Sept. 7, 2016
by John Heisler
There have been plenty of great University of Notre Dame football defenses over the years.
One that has stood the test of the time is the 1966 Irish national championship squad. Fifty years ago that unit allowed only 3.8 points per game (second in the modern era to a 2.7 figure in 1946, another championship year) in ranking second nationally in that category while blanking six opponents and permitting only a single touchdown to two others. Defensive All-Americans Jim Lynch, Alan Page, Pete Duranko and Kevin Hardy led the Irish roster on that side of the line.
More recently came the 2012 Notre Dame team that played in the Bowl Championship Series title contest. That defense permitted 12.77 points per game (second in the country), the top figure for the Irish since 1988 (12.3), yet another championship year. Linebacker Manti Te’o, winner of eight individual awards that season, paced that squad.
So imagine what was required a century ago in 1916 when Notre Dame managed to shut out eight of its nine opponents—in an evolving time on the Irish football scene with World War I beginning, head coach Jess Harper struggling to schedule quality games a little more than a year in advance of turning over the head coaching reins to able assistant Knute Rockne and the best player on the Notre Dame roster that season playing only on the freshman team.
In reality, shutouts weren’t considered all that special in that day:
--Harper won 34 combined games as Notre Dame head coach (1913-17) and his teams shut out 25 foes.
--Rockne (1918-30) and his teams won 105 times over 13 seasons and on 51 occasions kept the opposition off the scoreboard.
--Over an 18-year span from 1900-17 at Notre Dame, the Irish claimed 116 victories—and 92 times shut out their opponent.
--Compare that to more recent times when the decade of the 1980s at Notre Dame produced five shutouts, the 1990s included seven and the 2000s featured three.
The Irish record in 1916 also had something to do with the list of opponents. Realistically, Notre Dame played three top-shelf teams that season, all on the road—an Army team that ended up 9-0, a Nebraska team from the Missouri Valley that finished 6-2 (losing only versus Kansas other than Notre Dame) and a Michigan State squad (actually Michigan Agricultural College then) that was 4-2-1.
Notre Dame’s landmark victory at West Point in 1913 (in the game in Rockne’s senior season that popularized the use of the forward pass) helped make a staple of the Irish and Cadets on the agenda. The two teams played every season from 1913 through 1947, other than one year (1918) during World War I.
Harper sent out many letters requesting games but received few positive responses. Many schools simply refused to play “the Catholics.” In particular none of the eight institutions in what is now the Big Ten (then the Western Conference) would play Notre Dame, had not since a game at Michigan in 1909 and would not again until Notre Dame road games in 1917 at Wisconsin, 1918 at Purdue and 1919 at Indiana (played in Indianapolis) and Purdue. So Harper that year was left to schedule a number of home games by offering financial guarantees to relatively less-talented programs.
Noted Harper’s son, James, about his father in the book “Wake Up the Echoes” by Ken Rappoport, “When he went to Notre Dame he found it difficult to get games with teams in the midwest because the Fighting Irish had an excellent team and people were afraid to play them. He was literally forced to turn to intersectional games. Dad was a modest guy. He never wanted to take credit for getting Notre Dame started as a national power. I remember he told me once, ‘Well, Lord, I was forced to get a national schedule. No one else would play us around Notre Dame. I had to go someplace where I could get some ballgames.’”
Football at Notre Dame by 1916 had not quite reached “must-see” status. Students attended games free due to an activity fee, but townspeople remained just as interested in local semipro football as they were with the collegiate version. Harper campaigned for more permanent seats at Cartier Field, but the scene there was casual enough that some fans were able to park their vehicles alongside the field when they came to watch. That resulted in a broken collarbone for one Notre Dame player that season who missed a tackle and went flying into a parked car. The 1916 season produced a profit of $644.
Meanwhile, the national culture was changing. Historian Murray Sperber in his book “Shake Down the Thunder” wrote, “With the entry of the United States into World War I in late 1916, intercollegiate athletics went into a holding pattern. The government imposed restrictions on travel and also set up an enlistment system urging college-age men to join the armed forces.”
Harper’s squad on the field in 2016 was seldom challenged. In a 60-0 home win over Wabash, as an example, the Little Giants never made a first down.
The lone defeat at West Point saw Notre Dame trail only 6-3 at half until former Purdue star Elmer Oliphant threw for three touchdowns. In the opposite of the 1913 circumstances, this time Army dominated the passing statistics with Notre Dame generally holding an edge in other phases.
Wrote the New York Sun, “. . . in tackling Notre Dame made the cadets look like novices . . . in rushing the ball the cadets were outclassed . . . in line play Notre Dame stood out above the cadets like a giant among pigmies . . . had the forward passing game been barred the Army might have gone down to a bad defeat.”
A one-point loser at Nebraska the previous season, Notre Dame returned to Lincoln on Thanksgiving Day and outgained the Huskers on the ground 324-89 (including a combined 13 yards in the second and fourth periods). Nebraska attempted 10 passes and Harper’s crew knocked down nine of them—with the 10th falling incomplete in the 20-0 triumph.
