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New York Sports Lit Notre Dame Lore

New York Sports Experience Exclusive

In December 2020, four months after former New York Jets head coach Lou Holtz was a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

In 1976, this development would have likely proven inconceivable by Jets fans. That year, Holtz notched only three wins in 13 games in his only season with the Jets.

Holtz went on to serve as head coach of Notre Dame’s storied football program, at a university whose reputation has been significantly boosted by New York sports developments.

Lou Holtz appears as the new head coach of the New York Jets, at the 21 Club in Manhattan on February 10, 1976

 

The famous Notre Dame rallying cry “Win one for the Gipper,” borrowed as a political slogan for the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, rose from sports action at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Francis (Frank) Wallace, the New York sportswriter who introduced the Gipper story that became legend, is also credited with Notre Dame’s acceptance of the now-iconic Fighting Irish nickname.

 

“We may always be worthy of the ideal embodied in the term ‘Fighting Irish'”

Military units from the 69th Regiment in Midtown Manhattan, who did battle in the Civil War, World War I and other conflicts, may have helped deliver the nickname to Indiana-based Notre Dame. The regiment’s Fighting Irish moniker, a reference to many Irish immigrant members, predates Notre Dame’s. The nickname was in use starting years before the regiment’s massive and still-standing 69th Regiment Armory was opened on Lexington Avenue in 1906.

Soldiers exit from the front entrance of the Fighting Irish’s 69th Regiment Armory in Manhattan on August 20, 1917

Longtime New York City sports columnist Jimmy Cannon was among the New York City natives who saw the connection. “We were proud of Notre Dame because they were called the Fighting Irish, just as we were honored because the 69th regiment was referred to as an Irish outfit,” Cannon wrote in 1956, nearly half a century after he was born in Manhattan.

After Wallace graduated from Notre Dame in 1923, he landed in Manhattan as a sportswriter for the New York Post. He was unhappy with such Notre Dame nicknames as Ramblers and Rovers. Used by news outlets to describe the long distances the football team would travel via ground transportation to many away games, the names struck Wallace as insinuations that Notre Dame players were not as dedicated to school work as other college athletes.

While the Fighting Irish was being used by some reporters to describe Notre Dame football, Wallace failed at the Post to gain traction for his contrived Blue Comets nickname for the team. In 1927, Wallace moved from the Post to New York’s larger-circulation Daily News, embraced the Fighting Irish name and, in doing so, convinced others throughout the country to do the same.

Wallace’s move was the tipping point for the school. The same year, Notre Dame’s president gave his blessing, stating, “The university authorities are in no way averse to the name ‘Fighting Irish’ as applied to our athletic teams… I sincerely hope that we may always be worthy of the ideal embodied in the term ‘Fighting Irish.'”

For a dozen years starting in 1918, the Notre Dame football program was well known because of fiery head coach Knute Rockne, a former Fighting Irish player-captain. Following Notre Dame football’s undefeated season in 1919, for which it would be awarded a couple retroactive national championships, the team’s visits to the New York were always a popular draw.

Army, based in Greater New York, would become the Fighting Irish’s biggest rival. Subway Alumni, the nickname now standard to describe Notre Dame supporters in and out of the United States who never attended the college, started with New Yorkers who took the subway to Notre Dame-Army games.

In addition to winning seasons and a geographically widening schedule that Rockne requested, the school’s football rise is due in large part the result of famed motivational speeches by Rockne and the coach’s ability to land favorable coverage of the team by newspaper and radio reporters in large markets outside the school’s South Bend home.

Rockne saw major benefits in having a hustling student publicist for each of his teams, to pitch stories and arrange photo opportunities. Wallace had served as Rockne’s student press aide, and recognized the media and marketing power of New York City.

“The Four Horsemen Rode Again”

A year after Wallace graduated from Notre Dame, Grantland Rice, writing for the New York Herald Tribune in his popular nationally syndicated column, introduced the nickname the Four Horsemen in reference to four seniors who played in the Notre Dame backfield in a game versus Army at Manhattan’s Polo Grounds.

On October 18, 1924, the four players — Jim Crowley, Elmer Layden, Don Miller and Harry Stuhldreher — led the Fighting Irish to a 13-7 upset win en route to an undefeated Notre Dame season. The game brought the only defeat of the year for Army.

George Strickler, Rockne’s student publicist after Wallace graduated, had suggested the Four Horsemen nickname to Rice in New York. During game week, Strickler had seen The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a feature film about the biblical figures of Death, Pestilence, Famine and War. At halftime at the Polo Grounds, Strickler offered the analogy to a group of reporters that included Rice.

In a story about the contest that appeared on the front page of the Herald Tribune, Rice wrote, “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon, as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.”

In his 2010 Notre Dame football book The Gipper, veteran New York Times sportswriter Jack Cavanaugh reports Rice’s Four Horseman line “is considered the most memorable, and best, lead ever written by a sportswriter under deadline pressure.

