After the 1917 season an impressive five year run for the Irish ended when Jesse Harper retired as the Notre Dame head football coach. The reigns of the team were handed to his 29 year old assistant, Knute Rockne.
Thousands of college age men at the time were in Europe fighting World War I and Rockne’s first team in 1918 would return just 4 lettermen. Fortunately for him, one of those players was a fellow by the name of Gipp, George Gipp.
The season commenced in Cleveland on September 26th with a 26-6 win over Case Tech. Curley Lambeau scored the first ever TD of the Rockne era and Gipp then added two of his own.
And then the pandemic hit, the Spanish Flu. Games were canceled, and the nation was locked down. In much of the world most any public assembly was prohibited. In mid- October, Notre Dame President Father John Cavanaugh prohibited travel by any students into South Bend. By the time the savage Spanish flu ran its course, worldwide 50 million people lost their lives. In the US at a time, when the population was about one third of what it is today, 675,000 died. Notre Dame in 1918, had about 1500 students. 200 fell ill, 10 died.
No games were played in the month of October. But by November, Rockne was desperate to get back to football. A game at Wabash, located a short train ride down the road from South Bend was scheduled on a Friday and played the next day, Saturday November 2. The Irish won 67-7. Gipp and Lambeau scored 2 TDs each.
On November 5, pandemic tragedy struck close to home as Father Cavanaugh lost his only sister who resided in Ohio, to the virus. But football was back in business and on November 9th ND took on a powerful Great Lakes Naval squad at home. The game ended in a 7-7 tie. Gipp just missed a 40 yard FG that would have been the game winner.
Next up was a trip to East Lansing to take on Michigan State. That day Rockne suffered the first of only 12 total defeats in his 13 seasons, by a score of 13-7. An injury to Gipp and a rain-soaked field contributed to the loss.
The 2-1-1 Irish then traveled to Purdue and the Irish that day earned a convincing 26-6 victory. Gipp threw for a TD and ran for 2 others.
The pandemic shortened season ended the next week on November 28th in Lincoln, Nebraska. There on a day that featured cold and snow, the Irish and the Cornhuskers battled to a 0-0 tie. Amazingly ND converted 12 first downs on the day, Nebraska exactly, zero. George Gipp, in the game, punted the ball 12 times.
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 new head coach and the Irish navigated a season which was profoundly impacted, by the Spanish flu Pandemic.