Thursday, September 22, 2005

Shake Down the Thunder

touchdown jesus
Got time for a story that isn’t politics?

Well, maybe it is, sort-of. Notre Dame University has just picked a new president. It reminds me of a time long, long ago in the 1930s when in my highly WASP Chicago neighborhood to be a Catholic was definitely politically incorrect. Catholics then identified with three activities:
(a) pasting your ear to the radio on Sunday afternoon to hear Father Charles E. Coughlin broadcasting on station WXYZ Detroit (I was too young to understand what he was talking about but was thrilled because he antagonized the Protestant kids in my neighborhood),

(b) ruminating about Al Smith, the only Catholic to run for president who was defeated in a landslide by Herbert Hoover and

(c) listening to the fortunes from a cow college in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame was built up as a tiny college which was showing the big universities how to play football—with a purported heroic coach, Knute Rockne.

Well, things have changed. Catholics got their president in 1960 (JFK was not all that great) and have the same chance of being nominated as anyone else. Father Coughlin, while silenced by the Church, is recognized as rather strange (with much of his philosophy articulated by Pat Buchanan and his group which is definitely a minority in the Republican party) and Notre Dame has become a kind of modernist mother house of Catholicism. But still the yen for the golden dome persists.

The legend is so strong that even a well-researched book on ND football which punctures the myths is ignored. I discovered it some time ago. Let me give you the highlights of “Shake Down the Thunder: The Story of Notre Dame Football” by a professor of English at Indiana State, Murray Sperber [Henry Holt: 1996]. Sperber visited the campus and told authorities he wanted to write about ND football. They sent him to the archives and in a basement he uncovered box after box of dusty correspondence to and from Rockne. The correspondence was explosive. It didn’t dent the reputation of ND very much nor Rockne but cast it in a realistic manner. Sperber wrote it up. The book has languished. But to me it fills in great gaps.

Founded by a small French religious order, the Congregation of the Holy Cross (of which Holy Cross university is not a part), in 1841 it was a sleepy traditionalist Catholic school in a backwater town throughout the 19th century. The priests chose boxing as the manly sport then, followed by baseball. In 1899 they thought they’d try football and sent a team to Chicago to play Englewood high here. Their teams got progressively better. By 1902 or so the Holy Cross fathers were sending the team across the country to play other colleges in order to raise money . By 1909 they beat Army. And it was not a fluke. By 1912 they were winning regularly and began to capture the headlines with a Michigan State victory.

What helped galvanize the spirit of Notre Dame was discrimination. A forerunner of the NCAA, the IAA, rejected Notre Dame for membership expressly because it was Catholic. The good fathers used the ostracism to get the team to play harder. The fervent discrimination against Notre Dame was played up by Ring Lardner, then a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune. Catholics started to follow the team and want to send their kids there. Joe Gargan, a cousin of Joseph P. Kennedy went, although old man Kennedy was not swayed by sentiment and sent his own kids to Ivy League Harvard.

The most important thing to know about Notre Dame is this:

Everything you have heard about it is wrong. The N.D.-Rockne legend was polished to a high gloss by Bonnie Rockne, the coach’s widow who did the biography and owned title to the script that Warner Brothers did, “Knute Rockne—All American.” Warner Brothers had to conform to the little old lady’s specifications. She had to approve the case. She approved Pat O’Brien as Rockne, after having been serenaded by O’Brien who pointed out that as a Marquette University athlete he played against Rockne’s team. And she lingered a long time before picking Ronald Reagan to play George Gipp. At a meeting I had with Reagan in 1979, a year before he ran for president, Reagan told me he made countless trips to woo her approval. Everything in him wanted to play the Gipper. She finally approved. So much for the largely fictitious Rockne-Notre Dame legend.

First, disabuse yourself that Notre Dame football greatness began with Rockne [1888-1931]. It began earlier with a head coach predecessor, Jesse Harper who put together brilliant teams, including one captained by Rockne, a Norwegian immigrant who was reared in Logan Square. Second, forget the fable that Rockne was such a brilliant chemist and potential budding scientist that he had to conduct a séance with himself in order to decide whether he should stay with science and become a physicist or be a football coach. Rockne major in pharmacy and graduated magna cum laude in 1914 but he was just that, a pharmacist. Third, discard the notion that no corners were ever cut by Rockne. In college, he picked up extra funds to help pay for tuition by paying for pay in semipro and professional games, a no-no with the IAA. In that wild and woolly era most good college athletes did the same thing.

Fourth, Rockne did not rocket to the top of coaching overnight. After graduation, he was hired as an assistant by Harper primarily as a track coach and assistant football coach. The priests made him teach chemistry in the prep school because they felt otherwise he would not have enough to do. Rockne got his first break when Harper resigned, to take over a family ranch in Montana. Rockne got $3,500 in salary, $1,500 less than Harper had earned. Harper had spotted George Gipp and recruited him. Fifth, the NCAA insisted that college athletes not be paid. Rockne got around this by devising “athletic scholarships”—free tuition and board (as did a lot of other coaches). Sixth, Rockne never did refer to the team as “the Fighting Irish”; the appellation was conferred by a student publicist, Arch Ward (later to become sports editor of the Tribune).

Seventh, Rockne did not invent the forward pass. That was done years earlier by the coach of St. Louis University. Eighth, you heard that Rockne was a publicist’s dream. Yes but that was because he was his own publicist. He may well have pioneered the knack of hiring .poorly-paid sports reporters to referee games for pay during the Depression, arguing that if they want to earn a few bucks ref-ing they must write about Notre Dame during the week. The idea took off immediately. Walter Eckersall, Chicago Trib sports writer who invented the All American team was a Rockne employee as a referee. A letter from Ekersall to Rockne asks Rockne for suggestions for All American candidates from Notre Dame.

Favorable press comment plus superb coaching by Rockne and a fast-rising backlash among the nation’s Catholics for outward discrimination made Notre Dame and Rockne the Irish heroes. Example: One of the best fashioners of sports prose was the New York Herald Tribune’s Grantland Rice. He was the first sportswriter to earn a six figure income. Not as a sportswriter: that’s not what I said—the first sportswriter to earn a six figure income. Sitting in the press box during a game with Army, Rice was dawdling at his typewriter, looking for a theme. The student publicist, George Strickler, told the reporters in the box that he had just seen the movie “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” with Rudolph Valentino. Nobody cared. Then Rice asked the kid., “what’s it about?”

“You know,” said Strickler. “The Bible. About the Four Horsemen.”

Rice was not conversant with the Bible so Strickler game him and the others a brief tutorial on the Four Horsemen. Notre Dame beat Army that day but not by all that much. However, Rice had his theme. His story blasted off the sports page and onto the front page of the New York Herald Tribune, then one of the preeminent newspapers of the day. The story began like this:
“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. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.”

With that story, Notre Dame became immortalized in U.S. sports history.

Now we get to George Gipp. But let that be for the next installment Friday.

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