clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Knute Rockne and Notre Dame Beating Army In 1913 Is the Most Important Game In History

Portrait of Notre Dame Football Coach Knute Rockne Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

I have released another history video, this time centered around Notre Dame. I plan to cover all of college football on the new YouTube channel I’ve started. I hope you’ll join me!


This video by Jon Johnston, titled “Knute Rockne and Notre Dame Beating Army In 1913 Is the Most Important Game In History” focuses on the significant 1913 Army vs. Notre Dame football game, a pivotal moment in the sport’s history. The game is notable for its introduction of the forward pass as a key offensive strategy. This technique had been legalized in 1906 but was limited in usefulness due to various restrictions. By 1912, rule changes, including the specification of the football’s size and the reclassification of an incomplete pass as a non-turnover, made the forward pass more effective.

Notre Dame, then a small, relatively unknown Midwestern school, faced challenges in gaining recognition and faced biases, including anti-Catholic sentiment. Their 1909 victory over Michigan brought some notoriety. Under coach Jesse Harper, they sought to play against more prominent teams, leading to the match with Army.

The game itself defied expectations. Army was favored, but Notre Dame’s innovative use of the forward pass, particularly between quarterback Charlie Dorais and receiver Knute Rockne, stunned spectators and opponents alike. Dorais’s effective passing and Rockne’s innovative receiving techniques, including the first instances of catching on the run, revolutionized football. Notre Dame won decisively, 35-13.

This victory not only brought national recognition to Notre Dame but also dramatically changed football tactics. The game’s impact extended beyond Notre Dame’s rise in prominence; it marked the beginning of modern football, showcasing the effectiveness and excitement of the passing game. The video concludes with Johnston inviting discussions about other significant games in college football history and encouraging viewers to engage with and share his channel.

Full Transcript:

The 1913 Army Notre Dame featured a new offensive weapon, an upset by an underdog, a little-known school from the Midwest, and one of college football’s most important historical figures. If those weren’t enough, it had a huge impact on the game of college football. The 1913 Army Notre Dame is the subject of this video. I’m Jon Johnston. Welcome to Hardcore College Football History.

The New Offensive The new offensive weapon was the forward pass. The forward pass was legalized in 1906, but the rules then severely limited its usefulness.

Rules changes in 1910 in response to the 1909 crisis made it more of a weapon, but in 1912, for the first time we saw a rules change that stipulated the specific size of the ball. The football changed from being a pro-late spheroid to being the ball that we see today, which is much more capable of being thrown for long distances.

Also in 1912, the rules were changed so that an incomplete pass was no longer a turnover, but only an incompletion. The limitation on the forward pass being only 20 yards in distance was removed in 1912, all of which combined to make the forward pass a more formidable offensive weapon. Despite these changes, few coaches used the forward pass as an integral part of the offense.

Eddie Cochems at St. Louis University in 1907 and 1908 was one of the early innovators, and his quarterback Bradley Robinson were using the pass to great effect. Passing of that time looks nothing like the game we see today, where there were very few spirals thrown. Instead, a quarterback would lob the ball high in the air, much like a punt. The receivers were tight ends and halfbacks, and only those players could receive the ball at that time. And to receive the ball, they would run to a spot and wait for the ball. There was no such thing as a receiver catching the ball on a run, nor a quarterback throwing a ball to a receiver on the run. This would all change in the 1913 Army Notre Dame game. Before we get to the game, we need to further set the stage and understand who Notre Dame was in 1913.

Notre Dame is an enormous brand in college football. It could be argued that they are the only brands so huge nationally that they can play football as an independent while keeping the rest of their sports with a conference, currently the ACC.

We could have many arguments about this, but Notre Dame has done this for decades and has still maintained a very high level of success. And by the way, when I make statements like that, keep in mind I’m looking at this with a mindset of decades in history, not just this year or the past ten years. Notre Dame wasn’t always a national brand. In 1913, Notre Dame was a largely unknown small school in the Midwest.

