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Notre Dame And The Big Ten: From Mutual Affection To Mutual Resentment

Notre Dame, Michigan and the "Big Ten" went from an early mutual respect to mutual resentment

After the 1887 game against Michigan, the fledgling Notre Dame football program would play a series of games against midwestern colleges (and even high schools) over the following decade as the university found its football footing and gradually improved to respectability. 

In 1899 alone, the Irish would score moral victories in hard-fought losses against Amos Alonzo Stagg’s Chicago team and Fielding Yost’s Michigan squad, along with victories over Northwestern and Indiana, and a tie against Purdue. The increased success on the football field occurred at the same time that the game itself was modernizing, as a commission appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt implemented measures such as the neutral zone, the forward pass, and the concept of down and distance in 1906, in response to 18 player deaths in 1904 and 19 player deaths in 1905. 

This commission also created the NCAA, which became the governing body of college athletics.

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Even prior to the national reforms, the large midwestern colleges were beginning to take matters of reform into their own hands. In 1895, the Western Conference (which is now the Big Ten Conference) was founded by Chicago, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and of course, Michigan. 

Notre Dame immediately applied for admission – and was rejected – because as Murray Sperber points out in Shake Down the Thunder, the member schools claimed that the “university division was not large or serious enough and also because of its vague player eligibility rules.” In response, Notre Dame revised its player eligibility requirements to match those in the Western Conference, and after the conference accepted Indiana and Iowa in 1908, applied again – and was rejected again. This rejection frustrated Fr. Thomas Crumley, chairman of the Notre Dame Athletic Board, who according to Sperber said “it had been fought on theological rather than athletic grounds.”

Fresh off the latest rejection, Notre Dame faced Fielding Yost and Michigan in 1909, having never beaten the Wolverines, losing the first eight contests by a combined score of 121-10. Notre Dame had been shut out in six of those eight contests, but game number nine went a different way. 

The Irish were coached by Frank “Shorty” Longman, a former star under Yost earlier in the decade, and Notre Dame shocked Michigan 11-3. In the postgame recap, the Detroit Free Press bestowed the first use of the Fighting Irish moniker on Notre Dame, as the article described how “eleven fighting Irishmen wrecked the Yost machine [that] afternoon.” 

Rather than being congratulatory, Yost revealed his true character in the events following the game – with full support of the University of Michigan. John Kryk describes in the book Natural Enemies that immediately after the game Yost insulted star Irish halfback Red Miller, and in subsequent months left all Notre Dame players off his all-Western ballot and publicly advocated against Notre Dame being named 1909 national champions. 

He also publicly criticized the Notre Dame for playing ineligible players – a charge flatly denied by Notre Dame that was found to be untrue (though upon investigation Michigan was found to have an ineligible player, which was quite an embarrassment for the university). The crux of the dispute centered around Notre Dame allowing freshmen and seniors to play, which many other schools did and the university had resumed allowing after being rejected for conference admission in 1908. But this practice was not allowed in the Western Conference. 

The final straw came when Yost cancelled the 1910 game with Notre Dame 24 hours before kickoff, again claiming that the Irish fielded ineligible players. Michigan fans still bitter about Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick cancelling the Michigan series a year in advance should consult their history books. Lastly, Yost was instrumental in the entire Western Conference boycotting Notre Dame, which Kryk hypothesizes was to “show the Conference that the Catholics were the real dregs of athletic society, not Michigan,” as Michigan itself had its share of scandals and embarrassing moments in the first decade of the 1900s, and though a Western Conference academic member in 1909, had competed as an independent in football.

The Western Conference boycott left Notre Dame at a crossroads, as it significantly damaged the reputation of the university across the country, making it difficult to maintain football relevancy. Notre Dame did not lose a game in 1911 or 1912, but the schedule consisted of Ohio Northern, St. Viator, Butler, Loyola of Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Bonaventure, Wabash, Marquette, Adrian, Morris Harvey, and St. Louis. 

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The time in exile resulted in two changes at Notre Dame. First, the fan base became more hardened then ever in its independence, but second, the Notre Dame Faculty Board decided to institute and enforce the Western Conference’s eligibility rules (again) and brought in Jesse Harper as football coach and athletic director. The decision to adopt the standard eligibility rules loosened the boycott everywhere except Ann Arbor. 

Rather than relying on the Western Conference ever again, Harper and Notre Dame embraced the newfound independent spirit and embarked on a national schedule, playing Penn State, Texas, and most notably, Army in 1913. Notre Dame shocked the nation in the Army game, and reports from the day note that quarterback Gus Dorais and wide receiver Knute Rockne were unstoppable through the air, demonstrating what a great equalizer the forward pass could be, resulting in a 35-13 victory over Army that put Notre Dame football on the map for good.

Rockne's role in this saga was just beginning. He did not stop revolutionizing college football after that day on the Hudson. When he became head coach at Notre Dame he instituted a variation of the T formation that became known as the “Notre Dame Box”. In Rockne’s offense, the offensive backfield would line up in a traditional T formation before shifting into a variation of the single wing – the “box” – just before the snap, allowing the players to gain momentum and carry that into the line. 

As Rockne and the Irish rolled up victories and championships during the 1920s, Yost (whose offense was based on trying to punt on early downs, pin the other team back, and force a safety or turnover) became the most vocal critic of Rockne’s offense. Yost would ultimately convince the national rules committee to institute a rule in 1929 stating that players must be stopped for two seconds before the ball was snapped, but even with that in place Rockne and the Irish still claimed another national title in 1930.

Yost and Rockne had a long public feud which began at the 1923 Big Ten track championships, strangely enough, when Rockne (Notre Dame had been invited to participate as a guest as Michigan’s boycott extended only to football) sided with Illinois – against Michigan – in disputing a controversial referee’s decision. No Notre Dame team would ever play at Michigan again until 1937 (football did not resume until 1942 and 1943 before another long hiatus until 1978), and Rockne and Yost sparred over offensive philosophy, eligibility requirements (despite the fact Notre Dame had adopted the standard eligibility requirements), and recruiting tactics until Rockne’s untimely death in 1931. 

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Though Yost could never convince his fellow Big Ten members to stop playing the Irish in football again, he did succeed in blocking one final Notre Dame attempt to join the Big Ten in 1926. Again, Sperber’s Shake Down the Thunder describes how Yost (and Amos Alonzo Stagg from Chicago) fed a steady diet of unsubstantiated rumors to the press that hardened opposition to the Notre Dame bid. When Notre Dame was officially rejected, the faculty secretary, Professor J.E. McCarthy shook hands with the Michigan faculty rep, with whom he commented he “engaged but for a moment in a hand clasp of hatred and glare of defiance.”

The third rejection from the Big Ten finally led the university to realize what its fan base and alumni already had – three decades of dismissal, hostility, prejudice and rejection had steeled the Irish independent spirit and forced Notre Dame to become the only national program in college football, as letters written in 1926 to the Notre Dame administration from fans and alumni arguing in favor of independence and against Big Ten membership attest. 

Now, with alignment among the football program, fan base, and university administration, the Notre Dame program was ready to launch into a global brand and become the most famous program in college football history over the next seventy years.

Recommended Reading:

  • Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football by Murray Sperber
  • Natural Enemies: Major College Football’s Oldest, Fiercest Rivalry – Michigan vs. Notre Dame by John Kryk

To read part one of this series click HERE. Part three will be out tomorrow, so look for it!

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