Air Raid. Run and shoot. Basketball on grass. This generation of offensive innovation has turned football loose, with passing offenses now the preferred methodology for eating up yardage and scoring points. While there will always be ground-based attacks, many of the most successful offenses are set up by throwing the football, spreading the defense out with the threat of a quarterback challenging the defense with a one of the basic elements of today’s football: The forward pass.
The game can thank former Irish coach Knute Rockne for that. That’s because one-hundred years ago tomorrow, with Rockne captaining and basically co-coaching a team led by Jesse Harper, a roster of 18 left South Bend via train and took down an Army team using the forward pass as an offensive weapon, not just a last-ditch effort.
Undermanned and physically inferior, the passing game shocked Army, with Rockne and quarterback Gus Dorais shocking the Cadets 35-13. Rockne biographer Jim Lefebrve takes us back to the seminal moment in football, giving us this excerpt from his book Coach For A Nation.
Over the next few years, rules and strategies changed, and gradually more colleges played an “open game.” One element of change, the forward pass, was attempted by a handful of schools, most notably by Coach Eddie Cochems at St. Louis University in 1906. But passing, by rule, was a risky proposition, and seen more as a desperation move than a means of consistently advancing the football.
Until that November day on the Plain of West Point. Rockne and his pal, senior Notre Dame quarterback Charles “Gus” Dorais, operated as coaches on the field for Irish boss Jesse Harper. And when Dorais declared, “Let’s open it up,” his teammates were ready. The 5-foot-7, 150-pound Dorais began flinging a series of passes, increasingly longer, to receivers running defined pass routes. When he let loose a spiral that followed a long arc into the arms of a racing Rockne, who finished the 45-yard-play in the Army end zone, the crowd—yes, the crowd at West Point—roared.
“Everybody seemed astonished,” Rockne would later write. “There had been no hurdling, no tackling, no plunging, no crushing of fiber and sinew. Just a long-distance touchdown by rapid transit.”
Dorais and Rockne, who had practiced their pitch-and-catch routine on the Lake Erie beach while working at Cedar Point resort in Ohio that summer, led Notre Dame to a shocking 35-13 upset of the Army.
Notre Dame, and college football, would never look back.
The tradition of Notre Dame was built from moments like these, as Rockne, one of the game’s first stars and one of its pioneering innovators spread his system across the country.
His changes were hardly limited to Xs and Os. As Lefebvre recounts, Rockne helped bring into play home-and-away colors for jerseys, numbers on uniforms, loud speakers in stadiums and game programs, a large factor in the game’s spreading popularity after it was nearly shut down by the government for its danger.
So tomorrow, as you’re stashing away the last of your Halloween candy, be sure to tip your cap to Rockne and that 1913 Notre Dame team. Offensive innovators everywhere should thank him.
Special thanks to Jim Lefebvre for sharing his work with us. To purchase Jim’s biography, please head to his website CoachForaNation.com.