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Then Ara Said to Joe ...
The Best Notre Dame Football Stories Ever Told
By John Heisler
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 John Heisler
All rights reserved.
The Knute Rockne Years
Knute Rockne knew how to push the right buttons of his players at exactly the right time — how to motivate them, relax them, and make them more confident.
Rockne: A Line for Every Occasion
Knute Rockne, who coached the Irish from 1918 until his death following the 1930 season, was never shy about using a little sarcasm with his players to motivate them:
To one of his better players who was struggling on the field one Saturday — "You forgot to show him your newspaper clippings. He doesn't know how good you are."
To one of his teams that trailed at halftime of a game — "You're supposed to be the Fighting Irish? You look to me like a lot of peaceful sissies."
On communicating with his players — "I can tell you one thing 12 times. After that, you're on your own. There are some dumb people, then some dumber ones, then you come next."
Entering the locker room with his team behind — "Pardon me, girls, I thought this was the Notre Dame team."
On the human nature of his players — "Sometimes they look like a million dollars, sometimes they look like a Mickey Mouse animated cartoon."
On an afternoon when his team was struggling at home — "We're likely to lose the first game that's been lost on our home grounds in 25 years. That's a fine story you'll be able to tell your grandchildren. You once had the honor of disgracing Notre Dame."
When a midweek scrimmage was not going as he had hoped — "Go on to the showers, boys, before Jack Cannon ruins any more plays."
Coining a description of his 1928 team — "I call them the 'Minute Men' because they're in the game about a minute before the other team scores."
One of his coaching philosophies — "One loss is good for the soul. Too many losses are not good for the coach."
On one occasion on the road when his team was refused admittance at the stadium gate — "This is going to be easier than we thought, boys. They aren't expecting us."
On what it takes to be successful — "The qualifications for a lineman are to be big and dumb. The qualifications to play in the backfield are just to be dumb."
His appeal to help a lost soul — "Someone explain to Wilbur what this is all about. He's new — he's only been on the squad three years."
To a particular player who missed his block twice in a row — "I'm taking you out and saving you for the junior prom."
On the ever-present second-guessing of his decisions — "I sometimes wonder why a college hires a coach when there are so many experts in town. If I would walk into the barbershop or into a club, I would say, 'And how are all the coaches today?'"
On particularly physical opposing players — "If your adversary persists in the delusion that he is Jack Dempsey, disillusion him."
On priorities — "I have only one favor to ask. When crossing the goal line, please remember to take the ball with you."
On losing a player due to academics — "Our team traveled 25,000 miles, then he fails geography."
To a player who wasn't exerting himself enough — "Throw away your knitting needles and get in the game."
To a player who was telegraphing plays — "It'd be better to send your opponent a postcard."
To a player who suggested he was going to turn in his uniform — "I was about to ask for it, anyway."
To George Gipp, who appeared Wednesday after missing Monday and Tuesday practices — "George, George, where have you been? Now get over here with the sixth team."
When a practice was not going well — "What's wrong with you Irish? Do you work nights? You sleep out there all afternoon."
His version of school spirit — "To hell with the guy who'll die for Notre Dame. I want men who will fight to keep it alive."
On why being ticket manager is a thankless job — "Someone has to sit around the goal line or even behind the goal posts and what they have to say about the blankety-blank hound who sold them their tickets fortunately has never been printed."
On springtime priorities — "I don't know whether we ought to have spring practice this year. It might take too much time from your drinking and necking."
Rockne didn't mind fabricating a story once in a while if he thought it might help win a game. Once, prior to a game at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, he read a telegram from his wife, Bonnie, that referenced his son Billy. The telegram suggested that Billy had suddenly been taken seriously ill and that the one thing that seemed to be worrying him the most was whether or not Daddy's team would win. Bonnie added that if the team could manage to win the game, it might be the best thing for poor little Billy. That's all Rockne's team needed to hear. The Irish proceeded to crush Georgia Tech, forcing one of its backs, Red Barron, to fumble seven different times from the force of the Notre Dame defense.
When the Notre Dame traveling party rolled into the train station in South Bend, there was little Billy, jumping up and down and looking healthy as a horse. Years later, when Rockne would run into members of that team, a common opening line would be, "And how is your boy Bill?"
Rockne had his own way of keeping his players from becoming overconfident, despite what others might be saying about them. On one occasion, he passed out newspapers to his team before the game, saying, "Read these. These clippings say you're all All-America. But you couldn't beat a team last week that had no All-Americas. I want you to read these clippings before every play. Either you just aren't that good, or you're yellow."
He once decided to let the team determine by vote which part of the team was more important, the line or the backfield. The line won, seven votes to four. "And don't you backs ever forget it," he added.
