Sept. 19, 2013
By Lou Somogyi, Blue & Gold Illustrated
One hundred years ago under Notre Dame athletics director/head coach Jesse Harper, the school's national scheduling approach in football took root.
It didn't quite occur voluntarily, but it helped make Notre Dame's football program truly into "America's Team" while annually playing from coast to coast instead of limiting itself provincially.
Just look at where the Fighting Irish play in 2013 (Schedule) and in the years to come, especially when it comes to covering the three most fertile recruiting areas of California, Texas and Florida:
Last year the Fighting Irish were in Norman, Okla., and in 2014 they will be in Tempe, Ariz., to face the Sun Devils. It will be in Colorado this fall to challenge the Air Force Academy and in Landover, Md., in 2014 to play the Naval Midshipmen -- a much shorter trek than in 2012 when it faced the Mids in Ireland.
Of course, the Midwest always has had a strong base with the Big Ten, most notably long-standing rivals Purdue (every year since 1946) and Michigan State (every year but three since 1948).
One missing piece has been the Southeastern Conference, though not for a wont of trying. The SEC generally is averse to leaving its home base, especially early in the year. It wasn't until 1970 that Notre Dame faced an SEC team (LSU) in a home-and-home series, and in the decades that ensued it achieved home-and-home series with the Tigers, Alabama, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, most recently in 2003-04.
One way or another, the goal at Notre Dame is to have a broad-based national flavor with its scheduling while taking on all comers.
"We're trying to obviously keep a national perspective on it," said fourth-year Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly of Notre Dame's scheduling approach. "...We're also looking at areas where our Shamrock Series can be touted or played geographically, whether that be on the East Coast or in some areas that geographically make sense to us."
With the College Football Playoffs coming in 2014, Kelly believes that Notre Dame's national schedule will never hold it back from the conversation if it is fortunate to be in the discussion among those teams.
"They can look at our schedule and say, 'That's a deserving schedule," Kelly said.
And it all started 100 years ago by circumstance.
SETTING THE TABLE
The 25 years from 1887 through 1912 had mainly two on-field landmark events for the Notre Dame football program.
One was halfback Louis "Red" Salmon in 1903 becoming the first Notre Dame player named to Walter Camp's All-American unit (third team).
Next was the 11-3 upset of head coach Fielding Yost's Michigan team in 1909 after having gone 0-8 all-time against the Wolverines. However, that only precipitated a fall-out when hours prior to the 1910 Notre Dame-Michigan meeting, Yost cancelled the contest.
The small, Catholic school with a limited identity in the Midwest and ostracized by the Western Conference (now the Big Ten) during its fledgling years had no full-time head coach or athletics administrator to lead it out from the wilderness (it had 10 different head coaches from 1899 through 1912, none going beyond two years).
Notre Dame's frustration was manifested with the football schedules.
The eight-game 1911 slate featured unglamorous home games against Ohio Northern, St. Viator, Butler, Loyola (Chicago) and St. Bonaventure, teams that Notre Dame out-scored 216-6.
According to Murray Sperber, author of the 1993 book, "Shake Down The Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football," the football program netted a loss of $2,367 dollars, and the total deficit in the athletic department that academic year was $6,472.
The following season, the schedule was even less appealing with the addition of local schools such as Adrian and Morris Harvey.
Although football had become a popular sport among the student body and the Holy Cross priests in Notre Dame's community, it was at a crossroads. Either a full commitment had to be made toward the program, or it would have to be eliminated, which had become unacceptable.
Notre Dame president Rev. John W. Cavanaugh opted for the former and hired 29-year-old Wabash head coach Jesse Clair Harper as the school's first athletics director (the athletic department had previously been operated by student managers) and first full-time coach in football and baseball. His salary, including bonuses, would be approximately $5,000 per year.
Harper had played for and was a disciple of Amos Alonzo Stagg, who had developed a reputation as college football's grand master in innovation while coaching at the University of Chicago.
Meanwhile, Harper had been making his own mark at Wabash College, including seeing his out-manned "Little Giants" lose only 6-3 to Notre Dame in 1911. He also had a background in business administration. Harper was adamant that Notre Dame "had to make football pay for itself," which was music to the ears of the school's priests.
THE FOOTBALL BUSINESS
Two factors combined to make the 1913 meeting with Army possible.
The first was Eastern superpower Yale had broken off its series with Army that had been played 20 consecutive years from 1893 through 1912.
The second was Notre Dame was in the midst of its scheduling crisis. Its upset of Michigan in 1909 made the "Catholics" -- the team's nickname back then -- more shunned by the Western Conference (Big Ten) members, a union that formed in 1896. Through Harper's diplomatic ways and persistence, he broke the Big Ten ice when Wisconsin was added to the 1917 schedule, followed by Purdue in 1918. Indiana and Northwestern were added to the slate by 1920 while Notre Dame's cache grew under Harper.
There were numerous continued rejections and setbacks for Harper during this process, but also some victories, most notably securing a $6,000 guarantee to play at Nebraska five years in a row from 1916-20. It had to be done to help build up the finances.
By 1914, Harper had even signed to road games at mighty Yale -- which defeated Notre Dame 28-0 in part by adding a better passing scheme popularized by Harper -- and at Syracuse on Thanksgiving Day (a 20-0 Notre Dame victory).
In his five seasons at Notre Dame from 1913-17, Harper's team played only 16 games at home and 24 on the road, yet he compiled a 34-5-1 (.863) record. Traveling most of the time wasn't necessarily the template Harper wanted, so the alternative was the Islamic tenet of "If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain."
Notre Dame was in the proverbial no-man's land when Harper arrived, but that is how it found its national identity under him.
"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," recalled Harper's son, James, long after his father had coached at Notre Dame. "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."
The genesis for the meeting against powerhouse Army had begun during the spring of 1912 when the Notre Dame baseball team made a profitable excursion along the East Coast. From May 9-22, Notre Dame played baseball games at West Virginia, Penn State, Mount St. Mary's, Catholic University, Seton Hall, Brown, Deerfield Academy, Tufts and Vermont before returning home. Harper therefore reached out the same way to book some football games.
The Cadet football manager at the time, Harold Loomis, received a letter from Harper to schedule a contest. Loomis offered Harper $600 to come to West Point, but Harper replied that it would take about $1,000 to transport a small contingent of his players (18) for the 24-hour train ride that would cover 875 miles.
So strapped was the budget that Notre Dame covered its own "food expenses" by subsisting on sandwiches prepared in its campus dining hall, and it would carry its own equipment. Only 14 pair of football shoes were made available to 18 Notre Dame players, with substitutes using those by the men coming out (hopefully with the same size).
Loomis reluctantly agreed to pay the $1,000.
The trip ended up costing $917, thereby garnering an $83 profit. One small step for Notre Dame ... one giant leap toward helping brand its name, especially with a stunning 35-13 victory.
Later that November, Notre Dame would follow with victories at Penn State (14-7), at Christian Brothers in St. Louis (20-7) and at Texas (30-7) to finish 7-0.
Notre Dame's football program was literally and figuratively ahead of schedule.
A NATONAL APPROACH
There have been numerous extraordinary achievements with Notre Dame's national scheduling philosophy.
- In 1929 under head coach Knute Rockne, Notre Dame won the consensus national title despite playing every game on the road while Notre Dame Stadium was under construction. Three of its victories were in Chicago's Soldier Field, but it also vanquished Navy in Baltimore (14-7), Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh (7-0), Georgia Tech in Atlanta (26-6) and Army in Yankee Stadium (7-0).
- The 1943 national champs under Frank Leahy played only three of its 10 games at home, and it defeated the teams that finished No. 2 (Iowa Pre-Flight), No. 3 (Michigan), No. 4 (Navy), No. 9 (Northwestern), No. 11 (Army) and No. 13 (Georgia Tech) in the Associated Press poll.
- The 1952 Notre Dame defeated the conference champs of the Southwest (Texas), Big 8 (Oklahoma), Pac-8 (USC) and co-champion of the Big Ten (Purdue), plus tied the Ivy League winner (Penn) to finish No. 3 in the country.
- Since 1977, when the NCAA first ranked strength of schedules, the 1978 Notre Dame opponents compiled the highest winning percentage ever in one season (.709), not even including a 35-34 Cotton Bowl victory against a 9-2 Houston team to finish No. 7 in the AP.
- In the five seasons from 1986-90, Notre Dame's strength of schedule was ranked in the top four in four of those years, including No. 1 in 1987 and 1989. The 1988 national champs were one of four teams in college football history at the time to defeat four teams that finished in the AP Top 10: Miami (No. 2), Michigan (No. 4), West Virginia (No.5) and USC (No. 7).
- The 1989 team vanquished seven teams that placed in the final AP Top 18, highlighted by defeating then No. 1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl.