Reflections from the Dome

Harry Stulhldreher, quarterback and leader of the Four Horsemen.

Harry Stulhldreher, quarterback and leader of the Four Horsemen.

This edition of Reflections from the Dome will be a two part presentation of writings on the Four Horsemen's saga. The first is from Francis Wallace's 1949 book entitled The Notre Dame Story, and features George Strickler's (Rockne's student publicity director) version of how he laid the seeds that helped created the Four Horsemen legend.  Next from his book Knute Rockne, Wallace tells the story of the Seven Mules, (the line who blocked for the Horsemen) and gives an analysis of the individual members of the backfield.

 

From The Notre Dame Story (1949):

"I am very grateful to you for the opportunity to bring the Four Horsemen story back into proper perspective. Time and the retelling has distorted some of the facts.

'I had just seen Valentino and the Horseman film again [The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse], (for the fourth or fifth time) the night before we left the campus for New York. Brother Cyprian was showing it in Washington Hall Those Horsemen got me. Especially Bull Montana.

[Editor's note: Rockne often sent his student publicity assistant to the press box at halftime to get a reading on what the sportswriters thought of his teams' play in the first two quarters. It was in here that George found himself with a group of writers who were raving about the Notre Dame great backfield.]

'So I threw into the conversation: 'Just like the Four Horsemen.' "Rice was the only one who picked it up. In later years my appreciation of Granny as a writer and a reporter grew as I recalled that others had the same opportunity to pick up a chance remark and build it into a classic, but missed it entirely.

"My pictures that year were taken by a commercial man named Christman, whose office was on the second floor across from the central fire station on Wayne Street. On Sunday after seeing Granny's story, I wired Christman to be at school the next day (Monday) and also wired my Dad, who worked for the university, to arrange for horses. Dad reserved them from a questionable riding stable run in conjunction with a coal and ice business on the race at La Salle Street, a few doors from Briese's Saloon.

'When I got back to South Bend on Monday afternoon, I dropped off and picked up the steeds. Practice was in session when I reached Cartier Field and the doors were locked. They were not going to let me in at first, but finally opened the gates and I rode thru, disrupting practice while Christman made the now well-known shot.

"Rock gave me hell in a polite way. He thought I had a swell idea. But he objected to the timing-or any timing for that matter, as you well know, that barged unannounced into his practice.

Taking the horses back was a problem. I had never been astride anything but a bicycle up to that time. the trailers pulled me out of the saddle at least six times. Going back they started trotting and finally running as they headed for the 'barn' two miles away and I had all I could do to hang on and holler to everybody to stay out of our way.

'When I returned, I found a telegram from Bill Fox, one from old Joe Vila and one from the editor of the Daily Oklahoamn in Oklahoma City, all suggesting what I had just done.

"If you will look closely at the picture, you will note that Crowley is sitting a little cock-eyed in the saddle. That's because he had the makings of a fine boil on one side of his bloomers."

This next segment introduces our story of the Seven Mules. Also from The Notre Dame Story.

As Edward 'Moose" Krause, a former tackle who is now [1960] director of athletics at Notre Dame, frequently observes in his public statements, 'In any election by a football team, the vote will always be seven to four." The linemen feel that they do the drudge work and that is why a lineman usually becomes, in his senior year, the captain, Cinderella-style. So when horses appeared on the Notre Dame practice field and the immortals posed for posterity, the linemen, standing around, had certain things to say; and one of their jibes was livid enough to live. "We are the Seven Mules who do all the work so these four fellows can gallop to fame." Captain Adam Walsh said it when the reporters heard it. "But I don't know who originated the phrase." Nobody else has ever claimed it so perhaps Adam, who had gone into the Army game with a bone broken in one hand, and come out of it with a small bone broken in the other hand, was just being modest.

Walsh became captain and center of the '24 team. It was he who named the Seven Mules who plowed ahead of the Four Horsemen. How did the Mules arrive at Notre Dame? Guard John Weibel and end Ed Hunsinger both came up from the discard of Interhall. Noble Kizer came, on a basketball scholarship and was a football surprise. Tackle Joe Bach transferred from St. Thomas Military; end George Vergara, a regular in '22 and '23, had played freshman football at Fordham, though Rock did not learn this until later. Vergara, Bach, tackle Rip Miller, and end Chuck Collins were probably results of the Rockne recruiting system which was as casual as this: an ex- player, friend, or alumnus would recommend a boy. If Rock trusted the judgment of the sponsor, he would say: "Send him on."

