The “Head Man,” the rivalry, and a great tradition
It is true that Red Grange, the “Galloping Ghost” of Illinois, was a phenomenon in the mid-1920s. Crowds at Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State, and throughout the Big 10 Conference were huge. But Grange’s greatest impact is felt on the professional game. It was his presence that translated the enormous crowds of his college career to the young National Football League, thus ensuring the NFL’s success.
The college game, however, was turned into a truly national game by the rivalry between USC and Notre Dame, and that rivalry was marked from the beginning by the two coaches, Knute Rockne and Howard Jones.
“SC wanted to get Knute Rockne,” said Ambrose Schindler, the quarterback from 1936–1939, “and he said, ‘No, but a young man who just beat me is Howard Jones.’ He beat Notre Dame 7–6 and Rockne recommended Howard Jones to the university.”
Getting Notre Dame to agree to play his team was the task that Jones gave to USC student manager Gwynn Wilson in November 1925. Notre Dame was in freezing cold Lincoln, Nebraska, for a season-ending game with the Cornhuskers. Wilson and his young wife took the Sunset Limited to Lincoln to ask Rockne for the game.
Wilson could not get to the busy Rockne at the stadium or anywhere in Lincoln. Notre Dame’s loss had Rockne in a less-than-jovial mood, anyway. He boarded the train Notre Dame was taking back to Chicago. With Rockne “captive” in the train, and able to relax with the game now over, Wilson approached him, got the audience, and made his pitch.
Rockne was respectful and told Wilson the Trojans had gotten a great coach in Jones, but that the administration at Notre Dame was already giving him a hard time about putting the team on the road so much. Notre Dame Stadium was not yet built, and the audience demand to see them play required that they travel. Wilson may have gotten Rockne to agree had he painted a vivid picture of the enormous crowds that would see the teams play at the new Coliseum and at Soldier Field, but Wilson was unable to make the sale. He returned to his compartment, wondering how he would explain his “failure” to Jones.
Enter Mrs. Marion Wilson[AU: Why italics?for effect] and Mrs. Bonnie Rockne. On a train filled with football players, football coaches, football writers, and football fans, they found in each other women and kindred spirits. Gwynn found his wife engaged in excited conversation with the coach’s wife, and was delighted at what they were talking about: shopping.
Yes, shopping, for it was shopping that started the USC-Notre Dame game. Mrs. Rockne liked to shop. She liked to travel. She liked to travel to warm weather places. She had just spent the day freezing her you-know-what off in a town that had no shopping! Mrs. Wilson, bless her, painted a colorful picture of Rodeo Drive, the emerging boutique boulevard of Beverly Hills where the nouveau riche and famous of Hollywood were buying all those fabulous fashions that she saw in the movie magazines. Mrs. Rockne had already gotten a taste of the Hollywood lifestyle when she had accompanied Rock to L.A. for a coaching clinic.
If Notre Dame would travel to Los Angeles and play the Trojans, Mrs. Wilson explained, Mrs. Rockne would have the chance to spend a few days in sunny California—shopping on Rodeo Drive.
At some point, Mrs. Rockne departed and went to see her husband. Her powers of persuasion were certainly better than Gwynn’s. She talked Rockne into scheduling the game.
Wilson had achieved his goal after all. Of course, this story has been hyped in the traditional USC-Notre Dame manner. Rockne certainly recalled the promise of a game with Jones that the two had made after Iowa beat him in 1921. No doubt Rockne gave some further, serious thought to the gate receipts at the Coliseum and Soldier Field. He certainly thought about the recruiting value of playing such a national game. It would be a huge publicity boost. This was Jones’s feeling, that the game would allow the Trojans to rise above all Western teams in the recruiting battles, compete with the Irish for other players across America, and use the PR value to boost the program and the school, with all the attendant financial value inherent therein. If indeed these were the hoped-for expectations of Rockne and Jones, their expectations came true in wildly successful fashion.
“He told me that he couldn’t meet USC because Notre Dame was traveling too much,” Wilson once recalled. “I thought the whole thing was off, but as Rock and I talked, Marion was with Mrs. Rockne, Bonnie, in her compartment. Marion told Bonnie how nice Southern California was and how hospitable the people were.
“Well, when Rock went back to the compartment, Bonnie talked him into the game. But if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Wilson talking to Mrs. Rockne, there wouldn’t have been a series.”
Despite the serendipitous nature of the Gwynn Wilson story, it was later revealed that Rockne wanted a game in a big cosmopolitan city on the West Coast, in order to bookend their games in New York. It has even been suggested that the game was a favor offered not by Rockne to Jones, but vice versa, since it was Rock who had recommended Jones to USC. Either way, to quote Vince Vaughn, it’s “worked out pretty well for everybody.”
In 1926, USC opened the season with a 74–0 thumping of Whittier. Talk of a national championship, capped by a season-ending home win over the Irish, filled the air. The Associated Press would not begin its polling until 1936, but there were various organizations, systems, and formulas used to determine who was, in fact, number one. The Parker H. Davis ratings were devised by a former player from Princeton and coach from Wisconsin. The Dickinson System (1924–1940) was based on a point formula devised by an Illinois professor. The “winner” was awarded the Rissman Trophy. The Eck Ratings System, in place since 1897, was a mathematical formula devised by Steve Eck. The Dunkel System, started in 1929, would be a power ratings index that has been maintained by Dick Dunkel’s heirs to this day. There was also the College Football Researchers Association, which went by a vote system.
The Helms Athletic Foundation named their choice for the national championship. The Football Thesaurus began awarding champions in 1927, and the Williamson System came into place in 1931. In subsequent years, various other organizations, systems, and polls were created to “determine” national champions, which in the absence of a “March Madness” or College World Series type play-off system rely on “mythical” rankings.
By and large, between the systems in place, media attention, “people’s choices,” and common sense, national champions were generally agreed upon, with varying regional differences. Over the years, USC has been named “national champions” sixteen times, but the reality is that they can consider themselves a true, legitimate national champion eleven times. Some of those are shared, or co–national championships. In recent years, the BCS has failed college football in general, but again, common sense and history accord legitimacy to the school’s claim on eleven titles.
So it was that in 1926, with Notre Dame on the schedule and a Rose Bowl waiting at season’s end, Trojan fans felt that “this was the year.” Interestingly, the creation of the USC-Notre Dame rivalry had the effect of ending Notre Dame’s participation in bowls. The criticism of the school’s schedule, which resembled a barnstorming crew, had helped to dissuade their administration from approving bowl trips after the 1925 trip to Pasadena. The Southern Cal game, to be played at season’s end and in California every even year, would be their “bowl game.” When Notre Dame Stadium was finally built in 1930, the school was able to schedule their big games at home instead of traveling to New York or Chicago to play in stadiums that accommodated enormous crowds. They would play in Yankee Stadium and other neutral sites in future years, but not in any postseason games until the 1970 Cotton Bowl. Thus, the SC game would take on enormous importance to Notre Dame in their quest for national supremacy.
After the Whittier game, Troy confidently advanced to a 5–0 record. On October 23, they exorcised their greatest demon by defeating Cal, 27–0, before a crowd of 72,000 at Berkeley. Jones’s confident team returned to Los Angeles to read their press clippings and think about the future, which looked like a trifecta of victory over Notre Dame and a Rose Bowl opponent, capped by the elusive national championship.
Along came their old whipping boys, Stanford. A crowd of 78,500 fans came to the Coliseum and were stunned to see Stanford win by a 13–12 margin. It was USC’s only loss heading into the Notre Dame game, when 74,378 came to see the first-ever game between the new rivals. If the Trojans could win, they would lay claim to a national title with one loss. Notre Dame denied them, winning by the same one-point score as Stanford, 13–12. USC did not get the Rose Bowl invite, having finished second in the Pacific Coast Conference. Notre Dame maintained its status as the elite team in America, though legitimate ranking systems also recognize Alabama as back-to-back national champions of 1925–1926. Certainly the uncertainty of a non-play-off system was leading more and more in the media toward the conclusion that a more “legitimate” poll system be devised. It was very important to colleges to be able to raise their fingers in the air and shout, “We’re number one!” As for USC, they were confident that they would be able to do just that in 1927.
