Sept. 11, 2000
By Bernie Kish
I am sorry to see our rivalry end —
I hope that someday Notre Dame and Nebraska may get together again-and-that we will hear your traditional speech from the Hotel Lincoln Balcony-“we are here to lick you.”
Henry F. Schulte
Former Head Football Coach
University of Nebraska
December 11, 1925
At the time of Nebraska coach Henry Schulte’s letter 75 years ago to Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, Notre Dame and Nebraska had developed one of the most competitive rivalries in college football. They had faced each other 11 times, with each team winning five games. Every game was played before a capacity crowd, with four of the games on Thanksgiving-a day set-aside for big rivalry games. The gate receipts were huge by the standards of that era, both the Irish and Huskers found the rivalry profitable. Nine of the games were played in Lincoln, mainly because of the larger seating capacity. And, both teams were among the elite in college football.
After the series was halted in 1925, the Huskers and Irish did not meet again until the late 1940s. The final game between the two schools took place in the Orange Bowl following the 1972 regular season.
Jesse Harper, Notre Dame’s coach from 1913-1917, was the man responsible for starting the rivalry. In December of 1912, while still at Wabash, he wrote to Nebraska’s athletic manager, E. Eager, requesting a game with the Huskers. After three years and several letters, Harper finally arranged a meeting for the 1915 season in Lincoln.
Harper’s teams met Nebraska three times from 1915-1917. The Cornhuskers of this era were powerful squads. Under Ewald “Jumbo” Stiehm (pronounced “Steam”), the “StiehmRollers” dominated the Missouri Valley Conference from 1911 through 1915, going unbeaten in 34 straight games, and claiming five conference titles.
Notre Dame was also emerging as a Western powerhouse under Harper, losing only two contests in two years and defeating the likes of Army, Penn State, Texas and Syracuse. Harper, like most coaches at the time, had only one assistant — the captain from Notre Dame’s 1913 team-Rockne.
In late October of 1915, the undefeated Irish journeyed to Lincoln to meet the unbeaten Cornhuskers. As was to become the tradition, the visitors arrived early on the day before the game and stayed at the Hotel Lincoln. The tariff was $2.50 per room for two men, two beds and a private bath. Harper requested fish and eggs for both lunch and dinner for his team on Friday, noting “I hope you will be able to get us some nice fresh fish.”
The first game of the series, a 20-19 victory for the Huskers, was played before a record home crowd of 8,000 fans. Nebraska was paced by All-American Guy Chamberlin, a demon on both offense and defense. “The Champ” scored two touchdowns on runs and passed for the third. “Without Chamberlin at end, Notre Dame would have run wild all over the field,” said referee Walter Eskersall
Harper’s young team was led by the splendid play of Dutch Bergman, who scored Notre Dame’s last TD on a 10-yard run with time running out. Miller’s unsuccessful conversion foiled the Irish bid for a tie game and an undefeated season.
A year later, Notre Dame won in Lincoln on Thanksgiving Day, 20-0. Bergman was again the Notre Dame star with his running and receiving The Irish defense held Nebraska to 89 yards rushing and no yards passing.
During World War I, both teams were shorthanded because of players in the service. The 1917 game was a hard-fought affair won by the Huskers in Lincoln 7-0 on a two-yard run by Hugo Otopalik. It was Notre Dame’s only loss of the year and marked the first game for freshman George Gipp in a Notre Dame uniform.
In 1918, Rockne replaced Harper as head coach of the Irish. His first season ended in a quagmire of mud in Lincoln, with his Irish battling the Huskers to a scoreless tie. Notre Dame, led by Gipp, had 12 first downs to none for the Huskers but could not score.
In 1919, Notre Dame launched a three-game winning streak against the Huskers. The Irish defeated Nebraska 14-9 in Lincoln en route to Rockne’s first perfect season. The game was a nip-and-tuck affair, with the highlight being Bergman’s 97-yard opening kickoff return. Nebraska’s scores came on a run by Paul Dobson and his 40-yard field goal. The Irish finished the season as the only undefeated team in the West and challenged Harvard for recognition as the best team in the country.
The 1920 game was a typical Notre Dame-Nebraska struggle, with the outcome, a 16-7 Irish victory, decided by Gipp’s seven-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. The Irish star had an excellent day running, passing, punting and kicking. The Omaha World Herald commented, “Gipp joined Chamberlin and Bergman as the greatest seen on a Nebraska field in a quarter century of football.”
The 1921 contest was the first game played at Notre Dame. A standing room only homecoming crowd of 14,000 at Cartier Field witnessed another epic fight. Notre Dame’s 7-0 win came on a one-yard run by Johnny Mohardt that was set up by Eddie Anderson’s recovery of a fumbled punt.
