This edition of eBay Watch starts with the auction of a news clipping from the November 6, 1909 Detroit Free Press. Astute Notre Dame fans should cherish this date: it marks the first win by the Irish over Michigan, the team that taught the Irish how to play football in the late 1880s.
Taken literally, the headline declares that Notre Dame’s coach, Frank ‘Shorty’ Longman was quite pessimistic about his team’s chances against Fielding Yost’s powerful crew leading up to their Saturday battle. According to John Kryk, author of the wonderfully written tome on the Notre Dame-Michigan pigskin rivalry Natural Enemies, Longman was merely at the forefront of the tradition of coaches downplaying their chances before a big game.
“It’s the classic Leahy/Holtz/Bo ‘Woe is us, we might not even score’ downplaying to the press, in the attempt to try to give a false sense of confidence to the other team, while keeping his own team focused,” Kryk wrote in an email to me. “And if you lose, ‘Hey, see I told you they were good.”
Kryk also hits on Longman’s posturing in Natural Enemies, which apparently wasn’t limited to the above piece published the morning of the game.
He sent out “bear stories” (ruses) all week about how battered and listless his players were in their preparations for Michigan, and he told the South Bend Tribune that Notre Dame didn’t scrimmage once on account of player shortages.
But make no mistake, old Shorty had one goal in mind: taking down his mentor, Fielding Yost. You see Longman played alongside Willie Heston and company on Yost’s fine point-a-minute championship teams of the early part of the century, here in the 1903 team photo:
U-M Bentley Historical Library, 1903 Michigan team photo
In photos of his days with Notre Dame, Longman could even be seen donning his ‘M’ letterman’s sweater. Such a thing would be deemed horrific today but it was actually a common practice in those times.
As an aside, I wonder if Longman’s nickname’ ‘Shorty’ is a double ironic tag dropped on him by his jokester pals? While I couldn’t confirm his height on the team roster, he appears to be a tall fellow in the 1903 team photo. And toss the ‘Shorty’ next to Longman, and you’ve got a century old predecessor to the Fatboy Slims and the Biggie Smallses of the world.
As far as the game, as mentioned Longman and the Irish triumphed in the watershed game, teacher dropping mentor(s) on a couple different levels here. Those who’ve wisely snapped up Brian Cook’s Hail to the Victors 2009 should already know how it went down, here’s an excerpt from HTTV describing the battle and some of the postgame drama:
With Notre Dame clinging to a slim lead in the second half, the Wolverines put together a drive and headed for the go-ahead score. Games were managed quite differently back then, with the on-field decisions made by the men in the huddle. Needing a single yard for a first down on the Notre Dame, the players conferred and elected to have Allerdice try a field goal which would have given Michigan the lead. Notre Dame blocked the kick, recovered it at midfield and minutes later added a final touchdown to stun the Wolverines 11-3.
While the game came down to the final few moments, by most accounts “the Catholics” were the superior team that day. Even the justifiably Blue-blooded Michiganensian confirmed this in its season summary writing, “To be frank, Michigan was greatly outplayed, and when Notre Dame left there were many who cheered because the score was not larger.”
Nevertheless, the coaches didn’t exactly jump to the defense of the guys who made the decision to kick. After the game Yost told reporters, “I gave instructions to play a kicking game, but I don’t know what [All-American guard Albert] Benbrook and [tackle William] Casey could have meant by advising a place kick when we had such a short distance to go for a touchdown and we had just made two good gains.” In the papers the scapegoat for the decision to kick was quarterback Billy Wasmund, not Benbrook or Casey. Days later Allerdice, ever the true captain, took responsibility for the decision to kick saying, “No one can regret the incident more than I, and surely no one else can be blamed for calling that play. The criticism to which Wasmund has been unjustly subjected is very much regretted both by myself, the coaches and the other members of the eleven.”
The drama between Longman, Yost and these teams continued until the end of the season as each laid claim to the mythical distinction of ‘Champions of the West’. Notre Dame based their position on the head-to-head win of course, the Wolverines on their impressive wins later in the season against Syracuse, Penn and Minnesota. Adding to the controversy, Notre Dame played a scoreless tie in their final game against Marquette—a team Michigan (barely) defeated early in the season.
In case you’re wondering where Yost sided on the question of who was deserving of the Champions title, note the markings on the football resting next to him in the 1909 team photo taken after the season:
Want to know more about the 1909 Michigan-Notre Dame game? Three suggestions:
1. Buy the article in the auction. Current bid price is $29.95 and the auction ends August 5th.
2. Pick up Hail to the Victors 2009! In bookstores and grocery stores everywhere now.
3. For goodness sakes, put a copy of Natural Enemies on your book shelf. Required reading!