The 1926 USC-Notre Dame game was, up to that point, the most ballyhooed college game ever played. It overshadowed Notre Dame’s previous encounter with Army at Yankee Stadium, which produced the “Four Horsemen . . . outlined against a blue, gray October sky,” as well as the Rockne-Warner Rose Bowl struggle of 1925. Notre Dame’s train trips to Los Angeles engendered headlines at every stop. Rockne had learned from the “Gloomy Gus” Henderson playbook, lamenting to a Tucson writer that the 1926 Irish were terrible. This may or may not have been the first time Jones’s USC team was referred to as the “Thundering Herd.” The Daily Trojan had earlier written that “long years of submitting to an oppressive yoke were avenged at Berkeley . . . when the thundering hoofs of Troy’s galloping Herd crushed the Bear of California into the turf of Memorial Stadium,” and “the Thundering Herd crashed on its way to everlasting fame.”
The game attracted what was said to be the greatest array of coaching talent ever assembled in one place. Jones’s brother, TAD[AU: Why all caps?That was the way he spelled it] (the Yale “head man”), attended along with Red Grange’s Illinois mentor[AU: mentors? Or comma after Zuppke?] Bob Zuppke and Stanford’s Pop Warner.
In the end, it was a Notre Dame reserve, Art Parisien, who lofted a pass to Johnny Niemec with a mere four minutes left on the clock to give his team the win, despite early heroics from Don Williams and Mort Kaer. Morley Drury and Brice Taylor, both Trojan legends, failed in extra point attempts in the one-point defeat.
“It was a football battle that has never been excelled for brilliance, thrills and pulsating drama and the Irish won because Harry O’Boyle kicked one goal after touchdown while both Brice Taylor and Morley Drury failed in their attempts to shoot the ball between the uprights,” read one reporter’s “tearful” account.
“It was the greatest game I ever saw . . .” Rockne told Jones afterward. “See you in Chicago.”
The game was great in part because it was so cleanly played, a factor that, with very few exceptions, would mark the rivalry to this day. It differentiated it, in some ways, from the rancorous attitudes of Cal and Stanford toward the Trojans. Clean play was Jones’s trademark.
“He was highly intense, clean, had great moral values, and was ethical as the devil,” said Nick Pappas. “There was no way anybody was going to play dirty football for him.”
Jones was extremely intelligent as well as honest. He devised a brilliant system for the card game of bridge, and taught himself to shoot scratch golf. He was innovative when he needed to be as a football coach, but of course was smart enough to let his team’s power take over. His off-field personality was somewhat introverted. Unlike Rockne, the media darling, Jones disliked banquets or press conferences. On the field, however, Jones was dynamite, in his element.
“You could always sense the electricity when he came onto the field,” recalled Pappas.
Like a later Los Angeles legend, John Wooden, Jones never took a drink and his greatest expletives were “gol darn” and “by gad,” with one exception. The Cal Bears took to such dirty tactics and foul-mouthed, unsportsmanlike conduct that Jones, at halftime, said, “These people, are you going to let them come down here and son of a bitch you!?”
Erny Pinckert, a star player, turned around and just smiled at Pappas.
Despite a thick-skinned reputation, Jones could get sentimental. Stanford made such malicious remarks at a pep rally once that, when Jones heard of them, he teared up. On another occasion, he chewed a player out. When the young man cried, Jones was compelled to cheer him up for an hour.