Notre Dame lost only two games combined in 1922 and 1923. Both came against the Cornhuskers in Lincoln before packed houses. Nebraska’s 1922 squad, coached by Fred Dawson, was as good as the Irish, perhaps better, with its only loss to powerful Syracuse. The Huskers scored two second-quarter touchdowns and made them stand for a 14-6 victory. Harold Hartley led the Big Red, running three yards for the first score, passing 38 yards to Dave Noble for the other and kicking both extra points. The Irish scored in the third quarter on a 43-yard touchdown pass from Elmer Layden to Don Miller.
Nebraska’s 14-7 win over Notre Dame in 1923 was viewed as the upset of the year. Some Nebraska football historians still call it the greatest win in Cornhusker history. Coming into the game, the Huskers had lost to Red Grange and Illinois and been tied by Kansas and Missouri. Notre Dame-a strong candidate for a Rose Bowl bid- was arguably the Nation’s best team. The game was played at newly-opened Memorial Stadium before 30,000 fans on a rolled dirt field. The Huskers stopped Notre Dame’s running game cold, forcing Rockne to put the ball in the air. Noble was the Cornhusker star, running for a 24-yard TD and scoring again on an 18-yard pass from Rufus Dewitz.
The next two years produced the most one-sided games in the initial series. The 1924 game, played at Cartier Field before a capacity crowd of 22,000, was carried on WGN radio of Chicago-the first broadcast of a Notre Dame home game. After Nebraska scored on a one-yard run by Douglas Myers in the first quarter, Rockne’s men took charge and dominated the game, winning 34-6. All of the Four Horsemen scored, Harry Stuhldreher, Miller and Layden on runs and Jim Crowley on a 75-yard pass play from Layden. Fred Dawson, Nebraska’s coach, stated, “We were beaten by the greatest football team I have ever seen.” The following January, in a wonderful gesture of sportsmanship, Nebraska played host to a banquet for the Notre Dame in Lincoln as the Irish returned from the Rose Bowl.
Much has been written about the 1925 game, mostly because, following the game, the Notre Dame Athletic Board decided to terminate the series. The rivalry had become quite heated, with charges from both schools abut embarrassing conduct by the fans.
The game was played in Lincoln before a full house of 45,000 spectators. Nebraska, sparked by All-American Ed Weir, completely controlled the game, shutting out the favored Irish 17-0. Weir blocked a punt to set up the first score, and kicked a field goal and two extra points. Two years earlier Rockne told Weir he was “the greatest tackle and cleanest player I ever watched.” Weir later said that after the 1925 Husker win, “Rock gave me a big grin and a wink.”
In December, Ernie Bearg, the Nebraska coach and several Omaha businessmen, came to South Bend in an unsuccessful attempt to have the Athletic Board reconsider its decision. Said Bearg of the meeting, “The Board felt it was becoming more of a religious war than a sporting contest-and considered it best for all concerned to sever relations.”
It would be 22 years before the two schools met again on the gridiron.
Although Notre Dame and Nebraska were no longer football opponents, Rockne continued a warm relationship with his Nebraska athletic friends. In 1928, the Cornhuskers hired DX Bible as their head coach on Roc’s recommendation. A year later, Bible’s team, on its way to a game at Syracuse, stopped in South Bend and had lunch with the Notre Dame team at the Oliver Hotel. And, finally, Rockne conducted summer coaching schools for a few years in Hastings, Neb., with Paul Schlisser, the former Nebraska basketball coach.
The resumption of play between the two schools in the 1940s resulted in two mismatches. Notre Dame’s post World War II teams, which did not lose a game in four years, were among the best in college football history. Conversely, the Cornhuskers were in their so-called “Bum Years,” winning only four games in 1947 and 1948.
The 1947 game, played in South Bend before a capacity crowd of 56,000, was an easy 31-0 win for the Irish. Notre Dame, sparked by Coy McGee, Emil Sitko and Terry Brennan, took charge from the opening kickoff and was never challenged.
The 1948 game in Lincoln was almost a carbon copy of the ’47 game. Notre Dame jumped out to a 13-0 first-quarter lead on a nine-yard run by Sitko and a 73-yard sprint by Pep Panelli and coasted to a 44-13 win. Tom “Trainwreck” Novak was a standout for the Huskers in both games. Following the 1947 season, the Irish named him the most outstanding lineman on their all-opponent team.
The last game between the Cornhuskers and Irish was the 1973 Orange Bowl. Much like the Notre Dame walkovers in 1947 and ’48, this, too, was a blowout. Bob Devaney’s ninth-ranked Nebraskans trounced Ara Parseghian’s 12h-rated Irish, 40-6. The story of the game was Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers. Lining up at I- back instead of his normal wingback position, the fleet Rodgers ran for three scores, caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from David Humm and threw a 52-yard scoring strike to Frosty Anderson. The victory was the final game in Devaney’s illustrious career as he passed the Husker reins to assistant Tom Osborne.
Today, Nebraska and Notre Dame meet for the 15th time, rekindling the rivalry that Harper started 85 years ago. The brief series has produced four national champions, 27 College Football Hall of Famers and many hard-nosed, competitive football games. All college football fans hope that these two storied programs meet often in the 21st century.