Just in case there was a question, Rockne made certain all involved knew who was in charge. "I am running this team. Nobody else has anything to say about its makeup or play. If it's a flop, pan me. If it's a success — well, let them say what they choose. I have worked around here as an assistant for four years and seldom seen my name in print."
Rockne also understood exactly how coaches would be judged: "Someday there will be an exhibit in some American museum. It will be the forlorn figure of a coach who pleased nobody. And next to it will be another — and more forlorn exhibit — the preserved remains of the coach who tried to please everybody."
Nicknames Unlimited: The Four Horsemen
Nicknames in college football, much less in sports in general, are a dime a dozen. But maybe no nickname in all of collegiate football history has had more staying power and remains as recognizable as the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.
The Four Horsemen were the backfield of the 1924 Notre Dame football squad — quarterback Harry Stuhldreher and backs Jim Crowley, Don Miller, and Elmer Layden. Together, they helped the Irish go unbeaten, knock off Stanford in the Rose Bowl, and claim a consensus national championship. But it was early in the '24 season, in conjunction with a 13–7 win over Army at the Polo Grounds in New York, that they earned the name that would be their claim to fame for years to come.
Covering the game in the press box for one of the New York newspapers was a sportswriter named Grantland Rice. While the game was being played, he had a conversation with a Notre Dame student publicity aide named George Strickler, who mentioned to Rice a connection to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
That day in the press box, Rice typed out what came to be the most familiar newspaper passage in football history:
"Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction, and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden."
What cemented the legacy of those four players were those words combined with what Strickler did back in South Bend once the team returned to campus. Taken by Rice's story, Strickler contacted a South Bend livery stable and borrowed four horses on which he posed the four Notre Dame players on Monday. The famed copyrighted photograph that resulted remains as identifiable as any image in sports.
Mention the Four Horsemen and sports fans young and old immediately connect the phrase with college football and Notre Dame. They may not recognize Miller or Layden, Stuhldreher or Crowley, all of them now deceased, but there's a cache to the name that has enabled them to remain legends in the college football world eight decades after they played.
Coach Knute Rockne had his own thoughts on the Fab Four:
When the Four Horsemen got a little full of themselves in 1924 — "I'm starting the first-team backfield with the second-team line. It might teach those fellows they can't do it alone."
When it was suggested the Four Horsemen actually pose on horses — "Okay, you can put the boys aboard. But God help you if they fall off and get hurt."
On how he may have initially misjudged the Four Horsemen — "I thought they could be whipped into a combination of average players. Not much more than that at the time. That's all the dream I had of them then."
Rockne: The Coach and the Car
In May of 1928 Knute Rockne, head football coach of the University of Notre Dame, became an employee of South Bend's famed Studebaker Corporation. This is the story of a giant of a man and his relationship with a legendary American corporation.
In early '28 South Bend was viewed as one of the most remarkable success stories in America. With a population of 126,000 people, South Bend was in many ways a miniature version of the nation's larger melting pots, including Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cleveland.
The city by the bend of the St. Joseph River was home to more than 450 industrial establishments manufacturing more than 600 kinds of products. Companies like Oliver Chilled Plow Works, Bendix Brake, Singer Sewing Machine, Dodge Manufacturing, and South Bend Tool and Dye called South Bend home. However, the crown jewel of the bustling, diverse, and dynamic industrial community was clearly the Studebaker Corporation.
Studebaker's roots in South Bend went all the way back to 1852 when Henry and Clem Studebaker opened a small blacksmith shop on Washington Street. Before long, the Studebakers were manufacturing more carriages and wagons than anyone in America. In 1904 the company began producing automobiles. When Rockne joined the Studebaker team, the company was the 10th largest manufacturer of automobiles in the world with 30 branches, 4,000 service stations, and more than 5,000 dealers, not only in the United States but also around the world.
And who was this man Rockne, who was now, in 1928, a Studebaker man? Born in Voss, Norway, in 1888, he arrived at Notre Dame in 1910 as a 22-year-old freshman from Chicago's Scandinavian North Side. At Notre Dame, he excelled in sports as a middle distance runner and pole vaulter on the track team and captained the football team his senior year, helping lead the Irish to a 35–13 victory over Army at West Point and putting the small Catholic school on the college gridiron map. Rock, as his friends called him, also earned pin money as an amateur boxer in South Bend.
The story of Rockne and Studebaker has at its roots Rockne's relationship with Albert Erskine, president of the Studebaker Corporation. Erskine, a Southerner by birth, came to South Bend in 1911 as treasurer for Studebaker, two years later was named vice president, and ascended to the presidency in 1915. A big, hulking, and gregarious man, if he and Rockne were not soul mates, they at the least genuinely liked and respected each other.
When Rockne took over as head football coach at Notre Dame in 1918, one of his goals was to increase the seating capacity of Cartier Field, which accommodated less than 5,000 spectators. Notre Dame was playing some of the best teams in the country — Nebraska, Penn State, Rice, and Texas — all away from South Bend.
He sent a letter to prominent businessmen in South Bend, indicating that the Notre Dame football team was a great advertisement for the city and appealed to them to purchase season tickets, thus increasing attendance and gate receipts. The Studebaker Corporation purchased 20 season tickets for the 1919 season at $5 each. Erskine's note to Rockne with the payment stated, "We at Studebaker will support every movement for the welfare and advancement of the University and in its various activities."
In January of '28 Paul Castner, an All-American fullback on Rockne's 1922 team, was the sales manager for the commercial division at Studebaker. He lobbied Studebaker vice president Paul Hoffman to sign Rockne as a motivational speaker at Studebaker's automobile conventions and dealer banquets. Rockne accepted an offer of $5,000 a year from Hoffman to be the special representative for Studebaker beginning in the winter of 1929.
The timing was ideal both for Studebaker and Rockne. For Studebaker, Rockne fit perfectly in the company's annual national sales campaign. For Rockne, it was the time between the end of the football season and the beginning of spring practice. Notre Dame president Father Charles O'Donnell had no objection to Rockne accepting the Studebaker offer.
Erskine was the chairman of the University of Notre Dame's lay board of trustees in the late 1920s. His generosity toward Notre Dame was remarkable. In 1927 Notre Dame officials announced that the university was in need of a $10 million endowment fund. Erskine gave $50,000 personally, the Studebaker Corporation contributed another $100,000, and largely through Erskine's efforts, $350,000 was raised in and around South Bend.
Rockne's first talk came in January 1929 at the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce at the Commodore Hotel in New York City. In the audience was a who's who of the automobile industry, including Henry Ford Sr. and General Motors's Alfred Sloane Jr. According to Castner, "When Rock signed off with his traditional 'Go, Go, Go,' he had the entire audience, including Ford and Sloane, on their feet cheering like a bunch of college sophomores at a Yale-Harvard game."
On March 19, 1931, following his second straight national championship, Rockne signed a new contract with Studebaker for $10,000 a year to become its manager for sales promotions.
Rockne attacked his new job with his customary vigor and enthusiasm. On March 24 he addressed his first letter to the company's dealers and salesmen, titled "Carrying the Fight to the Enemy." In it, he compared aggressiveness on the football field with his desire to develop offensive-minded dealers and sales managers who would play the game in enemy territory. Six days later, on the afternoon of March 30, while in Chicago to celebrate his mother's birthday, he made a recording titled "Studebaker Champions," with the theme of turning suspects (potential car buyers) into prospects (actual car buyers). It was his last recording. The next day, Tuesday, March 31, Rockne lost his life in a tragic airplane crash in a cattle pasture near Bazaar, Kansas.
What about the Rockne automobile, the six-cylinder vehicle named after him? There are several myths surrounding this car. The most prevalent and erroneous one is that Studebaker produced the car while Rockne was still coaching. The first Rockne automobile actually went into production in December 1931, nine months after his death.
Beginning as early as 1928, Erskine felt that Studebaker needed to reenter the low-priced car market. The stock market crash of 1929 did little to dampen his enthusiasm for expansion. Following declining sales and profits in 1930, he was presented with an opportunity to do so. Willys-Overland had hired two Detroit engineers, Ralph Vail and Roy Cole, to design a low-priced, six-cylinder car to replace its aging Whippet. Willys liked the Vail-Cole car but lacked the capital to put it into production. The two engineers were paid for their work and were allowed to keep the two prototypes and the rights to the engineering of the car.
In the summer of 1930 Vail showed his prototype to Erskine at the Studebaker headquarters. Erskine took it for a spin, and, before the sun had set, Studebaker owned the rights to the car and hired Cole and Vail. Erskine made a full commitment to the car. He established a separate division of Studebaker, complete with its own dealer organization and engineering and production facilities in Detroit.
Following Rockne's death and with the permission of Bonnie Rockne, Erskine named the car after his beloved friend. He promised to pay Bonnie and her family 25¢ for every Rockne sold. He was confident that the magic of the Rockne name, combined with its being a fine economical vehicle, would result in a best seller.
Two models, both with four body styles, went on the market in February 1932. The Model 65 cost from $585 for a regular coupe to $740 for a deluxe convertible. The prices for the Model 75 ranged from $685 for a coupe to $780 for a deluxe sedan.
Excerpted from Then Ara Said to Joe ... by John Heisler. Copyright © 2007 John Heisler. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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