Posted: 8:00 a.m. Friday, July 5, 2013
By Eric Murtaugh
In 1924 Notre Dame won its first consensus national title in football and over a series of months transformed the program from a rising powerhouse into America's most beloved gridiron team. This story is based on true events.
Friday, March 21, 1924 - University of Notre Dame
George Strickler walked down the tiny corridor behind the stands of the cavernous and castle-like fieldhouse like he had so many times before. With an anxious hitch in his step he made his way near the office that had become his second home since coming to Notre Dame in the fall of 1923 as a 20-year old sophomore. Just past the large window shining a rare spring South Bend beam of light through its glass and onto the backs of the stands hiding that echo-filled gym a group of junior managers huddled as they always did awaiting any instructions that might come their way. George walked past the young students and through the open doorway on his left. With his pen and paper in hand he was ready for anything to fulfill his duty as the student press assistant to the Coach. The football team head student manager Leo Sutliffe stood in the waiting room and motioned toward the large oak door to his right with the small silver cross hanging from a nail just above the small blue interlocking ‘ND' in the middle of the foggy brown stained glass window.
"He just got back," Leo said shifting his weight back and forth on his stringy 6'3" frame.
George nodded without saying anything in reply. His relationship with Leo had always been icy and they rarely talked. There was awkwardness between them because in Leo's eyes his position was more important and prestigious although he didn't always feel that way with George around. Leo wasn't just the head football manager he was Coach's student manager which meant handling duties with track in the football off-season. As such, Leo could boast as being as close to Coach as any student not on the football team. Despite this, Leo sometimes felt like a glorified secretary---merely an accountant there to balance the numbers and keep a budget---and while that job came with many perks he often felt like a baby-sitter of all the junior managers and wasn't nearly as privy to all the juicy rumors that came George Strickler's way. There was an air of jealousy on Leo's part especially because George, being the smart press assistant that he was, didn't share many details of his conversations with Coach.
George knocked lightly on the oak door and entered. Hanging his hat and coat up on the rack in the corner stood Knute Rockne head football coach and athletic director at Notre Dame. Twisting his short and stout body to his left Rockne peeked over his shoulder knowing by the knock who had just entered his office.
"Hello George," Rockne said in his firm but high-pitched tone prolonging the middle pronunciation of his name like he did with so many others.
"Hello Coach," George replied sitting down in the sturdy wooden chair to the left of Rockne's desk that he also worked at.
He could feel the tension in the room but had grown accustomed to dealing with it since he took over his job in the fall. For a student he dealt with enormous pressure, almost as much as the football players. Rockne had created this student press assistant job early in his tenure in order to set the record straight with the press. George's position was the middleman between Rockne and the papers whenever Rockne didn't speak directly to a reporter, and although he dealt with a lot of propaganda on a daily basis his loyalty to his school, the football team, and Rockne above all else cleared his conscience for all the white lies he fed the papers in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere.
Rockne made it clear to the other students on campus who were eager to send stories to newspapers: No one writes about Notre Dame football except George Strickler.
George was the third press assistant under Rockne and the first 2 had parlayed their apprenticeship into successful newspaper careers---adding even more pressure to his job. The first student publicist, Arch Ward created the template for the job, did it masterfully, and was joining the Chicago Tribune as a sports writer after finishing up graduate school next spring. The second publicity writer for Rockne was Francis Wallace and he had graduated the prior spring in 1923 leaving immediately for a job with the New York Daily News. Leo was closer to the heroes on the football team and George was quite envious of that fact as any student would be but it was George who had to deal with the constant pressure of living up to and not screwing up the legacy of Ward and Wallace, not to mention keep Rockne's image clean.
That wasn't the only pressure either. As Rockne moved slowly towards his desk and slumped into his chair George kept his eyes glued to the Coach waiting for some sort of sign. The coach was noticeably tired and had aged rapidly over the previous 6 years. When he was hired at Notre Dame Rockne looked very much the part of ex-student but now he looked painfully middle-aged with a face weary from the road and constant travel. He was dressed splendidly on this he wearing a trim gray suit with a sparkling deep red neck tie, his suit coat hanging on the rack noticeably wrinkled from travel. Rockne had spent much of December following the 1923 football season campaigning for a Rose Bowl bid and giving speeches all over the Midwest and in the East as often as time would allow it since the start of the New Year. Rockne genuinely enjoyed giving speeches, increasing his appearances in recent months, and of course it didn't hurt that the appearances were earning him a pretty penny along the way.
George patiently kept his eyes on Rockne as the Coach looked intently at some papers on his desk, his hand resting on his forehead with the balding top of his head turned toward his publicist. He knew Rockne had just returned from New York City, giving a few speeches no doubt, but also concerned with more serious business and negotiations. It had been weeks since Coach had given George any information to give to the papers and that was almost unheard of to wait such a long time. There were mounting rumors and evidence that coach was leaving to take the job at Iowa and just days earlier the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Rockne had actually signed a contract with the Hawkeyes. George sat there waiting for something to say, nervously rubbing his thumb on his index finger, wondering what was really going on. Suddenly Rockne smoothed a paper with his hand and looked up.
"Do you think I'm going to leave Notre Dame?" the Coach asked bluntly.
"Coach, I don't know," George blurted out stunned that Rockne would confide in him at such a moment. He had to quickly regain his composure and make sure he gave a proper answer fitting of such a well respected figure. "I hope like everyone else on campus that you stay here. I don't know what we'd do if you left."
"Hmmm," Rockne grumbled as he looked to his left past George and out the office window at the patchy grass and students finishing up their Friday afternoon classes. "I appreciate that sentiment George, but I'm not sure everyone on campus feels that way."
George didn't say anything in reply and looked at Coach with a blank stare feeling sad that Rockne felt underappreciated. He stopped nervously rubbing his fingers and instead his leg now pumped furiously on the floor.
"It's a dirty business," Rockne continued. "One that I'm fully comfortable playing and I will get every penny that I'm worth around here. I played the game with Father Burns and I'm playing it successfully with Father Walsh."
Rockne was alluding to the Notre Dame Presidents he had dealt with up to that point. Rev. James Burns was President when Rockne first became coach and Rev. Matthew Walsh was the new President having taken office a year and a half ago. Rockne had received a bump in his salary from $3,500 to $5,000 after the 1919 season and a $1,000 bonus after the 1920 season but negotiations with President Walsh in recent months were much intense and deliberate.
"A few years ago this football program was barely making money," Rockne said. "Did you know this program brought in a record $70,000 profit this past season? A couple years ago a handful of teams were interested in my services as coach and why shouldn't they have been? I was never seriously interested in coaching at Colgate, Northwestern, or Minnesota but I was able to corral that into a raise here at Notre Dame. This time I'm serious about leaving. The Iowa program is very strong and they have a burning desire to win right now."
George couldn't believe what he was hearing. Rockne was supremely confident in his abilities and he could tell the Coach felt taken for granted and underappreciated. As athletic director and head of the football program Rockne's battles with the increasingly powerful Faculty Board of Control of Athletics were well known and even brought up in the student newspaper on occasion. There were a lot of egos to be massaged at the top of the Notre Dame power structure but as crafty and intelligent as President Walsh was he did not excel at manipulating Rockne, nor did he try to do so.
"Coach, are you really leaving?" George asked afraid he'd have to fight back tears if Rockne answered affirmatively.
"George," Rockne replied leaning back in his chair and folding his arms tight against his chest. "I made it well known to the folks at Iowa that I was serious about their offer and that in turn made Father Walsh understand the seriousness of the situation. Contrary to reports I haven't signed a contract with Iowa. So don't worry, kid. I'm staying at Notre Dame."
Strickler breathed a sigh of relief and realized just how fast his heart had been racing. The Coach now flashed his famous grin and George could feel the Rockne he knew so well coming back to life. To think he'd almost witnessed the resignation of Knute Rockne in person!
"So here's what's going to happen," the coach continued. "I spent enough time in New York working out the terms of a new deal with President Walsh with the help of Byrne and his associates. I needed them to lean on Father Walsh for a bit and it worked. We've agreed in principle to a new contract that I am sufficiently satisfied with."
