward. “They had a score thirst which could not be quenched.”
The better-conditioned Notre Dame players scored 21 unanswered points in the final 15 minutes, but Dorais threw and completed only two passes. By that time, he had the Army squad off balance as it tried to anticipate run or pass. Dorais used his big fullback, Ray “Iron Eich” Eichenlaub with great effect late in the game, and Eichenlaub scored the final touchdown.
Notre Dame 35-13.
For the game, Dorais completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards, stats quite foreign to the football establishment.
“NOTRE DAME’S OPEN PLAY AMAZES ARMY” was the headline of the New York Times’ game summary on Nov. 2. The unnamed reporter recounted how the Westerners “swept the Army off its feet” and “flashed the most sensational football that has been seen in the East this year.”
The Times related the comments from one of the game’s officials, Bill Roper, a former head coach at Princeton. Roper said that the new rules allowed for improved passing, and Notre Dame had quickly developed the tactic to perfection.
The game didn’t introduce the forward pass to college football, but it gained enough attention to permanently influence the modern game. Further, Harper, Dorais and Rockne helped start the glorious run of Notre Dame football, one that reached take-off velocity in the Roaring Twenties.
Notre Dame beat Penn State the week following the Army game, as well as St. Louis University and Texas. Dorais was a consensus All-American in 1913 and graduated the following spring. Gus enjoyed a Hall of Fame career as a coach, which included a five-year stint as the head coach of the NFL’s Detroit Lions.
Rockne graduated magna cum laude in chemistry and pharmacology, and became the Notre Dame coach in 1918. He quickly established Notre Dame as a college football powerhouse. His teams in the 1920s helped transform college football from a game to a colossal money-making enterprise. The sport became a national craze with alarming rapidity just a few years after World War I and rivaled baseball as America’s favorite team sport. Rockne was the first celebrity sports coach in the United States, and died much too young in a plane crash on March 31, 1931.
Michael K. Bohn is the author of “Money Golf,” a history of the gentlemanly wager on the golf course, and more recently, “Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports.” Bohn also wrote “The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism” (2004), and “Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room” (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president’s alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan’s second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968 to 1988.