The 2020 College football season is in peril due to the uncertainties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. While many aspects of this situation are unsettling to say the least, history does teach some lessons, because this has happened before. In fact a landmark season in Notre Dame football history was significantly altered by the impact of a worldwide pandemic.
After the 1917 season, while WW I was raging in Europe, Jesse Harper retired as head coach at Notre Dame with an impressive 5 season record of 34-5-1. Harper recommended a former player and top assistant coach to be his successor. In short order, A 29 year old was handed the keys to Notre Dame Football team, and the era of Knute Rockne began in South Bend.
Wartime call ups had devastated many College football teams and Notre Dame was no exception. The 1918 squad would return just 4 letterman . Fortunately for Rockne, one of those letterman was George Gipp.
The Notre Dame season commenced in Cleveland on September 26, 1918, against Case Tech. The Irish left with a 26-6 win. George Gipp scored 2 TDs, but it was Earl”Curly” Lambeau who tallied the first TD of the Rockne era. (After the season and a long bout of tonsillitis, Lambeau left Notre Dame and went to work for the Indian Packing Company, a few months later, he started the Green Bay Packers.)
But the promising beginning to the season went on indefinite hold as a pandemic struck the United States in late September. The spread of Spanish Influenza forced the cancelling of sports contests. Also and eerily similar to the US in the era of Coronavirus, most any activity of public assembly in the United States was also prohibited. In South Bend an order was issued on October 11 banning all public gatherings. On October 14, University President Father John W. Cavanaugh announced a ban on travel by any students into South Bend.
“The Spanish Flu” as it was colloquially known, was a savage virus. By the time it had run its course worldwide, 50 million people lost their lives to the scourge. More specifically in the United States, at a time when its population was roughly one third of what it is today, 675,000 died.
Despite the ban on travel by students, the Notre Dame campus was not spared from the virus. About 200 cases spread through the student body, which stood at 1500 at the time. 10 died, including a nun, Sister Claudine, who worked as a nurse in the college infirmary.
As the situation eased up Rockne was desperate to get back to football. A game at Nebraska on November 2 looked to be a go but it was cancelled at the last minute. In order to fill the gap, a game was hastily arranged against Wabash College, located about 140 miles down the road and easily accessible by train ride. Apparently the game was not arranged until Friday night and the ND team on very short notice left the South Bend train station for Crawfordsville, Indiana, at 4 AM Saturday morning.
Finally back on the field after a 36 day stoppage, the Irish took out some pent up frustration on Wabash. By the time the contest finished, the Irish had prevailed 67-7. Gipp and Lambeau scored two touchdowns each and Gipp tallied 119 yards on 16 carries.
Despite the ebbing of the pandemic and the loosening of restrictions at this time, lives continued to be lost. On November 5, University President, Father John W. Cavanaugh , lost his only sister to the virus. He was at her bedside in Ohio, when she succumbed.
On November 9, Notre Dame took on a powerful Great Lakes Naval squad at Cartier Field. It was their only home game of the year. The Irish were considered big underdogs as much of the collegiate talent from around the country was on the naval training center team. One of the Great Lakes players was George Halas, who would later combine with Lambeau to be among the pioneers that started the NFL.
A hard fought contest that day ended in a 7-7 tie. Gipp missed a 40-yard field goal that which would have been the game winner. He carried the ball 15 times for 69 yards.
On November 11, 1918 the Armistice was signed in France bringing about an end to WW I. A loosening of student travel into South Bend occurred a few days later when Student Army Training Corp (SATC) Cadets were permitted to leave campus to participate in a celebratory parade.
With the War over, and the pandemic slowing, football continued, but weather became an issue. Michigan Agricultural College (present day Michigan State) was next up on the schedule on November 16. A rainy day and sloppy field in East Lansing, and an injury to Gipp contributed to the first of only 12 defeats Rockne had in his 13 seasons, by a score of 13-7.
The 2-1-1 Irish then traveled to Purdue for a game which had been cancelled from October. The Irish on that day earned what Rockne called “supremacy of the state” with a convincing 26-6 win. Gipp turned in a performance similar to other occasions in his career, when he seemed to play better when hurt. The week prior he had been badly beat up and suffered what was described as a “broken blood vessel” on his face. No matter to Gipp, he performed brilliantly with 137 yards on 19 carries and 2 touchdowns. He also threw a touchdown pass.
The pandemic shortened season ended the next week on November 28th in Lincoln, Nebraska. City officials there had relented and allowed the game to be rescheduled. Weather again was factor. On a cold day the snow fell, and the Irish in many ways dominated, but the game ended in a 0-0 tie. Notre Dame converted 12 first downs, amazingly Nebraska converted 0. Gipp played outstanding football, 15 carries for 76 yards, and 65 yards passing. He punted the ball 12 times. The Irish had one score called back by a disputed call and a second one stopped by an inadvertent whistle.
After the previously successful five years of Jesse Harper, Rockne’s first season ended with a so-so 3-1-2 record. And some things never change because there is evidence that grumbling was heard around South Bend about the lackluster final tally. Record wise it was an unremarkable debut for Rockne indeed, but the landmark season of his first year as a head football coach was remarkably impacted by war, weather and……a pandemic.