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The Creation of Notre Dame Football

by Murray Sperber

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-8050-1874-3
Publisher: Henry Holt

 Sperber (English and American Studies/Indiana University; College Sports Inc., 1990) does in this exceptional, exhaustive history of Notre Dame football what he does best: dash myths and penetrate to systemic corruption and hypocrisy, all the while maintaining an implicit love for collegiate athletics. Using a cache of previously unexamined correspondence and athletic department files dated 1909-34, Sperber starts with the school's origins in the 1840's and continues through 1941. He attributes Notre Dame's football success in part to the independence it gained through its repeated rejection by the Western Conference and by the school's ``unique culture of athleticism.'' Included are fascinating anecdotes about the scheduling and playing of the great Michigan and Army games (the latter of which, contrary to legend, came about because the cadets had become ``pariahs'' by flouting standard eligibility rules); the ``Fighting Irish'' nickname, the fight song, the cheers, and the mascot; the making of the film ``Knute Rockne--All-American''; the Catholic school's battles with the KKK and other ``anti-papists''; and the corruption of journalists, officials, and coaches like ``Pop'' Warner, who frequently pocketed gate receipts. Sperber addresses what he calls Notre Dame's ``historic dilemma...the tension between its athletic prominence and its academic aspiration.'' Most telling is his look at the Knute Rockne myth. Sperber finds Rockne to be a man so concerned with ``the decline of American masculinity'' that he had no qualms about publicly humiliating those he saw as less than ``he-men.'' As the record and the testimony show, Rockne wasn't universally mourned when he died in that 1931 plane crash. His greatness as a coach, however, and as a football innovator, are given their just due here, though also placed in a realistic historical perspective. Quite an achievement: a monumental work of scholarship in both sports and social history. (Eight pages of photographs--not seen).