Joe Byrne, Jr. was a prominent and wealthy alum living in New York City and George knew who he was--- even met him briefly on a couple occasions last fall on campus. Behind the priests backs people liked to joke that Bryne was the second most powerful man at Notre Dame, behind Knute Rockne of course. George was well aware how much Bryne and his associates backed Rockne and how obsessed the Coach had become in taking advantage of the booming New York City market.
In fact, it was Byrne himself who played a major role in getting the previous fall's Army game moved to New York City and Bryne again who was the sole representation for the University when the contest needed to be moved from the Polo Grounds to Ebbets Field once the Giants made the World Series against the Yankees. That game at Ebbets brought in a profit of $19,400 for Notre Dame with twice as many fans in attendance compared to Notre Dame's first trip to New York City back in 1921 against Rutgers at the Polo Grounds.
"In a few days we'll announce the new deal for 10 years," Rockne said. "The day after that announcement I want you to go to the papers with word that the Iowa rumors were just that, rumors. We are going to tell them no offer from Iowa was made and that I am perfectly happy to be staying at Notre Dame."
Scribbling some notes on his pad George wrote down these instructions and immediately started to mentally form the statement he would write for the press which Rockne would edit and green light the following week.
"Well that's great news coach," George said looking up. "I couldn't be happier you are staying here for such a long time."
"I'm pretty happy too," Rockne replied. "We've made so much progress from a few years ago. Still, this team needs a new stadium and once again they refused to let us head out west after I promised we'd make the trip. Egg on my face! And for what reason? We're bringing in a lot more money every year and playing the best teams in the nation can bring even more if they'd just stop stonewalling."
George was well aware of these feuds with Father Walsh and the University Administration. In fact, he'd even penned the statement that got Rockne in trouble for promising restless alums and fans that Notre Dame would accept a Rose Bowl bid if offered following the 1923 regular season. Pasadena offered the bowl bid 3 months earlier but President Walsh turned it down creating a lot of animosity that fueled many of the rumors of Rockne leaving for Iowa.
Cartier Field sat only 12,000 people during the 1920 season, and even fewer when Rockne took over, but by 1923 the rickety stadium full of wooden stands was increased to a healthy but still smallish 20,000 seats. Nevertheless, Rockne lobbied for a new stadium in order to entice stronger teams to visit South Bend. Eastern powers Yale, Princeton, and Harvard had been playing in large stadiums for years and Army was set to open a new 38,000 seat stadium in the fall. Additionally, Ohio State had opened a new stadium a couple years ago, and California, USC, Illinois, and Nebraska had done the same the previous fall.
The Coach had done well---even with Father Walsh nixing several lucrative trips---in scheduling big road games but since taking over in 1918 he'd only welcomed Michigan State twice, Purdue twice, and Nebraska, Indiana, and Georgia Tech once each over a 6-year span. These visits were pivotal in changing the culture for South Bend as an unworthy place to play yet Rockne wanted better teams and bigger payouts on his own turf. None of the big Eastern teams would entertain the thought of coming to Notre Dame for geographical and cultural reasons and the Coach wanted to change that dynamic by continuing to beat those Eastern teams and build a satisfactory home stadium to entice them to visit.
"All this winning and we can't get anyone better than those damn farmers from Nebraska to come here," Rockne said still seething with anger from his team's lone loss and terrible treatment by the fans in Lincoln back in November. Notre Dame had developed an annual rivalry with Nebraska and the recent visits to Lincoln were getting progressively worse and filled with more racial slurs and anti-Catholicism.
George could see by the look in his eyes how badly the coach wanted revenge on Nebraska. He was listening intently but his mind couldn't escape the thought that Rockne was staying at Notre Dame. "There aren't many worries if coach is staying here," he thought to himself.
"We'll deal with those problems later George, let's focus on getting this new contract announced to the press," Rockne said. "Come back here tomorrow at 11 o'clock and we'll work on some of the details of the statement."
"Okay, no problem," George replied. "I know so many people are going to be elated that you're staying. It's tremendous news as far as I'm concerned."
