From "Out of Bounds"
If you had to pick someone from your high school class who was going to spend his college years worrying about choreography, who would it be? Probably that skinny kid with the spectacles who sat by the window, huh? Or the vice-president of the drama club, you know, the guy who couldn't grow hair on his legs. Anybody but the fellows in the letter sweaters, right?
Wrong. At least as far as Rockne was concerned. Rock demanded of his players, especially of his backs, the grace and agility of professional dancers. The Monogram Absurdities, an annual stage farce of singing and dancing student-athletes, was many times the excuse Rockne used to put his charges under the tutelage of a dance instructor . While the players learned a few steps for the stage, they absorbed a smoothness of motion that might later prove invaluable on the field.
Prevailing pigskin philosophy insists that the only real winners are those boring machines that stick to plodding fundamentals. Rockne would have cringed. In his day, a football coach courted public opinion, not flouted it. Always the showman, he choreographed plays that befuddled opponents as well as suited the fans' tastes for flashy football. He paced his attack like a Broadway show. The mainspring of his offense, the backfield shift, was nothing less than a graceful, rhythmic football dance.
Rockne's detractors always note that he didn't invent the shift. It's like saying J. D. Rockefeller didn't invent the oil business. After a few years of experimentation, Rockne retooled the primitive shift he had inherited from Jesse Harper into the most baffling and powerful offense ever seen.
Now, technical descriptions of football are, on par, about as interesting as Your Toaster and How it Works. The Notre Dame shift, however, bears explanation.
The backs lined up in straight T -formation behind a balanced line and shifted left or right to the count of three, usually regrouping in the shape of a box. At the quarterback's signal, the backs counted: "one" -took a step; "two" -jumped into position; "three" -sprang forward at the hike.
The rhythm of the shift was swift, hypnotic, precise; the backs' movements perfectly synchronized. All four shifted with identical actions, all moving as one man. There was never any clue as to who was going to get the ball and where he was going to run. More than discombobulating a defense, the shift worked because Rockne's backs went barreling into the line with a bundle of momentum built up from all that swirling around.
Notre Dame's opponents, many of them helpless before the swift and rhythmic Rockne offense, and not blessed with the talent to shift to the shift themselves, decided to switch battlegrounds. The idea seemed to be, if you can't beat them on the field, legislate them off it. The rules that govern backfield-in-motion today are direct descendants of those stopgap measures instituted to slow down Notre Dame.
The shift was so fast that.a back never seemed to stand still. So, in 1920, the rulesmakers decreed that backs had to have both feet stationary before the snap of the ball. This had all the effect of pouring high octane on a bonfire.
Some officials believed that Rockne's offense worked within the rules; just as many did not. And almost every opposing coach claimed foul whenever the Irish backs shifted into high gear. It was the popular thing to do.
Referees at the 1921 Nebraska game just stopped trying to figure out what was going on in the Notre Dame backfield, and penalized the Irish over two-hundred yards in a weary effort to get the game back to normal. Two games later, Army Mentor Charley Daly complained so bitterly against the shift that Rockne handicapped himself, ordering his quarterback to call every play in the second half from short punt formation. Army didn't stop grousing until they unleashed their own version of the shift against Navy and bested the Middies 7 to zip.
In 1922, Notre Dame's opponents pushed through a rule demanding a full stop in the backfield So that all momentum was lost. A "sufficient pause" was supposed to mark this full stop. What was sufficient? Rockne squawked that, for his opponents, it was just long enough for a defensive adjustment.
But as for stopping momentum, the Irish coach got around that easily enough. His backs leaped into position on "two" and swung their bodies to the side, then forward at the snap, like four strong saplings, bent back and suddenly let loose.
This ended in 1926. An absolute stop was decreed. Swinging and swaying specifically outlawed. Not enough. In 1927, the legislators demanded that (except for a man in motion parallel to the line) backs remain stationary for one second. In case of doubt, officials were instructed to call the penalty. And a shifting team forfeited fifteen yards for illegal motion; a non-shifting team only five.
How it all irritated Rockne! "Football wasn't made for any defensive team," he howled. "But if they keep changing the rules, I'll change too. From the cut of speedy, intelligent, capable players I now coach to the ones with bovine expressions and ox-knuckle ankles, the hippopotamus-catching players that so many schools use today.