Notre Dame started playing football in 1887, but they were largely unknown and stuck playing small regional schools in their area of South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame had tried to join the Western Conference in 1908, the Western Conference being the forerunner of the Big Ten. They were rebuffed, partially because of anti-Catholic sentiment at the time. And there are also stories that the rest of the Big Ten found their academic requirements lacking.

Now keep in mind both of those things can be true. And I found one writer that basically said the schools of the Big Ten told Notre Dame to “grow up and get a reputation.”

In 1909, Notre Dame upset Michigan 11-3. This gained them some notoriety because Michigan had established themselves nationally.

And there was a game scheduled against Michigan in 1910, but it was canceled less than 24 hours before the game with Notre Dame players on their way to Michigan. The complete story of Notre Dame and Michigan in 1910 will be the subject of another video. Suffice it to say that the two teams were ticked off enough that Michigan and Notre Dame wouldn’t play again until 1942. Notre Dame had hired a new coach, Jesse Harper, in 1913, and he was determined to find bigger named teams to play for Notre Dame, no matter where they were.

Notre Dame had been blackballed by the teams that would make up the Big Ten, so Harper had to call other teams. And in doing so, one of those contacts was Army.

Army needed an opponent for November 1st, and it first balked when Harper asked to be paid. Army relented and offered $600, but Harper held out for $1,000, mainly for travel expenses. Harper stated that he would bring only 18 players, which he did. Each carried their own equipment, which included only 14 sets of cleats. The Notre Dame players traveled by train on the trip that took them two days.

And one of those players was bound for legend.

This is my first video mentioning Knute Rockne. Knute Rockne. Knute Rockne. Which is it? I really wanted to get this right, but it’s not as easy as it seems. The 1940 movie Knute Rockne All American, the one where Ronald Reagan says “When One for the Gipper, where playing George Gipp, pronounces it as a traditional Norwegian pronunciation of Knute.” The book Rockne, The Coach, The Man, The Legend, by Jerry Braunfeld, published in 1976 with the worst cover ever, includes the following inside the front flap.

Knute Rockne. His first name was pronounced Knute. Not Knute, as in Norway, where he was born.

So from that, you get that it’s Knute. I am sure that I will be corrected by Notre Dame fans no matter which I use, so I am going with Knute, because it sounds like it makes me much more knowledgeable.

It’s not as annoying as people who pronounce “Gang-gus” as “Jang-gus,” but we’ll see what the reaction is. It could be fun.

Knute Rockne, heretofore known only as Rockne for the duration of this video, is one of the most storied historical figures in all of college football. He was a star player for Notre Dame, and then he became a legendary coach for Notre Dame. He was killed in a plane crash in 1931, which in some ways imbued his legendary status. And I will have plenty more to say about Rockne and Notre Dame later on this channel.

That means in other videos. I mean, you can’t ignore them. They’re huge.

As for Rockne in 1913, suffice to say that he was one of the N’s who played for Notre Dame as a senior. He and Gus Dorais worked as lifeguards and busboys at Cedar Point Resort in Sandusky, Ohio in the summer of 1913. They spent all their spare time throwing and catching a football.

Remember what I said earlier about how the forward pass was lobbed to stationary receivers? Dorais worked on throwing to Rockne on the run. No one had done this before. As far as receivers, it was typical to catch a ball like you catch a medicine ball, like you have a bread basket for the ball to fall into. There was no catching the ball with your hands like receivers are accustomed to in today’s football. They worked on curl routes. They worked on hitting a receiver on a cut.

They worked so Dorais could hit Rockne on the dead run over the shoulder.

All they did with pitching and catching was earth-shattering stuff. From the book “Wake Up the Echoes” by Ken Rappaport, published in 1975.

Not fast enough to outrun his opponents for scores, Rockne hit upon an idea for getting by the defense.

