SOUTH BEND – The birth of Notre Dame as a football powerhouse and the possibility of the pass as an offensive weapon came together on a cold, raw day in West Point a century ago before a crowd of 5,000 mostly Army fans.
The start of World War I was months away and commercial radio broadcasts were still several years away when the team from South Bend boarded a train for what would become a momentous game.
Like much in Notre Dame’s past, the game played Nov. 1, 1913, has become a mix of history and myth, helped by the movie “Knute Rockne All-American.” Starring Ronald Reagan, the movie made it appear as though Rockne and Notre Dame quarterback Gus Dorais invented the forward pass.
The game did have Rockne as a star receiver and Dwight Eisenhower was a reserve in a game scheduled less than 10 months earlier when Notre Dame was looking for quality games because of a boycott by Midwestern teams. Army had a hole in its schedule after Yale canceled a game in a dispute over eligibility rules.
There were new rules about the forward pass, made legal seven years earlier as a result of President Theodore Roosevelt urging college presidents to make changes because of deaths caused by football violence.
“So there was a huge hue and cry in the country that this has to stop,” said Frank Maggio, author of “Notre Dame and the Game That Changed Football.”
“The forward pass was designed to take out some of the brutality.”
But schools weren’t quick to adopt the pass because rules called for the opposing team to get the ball if the pass fell incomplete. There were also rules against a pass of longer than 20 yards and passes had to be made 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage and teams couldn’t pass past the goal line.
“So the rules weren’t very conducive to passing,” said Kent Stephens, historian at the College Football Hall of Fame.
The rules were adjusted over the next several years because of the number of deaths from football continued. By 1912, passes longer than 40 yards were legal and the rule making incomplete passes a turnover was eliminated.
That came just before Jesse Harper, a 29-year-old coach at Wabash who had played under Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago, was hired as Notre Dame’s first full-time athletic director at the end of 1912.
Notre Dame at the time was having trouble finding competitive teams to play. The 1912 schedule included wins of 116-7 over St. Viator, 74-7 against Adrian and 69-0 over Marquette. The priests at Notre Dame turned to Harper to put together a more challenging schedule.
Notre Dame had previously played members of what is now known as the Big Ten, but the conference members refused to let Notre Dame join in 1908 and boycotted playing the school in part because of anti-Catholic sentiments and in part because member schools didn’t think Notre Dame had high enough academic standards, said Murray Sperber, a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote “Shake Down the Thunder,” a history of Notre Dame football.
Michigan, which had left the conference, was willing to play Notre Dame until the team from South Bend upset the Wolverines 11-3 in 1909. Michigan canceled the 1910 game because Wolverines coach Fielding Yost accused Notre Dame of using two ineligible players.
Harper decided to seek games against national schools. He wrote a letter to Army and also scheduled games against Penn State and Texas. Army initially offered to pay Notre Dame $400 for the game, but Harper held out for $1,000.
The team that later became known as the Irish wasn’t recognized as a power by people along the East Coast, Stephens said. A story in the New York Times read: “The Army hopes to defeat Notre Dame by a decisive score tomorrow and thus secure confidence to themselves and their supporters.”
It didn’t turn out to be a confidence-building game, at least not for the Cadets. Gus Dorais surprised Army by completing 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns, with Rockne and other Notre Dame receivers catching the ball on the run. The Irish led 14-13 at halftime and pulled away to win 35-13.
The New York Times reported: “The Westerners flashed the most sensational football that has been seen in the East this year, baffling the cadets with a style of open play and perfectly developed forward pass, which carried the victors down the field at 30 yards a clip.”
Although the first pass thrown in a college game is believed to have happened Sept. 5, 1906, in a game between Saint Louis and Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis., the Notre Dame-Army game made people more aware of how passing could be used. But it didn’t instantly change the game because there were no game tapes or coaching clinics back then, Stephens said.
What did change quickly, though, was Notre Dame’s reputation. The victory proved Notre Dame was no passing fancy, and newly arrived immigrants from Europe, many of them Catholics, came to embrace underdog Notre Dame.
“Our team looked like that wave. They had last names like the people in that immigration wave. They dressed like them,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “The cadets were traditional America. So the tension created that day, at this weird intersection of historical facts, made us America’s team in a fundamental way. The new America, the America that was arriving on Ellis Island, they just adopted us.”
Sperber said winning that game was crucial to Notre Dame in becoming a dominant football team in the 20th century.
“They were the first school to break out of the middle-class fandom and those new fans were called subway alumni,” Sperber said.
Notre Dame went 7-0 after beating Army that first season, and Harper remains the only Notre Dame coach to go undefeated in his first season. It was also Army’s only loss. More important, Swarbrick said, was that Harper set the blueprint that Notre Dame athletics continues to follow.
“All businesses that have lasting success have a founder at some place that contributed to them,” he said. “At Notre Dame athletics, he’s the founder. He unilaterally adopted the most rigorous academic standards in the country, on his own. Just unilaterally did it. Because his view was, and he said, ‘Teams may continue to boycott us, but we’ll never again give them a reason to do it.’ It’s hard to underestimate his impact.”