POP-ROCKS: POP WARNER & KNUTE ROCKNE THREATENED TO QUIT TO GET NEW STADIUMS AT PITT AND NOTRE DAME
By Mark Schipper
There was a football stadium building boom across the United States after World War I, the first and biggest college football has ever had, and the powerful, national-title winning coaches Pop Warner and Knute Rockne were not going to let the moment pass without raising steel and concrete cathedrals to promote their own programs.
Both of these facts, that new stadiums were being built in large numbers and that coaches were demanding them of their universities, were evidence of the state of college football as the 1920s began. The sport was hugely popular, had become a reliable generator of large revenues year over year, and winning coaches had become institutions onto themselves, brand-name power centers on campus backed by active alumni networks and a mercurial public that waved money overhead like traders in a stock pit.
First it had been Warner, the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh, who during contract negotiations in 1919 threatened to leave the Alleghenies with his magical playbook under his arm if the university did not guarantee a stadium for his program. At that moment Pitt was housed at old Forbes Field, sharing the park with the Pittsburgh Pirates Major League Baseball team, and competing in front of crowds of 25,000 people when the demand for tickets was more than double the number.
In eight seasons at Pitt Warner would compile a record of 60-12-4, which included a 29 game winning streak and national championships in 1915, 1916, and 1918. Pitt had tried in 1917 to schedule a post-season game with Georgia Tech’s undefeated Golden Tornado team to settle the national title, making it a three-peat for the Panthers, but academic faculties at both schools intervened to snuff out the plan. The title went to the Yellow Jackets, the first ever won by a Southern university, and broke Pitt’s streak at two; though they would bookend the run with another title the next year. Warner knew his clout was at its peak and he was going to employee it to get one of the permanent, concrete-and-steel money-makers for his own operation.
Rockne of Notre Dame had, on multiple occasions between 1924 and 1927— including an explicit threat to quit in ‘27 if he didn’t get his ballpark—exhorted Notre Dame administrators to build a new stadium in South Bend. Rockne, who was one of the most effective self-promoters in world history, knew he had to have a new ballpark to showcase and, just as importantly, cash in on the most famous and successful college program ever while it was at its peak.
Rockne’s greatest squads were stuck almost two decades in the past, playing home games in the early 1920s in front of crowds of 15,000 stuffed into the low slung, primitive wooden grandstands at Cartier Field on Notre Dame’s campus. The entire disjointed structure looked like it could be pulled to the ground in twenty minutes with a small team of moderately strong draft horses. It was no way for the Fighting Irish to live.
"Our football team puts on a first-rate production in a third-rate setting,” was how Rockne described it.
By the time Rockne was demanding his stadium, he had parleyed the greatness of the legendary Gipper, the invincibility of the Four Horseman, and sold-out games at Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds in New York City to turn his program into something approaching a myth. He won his first national titles in 1924 and 1925 and would finish his run with a record of 105-12-5 over 12 seasons, an 88 percent winning clip that has never been matched or beat in the nearly 100 years since.
Many lesser programs than Notre Dame had new stadiums, including USC in Los Angeles, where the 75,000 seat Coliseum helped entice Rockne to agree to leave Notre Dame and coach the Trojans. That deal was set to go through in the early spring of 1924 when officials at Notre Dame were leaked details of the secret accord and threatened legal action to enforce Rockne’s contract in South Bend. Despite the awkward, failed coup between them, the Irish and USC began their annual intersectional series in 1926. The first five games of that new rivalry attracted more than 450,000 paying customers, an average of more than 90,000 spectators per game, including 115,000 at Soldier Field in Chicago where Notre Dame went to play its biggest home games in order to satiate the demand for tickets.
Notre Dame and Pitt were just two of many programs in the same position in the 1920s. College football had been building itself into this massive, commercial spectacle since the 1870s, when the founding Titans Yale and Princeton began staging Thanksgiving-day bonanzas for the championship in New York City. From that single flame got up and tended to in New England, torches had been dipped and carried out to every region of the country, where the sport invariably caught fire again and continued its rapid spread.
World War I itself had worked on college football like a growth hormone. Walter Camp, the man they call the Father of American football, had talked the War Department into using football to train America’s officers and infantrymen in the two-million-man army being assembled to fight the German Kaiser in Europe. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps varsity base teams were built everywhere, with rosters stacked of former All-Americans, college stars, and a handful of professionals from the rag-tag days before the NFL existed. These powerful squads competed full seasons against each other, as well as against several of the depleted college teams, during a three-season era of War Football in the United States.
In 1917 and 1918 the service teams played their championship at the Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena. Capacity crowds of 25,000 filled old Sportsman’s Park on New Year's Day to watch the service teams battle in place of college squads, further connecting football both to a patriotic sentiment and something essential to the country's identity. By Jan. 1, 1923 the new Rose Bowl Stadium, which at its peak would seat more than 100,000 spectators, had been built in the valley a few miles away.