He did have one true vice, however. He was a chain smoker, which probably led to his heart attack and death in 1941. He also was a bit of an absentminded professor when confronted by nonfootball activities, at least during the season. He dressed with mismatched socks and stranded his family, missing appointments. Perhaps it was for this reason that he kept a low off-season profile.
Jones was an aggressive coach who valued mental quickness, and once stated that Morley Drury exemplified these qualities the best of all his stalwarts. He was also a man of Christian charity who, despite his strong aversion to alcohol, was known to come to the aid of drunks in need.
Despite his love of the rough-and-tumble of football, he enjoyed the solitude[AU: solitude? Or did he go fishing with others?] of fishing in the high Sierras.
“He was a perfect gentleman to strangers,” said Al Wesson. “But he never said a kind word to his closest friends. He always told the athletic director that he couldn’t prepare a decent schedule, his assistant coaches that they didn’t know how to scout, the publicity boy that he couldn’t write English, and the team doctors that they were quacks. But they liked to hear the Head Man talk like that, for they knew it was his good-natured, rough kind of ribbing and that out of their presence he swore by them.
“He would hardly glance at a boy coming off the field after playing his heart out. But when the game was over, in the privacy of the training quarters, he’d hunt out every boy who had played, thank him for what he had done, and be sure that any injuries, no matter how trivial, were immediately cared for.
“He never ‘treated,’ never carried enough money to buy anyone lunch, and always figured on plucking his golf opponents for enough petty cash to almost any charity that sought him out.
“He didn’t belong to a church. But he lived every minute of his life according to the Golden Rule.”
Great coaches are only great because they coached great players. One of the greatest was a man called “the noblest Trojan of them all,” Morley Drury.
In 1927, when Drury ran off the field for the last time in front of 60,000 at the Coliseum, the standing ovation lasted four minutes. Drury “bawled like a baby.”
In that last game, a sweeping win over Washington, Drury rushed for 180 yards and three touchdowns.
“It was a nice way to finish,” said Drury. Drury had asked Coach Jones to replace him with a backup with the game in hand, but Jones ordered him to the dressing room, via the playing field, knowing that the crowd would give him the kudos he deserved.
“I crossed the Coliseum floor and the ovation lasted until I reached the tunnel,” he recalled. “I knew I couldn’t hold back my tears.”
Drury was a West Coast “golden boy” from 1925 to 1927, and Jones’s favorite player. He was aggressive, courageous, and durable. In the prespecialization days, Drury did everything, which included running, punting, tackling, passing, and blocking. In the 13–0 history-shaping victory over Cal, he scored both touchdowns. In 1927 Drury rushed for 1,163 yards.
Nine of the twenty-three All-Americans under Jones were running backs, however. The vaunted USC ground game was a tradition that he most definitely had a large role in starting.
Brice Taylor was the blocker most responsible for opening the holes that Mort Kaer ran through in 1925, when Southern California outscored the opposition 456–55. Taylor was a 1925 All-American. Kaer earned his honor in 1926.
Howard Jones would usher USC into the era of great rivalries, first with Notre Dame but also with UCLA. However, it was Cal and Stanford who were their fiercest competitors when he arrived, and indeed success (or failure) against them was why he was brought in to replace Elmer “Gloomy Gus” Henderson.
Andy Smith passed away from pneumonia and Pop Warner left Stanford, right around the time that USC was reaching a point of dominance. This caused the old ill feelings to come out, and the northern schools began to infer that USC was not a great academic institution, but rather a “football school.” This charge was, over the years, continually difficult to back up in light of the fact that USC consistently produced leaders in politics, the law, medicine, science, the arts, Hollywood, and all other forms of human endeavor. Some of those leaders were ex-football players, but the carping continues to this day.
Great players from Jones’s early USC teams included Frank Anthony, Nate Barrager, Charles Boren, Henry Edelson, Howard Elliott, Bert Heiser, Cecil Hoff, Lawrence McCaslin, Don Moses, Russ Saunders, Albert Sheving, Tony Steponovich, Francis Tappaan, Lloyd Thomas, and Don Williams.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism