Now comes the fun part.
Knute Rockne had five unbeaten seasons in his 13 years (1918-30) at Notre Dame, including 9-0 in his third campaign.
While the third season was a major downfall of most Notre Dame football coaches, it also helped cement immortality and Hall of Fame status for five others.
Knute Rockne was the first, but we rank him “only” No. 5 in the countdown, despite a 9-0 finish in 1920, for two reasons.
First, Rockne finished 9-0 a year earlier and, with the return of future College Football Hall of Fame inductees George Gipp, Eddie Anderson, Hunk Anderson (Rockne’s successor from 1931-33) and several other luminaries, his squad was expected to dominate again in 1920.
Second, Rockne had no ghosts to follow. His predecessor, Jesse Harper, set a template at Notre Dame, but it was under Rockne the program began to transcend the sport. Back in 1920, Notre Dame was still playing on Cartier Field, where the most to attend a game that year was 12,000. Later in the year at Northwestern, a capacity crowd of 20,000 would witness Gipp’s final game in a Notre Dame uniform.
Before the 1920s decade was completed, though, Notre Dame Stadium was under construction to hold nearly 60,000 fans, and the Irish would play in front of as many as 120,000 at Chicago’s Soldier’s Field while becoming “America’s Team.”
How Did It Happen?
As was the tradition under Rockne, Notre Dame opened in 1920 with a couple of tune-ups versus local schools Kalamazoo (39-0) and Western Michigan (41-0) before surviving against traditional foe Nebraska (16-7).
In a deal arranged by Harper, Notre Dame traveled to Nebraska all six years from 1915-20 to help itself financially with gate receipts. The series would continue through 1925, with only the 1921 and 1924 games played at Notre Dame.
Next up was another local school, Valparaiso, which stunned Rockne’s unit by taking a 3-0 lead into the halftime locker room. Gipp led a second-half rally in the 28-3 victory, but Rockne was so impressed with the Valparaiso head coach, George Keogan, that he recommended the school hire him as its basketball coach when the job opened in 1923.
Keogan went on to a 20-year Hall-of-Fame career with the Irish, directing them to Helms Foundation national titles in 1927 and 1936. Ironically, like Rockne, Keogan would die “in office” as the Notre Dame coach during the 1942-43 basketball season.
Notre Dame then entered the meat of its schedule with victories over traditional power Army (27-17), followed by Purdue (28-0), Indiana (13-10), Northwestern (33-7) and Michigan Agricultural Aggies (25-0), later to be known as Michigan State, to cap a second consecutive 9-0 finish. The hard fought triumphs against 5-0 Army and 4-1 Indiana validated Gipp’s legend and earned him consensus All-America notice.
Notre Dame trailed 17-14 at halftime against Army but Gipp led the rally, finishing with 150 yards rushing on 20 carries and completing 5 of 9 passes for 123 yards. His three punts averaged 43 yards, he kicked three extra points and amassed 207 yards in returns.
At Indiana, the Irish trailed 10-0 entering the fourth quarter and the Hoosiers had dislocated Gipp’s shoulder with its gang-tackling. But Gipp returned to the game to score one TD and helped lead the drive for the game-winning score.
The Nov. 20 game in Chicago versus Northwestern came 24 days before Gipp’s death from a streptococci throat infection. By the time of the game, the infection was setting in on Gipp and Rockne opted not to play the ill Gipp. By the fourth quarter, the fans in attendance were clamoring to see Gipp, who proceeded to complete 5 of 6 passes for 157 yards during the final 15 minutes, highlighted by launching 35- and 55-yard scoring passes to Eddie Anderson and Norm Barry.
A week later, Gipp did not even suit up for the finale in East Lansing, but Notre Dame still rolled to an easy 25-0 victory.
Back then there was no wire service polls (the AP didn’t begin until 1936), but there were about eight football sources – mostly retroactive – that awarded mythical national titles. In 1920, there were four such schools: California, Harvard, Princeton and Notre Dame.
Cal received the most recognition with six titles, while Harvard and Princeton shared the Boand title and Notre Dame and Princeton shared the Parke Davis title. Notre Dame also was awarded a title by Billingsley, a retroactive mathematical system devised in 1970 – 50 years after the title.
Ramifications of Year 3
Gipp’s death on Dec. 14, 1920 would become a defining moment in Notre Dame and college football history. Whether or not his “one for the Gipper” request on his death bed was embellished is irrelevant. It is forever embedded as one of the most famous speeches in Americana and will remain everlasting.
This also began the pattern of Year 3 success for the Notre Dame coaches who would go on to Hall of Fame careers. Frank Leahy would win the national title in 1943, as would Ara Parseghian in 1966, Dan Devine in 1977 and Lou Holtz in 1988.
Finally, it was the start of the “Roarin’ 20s” era under Rockne, where Notre Dame would be transformed from just another small Catholic college in the Midwest to a national treasure.
How Does It Relate To Brian Kelly?
Every Notre Dame coach since Rockne’s premature death in 1931 has had his ghost to follow. No one at Notre Dame will ever match his NCAA record .881 career winning percentage (105-12-5), but all are hired with the expectation to wake up at least a few echoes and legitimately put Notre Dame into national title contention on occasion.
It’s been nearly two decades since Notre Dame last truly awakened echoes, including back-to-back 8-5 seasons in Kelly’s first two years. Unlike Rockne in 1920, Kelly is not reloading for another unbeaten run, and he does not have the luxury of opening the season against Kalamazoo and Western Michigan — although the first two opponents, Navy and Purdue, were drubbed by 42 and 28 points, respectively, last year by the Irish.
Nevertheless, the Notre Dame program overall was still in a fledgling stage in many ways back in 1920, and Rockne’s third season was more like an appetizer for the main entrée in the ensuing decade.
Kelly’s third season is not so much about anticipating an unbeaten season and title contention as it is attempting to pave the way for renewed excellence in the decade ahead an in a new era of college football that will commence in 2014.