In August 1966, my dad Chuck Bourret, a 1948 University of Notre Dame graduate, spent a dollar to buy a Notre Dame football media guide. I was only 10 years old, but I was already a big fan of my father’s alma mater. The Irish only lost two games in his time as a student, so I heard about stories of Frank Leahy, Johnny Lujack and Leon Hart from the time I could walk.
In a foreshadowing of things to come for me from a career standpoint, I sat down and read the 64-page publication written by Roger Valdiserri, who was in his first year as Notre Dame sports information director.
As I poured over the records section, I noticed an entry on the “Longest Plays” page that said the longest play of any kind in Notre Dame history was a 107-yard fumble return by Frank Shaughnessy against Kansas in 1904.
Wow, how did that happen? I thought the field was only 100 yards long. Had the Kansas runner fumbled the ball forward into the end zone and an opportunistic Shaughnessy caught the ball and taken off to the other end of the field?
Further research told me the field was actually 110 yards instead of 100 in that era of college football.
I followed my dad’s footsteps to Notre Dame as a student in 1973 and got a job working for Valdiserri in September 1975. I worked for the SID office as an undergraduate and graduate assistant for three years, including the 1977 football season when the Irish won the national championship with a 38-10 win over previously top-rated Texas.
In August 1978, I continued my sports information career at Clemson and I worked at the South Carolina school for 40 years in that office, including as football communications director for 28 seasons. I still work in a part-time capacity for the Tigers today, but retired from full-time duties last July.
When I came to Clemson in 1978 I did some research on Clemson football coaches over the years. The Clemson record book said the Tigers’ head football coach in 1907 was Frank Shaughnessy.
Could it possibly be the same person?
Further research revealed that it was. Yes, a Notre Dame graduate was once the Clemson football coach, a fact that is of particular interest this week as the two schools prepare to meet in the College Football Playoff.
But Shaughnessy was much more than just a Notre Dame graduate who happened to become a coach at Clemson. He might have had the most interesting athletic career of any Notre Dame graduate.
Shaughnessy came to Notre Dame as a freshman from Amboy, Illinois, in 1901 and started at end for the football teams in 1902-03-04. He was one of the starters on the 1903 team that finished the season with an 8-0-1 record. Most impressively, that’s the only Notre Dame team that did not allow a point, outscoring the opposition 291-0 over the nine games. The only “blemish” on the season was a 0-0 tie with Northwestern.
Prior to the following season, Shaughnessy was named captain under head coach Red Salmon, who had been the star of the 1903 Notre Dame team. The Irish had just a 5-3 record in Shaughnessy’s senior year, but certainly a highlight was that 107-yard fumble return for a score at Kansas.
Shaughnessy also ran track and was a star on the baseball team over his Notre Dame career. In fact, on April 17, 1905, just five months after playing his last football game at Notre Dame, Shaughnessy made his Major League Baseball debut with the Washington Senators.
But he played just one major league game and spent the rest of his summer in the minor leagues.
Already armed with his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame, Shaughnessy returned to South Bend in the fall of 1905 and earned a law degree in June 1906. He then returned to the minor leagues, playing in Ottawa, Canada, in the summer of 1906.
In the fall of 1906 “Shag” secured a position as head coach at Welsh Neck High School in Hartsville, South Carolina. Clemson head coach Bob Williams took note of his football experience at Notre Dame and asked Shaughnessy to come to Clemson the week of the Georgia Tech game to help the Tigers prepare for John Heisman’s team.
Clemson upset the Yellow Jackets 10-0 in the final game of that 1906 season, a big victory in a rivalry that was as strong then as it is today because Heisman had left Clemson suddenly after the 1903 season to become the head coach of the Yellow Jackets. This was Clemson’s first win over Georgia Tech since Heisman had left.
Clemson administrators were impressed with Shaughnessy’s impact on the Clemson team that week and offered him the head coaching position when Williams resigned after the 1906 season.
Shaughnessy coached Clemson to a 4-4 record that 1907 campaign, but his team did beat North Carolina and then Georgia Tech, a second straight win over Heisman, in the season finale.
Shaughnessy stayed on and coached the Clemson baseball team in the spring of 1908. But, in the early summer, he got a call from Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack, still the winningest manager in MLB history. Mack offered Shaughnessy a major league contract, and so he resigned from Clemson after the Tigers’ baseball season.
Shaughnessy hit an impressive .310 in his limited action as a reserve outfielder with Philadelphia in 1908. Among the players he competed against was Hall of Fame Detroit Tiger and future all-time hits leader Ty Cobb.
Despite the solid statistics, Mack traded Shaughnessy for a minor league player named Frank “Home Run” Baker, who would go on to lead the American League in home runs four different seasons and be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1955.
Shaughnessy’s baseball career ended in 1909 when he decided to go back to coaching. Between 1909 and 1936 he coached college football in the fall, mostly at McGill University in Canada, and minor league baseball in the summer, mostly with the Dodgers’ organization.
His most interesting coaching year was probably in 1915. That year McGill did not have a football team because of World War I.
Believe it or not, he was asked to serve as the head manager of the Ottawa Senators of what is now the National Hockey League. He coached Ottawa to the finals of the Stanley Cup Championship before losing to Vancouver.
So, by age 31, Shaughnessy had played football and baseball at Notre Dame, coached football at Clemson, played Major League Baseball and taken a team to the Stanley Cup Finals.
It gets much better.
After managing at the minor league baseball level for 27 years, Shaughnessy was named president of the International League, the highest AAA level of professional baseball. He held that position from 1936-60. During his career he invented a playoff system that is used by most professional sports leagues today. At that time, only the two best teams in each minor league played each other for the title.
Shaughnessy thought he could create interest in the season for more players and more fans if more teams qualified for the playoffs. He adopted the Shaughnessy Playoff System for the International League that allowed four teams, just under half the league, to make the playoffs.
But, Shaughnessy’s most important contribution during his career as president of the International League took place in 1946 when he joined with longtime friend and co-worker Branch Rickey in facilitating Jackie Robinson’s move into professional baseball. Shaughnessy had worked for Rickey in the Dodgers’ organization as a minor league coach in Syracuse.
So when it came time to place Robinson in the minor leagues prior to his move to the parent Dodgers club, he was assigned to Montreal, an International League team. Rickey knew that Shaughnessy would look after Robinson in his pursuit of becoming the first African-American to play Major League Baseball.
Shaughnessy was quoted as saying of Robinson in 1946 when he first came into his league, “He’s the best player in minor league ball. And also the smartest. I see where some people don’t think he will hit because he didn’t hit Bob Feller on a barnstorming tour. How many hitters have any success against Feller? I’ll put my money on Robinson.”
That public support helped move Robinson along and he was in the majors to start the 1947 season.
Shaughnessy retired from the International League presidency in 1960 and he died at age 86 in 1969.
There have been some great Notre Dame football players and some great Clemson football coaches over the years, but none had a more fascinating career in athletics than Frank Shaughnessy.
Tim Bourret is a 1977 University of Notre Dame graduate who went on to earn a master’s degree in communications from the University in 1978. He worked in the Notre Dame athletics communication department as a student and a graduate assistant, then was named assistant sports information director at Clemson in the summer of 1978. Bourret, who spent 40 years on the Tiger media relations staff, probably boasts unmatched combined knowledge of the Notre Dame and Clemson football programs.