Who could have known a hundred years ago? A major concern in football now is protecting “defenseless” receivers going over the middle to catch a downfield pass. Ironically, as Maggio’s wonderfully researched effort spotlights, rules to encourage passing originally were put in place to reduce violence in football.
The game had become gruesomely brutal because of the mass-running formations in which lines of players sans equipment hurled themselves at each other. Calls for football to be abolished grew after 21 players died during the 1904 college football season and another 19 were killed as a result of playing injuries in 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt called for a conference with some of the leading coaches to encourage rules changes that would limit violence in the game. Columbia, among the early powers in college football, nevertheless dropped its program for 10 years after the 1905 season.
College football leaders grudgingly instituted rules to encourage downfield passing and spread out formations on the field. Even so, major powers in the East such as Yale and Army preferred the running game. Upstart squads from the West started dabbling in the passing game, but the East refused to take notice until new coach Jesse Harper took Notre Dame to play mighty Army in 1913. Little-known Notre Dame, which Army agreed to play largely because it needed a “breather” on the schedule, unleashed a potent passing attack that teams in the East had not seen before and won 35-13.
Harper, hired at Notre Dame as football coach and director of athletics in no small part because he believed football should support itself financially, gained acclaim as a pioneer in the passing offense. His Notre Dame team wasn’t the first to use an aerial attack, but it was the first to topple a major Eastern power doing so. That game also thrust ND quarterback Gus Dorais and end Knute Rockne onto the national college football scene, Dorais for his ability to hit receivers as far as 40 yards downfield and Rockne for his ability to catch the ball with his hands in stride. Previously, receivers typically stopped and cradled the ball before trying to gain more yardage.
This book, subtitled How Jesse Harper Made the Forward Pass a Weapon and Knute Rockne a Legend, will appeal not only to Notre Dame fans but to college football fans in general. Those who like the rough nature of football will especially enjoy the chapters describing the early years of the game. Moreover, Maggio provides some context of the contributions of some of the iconic names in college football, such as Amos Alonzo Stagg, Walter Camp, Glenn “Pop” Warner, and Jim Thorpe in addition to Notre Dame legends Rockne and George Gipp.
Changes in the game off the field also are interesting, including the descriptions of team travel from one region of the country to another and the time it took. Those who think they are die-hard fans today will appreciate the lengths to which fans would get information on the games in the early 1900s before not only television but also radio. For that landmark game at West Point in 1913, Notre Dame students huddled outside the newspaper office in South Bend, Indiana, awaiting telegraph bulletins posted in the window after each quarter of play.
The end of Harper’s coaching tenure at Notre Dame illustrates another stark contrast between today’s game and that of a hundred years ago. Harper turned over the team to Rockne after the 1917 season because his father-in-law promised him the same salary he was getting at Notre Dame to help out on his cattle ranch in Kansas. Nowadays, a coach being put out to pasture means a sports broadcasting gig.
Check the WRL catalog for Notre Dame and the Game That Changed Football