And he did treat them like a father -a stern father who never spoiled them; a father who taught them to - win honorably; who would apologize if he got too rough. He was director of athletics and interested in all sports; but football was his pet; and track, his first love, became something of an orphan. Frankie Doriot did an imitation of Rock coaching track while spring training was also in session on the field inside the running track. Frankie would put a finger on his button nose to make it resemble Rockne's broken nose. He would, in the loud, stentorian, penetrating voice, with the rising inflections, talk something like this: "Oh, Paul Kennedy, do a little jogging today-that's all, a little jogging, protect that ankle - NICE GOING, DON MILLER - Only cut back quicker next time - Oh, Gus Desch, about twice around tonight, Gus - and you sprinters, I want you to work on getting off those starting blocks better - Oh Carberry - are you playing end or officiating as head linesmen - all right you quarter-milers - the line was as much help on that run as the National Guard in the World War - all right, quarter milers - Paul, you know what to do -"

Rock had eyes in the back of his head, or so the hapless  laggards had reason to believe. Once, he broke up the sideliners - but not the linemen - with this musical question, in an operatic baritone heard for miles around:

                                    Oh where was the line?
                                    Oh where was the line?

And now an anaylsis of the Four Horsemen from Wallace's Knute Rockne (1960).

 

Elmer Layden - fullback

Elmer Layden - fullback

During the '22 spring practice, Rock, and the rest of us, began to get better acquainted with the freshmen. Individuals began to emerge as featured players instead of supernumeraries. Layden, no longer a track man with a trick knee, was now a potential Gipp, though 15 pounds lighter, who could run, pass, and kick. There was worry in inner circles when the report got around, perhaps from Walter Halas, that Elmer was pining for a high-school sweetheart who was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. I did not ordinarily travel to track meets; but when the "thinly-clads" went to Madison that spring, Elmer and I were Road Scholars. I was a private eye with a tailing job to do. But while I was worrying about the sinister girl freshman, Rockne was more interested in the young Wisconsin men who walked about with monogram sweaters. 'Strapping big fellows up here," he would marvel, "Strapping big fellows." 'the mind of the track coach would stray to football, even on road trips.

 

Don Miller - halfback

Don Miller - halfback

After spring practice sessions I would sit in the coaches room alert for priceless pearls for my public. I remember the evening when Rock, as he dressed after his shower, erupted. "Did you see that Don Miller go out there today?" I had also been impressed; and I think this was the first time Rock really saw Don Miller, who had had to pray for a uniform, as varsity material. Don was a very earnest, reticent boy; it is quite possible that, had there been no spring training, which is the period for such experimentation and discovery, he might have been sloughed over in the hurly-burly of the fall; in which case there would have been no Four Horsemen. Nor, perhaps, if Jimmy Crowley had been less devout.

 

Jim Crowley - halfback

Jim Crowley - halfback

Crowley had been caught in a nickel crap game and was bounced out for the spring semester. Instead of going home, he went to Indianapolis, worked on a soda fountain, wrote letters to his mother, sent them to his ex-roommate, Rex Enright, who mailed them from the campus. He came back to summer school made up the Spring work, became eligible - and his family never knew at that time he had been out of school. This sort of faith, devotion, and loyalty, coming out in big games, made big men of little fellows.

Rockne wrote: "How it came to pass that four young men so eminently qualffied by temperament, physique, and instinctive pacing, complement one another perfectly and thus produce the best coordinated and most picturesque backfield in the recent history of football - how that came about is one of the inscrutable achievements of coincidence of which I know nothing save that it's a rather satisfying mouthful of words." The coincidence is ordinarily held about equal to that of quads turning up in a family. I don't quite agree. Rockne had a backfield in '29 and '30 that missed the perfection of the Horsemen only because the fullback job was divided. The 1920 quartet wasn't bad, either. Pitt had its Dream Backfield and there have been other exceptional foursomes.

Much of gridiron fame is accidental. The great units all had the advantage of playing together for two or three years; of playing on well-publicized teams. The fact that Rockne had three such groups in his thirteen years of coaching is high tribute to his coaching; and adds support to my claim that he was a gridiron Vulcan who could weld invincible units from material other coaches would develop into mere adequacy. The Four Horsemen, however are, after thirty-six years [book was written in 1960], and probably will always remain the nonpareil because they resulted from a series of accidents, involving many creative people, not likely to be repeated. Now let's watch it work out.

