POP-ROCKS: POP WARNER & KNUTE ROCKNE THREATENED TO QUIT TO GET NEW STADIUMS AT PITT AND NOTRE DAME
By Mark Schipper
There was a major stadium-building boom across the United States after World War I, the first and biggest college football has ever had, as new structures went up from the Ivy Leagues in the northeast to the Pacific Coast Conference in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
Both Pop Warner at Pittsburgh and Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, two powerful coaches who'd each won multiple national championships, knew they couldn't let the moment pass without raising steel-and-concrete cathedrals to bankroll their own programs. Both men would cash in their considerable on-campus clout to make it happen.
Each of those facts—that massive new stadiums were being built from coast to coast, and coaches were demanding them of their universities—was evidence of the state of college football as it moved into the 1920s. The sport was hugely popular both in the cultural and commercial marketplaces while proving itself a reliable revenue generator for schools year over year. Winning coaches had grown into institutions onto themselves, brand-name power centers backed by the financial might of alumni and booster networks. The sport also boasted a large, loyal fanbase that seemed to be waving money over its head every autumn like traders in a stock pit.
First it had been Warner, the head coach at Pitt, who during contract negotiations in 1919 had threatened to leave the Alleghenies with his magical playbook if the university did not guarantee a stadium for his program. At that time Pitt played at old Forbes Field, sharing the park with the Pittsburgh Pirates of Major League Baseball, and competed in front of crowds of 25,000 when demand for tickets was more than double the number for every home game.
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. The Panthers had tried in 1917 to schedule a post-season game against Georgia Tech’s undefeated Golden Tornado team, making it a three-peat for the Panthers, but faculties at both schools intervened to snuff it out. The title went to the Yellow Jackets, the first ever won by a Southern university, and broke Pitt’s streak at two.
The Panthers would bookend their run with another championship the next year. That following offseason the university agreed to build the new stadium, which would allow Warner to finance the university and his own operation at the highest level.
Rockne had, on multiple occasions between 1924 and 1927, exhorted Notre Dame administrators to build a new stadium in South Bend. Those promptings included an explicit threat in '27 to quit if he didn’t get something permanent on campus. Rockne, who was one of the most effective promoters in world history, knew he had to have a place to showcase and, just as importantly, cash in on the most famous and successful program of all time while it was at its peak.
Rockne’s greatest squads were stuck almost two decades in the past, playing home games in front of crowds of 15,000 stuffed into the low slung, primitive wooden grandstands at Cartier Field. The entire disjointed structure looked like it could be pulled to the ground in twenty minutes with a small team of draft horses. Notre Dame was forced to travel to Chicago and play at Soldier Field to satiate ticket demand for their big home games. 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 legendary greatness of the Gipper, the invincibility of the Four Horseman, and sold-out games at Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds in New York City, to make his program into something approaching a myth. Rockne had won his first two national titles in 1924 and 1925, and would finish his coaching 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 already had new stadiums, including USC in Los Angeles, where the 75,000 seat Coliseum helped entice Rockne into leaving Notre Dame in the spring of 1924 to coach the Trojans instead. That deal was set to go through 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 1929. Rockne was not demanding more than the market could bear. In fact, he was demanding less.
Notre Dame and Pitt were just two of many programs in the same position in the 1920s. College football steadily had been building itself into this massive, commercial spectacle since the 1870s, when two of the founding Titans in Yale and Princeton began staging Thanksgiving-day bonanzas for the championship in New York City. From that single flame sparked 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 fast conflagration.
World War I and College Football
World War I had worked on college football like a growth hormone. Walter Camp, the man they called the Father of American football, had convinced the War Department the sport was a great way to train America’s two-million-man military force being assembled to fight the Kaiser in Europe. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps varsity base teams were built across the land, with rosters stacked of former All-Americans, college stars, and a handful of professionals from the rag-tag days before the NFL even existed.
These powerful squads competed full seasons against each other and several of the depleted college teams during a three-season era of War Football in the United States. The football itself was regarded as more than just elite training for American servicemen. It was, as the colleges knew for themselves, a great way to advertise the importance of a professional military to the country in the 20th Century.
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 teams battle in place of the college squads, further connecting football both to a patriotic sentiment and something essential to the country's identity. 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 as 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 back on campus, the entire football enterprise went ballistic from coast to coast. 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.
Football also became almost universal at the high-school level following the war, and fascination with the college game approached a frenzy. The football madness collided with a booming stock-market, 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 that never has been close to being equalled.
Stadiums went up all over the country, many of them built on plans inspired by the big theaters of Ancient Greece and Rome, 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, including new venues at Penn, North Carolina, Ohio State, Northwestern, Missouri, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois, Stanford, Cal, USC and UCLA, amongst many others.
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 entailed. Ironically, it also became a point of no return for college football. The large-scale ballparks were stunning architectural structures, and they signaled a particular status level within the sport, but the fact they were built primarily to satisfy a marketplace demand for tickets 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, was not easily made up elsewhere. 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.
WARNER AND ROCKNE WIN AGAIN
Back at Pittsburgh the administrators agreed to Warner’s demands, promising him the new stadium, but Warner himself would not be around to see the project completed. 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 coaching in Palo Alto, California.
Pop had agreed to take the job at Stanford University where the Indians, (now the Cardinal), were locked in an arms race with California-Berkeley to dominate both 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 prove worthy of the investment, getting the Cardinal to the Rose Bowl in his second season—where, coincidentally, they lost 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 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 would get his new ballpark, too. The classically simple, stately brick bowl of Notre Dame Stadium opened in 1930 at the end of a six-year battle with his own administrators. During that time Rockne had agreed to coach at both USC and 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 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.
In 1929 word came down from Father Charles O’Donnell, the new president, that a football stadium had been included within a package of other campus building projects. The stadium 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 is both a structural 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 home record at their new ballpark. The team would finish 10-0 overall, including a victory over Pittsburgh at their 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.