ND in Texas: Great from the Start

The 1913 Notre Dame team, led by senior captain Knute Rockne (center, with fooball) was the first ND squad to play a game in Texas — the last contest for Rockne, Gus Dorais and their senior teammates.

When Notre Dame takes on Washington State at the Alamodome in San Antonio this Saturday night, it will be just the 12th time the Fighting Irish have played a regular-season game in the state of Texas.

But in those previous 11 contests, the Irish sport a record of 10-1.  Add to that a 5-2 history in Cotton Bowl games, and ND has an all-time mark of 15-3 in the Lone Star State.

The most recent foray into Texas happened on September 21, 1996, when the ninth-ranked Irish slipped past the sixth-ranked Texas Longhorns, 27-24, before a crowd of 83,312 at the newly-renamed Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.  Lou Holtz was in the final year of his 11-year run as head coach, and current Irish assistant Ron Powlus was quarterback and captain.

The Cotton Bowl has provided some memorable moments in Notre Dame history:

  • The January 1, 1970 Cotton Bowl (Texas 21, ND 17) ended Notre Dame’s 45-year absence from post-season play, the first bowl game since the 1925 Rose Bowl.
  • A year later, the No. 8 Irish knocked Texas out of the national title picture with a 24-11 decision.
  • The Jan. 1, 1979 game was the legendary “chicken soup” game, when quarterback Joe Montana engineered an unlikely fourth-quarter comeback for a miracle 35-34 win over Houston.
  • The Jan. 1, 1994 game, a 24-21 victory over Texas A&M, was Notre Dame’s last bowl victory before a nine-game bowl losing streak, broken last Christmas eve at Hawaii.

Notre Dame’s first visit to Texas was one of its most interesting and historic.  In 1913, Jesse Harper became Irish head coach, and immediately set about scheduling some games against name opponents.  The result was a rather unconventional schedule, which included just three home games, all in October. The Irish scored one-sided victories over Ohio Northern, South Dakota and Alma College, then bid adieu to Cartier Field.

First up was the November 1 battle against Army at West Point, and the biggest victory to date for the program – the 35-13 upset of the mighty Cadets, with senior quarterback Gus Dorais finding captain and senior end Knute Rockne with a series of forward passes. It has long been cited as the game that changed the way college football way played.

It left ND with a 4-0 record, with three games to play. The following week, another strong Eastern unit awaited the Irish visitors. In the rain and mud at State College, Penn., Notre Dame eked out a 14-7 win over Penn State.

Only one two-game trip stood before Harper’s charges and a perfect season. On Friday, November 21, the ND traveling squad boarded a train for St. Louis. The next day, they defeated Christian Brothers College, 20-7. (CBC was the Christian Brothers’ first institution in the U.S. to be granted a college charter. Alas, three years after this game, it was destroyed by a fire that claimed 10 lives, and eventually reopened as a high school only.)

Just one game was left in the careers of Rockne, Dorais and their senior teammates. It was Thanksgiving week, and the Irish continued their trip Southwest, to Austin, Texas, where they would take on the powerful Longhorns of the University of Texas.

And there ND would run into a familiar foe. The young head coach of Texas was Dave Allerdice, an Indianapolis native who had been the captain and star back at Michigan in 1909, when Notre Dame scored its first victory against a truly big-time football foe.

Allerdice was just 25 when hired as Texas coach in 1911 (still the youngest UT coach to this day) and guided the Horns to victory in 19 of his first 22 games. They were on a 12-game winning streak, and in the 1913 season had a mark of 7-0, outscoring the opposition, 243-26.  The previous two weeks, Texas toppled Oklahoma, 14-6, and Kansas State, 46-0.

On Thanksgiving day, the two unbeatens took the field in front of a boisterous crowd. Notre Dame’s reputation as an “aerial circus” preceded it, and Dorais and the Irish did launch 21 passes, completing 10.  But they also stuck to the ground for 77 rushes, and simply ran roughshod over the Longhorns, to a 30-7 triumph.  Dorais complemented his passing by kicking three field goals in seven attempts.

The Jesse Harper era had started with a perfect 7-0 mark in which ND outscored its foes, 268-41. And the era of Knute Rockne the player ended, with the Irish captain garnering third-team All-American honors.  Dorais was a consensus first team All-American, Notre Dame’s first, and junior fullback Ray Eichenlaub was named to the second team.

Two years later, in 1915, ND reprised its Texas inaugural with a two-game trip to the land of 10-gallon hats. A Thanksgiving Day rematch in Austin resulted in a 36-7 pounding of the Longhorns.  Two days later, in Houston, the Irish wholloped Rice, 55-2, to complete a 7-1 season.

Notre Dame’s next trip to Texas did not include any actual football games. In 1924, Rockne’s “wonder team” featuring The Four Horsemen and The Seven Mules, accepted an invitation to play Stanford in the January 1, 1925 Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, California.  It was a bowl trip unlike any before or since – with numerous stops along the way to fete the famous team, and mingle with thousands of alumni, Knights of Columbus members and other Catholics drawn to this group.

From Chicago, the traveling party headed south, with stops in Memphis and New Orleans. Only after the festivities were done there did the train head west, through Texas.   Here is how the trip is described in Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions:

Before departing for Houston on the Sunset Limited just after noon, Rockne thanked New Orleans for its gracious reception, but added that once in Houston, the social calendar would be cleared out and the players would get down to work in preparation for the big game. He also changed the team’s itinerary, skipping the stopover at El Paso in order to get more quickly to Tucson, where he felt the team could establish a base of operation more conducive to working up to game readiness.

Unusual weather continued to precede the team’s travels, as Houston was under a mantle of ice from a storm that dropped temperatures to 22 degrees, the city’s lowest reading in years. Local trains and telegraph services were out, leaving Houston “cut off from the rest of the world,” according to one report.…. But the traveling party pressed on, rolling over Southern Pacific lines on the Sunset Limited and pulling into Houston late Tuesday night. They were greeted by the local Knights of Columbus and taken to the Bender Hotel. A noon banquet on Wednesday, December 24, honored the team, after which a practice at the Rice Institute field elicited more pessimism from Rockne. The team looked soft and slow, he told reporters, due to too many rich meals at banquets and not enough physical exertion.

On Christmas Eve, Father O’Hara tried to lighten the mood by playing Santa Claus for the fellows, giving them each a token of the school’s admiration of them. The team attended midnight Mass at Sacred Heart Church. For most of the players, it was the first Christmas away from home.

The team did get to Tucson, where the weather was better and several good practices ensured. At the Rose Bowl, ND battled the great Ernie Nevers, who seemed unstoppable at times. But the Irish rose to the occasion at the right times, with one fumble returned for a touchdown, and two Elmer Layden TDs on interception returns. The result was a 27-10 triumph, a 10-0 record and the school’s first national championship.

It would not be until 1952 that ND would visit Texas again, for a 14-3 win in Austin. A string of games at SMU from 1949-58 produced some memorable results, including ND’s only regular-season loss in the state, 19-13 to SMU in 1956.

The sting of a 35-10 loss to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl following the 1987 season was wiped out by the 23-game winning streak that followed, including the 12-0 national championship season of 1988.