Sports Book Review – Notre Dame and the Game That Changed Football

A departure from our usual home renovation, energy conservation and money saving articles today.

Since we are quickly closing in on the BCS championship in college football and Notre Dame has finished its 2010 college football season with its game against the Miami Hurricane in the Sun Bowl, I thought I would write about the following book which I received for Christmas and just finished reading:

Notre Dame and the Game That Changed Football: How Jesse Harper Made the Forward Pass a Weapon and Knute Rockne a Legend, by Frank P. Magio.

Wow, what a long title. icon smile Sports Book Review   Notre Dame and the Game That Changed Football

Notre Dame Football cover Sports Book Review   Notre Dame and the Game That Changed Football

To me, the title is all wrong. Yet that is the only thing of significance I found wrong or poor with this book.

Sure, there is a chapter or so about the November 1, 1913 football game between Army and Notre Dame played at West Point in which the forward pass used in a sophisticated passing attach resembling modern day college and professional football.

However, this book really is a fitting tribute to Jesse Harper where Mr. Harper is really the focus of the book.

Now, this book is really in two parts.

The first part (about the first two fifths of the book) is an excellent description of the evolution of the game of college football into the current day version, the roll of Walter Camp in shaping most of the rules we use today, of his strong aversion to changing the rules to allow the use of the forward pass in a significant way, etc.

The second part of the book (the remaining three fifths) focuses on Jesse Harper the man, the coach before and during Notre Dame, his relationships with various Notre Dame leadership figures, with Knute Rockne as a player on his first team (the 1913 team!) and as his assistant coach, and his life after Notre Dame.

There is a lot of information included in the book that was new to me, including:

  • There were several evolutions of football rules in the early 1900′s to open up the game including those added in 1912 of going to 4 downs, removing the 20 yard limitation on the forward pass, reducing the field length from 110 to 100 yards with a 10 yard end zone, allowing a forward pass to be caught in the end zone, increasing a touchdown from 5 to 6 points, reshaping the football to be more aerodynamic
  • Knute Rockne was not a unanimous choice to replace Jesse Harper
  • Notre Dame had a good football team (against midwest teams) immediately prior to Jess Harper becoming Head Coach
  • George Gip, Notre Dame’s first All American, was actually ‘discovered’ on campus on a baseball scholarship received from Jesse Harper during Harper’s last year at Notre Dame when Knute Rockne was his assistant coach
  • For all the success of the passing game against Army in 1913, Jesse Harper still employed the running game to a much greater extent, sometimes only having a few passes in entire games.

There was a lot of information about Jesse Harper that I never knew, such as:

  • The 1913 season in which the famous Army – Notre Dame game was played was his first at Notre Dame when he was only 29 years old
  • He left after the 1917 season to take over the operation of his father-in-law’s farm
  • He returned as the Athletic Director for the two years immediately preceding Knute Rockne’s death
  • He began the national schedule in his very first season with away games at Army, Penn State and Texas followed by games in the remaining years against Yale, Syracuse, Nebraska, and Rice among others
  • His philosophy of the student athlete vs athletic student, and
  • His continuous mentorship and friendship with Knute Rockne

This book is a good read and I recommend it for anyone interested in the history of college football or Notre Dame.

My greatest take-away from the book is a new found respect and admiration for Jesse Harper the man and his contribution to the University of Notre Dame.

While he never won a national football championship during his short tenure as Head Football Coach, I look forward to the day when is stature appears somewhere on the campus of the small university in Indiana; it rightly belongs there in my opinion just as much as Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Devine and Holtz.

Knute Rockne Statue 02 Sports Book Review   Notre Dame and the Game That Changed Football

The statue does not have to be by one of the gates of Notre Dame Stadium since Mr. Harper never one a national championship. Perhaps one like the other statue I found on the campus of Mr. Rockne like the one pictured below, shiny nose and all rubbed by the ND students on game day for good luck:

Rockne Memorial Sports Book Review   Notre Dame and the Game That Changed Football

However, perhaps it can be some where else on campus such as inside the Purcell Pavilion since Mr. Harper was a Director of Athletics and coach of more than just the football team.

So, in one respect the fact that the shot title of the book does not include the name of Jesse Harper is fitting since he is under-recognized in the world of Notre Dame as well as College football. As well, does it feel right having Our Lady play second fiddle to any individual?

Then again, perhaps simply changing the title needs to be done to give credit where credit is due, be more applicable to the focus of the book and be just a little shorter. Perhaps its title should be:

Jesse Harper, Notre Dame and the Game That Changed Football

Everyone knows the game that changed football. And if they don’t, not giving them a hint in the title just might make them curious. icon smile Sports Book Review   Notre Dame and the Game That Changed Football

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