The military teams would close out their era with a final game in Paris, France with John ‘Black Jack’ Pershing, General of the Armies, hosting European royalty while the Americans competed for their service-football championship. As World War I settled into its glooming, twenty-years peace, and the college game entered its 50th anniversary campaign, the entire football enterprise went ballistic from coast to coast.
After the war football became almost universal at the high-school level, and fascination with the college game approached a frenzy. The football madness collided with a booming stock-market economy, a mass media that sold the game as a kind of rolling, heroic fable, and the sports-mad culture of the 1920s, to ignite a growth-and-expansion decade in the collegiate game that never has been close to being equalled.
Over the next ten seasons stadiums went up all over the country, built on plans taken from the theaters of Ancient Greece and Rome, connecting the United States to the foremost competitive cultures of the ancient era, and dedicated to the collegiate veterans and heroic dead of World War I. As the decade ended in 1930, fifty-five of the country’s seventy-four concrete-and-steel stadiums had been built in the preceding ten years.
These were more than just monuments to the patriotic spirit and American athletic culture, they were physical embodiments of the permanent connection between athletics and academics that many universities were creating, whether or not they fully understood what that meant. Ironically, it also became a point of no return for college football. The large-scale ballparks were stunning structures, and signaled a particular status level in the new world of sport, but the fact they were built primarily to satisfy a marketplace demand meant college football had crossed a Rubicon of commercialization.
Universities could not any longer reduce the scale of college football without dismantling the complex and lucrative business operation they had built around it. The difference in rake between a stadium of 7,000, and one that sat 60,000 souls, was not a financial disparity easily made up in other places. Once commercial radio and television joined the fray in the succeeding years and decades, paying to broadcast the sport to an even larger audience, the colleges were caught holding the man-killing tiger by the tail and knew they could not let go.
Back at Pittsburgh the administrators agreed to Warner’s demands, promising him the new stadium, but Warner would not be around to see the project through. By the time plans for Pitt Stadium had been drawn up, funded, and the structure built atop a nine-acre hill sight on campus in 1925, Warner was in Palo Alto, California. Warner had agreed to the job at Stanford University, where the Indians (now the Cardinal) were locked in an arms race with California-Berkeley to dominate the Bay Area and all of West Coast football. Stanford had raised a 65,000 seat stadium on their campus that helped lure Warner to the coast. He would have the Cardinal in the Rose Bowl in his second season, where they would lose to Rockne’s legendary Four Horsemen team, and national champions in his third.
Pitt Stadium would be built with $2.5 million dollars raised both by the university and private donations. Its capacity at first nearly tripled Forbes Field, seating 69,400 fans before being reduced to 56,500 in the 1940s. One of Warner’s greatest players from his national title teams, Jock Sutherland, would return to coach Pitt in its new stadium. Sutherland would lead the Panthers to five national titles over the next 15 seasons, and four Rose Bowl games, while his team turned down the chance to play in a fifth during one of the most infamous debacles of the 1930s.
Rockne got his new ballpark, too, the still-iconic landmark of Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. The classically simple, stately brick stadium opened in 1930 at the end of a six-year battle with his own university administrators. During that time Rockne had purportedly signed a contract to coach USC, had agreed in principle to coach at the University of Iowa, and threatened to quit so many times that Father Matthew Walsh, then the university president, simply ignored Rockne when he threatened to walk away over the stadium issue in 1927.
While Rockne didn’t follow his own advice, it was clear he understood on an intellectual level that working through the financially conservative Holy Cross priests at Notre Dame could take time.
“It all seems very nonsensical and silly but you have to understand the intricate workings of an organization of this sort in order to have the proper patience,” Rockne explained, potentially to himself more than anyone else.
In 1929 the good word came down from Father Charles O’Donnell, the new president, that included within a package of campus building projects a new football stadium had made the cut. The project would be paid for straight up, using both the huge cash hauls from the football team's road schedule, where they sold out whatever stadium they played in, and a plan to sell long-term access to premier seats in the new stadium.
Notre Dame Stadium cost $750,000, sat 54,000 souls, and was bricked together and opened up in just six months. Its austere beauty and clean, classical lines have stood the test of time. In its ninth decade of life it remains both a marvel and a fully-booked pilgrimage sight for college football fans around the United States.
Rockne would get to coach just one season in the stadium he built, guiding the 1930 Fighting Irish to a 5-0 record at their new ballpark. The team would finish at 10-0 overall, including a victory over Pittsburgh at the now five-year-old Pitt Stadium, on the way to another consensus national championship. It would be the third and final crown of Rockne’s 12-year run at Notre Dame.
The legendary coach would be killed along with six others March 31, 1931, just four months after the season had ended, when the Fokker Tri-Plane he was traveling in from Kansas City to Los Angeles cracked up mid-flight and plummeted into a wheat field near Bazaar, Kansas. Rockne had been headed to Hollywood to film a movie called “The Spirit of Notre Dame” to help further spread the gospel and fame of his Fighting Irish football teams.