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NU and the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame

Monday, November 21, 2011

"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 on the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below." This paragraph, penned by Grantland Rice, of the New York Herald-Tribune, on the occasion of the Notre Dame's victory over Army, 13-7, on Oct. 18, 1924, is considered to be the most famous passage in sports journalism.

The foursome to which Mr. Rice referred was the backfield of the Notre Dame football team, a quartet that Irish Coach, Knute Rockne had assembled, as sophomores, in 1922, and which dominated college football for the next three years. (in those days freshmen did not play on the varsity team). Rockne knew this backfield was good, but even he had no idea that they would go down in sports history (according to some) as the greatest backfield ever. In the three years that they led the Irish, they were defeated by but one team, Nebraska, twice.

Harry Stuhldreher, the QB, from Massillon, Ohio, stood 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 151 pounds. He threw the ball well and was unruffled by the pressures of the game. He was said to be cocky, feisty, and ambitious, but he was a solid blocker and signal caller, and fearless as a punt returner.

Jim "Sleepy Jim" (for his calm demeanor) Crowley, the LHB, came from Green Bay, Wisconsin. He was 5 feet 11 inches tall, weighed in at 162 pounds. Pundits labeled him as a clever, shifty ball carrier.

Don Miller, the Right Half Back, came from Defiance, Ohio. He was 5 feet 11 inches and weighed 162 pounds. He was known for the explosive threat that he imposed on the gridiron. Rockne said that Miller was the greatest break-away, open-field runner that he ever coached.

Elmer Layden, the fullback, and largest of quartet, at 5 feet 11 inches and 162 pounds, was also the fastest of the four, boasting 10 second speed in the 100 yard dash. In those days, when players played on both offense and defense, Layden was known as the defensive star.

From 1922 through 1924 Notre Dame was involved in some epic battles on the football field. The three games they played against the Cornhuskers were among the best.

In 1922, Notre Dame played a 10- game schedule, winning eight games, playing Army to a scoreless tie on Nov. 11, and losing to Nebraska on Nov. 20.

The Irish came to Lincoln by train for the game, which was the last game to be played on the old Nebraska Field. Preparations for the new stadium were already under way. The Notre Dame Eleven had steamrolled through their opponents, with only a scoreless tie with Army to mar their record. But the Cornhuskers, under second year coach, Fred Dawson, also had a strong team. They had lost a heartbreaker to Syracuse, 6-9, but had demolished their other six foes by large scores, and had already clinched their second straight Missouri Valley Conference Championship. They were a confident team, even though their starting quarterback, Glen Preston was out with a broken leg, incurred in the Iowa State game the week before.

Behind the strong running of quarterback Chick Hartley and Dave "Big Moose" Noble, the Cornhuskers were able to punch in two touchdowns in the second quarter, for a 14-0 halftime lead. The second half was a real defensive struggle. Notre Dame was able to stymie several long runs by Noble and Rufus Dewitz near the goal line. Finally Notre Dame scored near the end of the game, but missed on the extra point. The Fighting Irish had one more opportunity, mounting a drive all the way to the Nebraska two-yard line. The game ended when Husker, Andy Schoeppel broke through the Irish line to tackle quarterback Stuhldreher for a 10 yard loss. The Four Horsemen had played well, but on that day the bigger, stronger Huskers prevailed, 14-6.

Notre Dame fans were not happy about the outcome of the game of course, but more, they complained at length about the shabby way they were treated, and the slurs against their religion. Apparently this had been going on for some time, and the '22 game brought it to a head. Many wanted the series discontinued. There was a great deal of discussion, and in the end Coach Rockne prevailed and the games between Notre Dame and NU went on -- cynics maintained that the huge financial benefits enjoyed by both schools had much to do with the decision.

In 1923, Notre Dame, following the leadership of the dynamic foursome, cruised through their early schedule leading up to the Nebraska game, (again at Lincoln) on Nov. 10. Nebraska had not fared nearly as well, coming into the game, with a loss to Illinois, ties with Kansas and Missouri, and just one win, against Oklahoma. The Irish were confident and the loss to the Huskers in 1922 still stung. Fan interest was high and tickets were at a premium.

The Cornhusker squad had been greatly depleted by the graduation of several key seniors, including quarterbacks Preston and Hartley, but they still had Bull Moose Noble and Rufus Dewitz, and they had a secret weapon in the guise of Ed Weir, from Superior, a converted fullback, who was becoming a force at tackle, both on offense and defense.

A strong Nebraska defense was able to contain the Irish attack of the Four Horsemen, and the Huskers had enough just offensive punch -- Dave Noble powered through for two touchdowns. As in the 1922 game, Notre Dame scored a touchdown in the 4th quarter on a Stuhldreher pass, but it was not enough and Nebraska won 14-7.

The 1924 game was played in South Bend, again with huge interest from the fans. The '23 defeat proved to be a huge incentive for the Irish. After that game Harry Stuhldreher talked to the press, "That defeat was probably the best thing that could have happened to us. It made us promise to each other that we would beat Nebraska in 1924, even if we lost every other game."

Notre Dame did not lose any games during the 1924 season, and went on to claim the National Championship, after defeating Stanford in the Rose Bowl Jan. 1 1925.

Stuhldreher, Crowley, Layden, and Miller all had great games, and were able to avenge the two losses to Nebraska, the only losses in their 3-year careers -- ND 34-NU 7.

The game was hard- fought, and at the end of the game Ed Weir sat in the dressing room, totally spent, too tired to go to the shower room. At that moment there was a commotion out side the dressing room, and in barged Notre Dame Coach, Knute Rockne.

"Weir, I just want to say to your face that you are the greatest tackle and the cleanest player I have ever watched!" High praise, from the legendary coach, and this was after the only defeat that Nebraska suffered at the hands of Notre Dame while Weir was in school.

After college the Four Horsemen were all successful and took similar career paths. All four are in the College Football Hall of Fame at South Bend. Harry Stuhldreher was Head Football Coach and Athletic Director at Wisconsin. He died in 1965, at the age of 63.

Jim Crowley went to Fordham, where he coached future Green Bay Coach, Vince Lombardi, and the outstanding offensive line, dubbed "The Blocks of Granite." He later was engaged in a successful business operation in Cleveland, Ohio. He died in 1986,at the age of 83.

Don Miller successfully coached at Georgia Tech for some years before he set up a law practice in Cleveland, Ohio. He died in 1979, at the age of 77.

Elmer Layden coached at his Alma Mater, Notre Dame for seven years, before becoming Athletic Director at the school. In 1940 he left for a business career in Chicago. He died in 1973, at the age of 70.

Notre Dame's Four Horsemen have left an important chapter in the history of college football, deservedly so. We are pleased that NU played an important part in that chapter.

Source: NU & Notre Dame Football histories, NU/ND Football Rivalry

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By