For example, he would go down on a pass and slip and fall flat on his face. Then when the defensive player had counted him out of the picture, he would jump up and go for his pass. This is one of the earliest variations of the so-called button hook play.

Rockne was also one of the first to develop the system of “ends”, tight ends, running in lanes.

All of these tricks of the trade were tried out and perfected by Rockne and Dorais that summer.

Let’s start with expectations for this game.

Army thought this game was going to be a breather, as did the press. Army’s team outweighed Notre Dame by 15 pounds a man, so it is expected they just run over Notre Dame. A crowd of 3,000 people attended for free.

And the opening series for Notre Dame goes as everyone expects. Notre Dame gets the ball, they run for no gain, then they fumble and Army gets the ball in the 27 yard line. But Army can’t get any more than a yard on three tries. Again from “Wake Up the Echoes”.

After we had stood terrific pounding by the Army line and a trio of backs that charged in like locomotives, we held them on downs. Dorais in a huddle said, “Let’s open up.” I found that statement interesting because the huddle supposedly wasn’t invented for another few years, but let’s move ahead anyway. It was amusing to see the Army boys huddle after a first snappy 11 yard pass had been completed for a first down. Their guards and tackles went tumbling into us to stop line bucks and plunges. Instead, Dorais stepped neatly back and flicked the ball to an uncovered end or halfback. This we did twice in a march up the field, gaining three first downs in almost as many minutes. Our attack had been well rehearsed. After one fierce scrimmage, I emerged limping as if hurt.

On the next three plays, Dorais threw three successful passes in a row to Joe Pliska, our right halfback for short gains. On each of these three plays, I limped down the field acting as if the furthest thing from my mind was to receive a forward pass. After the third play, the Army halfback covering me figured I wasn’t worth watching, even as a decoy. He figured I was harmless. Finally, Dorais called my number, meaning that he was to throw a long forward pass to me as I ran down the field and out toward the sideline. I started limping down the field and the Army halfback covering me almost yawned in my face. He was that bored. Suddenly, I put on full speed and left him standing there, flat-footed.

I raced across the Army goal line as Dorais whipped the ball and the grandstands roared at the completion of the 40 yard pass. Everybody seemed astonished. There had been no hurtling, no tackling, no plunging, no crushing of fiber and sinew. Just a long distance touchdown by rapid transit.

At the moment when I touched the ball, life for me was complete.

We proceeded to make it more than complete.

That’s a fairly long quote, but it sums up the game quite well.

Notre Dame leads it half 14 to 13 to everyone’s astonishment. The Army has no idea what to do on defense.

They try to move their defenders, the guard against the pass, and Notre Dame pounds them with a run. They tried to change their defense to stop the run and Dorais killed them with the pass. Dorais finishes the day with 243 yards, throwing 17 passes and completed 14.

The Irish win 35 to 13. That some of the passes are thrown spirals that travel for 35 to 40 yards shocks everyone in attendance. No one had ever seen that before. It changes the game of football forever.

The New York Times on November 2, 1913 has an article with the headline, “Notre Dame’s Open Play Amazes Army.” The article begins,

The Notre Dame 11s swept the Army off its feet on the plains this afternoon and buried the soldiers under a 35 to 13 score. The Westerners flashed the most sensational football that has been seen in the East this year, baffling the cadets with a style of open play and a perfectly developed forward pass which carried the victors down the field 30 yards at a clip. The Eastern gridiron has not seen such a master of the forward pass as Charlie Dorais, the Notre Dame quarterback. A frail youth of 145 pounds, as agile as a cat and as restless as a jumping jack. Dorais shot forward passes with accuracy into the outstretched arms of his ends, Captain Rockney and Gushertz, as they stood poised for the ball, often as far as 35 yards away.

The yellow leather egg was in the air half the time, with the Notre Dame team spread out in all directions over the field waiting for it. That is the New York Times article. That’s the one that’s most quoted with regards to this game.