Rockne let out a small grin as George got up and left the office. This was the hard part of the job for Strickler. Only a small handful of people on earth knew that Rockne would be signing a new contract with Notre Dame and he was the only student who had to keep quiet about the news until it hit the papers. He'd also have to spend some time at the South Bend Tribune---where he was Rockne's liaison---and keep quiet on the matter there as well. George wondered if Leo would pester him as he left the office but he was occupied by a priest who was standing in front of the Leo's tiny desk in the back corner of the room. Neither saw George dash out and instead of speaking with them he slipped out into the hallway past the junior managers and back to his life as a student.
Back in his office Rockne stood up and cracked the window looking out at the South Bend weather breaking loose of its winter chains. Quiet moments like this were rare for him nowadays and he knew the press and school leaders would be filing in soon. The Coach noticed a pair of students through the window throwing a football around and immediately his brain started planning for the upcoming season 6 months away.
After a few moments the priest who was speaking with Leo in the waiting room stepped through Rockne's door. The door was left open enough for the priest to walk through and he watched Rockne who was completely lost in thought with his hands clasped behind his back.
"Getting your last glimpse of campus?" the priest said turning his head away from the Coach and toward the ceiling in an effort to sell the playful insult.
"Hello Father O'Hara," Rockne said unaffected by the tease and pivoting in the priest's direction. "Just admiring the view before the press inevitably descends upon this tiny and humble office again and the managers have to keep them at bay in the hallway."
"Do you plan on being here when they arrive?" the priest asked.
"I hope not to be," Rockne muttered with a serious look on his face. "I have nothing to say to them."
"Oh, I'm sure you have plenty you could say to them," Father O'Hara said holding back laughter on his thin face.
The priest approached Rockne near the window dressed in the usual attire of clerical collar with black shirt and pants matched with a fading and slightly worn black sport coat. As was his hobby the priest had a few religious medals pinned to his coat. As the chaplain of the football team he was known for giving players similar medals before games.
Among all the leaders at Notre Dame it was the Prefect of Religion Father John O'Hara who Rockne was most comfortable with. With that title you wouldn't think the two men would get along but O'Hara grew up in Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil and saw first hand how soccer and religion meshed as one life form in South American culture. Since taking his post as Prefect, O'Hara was instrumental in combining religion and football in a way that was convincing a multitude of God-fearing Catholics to root for Notre Dame. This certainly didn't bother Rockne one bit. Although O'Hara was the third most powerful leader at Notre Dame---and would eventually become University President 10 years later---he actually enjoyed football and often sympathized with Rockne largely because he traveled with the team and was close the players.
"You know me too well, Father," Rockne said walking back behind his desk.
"How was your trip to New York?" Father O'Hara asked.
"About as well as I expected. I spoke in Hackensack on Tuesday and in Yonkers on Wednesday. The rest of the time I was holed up at the Marquette Club with Joe Byrne and A.D. McDonald."
"Well that's a relief to know you didn't sneak off to Iowa City."
"And why would I go there, Father?" Rockne asked.
"Surely you read the newspapers?" the priest replied. "I can't go 10 feet on this campus without someone asking me if you're leaving for the Iowa job. No one knows what's going on."
"They'll know what's going on when the time is appropriate," Rockne said.
Father O'Hara grew concerned at the tone in the Coach's voice and sat down in one of the 2 heavy polished wooden chairs with three legs that were in front of Rockne's desk.
"You can't be that unhappy at Notre Dame, Knute," the priest said. "You're a good man and I trust you but even I don't know if you were in Iowa City this week."
"I didn't go to Iowa City," Rockne said raising his voice and flashing Father O'Hara a sharp glance. "Besides, I was in Iowa City back in February," he said in a lowered voice. A slight look of shame came over the Coach's face and he turned towards the window again.
Sensing he wouldn't be getting the information he wanted and afraid of hearing the worst from the mouth of Rockne, the priest got up from the chair with impatience. After a few strides he reached the door and turned back toward the Coach. He was about to say goodbye when he caught himself before speaking and raised his finger in the air.
"Knute, will you be here for the upcoming football season?" the priest asked directly.
Rockne turned back toward the departing priest and stoop up behind his desk. His short but imposing figure gave off the strength his ball clubs always played with under his coaching. His face was serious but Rockne leaned over, put his fists on the desk, and flashed that famous tooth-less grin.
"Just wait until you see my team this fall."