Even though he was the last of the four to develop a face of his own for Rockne, Don Miller was the first to win a regular job; for the simple reason that he had less opposition. Danny Coughlin, the regular right halfback of the preceding year, had graduated; Castner, who had divided the position with Coughlin in the late going, had been moved to fullback in'22; and Tom Lieb, a backfield swing man, was being moved to tackle. Remaining was Red Maher, always a fine back, but a lightweight. Don Miller had sharpened his speed in indoor track; he was ready - and made the most of the door which had suddenly swung open during spring practice.

Stuhldreher had first caught Rock's eye. "He was a good and fearless blocker, sounded like a leader on the field and, as he gained in football knowledge, showed signs of smartness in emergencies." But Frank Thomas was an experienced senior, a deceptive runner and, as his coaching career revealed, had a big football brain. Rock always gave the edge to the senior in case of reasonable doubt; so Thomas was the starter while Stuhldreher literally sat at the coach's feet in the early parts of the early games, receiving the schooling he needed. There was no doubt in my mind that Stubldreher would become first string before the season got too far along; but Rockne the diplomat had a fine talent for playing such situations. He was particularly careful in this instance because the quarterback was his vicar on the field. He wanted his quarterback to be respected at all times. The quarterback was never a target for Rockne's public sarcasm.

Crowley and Layden were destined to be rivals as players, as coaches, as candidates for the head coaching job at Notre Dame and as Commissioners of the two professional groups-the National Football  League and the All-American Conference. The left halfback under Rockne was key man of the attack, the triple-threater who ran, kicked, and passed. Layden had greater speed and was a longer punter. Crowley was a truly great open-field runner, a shade better passer; and probably the best blocker of the quartet.

The friendship of the Four Horsemen has become legendary but there must have been a touch of nobility in their relationship from the beginning. Throughout their three years together they seemed to take turns, like a stage quartet, in sharing the spotlight. And that couldn't have happened if there had been any individual shirking or jealousy. Miller was first to take off as a sophomore with a running day against St. Louis. Layden and Crowley were sharing the left half job; but Jimmy jumped out with a quite remarkable performance against Purdue. Rockne wrote: "Crowley astonished Purdue a great deal and me a great deal more with the liveliest exhibition of cutting, jumping, side-stepping, change of pace and determined ball- toting that I had seen in many a day."

The coach was being restrained. This is what I wrote after the 34-7 victory over DePauw the next week: 'Coach Knute Rockne knew what to do when his charges were threatened by DePauw Saturday - he sent in James Crowley. Crowley did to DePauw what he did to Purdue a week ago.

'He is hailed as the 'wonder boy' of Notre Dame. Only a sophomore, he handles himself on the gridiron with all the ease and ability of the best of veterans. He is a lad born to the football purple. He is a Rockne product.

Physically, just a boy and not a big boy, either; mentally just an average college student; more than an average sense of humor; emotionally - there it is. Emotion is the being which knits physical and psychological faculties; it is different in different men and accounts for their varying personalities. In Jimmy Crowley it has developed an unusual, paradoxical complex.

'Watch him stand in the backfield, seemingly asleep - his eyelids add the illusion. Listen to the quarterback call signals-no sign from Jimmy. The backfield heps into the first step of the shift - Jimmy reluctantly moves with them. The ball is snapped - whzz! The emotional switch has been pulled. Off around end quicker than thought. When a tackle hits - Jimmy hits too-and let the tackle worry. When a man obstructs his pathway - Jimmy plows into him and does a swan dive through space for a touchdown - if the play is within five yards of the goal. If it is in the open field he lifts one leg about six feet in the air and keeps the other on the ground-without losing speed. How he does it we don't know - doubt if be knows.

He just has football instinct. He has a fearless drive, an angelic courage. He knows no more of fear than an angel does of sin. He was born to the football purple and he can't help what he does. When the Army scouts saw this boy, and saw Don Miller and Harry Stuhldreher and the other Irish kids, there must have been a run on colic medicine at the canteen. Three more years of Rockne and a gang of kids like this - getting better every day! Crowley, Miller, Castner, and Stuhldreher may accomplish wonders next Saturday at Atlanta when they take on the veteran and cunning Georgia Tech players. This outfit has not tasted defeat on its home ground for years and it remains to the Irish to do the trick.' [As mentioned before Castner was hurt in the Butler game, and Layden replaced him in the backfield]

That was to be the pattern for the Four Horsemen - the way they were going to operate for the next twenty-two games, getting better, more confidenent more polished, more aware of one another, more complementary to one another; and more exasperating to opponents who tried to defense four backs, each of whom could run, pass, receive passes, punt if necessary, and block. Stuhldreher had a four-jet backfield and he knew when to touch what buttons.


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