At What Moment Did ND Football ‘Arrive’?

There’s a lot of talk these days about Notre Dame’s role and identity as the nation’s most prominent Catholic university.

But long before Presidential appearances, national institutes or the notion that Notre Dame is “where the Church does its thinking,” it was ND football that brought this small, sometimes struggling, men’s school in northern Indiana into the nation’s awareness.

What, exactly, was the pivotal moment for the “arrival” of ND football?

Many would instinctively answer “of course, the Army game of 1913.  Dorais to Rockne. 35-13.  Eleven (or 13) pairs of cleats for 18 players. “  And certainly, the shocking upset on the Plains of West Point will always rank among the greatest of Fighting Irish victories.

But four years earlier, in 1909, there was a game that set into motion so much of what Notre Dame football was to become.  All this year, Forever Irish will celebrate the centennial of the surprising, inspiring 11-3 victory over mighty Michigan on November 6, 1909.


The football histories of Michigan and Notre Dame have been intertwined since the very beginning of the sport at both schools. An 8-0 loss to the Wolverines in 1887 is ND’s first officially recorded game. The following spring, a Michigan squad came to South Bend and helped teach the game to ND, winning a pair of games by scores of 26-6 and 10-4.

Overall, from that start in 1887 through the 1908 season, Notre Dame faced the teams of the Western Conference 37 times. The result – an overall record of 10-23-4.

The rare victories were primarily against Indiana and Purdue.  (A series of wins against Michigan Agricultural College, which would join the conference decades later as Michigan State, is not included in this total.)

Against the conference heavyweights, it was another story, namely 0 wins in 15 tries:

–four matchups with the University of Chicago between 1893 and 1899 resulted in four Maroon victories by a combined score of 83-11;

–three times between 1900 and 1905, Notre Dame ventured into Wisconsin, only to be drubbed by the powerful Badgers, 54-0, 58-0 and 21-0.

–and, starting with the 1887 game, Michigan and ND battled eight times, with the Wolverines winning each time, five by shutout, and compiling an overall margin of 121-16.


Among the closest of the Michigan victories over ND, however, was a 12-6 squeaker in 1908, indicating that the lads from South Bend were getting closer to the Wolverines’ level. But even after Coach Frank “Shorty” Longman and the Irish began 1909 with four wins, they were underdogs heading off to Ann Arbor’s Ferry Field.

There, led by the heroics of halfback Harry “Red” Miller – the first of five football-playing brothers from Defiance, Ohio to play for Notre Dame – and fullback Robert E. “Pete” Vaughan, Longman’s squad held the favored Wolverines in check and walked off with an 11-3 triumph.

Vaughan, 6-foot, 190 pounds from Crawfordsville, Indiana, scored the decisive touchdown on a short plunge through the line. In the years that followed, a legend developed that “Vaughan smashed through the Michigan line with such force that his head broke the wooden goal post.” Vaughan would later argue that it must have been his shoulder – if it had been his head, he wouldn’t likely be functioning too well in his adult years.

(And function well Vaughan did. He left Notre Dame for an opportunity to attend school at Princeton, where he starred for the Tigers and helped coach the freshman team. He later played some semi-pro and pro football and basketball, and coached military football squads during the Great War. Vaughan returned to Crawfordsville and had great success coaching football and basketball for the Little Giants of Wabash College.)

In any case, at many pep rallies and other gatherings of students through the 1910s and 1920s, Rev. Mathew Walsh would attempt to capture the fighting spirit of Notre Dame men by dramatically telling and re-telling the story of “the time Pete Vaughan fought so hard he took down the Michigan goal post.”

Michigan Coach Fielding Yost did not take the defeat lightly. He had already been in a dispute with the Western Conference, which kept Michigan on the Conference sidelines from 1907-16. Yost abruptly canceled the 1910 meeting with Notre Dame, and by alleging various improprieties, influenced Conference teams not to schedule ND for another seven seasons. The Irish would not meet another Conference team until a 0-0 tie with Wisconsin in 1917, under Jesse Harper.

But that break in the schedule helped advance what would become the signature feature of Notre Dame football – is willingness to play any opponent, any time, any place. The schedule soon became filled with not just the usual regional tussles vs. schools such as Wabash and Ohio Northern, but intersectional battles with national powers including Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Penn State, Texas, Nebraska and….starting in 1913, the Army.

The course was set for Notre Dame to become a truly national football team….and eventually a national university.