When College Football Came to Life

I once wrote a column for SportsPac12.com covering Trojan and Pac-12 football. As a USC fan, one thing I’ll never apologize for is my hatred for Notre Dame. But I’m a fair person too. If they smash us, I’ll take my lumps, go home and put ice on it. If we smash them, I live in a 24/7 pleasure dome. I don’t flaunt either emotion.

Both football programs have hired new coaches, younger, trendier versions of their predecessors. We know USC has upgraded. We’ll have to see if The Fighting Irish have. Judging from what I’ve seen in recruiting and the all-important players-buying-in factor, ND will be just fine.

Given that both teams are starting fresh in their hope to get over the hump to win a National Championship, I thought it might be a good idea to revisit a ND/USC piece I wrote last year. Who knows, it might be a terrible idea. But there’s very little in the way of college football news right now, and I have zero interest in telling you who I think the top five break-out Trojan special team players for spring in 2022 are. Besides, we all could use a good history lesson.

From The Beginning: The Greatest Interstate Rivalry in Sports History

On Thursday, January 1, 1925, Notre Dame polished off Stanford 27-10 in the Rose Bowl, which happened to be the program’s first-ever postseason appearance. Now legendary head coach Knute Rockne’s players included the already legendary backfield known as “The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.” That’s what sportswriter Grantland Rice of the New York Herald Tribune called them after witnessing their stunning 13-7 upset of Army earlier in the 1924 season.

I include Rice’s opening to his coverage of that game here only to illustrate the extravagant rhetoric that has followed Notre Dame’s football program like a Galloping Ghost ever since:

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine. But those are aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller 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.

Quite mystifyingly putrid prose, especially viewed from a contemporary lens. No self-serving editor would take that crap seriously today. It’s also a defilement of physics in a way when you consider none of the players mentioned could extend to six feet tall on their tippytoes or could bust through the 162-pound mark on a scale.

The media spent quite a bit of effort projecting these Golden Domers on equal footing as WWI war heroes. The consecrated publicity photo of the uniformed larger-than-life foursome on horseback used to help manufacture the legend unintentionally makes the horses seem like dinosaurs. But you can’t say they didn’t play big, going 30-2 together.

The nickname is a turn of phrase taken from “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” one of numerous Old Testament “feel good” stories the bible is notorious for, found in the Book of Ezekiel. It makes an appearance in the New Testament as well, but if you’re a true horror fan, you gotta love the savage disregard for human life the Old Testament brings to the table.

This isn’t the time to recount the plot; let’s just say that as far as gnashing of the teeth end of times drama goes, much like the Rose Bowl itself, it’s the Granddaddy of Them All.

On Friday, January 2, 1925, the team and coaching staff spent the day celebrating their victory by touring Hollywood and the motion picture studios, meeting movie stars and other industry elite.  The media was entranced with the Fighting Irish, who had gained the admiration of the nation due to their meteoric rise to the top of the college football world.

A swanky dinner at the Biltmore followed that evening. Rockne met Rudy Valentino. The press gobbled up the connection between Valentino’s silent movie “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” made in 1921, and whatever mythology the Irish were trying to pawn off to the American people. The two massive celebrities spent a few minutes talking and posing for the cameras. Food was scarfed. Booze was banned, though you can’t tell me no one was drinking. Ego’s were stroked.

The next morning the players continued on to San Francisco for more post-championship celebrating. But Knute and his wife Bonnie stayed behind for a few days to relax a bit further, and to take care of a little business.

Notre Dame alum Angus McDonald made arrangements for the extension in L.A., explaining by phone to Notre Dame President Father Matthew Walsh that Rockne was a nervous wreck from the trials and tribulations of a grueling season and needed extra rest. Or, was he a nervous wreck because of what he was about to do?

No one from the Notre Dame camp knew representatives from the University of Southern California were staging a coup to swipe their coach from under their feet. Despite current Trojan head coach Gus Henderson’s 45-7 record, USC hadn’t shown a propensity for hurdling opponents in big games.

Los Angeles had grown into the second most important city in America, and Hollywood was the place to be. The concept of star power was now a thing, sought in all upper social circles, and Rockne possessed the enigmatic personality to mesh perfectly with the incomparably hip L.A. vibe. Rockne and Valentino. Rockne and Charlie Chaplin. Rockne and Lillian Gish. Rockne and Bullwinkle (Yes, I know Bullwinkle made his Hollywood debut decades later…Laugh or don’t, doesn’t matter to me).

USC and Rockne. That had to happen. It was a match made in Hollywood Heaven.

To make the coup an even sweeter proposition, the Trojans had their own cool nickname, The Thundering Herd. It may have been taken from one of big band leader Woody Herman’s incarnations, but I like to imagine it represents buffalo, rather than horses, pounding through “the green plain below.”

Think of it—Knute Rockne and The Thundering Herd! It sounds positively electric, like the name of a rock band that could blow Hendrix off the stage.

The Rockne’s loved Southern California. The Coliseum had just been built—it was the beautiful new stadium Knute had been begging his bosses for. USC had met all his conditions, including making him a very wealthy man.

A tentative agreement was reached.

Newspapers soon swirled with reports of the deal. When Father Walsh got wind of it, he threatened a little sword, famine, wild beasts, and plague of his own onto Bonnie and Knute Rockne should they break their existing contract with Notre Dame. Fearing a lawsuit of biblical proportions, the Rockne’s sadly backed away from the deal, remaining in dark, desolate, miserable, snowy, frigid, not-so-hip South Bend.

Knute felt bad about nixing the deal, so as a way to make amends, recommended USC go after Howard Jones who had recently coached Iowa to a national championship. USC did, and Jones wasted no time building the Trojan dynasty.

I won’t thank Notre Dame for this olive branch. We would have eventually found Jones without Rockne’s assistance, unless Pat Haden or Lynn Swann masterminded the search.