It was 77 years ago that a dramatic nickname coined by a poetic sportswriter and the quick-thinking actions of a clever student publicity aide transformed the Notre Dame backfield of Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden into the most fabled quartet in college football history.
Quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, left halfback Jim Crowley, right halfback Don Miller and fullback Elmer Layden had run rampant through Irish opponents’ defenses since coach Knute Rockne devised the lineup in 1922 during their sophomore season. But the foursome needed some help from Grantland Rice, a sportswriter for the New York Herald-Tribune, to achieve football immortality. After Notre Dame’s 13-7 victory over Army on October 18, 1924, Rice penned the most famous passage in the history of sports journalism.
“Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again.
“In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.”
George Strickler, then Rockne’s student publicity aide and later sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, made sure the name stuck. After the team arrived back in South Bend, he posed the four players, dressed in their uniforms, on the backs of four horses from a livery stable in town. The wire services picked up the now-famous photo, and the legendary status of the Four Horsemen was insured.
“At the time, I didn’t realize the impact it would have,” Crowley said later. “But the thing just kind of mushroomed. After the splurge in the press, the sports fans of the nation got interested in us along with other sportswriters. Our record helped, too. If we’d lost a couple, I don’t think we would have been remembered.”
After that win over Army, Notre Dame’s third straight victory of the young season, the Irish were rarely threatened the rest of the year. A 27-10 win over Stanford in the 1925 Rose Bowl gave Rockne and Notre Dame the national championship and a perfect 10-0 record.
As it usually is with legends, the Four Horsemen earned their spot in gridiron history. Although none of the four stood taller than six feet and none of the four weighed more than 162 pounds, the Four Horsemen might comprise the greatest backfield ever. As a unit, Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden played 30 games and only lost to one team, Nebraska, twice.
Stuhldreher, a 5-7, 151-pounder from Massillon, Ohio, was a self-assured leader who not only could throw accurately but also returned punts and proved a solid blocker. He emerged as the starting signalcaller four games into his sophomore season in 1922. He was often labeled cocky, feisty and ambitious, but his field generalship was unmatched.
Crowley, who came to Notre Dame in 1921 from Green Bay, Wis., stood 5-11 and weighed 162 pounds. Known as “Sleepy Jim” for his drowsy-eyed appearance, Crowley outmaneuvered many a defender with his clever, shifty ballcarrying.
Miller, a native of Defiance, Ohio, followed his three brothers to Notre Dame. At 5-11, 160 pounds, Miller proved to be the team’s breakaway threat. According to Rockne, Miller was the greatest open-field runner he ever coached.
Layden, the fastest of the quartet, became the Irish defensive star with his timely interceptions and also handled the punting chores. The 6-0, 162-pounder from Davenport, Iowa, boasted 10-second speed in the 100-yard dash.
After graduation, the lives of the Four Horsemen took similar paths. All began coaching careers with three of the four occupying top positions.
Layden coached at his alma mater for seven years and compiled a 47-13-3 record. He also served as athletic director at Notre Dame. After a business career in Chicago, Layden died in 1973 at the age of 70.
Crowley coached Vince Lombardi at Fordham before entering business in Cleveland. He died in 1986 at the age of 83.
Stuhldreher, who died in 1965 at the age of 63, became athletic director and football coach at Wisconsin.
Miller left coaching after four years at Georgia Tech and began practicing law in Cleveland. He was appointed U.S. District Attorney for Northern Ohio by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Miller died in 1979 at the age of 77.
All four players eventually were elected to the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame — Layden in 1951, Stuhldreher in 1958, Crowley in 1966 and Miller in 1970.