Halfback Stan Cofall earned first-team All-America recognition from the Frank Menke Syndicate and International News Service, while Walter Camp named Charlie Bachman a second-team guard.
Said the Scholastic (Notre Dame’s weekly student-produced campus magazine) of Cofall, “It is little wonder that eastern football critics were unanimous in terming him the greatest all-round backfield man in America.”
How then to judge the 1916 season? Notre Dame’s lone defeat came against an unbeaten Army team that shared the mythical national title with Pittsburgh, according to the Parke Davis rating system. One selector suggested that if the Associated Press poll had been in existence then, Notre Dame would have finished 12th in the final poll—with Pitt, Colgate and Army ranking one-two-three, unbeaten Ohio State ending up eighth and Minnesota ninth.
And, noted the Scholastic, “Notre Dame suffered more from injuries this year than ever before in the history of the Autumn sport at the University.”
Ironically, maybe the most noteworthy thing that happened on the Notre Dame campus in 1916 relative to football did not impact the program in absolute terms for another year.
Rockne happened by the practice field in the middle of the fall and observed a young man in street clothes drop-kicking to a player in uniform. Upon quizzing the kicker, Rockne learned the youngster from Michigan had come to Notre Dame to play baseball.
Rockne suggested the young man give football a try—and that somewhat casual exchange and decision arguably impacted the Notre Dame program like no other.
That young man played only on the freshman football squad in 1916, winning one freshman game against Western Normal with a 62-yard dropkick field goal and shocking the varsity with an 80-yard run during prep for the game against Army.
A year later he began play with the Notre Dame varsity and he finished with 4,110 yards of career total offense. Prior to his tragic death he helped Notre Dame to unbeaten seasons in 1919 and 1920 and in his final year became the program’s initial first-team Walter Camp All-American.
His name was George Gipp, absolutely the most flamboyant and colorful player of his time and arguably the most exciting individual to wear a Notre Dame uniform.
How good was Gipp? In his autobiography, Rockne later wrote, “I felt the thrill that comes to every coach when he knows it is his fate and his responsibility to handle unusual greatness—the perfect performer who comes rarely more than once a generation.”
A year later Gipp joined the varsity, Harper coached a final season before Rockne took over for 1918—and Notre Dame football was off to the races for good.
Most Notre Dame Shutouts in a Season
9 -- 1903
8 -- 1916
7 -- 1917, 1926
6 -- 1900, 1901, 1906, 1908, 1909, 1911, 1921, 1922, 1931, 1932, 1966
The 1916 Notre Dame Scoreboard
Sept. 30 CASE TECH W 48-0
Oct. 7 @Western Reserve W 48-0
Oct. 14 HASKELL W 26-0
Oct. 28 WABASH W 60-0
Nov. 4 @Army L 10-30
Nov. 11 @South Dakota W 20-0
Nov. 18 @Michigan State W 14-0
Nov. 25 ALMA W 46-0
Nov. 30 @Nebraska W 20-0
This poem, authored by 1919 Notre Dame graduate D. Devereux Smith, appeared in the 1916 Scholastic football review (Dec. 9, 1916)—with first names added after the fact in parentheses to identify the Notre Dame players:
A is for (Frank) Andrews a tackle silk fine.
B is for (Charlie) Bachman a bull on the line
And also for (Harry) Baujan a wizard at end.
C is for (Stan) Cofall whom critics commend.
Also for (Frank) Coughlin a bear on defense.
D is for (Walter) DeGree of a stature immense
Who sends the ball skying for numberless yards,
And “Dutch” (Yeager) with his speed passing tackles and
(Joe) Dorais too, has played a great game.
E is for each fan at old Notre Dame.
F is for (George) Fitzpatrick who hits the line low,
And F is for the fellow who falls at the blow.
G is for (Chet) Grant a slippery young eel.
H is for (Jess) Harper whose strenuous zeal
Has built up a team of which we are proud.
I is for the redskin whose blanket’s his shroud.
J is for jay, or the Cornhuskers’ lot.
K is for (Tom) King, just as fast as a shot.
L is for Lee who gave us advice.
M is for (Arnold) Mac (McInerny) who surely is twice
As large as our Bachman and Cofall and Fitz;
And John Miller too who destroys what he hits.
And Walter (Miller) the halfback quite helpful indeed,
And Meagher a wing man of marvelous speed.
Not to miss Grover Malone as a back
At dodging and plunging he’s surely a “crack.”
N is for night with its slumberous cheer
O is for (Joe) O’Hara as fleet as a deer.
P is for (Dave) Philbin, and (Jim) Phelan of fame.
Q is a letter that stands for no name.
R is for (Knute) Rockne Jess Harper’s right-man
And also (Frank) Rydzewski now beat him who can.
S is for (Fred) Slackford an all-around half.
T is for the teams that we’ve given the laugh.
U is for the umpire who ‘calls’ all the fighting.
V is the Varsity of which I am writing.
W too claims “Hard” (Ray) Whipple and (Gilbert) Ward
While Y is for yearlings the best on the board.
X is for extras that are not on the list,
And Z I’d leave out if it wouldn’t be missed.