With a boost from Strickler, who coordinated a photo of the four players on horseback two days after the game, the nickname was cemented. The quartet rode the recognition for years after college. For one-game contracts, they joined existing professional teams that would advertise that the games featured the Four Horsemen. “One week, we each made $4,000,” Miller recalled years later.

Eighty four years after the Four Horsemen game at the Polo Grounds, a United States postage stamp with the 1924 photo of the players on horseback was issued in commemoration of the foursome.

“Out of this came the legend of ‘The Gipper'”

On November 10, 1928, Notre Dame came to Yankee Stadium for its final game of the season, with two losses versus undefeated Army. At the stadium, Rockne reportedly delivered his now-iconic “Win one for the Gipper” speech, invoking a nickname for the late George Gipp. In 1920, the same year he became first Fighting Irish All-America football player of the 1920s, halfback Gipp died of pneumonia at age 25.

The Fighting Irish went on to upset Army, 12-6. After a scoreless first half, Notrre Dame’s Jack Chevigny had scored on a short touchdown run. Wallace would write that Chevigny shouted “One for the Gipper” immediately following the touchdown.

Many accounts, including in Rockne’s 1931 autobiography, have Chevigny scoring the winning touchdown. In reality, teammate Johnny O’Brien did. Rockne said when he had visited a dying Gipp in the hospital, Gipp asked the coach to tell Notre Dame players to win for Gipp as motivation against Army. With Army an annual opponent that had defeated Notre Dame in 1925 and 1927, many question why Rockne waited eight years after Gipp died. No media reports filed the day of the 1928 game mention the speech.

Wallace was the first to report of Rockne’s address, after he said Joseph Byrne, a top Notre Dame alumni representative, told him about it over Sunday drinks the day after the game, at the Ritz Carlton hotel on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Although many accounts have the speech being delivered at halftime — including on a walkway plaque outside the location of the original Yankee Stadium — Wallace wrote that the speech came before kickoff.

“Football people knew that Rockne would fire the boys up in his speech before the game,” reported Wallace in time for a Sunday evening edition of the Daily News. Wallace, who would become president of the Notre Dame Alumni Association in 1949, said Byrne was among those present at the pre-game speech.

In his Daily News story, Wallace wrote, “This is what he told them — and then, perhaps, you can understand the cold forgetfulness of self of those Irish kids. ‘On his deathbed George Gipp told me that some day, when the time came, he wanted me to ask a Notre Dame team to beat Army for him.”

Perhaps sensing that some readers may have been skeptical, Wallace continued, “It was not a trick. George Gipp asked it. When Notre Dame’s football need was greatest, it called on its beloved ‘Gipper’ again.”

Wallace’s details were made even sharper thanks to headlines crafted by Daily News sports copy editor Harry Schumacher. A banner headline read, “Gipp’s Ghost Beat Army.” A subhead reported, “Irish Hero’s Deathbed Request Inspired Notre Dame.”

Celebrated New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin would write many years later about Wallace’s Daily News piece, “the story of George Gipp soon became an American legend, as common to sports fans as a familiar fairy tale is to a sleepy-eyed youngster. The Gipp myth gained fantastic momentum through an era of newspaper sports writing that saw athletes likened in print to Greek gods. Out of this came the legend of ‘The Gipper.'”

Hank Anderson is among those who have questioned reports about the words attributed to Gipp, a noted gambler and playboy. Anderson would serve as Notre Dame’s head coach in the early 1930s, had been a teammate of Gipp and, according to Kavanaugh in The Gipper, was “the last player to visit and talk with Gipp before he died. ‘I doubt very much he would have said that,’ Anderson told the author shortly before he died in 1978. Anderson and some others who knew him best said it would have been out of character for Gipp, even on this deathbed, to have made such a request to Rockne.”

The call to “Win one for the Gipper!” was not part of the public story of the speech until Rockne reported a similar line in a 1930 story ghostwritten for him for Collier’s magazine a year before Rockne died in a plane crash. Collier’s was a national weekly magazine, with its editorial offices in Manhattan.

The Collier’s story claims Gipp told Rockne, “I’ve got to go, Rock. It’s alright. I’m not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.”

Knute Rockne, All American

Wallace’s report of the speech differs from its portrayal in the 1940 feature film Knute Rockne, All American. The movie places the speech during halftime, which aligns with Rockne’s autobiography.

In the film, the inspiration for Rockne’s speech was dramatized by Ronald Reagan, who played Gipp. The Gipper name became semi-synonymous with Reagan, who always claimed Gipp was his favorite role and promoted the connection during his successful campaigns for the United States presidency.

The line came nearly full circle in 2004, 80 years after Madison Square Garden played host to the only Republican National Convention held in New York before or since.

Among the more memorable Garden scenes from the Republican convention, where George W. Bush accepted his party’s second presidential nomination, were from the third night. During a memorial for Reagan, who had died the same summer, many delegates and other attendees, including former president George H. W. Bush and his wife Barbara Bush, hoisted signs that read, “WIN ONE FOR THE GIPPER.”

Barbara Bush displays a Gipper sign at the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden[/caption