Stagg Had A Prominent Role In The Rise of ND Football

“The game which I have taught….was brought to Notre Dame by Jesse Harper, one of Alonzo Stagg’s best quarterbacks at Chicago.  Stagg brought his game from Yale.  Ergo…Notre Dame football goes back to Stagg and to Yale.”   –Knute Rockne

By Jim Lefebvre, Editor, Forever Irish (

To nobody’s surprise, the Big 10 announced Monday that its newly-created Championship Game trophy, to be awarded the winner of the conference’s first title game Dec. 4 in Indianapolis, is no longer named the Stagg-Paterno Trophy.


Another result of the sex-abuse scandal at Penn State, Paterno’s name on the trophy has been removed, and the winner will simply receive the Stagg Championship Trophy.

While everyone is horrified over how kids were victimized by a tell-no-secrets culture at Happy Valley, surely some football historians feel that the trophy is named properly now.

Now-disgraced coach Joe Paterno won a lot of football games at Penn State but nobody has a record of leadership and innovation that compares with Amos Alonzo Stagg.

And Notre Dame’s legendary coach Knute Rockne would be the first to agree with that statement.

Rockne, certainly, was a visionary himself, and a genius in expanding the popularity of the game from coast to coast.  But he was quick to point to Stagg as the source of many of the biggest advancements in the game.

Stagg, a native of West Orange, New Jersey, played end at Yale from 1885-89 under another iconic early football coach, Walter Camp.  Stagg was a divinity student, a member of the secretive Skull and Bones Society, and was selected to the first All-American football team in 1889.


He coached at Springfield, Mass. College for two seasons before taking over at the University of Chicago in 1892.  By 1899, he had the Maroons winning their first Western Conference championship.

It was a pair of star quarterbacks at Chicago shortly after the turn of the century that helped cement the connection to Notre Dame football.

Jesse Harper played for Stagg from 1902-05, followed by Walter Eckersall from 1904-06.

Harper took what he learned from the master, and was head coach at Alma (1906-07) and Wabash (1909-12) before taking over as the top man at Notre Dame in 1913.  There, he guided a squad featuring senior quarterback Gus Dorais and senior end and captain Knute Rockne to a stunning 35-13 upset at Army in a game that vaulted the forward pass into national prominence.

Eckersall was Stagg’s greatest star for the Maroons, but it was his high school exploits that had attracted numerous fans in the Windy City…including a young Rockne.

Here is how Eckersall is described by author Robin Lester in Stagg’s University:

“The youngster’s rare physical gifts became apparent at Hyde Park High School.  Eckersall set a ten-second-flat Illinois hundred-yard dash record in 1903 that stood until the future Olympian Ralph Metcalfe broke it in 1928. The football teams on which he played there were nationally ranked and contributed many noteworthy players to American collegiate football. One year Hyde Park played Brooklyn (N.Y.) Tech, the best eastern school team, for the “high school national championship” and won 105-0. (fifteen-year-old Knute Rockne sneaked into the ballpark to see his boyhood idol Eckersall play that day). Eckersall was the quarterback and leader of those teams and already a favorite with intercollegiate coaches when he was midway through his secondary school work.”

In Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions, we noted that “Rockne admired Eckersall’s command of football situations, his leadership, and his flair.”

Rockne continued to follow Eckie’s career as he led the Chicago Maroons to a 25-2-1 record over three seasons, with Chicago outscoring its opponents by a combined total of 856–66.  The biggest game was the 1905 finale between Chicago (10-0) and Michigan (12-0).

Eckersall, Chicago’s punter, was the star with his leg that day.  One of his booming punts was fielded in the Michigan end zone, and the return man was thrown back into the end zone for a safety (no forward progress was awarded then).  Chicago won the game, 2-0, ended Michigan’s 56-game undefeated streak, and was declared national champion.

While Eckersall did not catch the coaching bug like Harper and Rockne, he stayed connected to football by becoming a Chicago sportswriter and football referee.  Eckersall, a confidante of Rockne’s for many years, died in 1930.

Stagg, meanwhile, led Chicago to another national championship honor in 1913, as well as several Western Conference titles.  He coached the Maroons for 37 seasons, through 1932, and compiled a record of 224-112-27.  From there, he took his football genius to the West Coast, and guided the College of the Pacific for another 14 seasons.

Stagg’s overall collegiate coaching record was 314–199–35.

Stagg is credited with inventing, or at least contributing to the invention of, a host of innovations, including:  the spiral snap, placement kick, quick kick, T-formation, man in motion, unbalanced line, linebacker position, and end-around.  He was the first to use numbered plays, the first to award varsity letters, and led equipment changes such as hip pads and padded goalposts.


But his greatest contribution was in helping to advance “open play” – a more creative approach to the game that featured quickness and deception, rather than the previous “mass play” that was based on strength and brute force.

Part of this advance was the liberal use of the forward pass, made legal by 1906 rules changes.  Along with Yale’s Camp, Eddie Cochems at the University of St. Louis, and Glenn “Pop” Warner at the Carlisle (PA) Indian School, Stagg was an early adaptor to this new-found strategy.  In 1913, after the rules governing the pass were further loosened, Harper made it a key part of Notre Dame’s strategy, something Rockne continued when he took over the Irish in 1918.

The other key area of strategy was the pre-snap shift.  Many schools were experimenting with various shifts, Dr. Henry Williams at Minnesota among the most successful.  But Stagg was right there with the best.  Rockne added several refinements, and made his “Notre Dame Shift” nearly impossible to defeat.

But Rockne was clear in where the idea originated.

Again, from Stagg’s University:

“Rockne steadfastly claimed…that Stagg was the chief architect of the idea; he credited the Chicagoan for the ‘revolution in football that gave us the shift,’ which he termed the ‘dramatic equalizer between ‘big’ teams and ‘little’ teams.’”

In 1929, Rock gave his most eloquent bouquet to his predecessors:

“The game which I have taught, with some important changes, was brought to Notre Dame by Jesse Harper, whom I succeeded in 1918.  Harper was one of Alonzo Stagg’s best quarterbacks at Chicago.  Stagg brought his game from Yale.  Ergo, just as we all trace back to Adam, so does Notre Dame football go back to Stagg and to Yale.”

Stagg was an original inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame upon its inception in 1951.  He lived to the age of 102, dying on March 17, 1965 in Stockton, California.