Stories You Should Know: The 4 Horseman of Notre Dame

“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 football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.”

These words were written by sportswriter Grantland Rice after Notre Dame’s Irish beat up on their rival, Army 13-7 on October 18, 1924. Notre Dame under Knute Rockne was playing a different kind of football in in 1924. There was movement on the line. There were switches on the blocks. There were feints and there were fakes. But they also had 4 young men that would ride their way into college football history.

Harry Stuhldreher may have been the smallest of the 4 men to drive this amazing offensive, but he certainly didn’t act that way. As a young boy he knew a young Knute Rockne as a player for his hometown Massillion Tigers in Ohio. When Rockne’s playing days were over he became the coach at a small Catholic school in South Bend, Indiana. Stuhldreher, who had always admired Rockne went there to play for him. Rockne would call him the best of the Four Horseman, and as quarterback he called the plays. He was described as cocky and arrogant by some, as a leader with confidence by others. Either way, he was the director of the offense that turned the Irish into college football royalty.

The most dangerous of the Four Horseman, according to their coach, also hailed from Ohio. Don Miller of Defiance was the half back. But his prospects weren’t promising when he stepped onto the tryout field his freshman year of 1921. Rockne, actually couldn’t believe he came out for football, he was so small, a measly 5’11” and only 160 lbs. But when your fast, it doesn’t matter much. If Miller got past the defense, he was nigh unstoppable. Rockne later admitted, “Once in the open field, he was the most dangerous of the Four Horsemen. I would have to call him the greatest open-field runner I ever had.”

But Miller wasn’t the fastest of these four, the fastest was Elmer Layden. Not only did he star on the offensive end but was an interception machine on the defensive side. Layden would be the first of the horsemen enshrined in the Football Hall of Fame. He could run a 10-second 100m dash. He was also the tallest of the bunch, the only one to reach the 6 feet mark and 162 lbs. Hailing from Davenport, Iowa, Miller would be the hero in their last game.

MIke Layden, halfback for Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, November 2, 1934. He is the younger brother of Elmer Layden, who is not only the coach, but was also one of the Four Horsemen of 1924 fame. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

The opposites of speedy Miller and Layden and cocky Stuhldreher was “Sleepy Jim” Crowley of Chicago, Illinois. Crowley graduated from high school in Green Bay, Wisconsin and walked with stooped shoulder and a slow pace. Not one to immediately draw the eye of his coach, or the defense. But as the halfback for Notre Dame he was described by his coach as “the nerviest”.

But this story starts prior to any of these four men making it to South Bend, it starts with Knute Rockne being promoted from assistant to head coach in 1918. Notre Dame was something prior to Rockne’s tenure, but they were something else with him. They had forged a rivalry with Army during Rockne’s playing days with the Fighting Irish. But when he took over head coaching, that rivalry was elevated to one of national prominence.

Rockne’s first season in 1918 he posted a 3-1-2 record. College football only had 72 teams, the Irish finished 23rd. The next season, he would win his first, unofficial, National Title when his team went 9-0. They would be perfect again in 1920 with only a loss against Iowa in 1921. So it was as the premier team that these four freshman walked onto the practice field to try and play for the Irish. Rockne had proven he was a winner in these early years of college football. But still, he stood behind Pop Warner, the father of American football, the head coach of Carlisle Indian school and the greatest athlete of all time, Jim Thorpe.

The Four Horsemen had an uneventful first year, they went 8-1-1 and finished 14th in the country. But in the four years since Rockne had held the head coaching position college football had exploded from 72 teams to 109. They held their first 4 opponents to 0 points winning 46-0, 25-0, 20-0. But the rivalry was set for November 11th, the Army game. They had three more wins coming into that game having only given up 10 points but with the Horseman’s offense scoring 74 points.

The Irish would face Army that November day in West Point and the game would end in a 0-0 tie. This was Army’s second tie of the season having tied 7-7 with Yale, another powerhouse of the era. The Black Knights would not lose a game but finish 10th in the country at 8-0-2.

The Irish would finish the 1922 season with a loss to Nebraska. Nebraska would prove spoiler again in 1923. Again the Irish outclassed most of their opponents. They would beat Army 13-0 in the third week and that was about as close as anyone came, until they faced the Cornhuskers. Nebraska won 14-7 to give the Irish one loss and a 10th place finish.

The Horseman had proved their ability to play with their rival, Army. They had amassed an impressive record of 17-2-1 as Irish. But both the National Title and the Granddaddy of the All had remained elusive.

1924 was their last season. It was this season that Grantland Rice would enshrine them in football legend with the nicknames “The Four Horsemen”.

The Irish opened the 1924 season against Lombard and Wabash beating them a combined 74-0. Army waited for them in New York for that third game of the season, as did 55,000 spectators and a slew of sports writers. The Horsemen hadn’t lost to Army in their careers with the fighting Irish, but they had only beat them once.

In a 13-7 thriller Notre Dame was victorious and left Army undefeated.

But there was another undefeated team in the country. This team played on the West Coast where there was much less noise about them, though their coach had earned the noise.

Pop Warner is the father of American football. With the invention of the single wing and body blocking as well as teaching his quarterbacks to throw the spiral, he is the reason football went from muddy mess to fineness.

During his run at Carlisle Indian School from 1907 to 1914 he took a ragtag bunch of displaced Native Americans and made them the talk of the sporting world. He found a young talent, Jim Thorpe and together they ran through Navy, Army and any other football team that came their way and then went to Oslo and won multiple Gold Medals in Track and Field. Carlisle was reliant on the Federal Government for its funding and in 1914 the money left Pennsylvania for the Midwest. With it went Warner, to Pittsburgh. It was here that he was realized as the true genius he was. He won the National Championship in 1915. But war came and with it took many of the good players. Warner’s Panthers would still be considered the best team during the Great War though the National Championship didn’t always get awarded to him.

He, like most of America, chose to go father west. 1924, the final year of the Horseman’s career was Warner’s first at Stanford, a member of the Pacific Coast Conference. Football had been growing steadily out west, even if it didn’t attract the kind of attention the eastern schools did.

As Notre Dame was breezing through their first teams, so did Warner and Stanford. The week Army lost to the Irish, Stanford defeat Oregon 28-13. The following week, Idaho would give Stanford a fight finally losing 0-3 to Warner. The same week, coming off the high of Army, Rockne and his Horsemen went into Princeton and won 12-0.

The first Sunday in November, Knute Rockne faced off against Warner’s old foe, Georgia Tech. Tech had won the National Championship in 1917 over Warner’s Panthers because the final game was canceled because of the Great War. Rockne and his men beat them soundly 34-3. After a win against Wisconsin the Four Horseman rode against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Huskers had played spoiler for Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden’s entire career. But not this year, 34-6 and the Horseman stormed on.

Out West, Stanford stormed through their opponents as well defeating Santa Clara, Utah then Montana. Stanford’s Cornhuskers were the California Bears. And even Pop Warner didn’t have a complete answer for Cal, the game ended in a 20-20 tie. In Pop Warner’s inaugural season with Stanford they were 7-0-1.

After the Nebraska win, the Horseman had a clear view to the Championship. They blew through Northwestern and then Carnegie Mellon. For the first time in the Horseman’s fantastic career they were undefeated 9-0.

The Rose Bowl was in it’s eleventh year in Pasadena and they were hesitant to invite Notre Dame to it’s halls. Stanford won their spot in with their tie against the California Bears. It was Stanford’s second invite but Pop Warner’s first appearance at the Rose Bowl.

There was resistance to inviting the Fighting Irish to the West Coast. Notre Dame alumni in California had lobbied hard for Notre Dame to get invited on a yearly basis to play the best West Coast team. But Stanford and and Cal demurred at what they saw as low academic standards out of the Midwest Catholic school. USC’s head coach, Gus Henderson had no such qualms and tried hard to get a yearly game between his Trojans and Rockne’s Fighting Irish. The 1924 season didn’t have USC in the Rose Bowl, but they did end up inviting the Irish with their famous Four Horsemen to go up against the PCC Champion Stanford.

