Encyclopedia: Notre Dame

The following is reprinted from ESPN College Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of the Game, edited by Michael MacCambridge

Every sport needs its kings. Kings define excellence and provide a standard for everyone else in the sport to measure themselves against. They are loved and hated, respected and feared, revered and reviled. They are royalty, regardless of the year, regardless of the era. Baseball has the Yankees, pro basketball the Celtics, pro hockey the Canadiens. And college football has Notre Dame.

The sheer breadth of the history that's taken place on this Indiana campus is enough to take your breath away. Coaches? Put it this way: Dan Devine went 53–16–1 and won one national title in six years at Notre Dame, yet his .764 winning percentage puts him only sixth on the all-time Irish list (among men who coached more than five seasons). Ahead of him: Lou Holtz (.765), Elmer Layden (.770), Ara Parseghian (.836), Frank Leahy (.855) and Knute Rockne (.881).

Players? Where do you start? With George Gipp, subject of the most famous pep talk in history? With Paul Hornung, or Leon Hart, or any of the seven Irish players who have won the Heisman Trophy? Oh, you want college football icons? Well take your pick: there's Touchdown Jesus. The Golden Dome. The Four Horsemen. For kicks, we'll throw in Rudy, too.

And maybe we should mention the 11 national championships the Irish have won outright, or the 10 other times they finished a season with a partial stake in the title. "The first time you walk onto the field here," former Irish nose tackle Chris Zorich said, "you wonder if the goose bumps will ever leave your arm. Then you realize: you have a lot of history to live up to."

Sometimes that history can be overwhelming. Ty Willingham learned that after three seasons, when his 21–15 record wasn't enough to satisfy the echoes and the ghosts. Beginning in 2005, Charlie Weis will see it for himself. It really is a lot of history.

The most history, in fact.

Where to begin? Notre Dame is the very definition of college football tradition. Before each game, as players descend the locker room tunnel to the field at Notre Dame Stadium, each player touches an overhanging sign that reads, "Play like a champion today." Once they reach the field, their senses are assaulted
by the leprechaun mascot and Touchdown Jesus, the mural that covers the south side of Hesburgh Library and is visible from inside Notre Dame Stadium. If it's an especially big game, there may be an extra surprise awaiting the players: the green jerseys that are broken out only for extra-special occasions. And, of course, there is the Notre Dame Victory March endlessly emanating from the band section, which is only the most famous song in college football history, and one of the most recognizable in all of American song. Is that enough?

Best Player
He has become famous mostly because of a tear-jerking (and perhaps apocryphal) deathbed speech and because Ronald Reagan portrayed him in the movies. But Gipp may well have been one of the finest all-around college football players ever. Rockne often called Gipp "the most versatile player I've ever seen," and that was evident on both sides of the ball. As a defensive back, he was one of the original "lockdown" cover men, and opposing quarterbacks rarely ventured into his territory.

As a running back on offense, Gipp led the Irish in rushing and passing his final three years. His career total of 2,341 rushing yards stood as a record for some best coach Rockne may have first achieved a measure of notoriety as a player, teaming with quarterback Gus Dorais to stun Army 35-13 in 1913 in the game that popularized the forward pass. But it was as the coach at his alma mater that Rockne grew into a fable. He succeeded Jesse Harper as coach in 1918; over the next 13 years he would guide Notre Dame to five unbeaten, untied seasons and 105 wins (against 12 losses and five ties). His .881 winning percentage is still unequaled by anyone who has ever coached at the major-college or professional level. But Rockne was an innovator as well as a winner.

He all but invented the notion of intersectional games by instituting yearly matchups with Southern California. He designed his own uniforms and streamlined football equipment. He made far more use of substitutes than most coaches of the day (foreshadowing two-platoon football, which was still a quarter century away from becoming standard). And, of course, he was eager to use the forward pass at a time when most coaches were devoted to keeping the ball safely wrapped in their running backs' arms. There's no telling how vast the numbers Rockne would have compiled had he been afforded a complete career. But on March 31, 1931, he boarded Transcontinental-Western Flight 599 in Kansas City, bound for Los Angeles, where he was to complete a football instructional movie. Shortly after takeoff, the plane hit bad weather and went down in a wheat field near Bazaar, Kan. Rockne was 43 years old.

Best Team
When you've won 11 national championships, it's a happy dilemma trying to figure out which is the best of the best. Perhaps it's best to listen to Rockne, who always considered the 1924 team his finest -- and his 58 years, until Jerome Heavens broke it in 1978. Eighty-four years after he last carried a ball for Notre Dame, Gipp still ranks No. 6 all time on the rushing list. In 1920, he was named the college football player of the year by Walter Camp. But it was during a game with Northwestern that year -- a game in which he stepped in at quarterback and completed five of six passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns -- that he contracted the strep throat that would contribute to his death three weeks later.

