Note: The following feature will appear in this week’s Gameday Magazine, the official Notre Dame football program. For this and other great Notre Dame stories, pick up a copy on campus on gameday.
Knute Rockne’s first season as the head coach at the University happened 100 years ago in 1918, yet it bore little resemblance to anything about today’s modern college football game:
- Because the country was embroiled in World War I, the team played only six games, fewest for a Notre Dame team since 1910.
For example, Rockne’s former Notre Dame quarterback Gus Dorais had gone to Fort Dodge, Iowa, to the Third Officers Training Camp. Many more former players — Chet Grant, Joe Pliska and Charlie Bachman among them — were part of the United States military effort.
For his part, Rockne spent the summer of 1918 as athletic director at Fort Sheridan north of Chicago.
- Rockne’s unit played only one game at home, versus five on the road.
- Notre Dame didn’t play a single game in October, cancelling many practices during those weeks, then played five in November.
One early October report suggested, “Never before at Notre Dame have athletics been at such a standstill.”
A home game with Washington & Jefferson and a road trip to Army were cancelled — and another game with Kalamazoo College later was scratched.
As Jim Lefebvre wrote in Coach For A Nation, “Years of preparation and diligent service as a student-athlete, captain and assistant coach had put Rockne in the position of guiding Notre Dame’s entire athletic operation. Now, just weeks into his tenure, it had become something of a nightmare. The specter of war and death overwhelmed any sense of play on campus. And there was more darkness to come.”
- The roster had been gutted by war-time call-ups.
- The team began its season away from home for the first time in two decades.
- Notre Dame fought through injuries, a nationwide influenza epidemic (that forced cancellation of several options for October competition) and two games played in horrid weather. There was even thought to cancelling the season. The influenza epidemic alone killed nine Notre Dame students and cancelled classes for days.
On Oct. 10, Rockne issued a revised football schedule that met government regulations eliminating October road contests and permitting only two trips in November. Ultimately games were cancelled and added the rest of the fall at a moment’s notice. Even Rockne himself suffered from the grippe.
- Notre Dame was a year away from receiving its first national championship recognition in football. Rockne’s 1919 team won all nine games and, after the fact, tied for the title according to Parke H. David Ratings and the National Championship Foundation.
- Rockne comprised a one-man staff. He had no assistant coaches, no equipment manager, no trainer.
- Due to the war effort, the roster consisted mainly of players in their first year of football at Notre Dame.
As Mike Steele noted in The Notre Dame Football Encyclopedia, “The Fighting Irish of 1918 had almost nothing to fight with or against.”
It wasn’t exactly the stuff of legends for a first-year head coach. Rockne had inherited the job after four years as an assistant (and chemistry professor) on Jesse Harper’s staff after Harper was called home to take over his family’s ranch in Sitka, Kansas.
But Rockne had learned what successful football was all about, playing his final collegiate year under Harper and then working for him for the next four. Those five seasons produced a 34-5-1 record (.871) as Notre Dame outscored its opponents 1,219 to 170. Harper’s 1916 team shut out eight of its nine foes.
Meanwhile, the schedule during that period was upgraded — with Yale, Army, Syracuse, Nebraska and Rice appearing on Notre Dame ledgers. But 1918 was three seasons before the Four Horsemen would enroll at Notre Dame and six years before Grantland Rice made them famous.
There remained one saving grace to Rockne’s first season on the Cartier Field sideline — George Gipp.
Rockne had spied him kicking footballs (very well) on campus and invited him to come out for the Notre Dame squad.
The 1918 season marked the first of Gipp’s three varsity seasons, as he led the team in both rushing and passing three straight years.
In that 1918 campaign, Gipp did some remarkable things, often against long odds:
- In Notre Dame’s 26-6 opening win at Case Tech, Gipp accounted for 189 combined rushing and passing yards in the second half alone.
- In a 67-7 win at Wabash, he ran for 119 yards on 16 carries. He removed himself from the game on his own in the second half.
- In a 7-7 tie against a formidable Great Lakes roster that included George Halas, Gipp rushed for 69 yards and Notre Dame’s only touchdown. The game was played despite suggestions no spectators would be allowed, though ultimately a large crowd attended Notre Dame’s lone home game of the season.
Said Rockne in review, “I am satisfied with the game. We went into the game as underdogs and gave them a good fight. The game shows we are as good as any team in the west.”
Two days later the war ended.
- After breaking a blood vessel in his face in a loss at Michigan State, Gipp returned to gain 137 ground yards and score twice in a 26-6 victory at Purdue.
Media reports suggested Gipp was “a tower of strength in Notre Dame’s offense, as he tore holes through the Purdue line.”
- In a 0-0 finale at Nebraska (in which the Huskers did not record a first down), Gipp ran for 76 yards, threw for 65 and punted a dozen times in the snow.
The Notre Dame roster that year also included Hunk Anderson (a freshman left guard who was a high school teammate of Gipp in Calumet, Michigan), right guard Clipper Smith (named to the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame in 1975), right end Eddie Anderson (he became a consensus All-American in 1921), right halfback and captain Pete Bahan, freshman fullback Curly Lambeau (an eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer and of Lambeau Field fame in Green Bay) and right halfback Norm Barry. Gipp played left halfback.
Wrote Lefebvre in a final assessment of the 1918 campaign: “Mercifully, a football season, and an autumn unlike any other was finished. The Great War ended, the influenza pandemic tamed. For someone who was adept at flexibility and change, 1918 presented the first-year coach with challenges unlike anything he had expected. For now, Knute Rockne would celebrate the health of his family and surviving the season; both were worth savoring.”
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.