In the Indianapolis Star on November 2nd, we see, “Notre Dame gains great victory, beats Army 35 to 13, Hoosiers outclass soldiers in all departments of the game. Touchdown passes, help Catholics to gain.” And then it says, “The cadets were outclassed all around and were completely baffled and bewildered by the wonderful attack displayed by the Westerners.

Gee, it’s almost like they rewrote the same thing from the Times.

Notre Dames’ long forward passing had the Army lads guessing from the first two to the whistle. The Army scored twice in the second period, and that was the only time during the whole game that the cadets looked good. At other times they appeared to be wondering what was to happen next.

And from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle we see,

“forward passes beat West Point. Notre Dame quarterback astonishes Army by his control over a football.” “Open football, as played in the Middle West, was the novelty seen on the gridiron of the cadets here today. The visitors were the players from the University of Notre Dame, of Notre Dame,Indiana.” That is what it says in the article. “An aggregation that ranks this year with Chicago and the Michigan Aggies. They were the most wonderful collection of football players that have been seen on the plains in years, and the fact that they defeated Army by 35-13 did not prevent them from being exceedingly popular with both the cadets and the spectators that crowded the little stands. The popularity was the reward they earned by the wonderfully interesting game that they uncovered. Never before on the eastern gridiron has there been such a marvelous forward passing as was executed by the visitors.”

And I think that’s enough to get the point across. And you kind of get the idea that when they stated literally Notre Dame, Indiana in the article, how little they knew or anyone knew about Notre Dame at the time.

The most immediate impact of this game was that everyone suddenly knew about Notre Dame. The 1909 win over Michigan had made the Midwest aware of the Irish, but this win over Army gave Notre Dame national recognition. Another not commonly mentioned side effect of the game, Dorais employed what we would call intentional grounding to avoid any sacks. If he was in danger of being tackled for a loss, he simply threw the ball into the ground and started the next play as if nothing had happened. Other quarterbacks quickly picked up on this whole wrinkle, and intentional grounding would not be made illegal until 1914. The game marks the beginning of the legend of Newt Rockne.

Or Knute Rockne.

Notre Dame fans may argue it started earlier, but this is the point where Rockne enters into football lore. Whether you like Notre Dame or hate them, Rockne is a legend of the early history of football. He was an incredible coach and an even more incredible self promoter. In the 1940 film, Newt Rockne, All American, it’s implied that Rockne invented the forward pass. When he clearly did not.

But do you know the name of Eddie Cochems of St. Louis University that I mentioned earlier? Probably not. Certainly not compared to Rockne. That’s indicative of how good a self promoter Rockne was, and quite frankly, how good a coach he was. Because of this game the forward pass takes on a new dimension. Consider some of the commentary in the articles I read earlier.

Wonderful attack.

Most sensational football.

Wonderfully interesting game.

And think about what we enjoy about football. Would we enjoy a game where they did nothing but run the ball all the time? You know, some of us would. Certainly passing provides that extra pizzazz.

And there’s nothing like a quarterback hitting a receiver on a bomb for 50 or 60 yards. Which we can do, quite frankly, with ease sometimes today. A lot of that is owed to the 1913 Army Notre Dame game. And Gus Dorais and Newt Rockne. Who showed the world that the game could be played differently. And with grand success, different than it had been in the past decades.

Teams would not be required to mash themselves into each other all the time to win.

I think it’s clear from everything I’ve stated that the 1913 Army Notre Dame game is one of the most important games in college football history. Is it the most important game? It has to be up there. I’m curious as to what other games, other than the obvious like first game of football, you might consider the most important game in college football history. I hope these videos begin discussions on this channel because I think that history is fun. And certainly the fan rivalries that we have regarding our favorite college football team are more fun than most of the rest of what we do in life.

So let me know what you think of the greatest historical games in the comments. I’m Jon Johnston and this is Hardcore College Football History. Please share this channel with your friends who love college football and consider subscribing as I wish to grow. Thank you.