On Dec. 13, 1920, the day before he died, Gipp made a simple plea to Rockne: "Sometime, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for The Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock, but I'll know about it, and I'll be happy." While scholars have questioned whether Gipp actually made the speech -- or even called himself The Gipper -- his words nevertheless have become an iconic part of American sporting lore. Gipp's legend was solidified by Reagan's performance in the film Knute Rockne, All American.

It was also the first Notre Dame squad to capture the consensus national title. In the Oct. 19, 1924, New York Herald-Tribune, Grantland Rice immortalized Notre Dame's wondrous backfield of Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley and Elmer Layden, dubbing them the Four Horsemen. The 1924 squad outscored its nine regular-season opponents 258-44, then pounded Stanford 27-10 in the Rose Bowl. It was the last bowl game Notre Dame would play for 45 years. "I think I sensed that the backfield was a product of destiny," Rockne would say later. "At times, they caused me a certain amount of pain and exasperation, but mainly they brought me great joy."

Biggest Game
The Army-Notre Dame game of Nov. 9, 1946, at Yankee Stadium was one of the most hotly anticipated college football games ever. Army was No. 1, Notre Dame No. 2, and 74,121 fans shoehorned their way into the stadium. What followed was the most famous scoreless tie in football history, maybe in all sports history. Notre Dame drove to the Army 4 in the second quarter, but the Cadets held. Just before the fourth-down play, Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy turned to kicker Fred Earley. "Can you make it?" he asked of the possible 21-yard field goal. "Sir, it's like an extra point to me," Earley replied, grabbing for his helmet before Leahy replied, "No. We need six, not three. Three points will never win this game."

Later, Army's "Mr. Inside," Doc Blanchard, broke into the clear and seemed headed for a sure score, but Johnny Lujack's sensational open-field tackle saved the day for the Irish. Army emerged from the game with its No. 1 ranking intact, but Notre Dame, on the strength of beating Northwestern, Tulane and USC by a combined 94-6 to close out the season, wound up passing Army in the polls by season's end. Still, the 0-0 score burned both teams. "I suppose I should be elated over the tie," Leahy said after the game. "After all, we didn't lose. But I'm not." Added Army's Red Blaik: "There is no jubilation in this dressing room."

Biggest Upset
Notre Dame had been the last team to defeat Oklahoma, a 28-21 victory in Norman on Sept. 26, 1953. Four years had passed. Oklahoma had played 47 games in the meantime and had not lost any, the longest unbeaten streak in college football history. And there seemed no end in sight to the Sooners' dominance. In fact, if you picked up a copy of Sports Illustrated on the morning of Nov. 16, 1957, you would have seen this headline: "Why Oklahoma Is Unbeatable." Notre Dame, coming off its first losing season in 23 years in 1956, was a pedestrian 4–2 coming into the game, riding a two-game losing streak in which it had been outscored 54-12 by Navy and Michigan State. There seemed little chance Notre Dame would pose an impediment to the Sooners at Norman's Memorial Stadium.

And Oklahoma drove the ball breezily on its first possession, driving to the Irish 13. But the drive stalled there and, stunningly, the Sooners would never get that close to the end zone the rest of the day. "I was willing to settle for a scoreless tie," Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson would admit later. But Notre Dame had other ideas. With 3:50 left in the game, the Irish had fourth and goal at the Oklahoma 3. Quarterback Bob Williams faked a dive to fullback Nick Pietrosante, then pitched to halfback Dick Lynch, who scampered into the end zone for the staggering, game-winning score. The game ended 7-0. The Sooners' streak was over at 47. And Terry Brennan, the embattled Irish coach who'd been under fire for two years, called the game "the greatest thrill of my athletic career."

It's enough to get the football poets kicked into overdrive. Is it a shrine? A cathedral? A football mecca? What it is, is the most recognizable college football stadium in the world, a formerly cozy 59,075-seat bandbox that is now a fortress for 80,795 strong. Notre Dame first played its home games at Cartier Field, a 30,000-seat facility located just north of the present stadium, but as the program grew to national prominence in the 1920s, it was clear a bigger home was necessary. The Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland, which had built Yankee Stadium, designed the new stadium and it was completed in only four months. The sod from Cartier Field was transplanted into the new stadium, and Rockne carefully oversaw every minute detail, from how much sideline space was available (to limit game-day intruders) to parking and traffic systems.

Ironically, Rockne would get to coach only one year in the new palace before his tragic plane crash, although he did earn the stadium's first win, a 20-14 decision over SMU on Oct. 4, 1930. Notre Dame won its first eight games there, in fact, before falling to USC 16-14 on Nov. 21, 1931, a loss that also snapped a 26-game unbeaten streak. Since 1966, every home game has been a sellout, except for a Thanksgiving Day game with Air Force in 1973, which was about 1,800 shy of capacity due to the absence of students.