In a match-up made for television, Pop Warner, on his 4th program all of which he had made national contenders against the up and coming (and soon to be just as legendary) Knute Rockne. According to Pop Warner he had the greatest player he ever coached on his 1924 team, Ernie Nevers (this is the coach of Jim Thorpe).

Ernie Nevers was a four sport athlete at Stanford University. He played basketball, baseball as well as track and field. On the football field he was a triple threat, he could run, he could throw and he could kick. Known as the “Big Dog” he was in his junior season as he laced up to take on the Horseman.

This was also a match of two different systems, both inventive and both shaping football into it’s modern rendition. Warner had his wings and Rockne had his shifts. Pop used Nevers to run his plays based on power ball and Rockne used Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden with speed and timely blocking. Warner and Rockne were the two most famous coaches in football. Nevers, Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden the most famous players on the gridiron.

GATH 05/55: Football Game Scene – ND vs. Stanford, Rose Bowl, 1925/0101.

On January 1, 1925 the two legends faced off against each other. Stanford took the early lead with a field goal in the first quarter. The speedy Layden had his greatest game that day and most of it was in the second quarter. As the fastest man on the field, he ran for a touchdown to take the Notre Dame ahead and then had a 78-yard touchdown off an interception. The Irish led 13-3 going into the half.

The Stanford Indians had a hard time holding on to the ball that first day of the year of 1925. A second turnover, this time on a fumble, led to another Irish touchdown in the third quarter. Nevers was awesome, getting a touchdown to close the score to 20-10.

The fourth quarter was the battle the over 50,000 fans turned out to see. Stanford, behind their Big Dog, drove to the Irish goal line but were stopped just inches away. Nevers passed, Layden intercepted and ran it back down the field. The final score was that 27-10.

Nevers had more yards than the Horseman together, but it wasn’t enough. The Horseman and Rockne were the winners that day and were awarded the National Championship.

In Nevers’ senior season he was consensus 1st Team All-American. He would play professional football through 1931, with his final years being with the Chicago Cardinals now known as the Arizona Cardinals. He was inducted into the inaugural class of both collegiate and professional Football Hall of Fames. He would spend the days after playing coaching both in the professional ranks and the collegiate pool.

As for the Horseman, most of them turned to coaching as well. It shows the state of professional football in the 1920s that none of the Horseman played professionally as a career after their stellar career with Notre Dame. All of them turned to coaching.

Layden, the speedy demon who ran back the Nevers touchdown to secure the Rose Bowl win joined Nevers in 1951 in the inaugural class of college footballs Hall of Fame. Layden played a single season professionally before going on to coach. Layden would coach for Notre Dame in the 1930s. He would be the Athletic Director at Notre Dame and a Commissioner of the NFL.

Cocky Stuhldreher coached for Villanova for 11 years and then at Wisconsin. He would be the second of the Horseman to be inducted into college footballs Hall of Fame in 1958.

Sleepy Jim Crowley would get the honor in 1966. Crowley had stints with Georgia, Michigan State and Fordham. While a head coach with Fordham he would coach a young Vince Lombardi. His teams were part of classics in the Cotton and Sugar Bowls. He would become the momentary commissioner of the NFL’s only real rival, the All-American Football Conference.

APR 2 1965, APR 4 1965 Sleepy Jim Crowley, a football immortal as one of Notre Dame’s legendary Four Horsemen, was evening’s featured speaker. Value of friendship was the theme. Credit: Denver Post (Denver Post via Getty Images)

The last of the Horseman to be inducted into the Hall of Fame was the dangerous Don Miller. He had to wait until 1970 for the honor. He only coached for four years at Georgia Tech. He went on to have a successful career in law, eventually becoming a U.S. District Attorney in Ohio.

Want to know more?

You can read about Jim Thorpe, the man who put Pop Warner on the map here and where he ranks in the greatest athlete of all time argument.

You can also read our review of the book, The League, a book about the beginnings of the NFL.

Want to read about more Rose Bowls, here is the story of the 1966 Rose Bowl or read about USC and Ohio States rivalry in the Granddaddy of Them All. We also have a post all about how the Bowls used to be set up here.

Confused on how college football has awarded their National Championships, we have a whole history on the process as well as our own solution to college footballs terrible post-season problems.

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