#4 The Four Horsemen: Notre Dame Football’s Top 25 Players

Photo provided by Fighting Irish Media
Photo provided by Fighting Irish Media

#4 -Four Horsemen, Backs. 1921-1924

Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Elmer Layden, Sleepy Jim Crowley

The Four Horsemen are a single entity.  As a Catholic University, Notre Dame and its true sons and daughters are comfortable with the Doctrine of the Trinity: One God, Three Manifestations-Father, Son and Spirit (Comforter/Paraclete)  It’s all there in christ’s Final Discourse, John Chapters 14-16

The Divine Unity and Commonality transcend the individual differences.  And so it is with the Four Horsemen.

Notre Dame’s preeminence in the history of college football is no accident. But it has been accelerated by the confluence of great coaching, great players and fertile circumstance.  If the yin  of Notre Dame folklore is “Win one for the Gipper,” a blend of a great coach,  a great player on a hospital bed and great players on the field of honor, and the circumstance of a half time deficit against Army, then the yang is the lyrical saga of the  Four Horsemen.

Knute Rockne Was a Great Recruiter

Knute Rockne was no shrinking violet, and football may never have seen a more confident coach, but Rockne preferred to coach great players rather than average ones.

While Rockne never claimed to have a “schematic advantage,”  he was creative enough to tweak the then au courant single wing to create the box formation. Later, after, urban legend has it, watching a performance of Radio City’s Rockettes,  Rockne enhanced it further with the clever

“Notre Dame shift.”  While proud of his tactics, Rockne staunchly embraced  code which was cleverly articulated decades after his demise:

“It’s not the x’s and the o’s, it’s the Jimmys and the Joes.”  Or, in this instance, the Harrys, Elmers, Dons and Jims.

Rockne may have been the first regional/national recruiter, as he had no natural, fertile recruiting base.

Willie Sutton robbed banks”because that’s where the money is.” ‘Rockne harvested football rich areas because that’s where the talent was.

Rockne Recruits Stuhldreher, Miller, Layden, and Crwoley

To stock his cupboard for the 1921 season, Rockne  visited Masssilon, Ohio,  where he had played, and recruited  Harry Stuhldreher.

He went out to the Quad Cities and beckoned Elmer Layden from Davenport to join Rockne’s Ramblers. Rock then headed North, hard by the banks of the Fox River and recruited Jim Crowley from Green Bay. He then went back to Ohio, Defiance this time and got Don Miller , whose three older brothers had attended Notre Dame. Rock had his backfield.

Rockne Coached them Up

Rock nurtured them in 1921 and they were raring to go when the ’22 season began.  Stuhldreher was nominally the quarterback, albeit that was a different job description in the single wing and modifications like the Notre Dame box.  Crowley was the left halfback, Miller the right halfback and Elmer Layden, the swiftest, at fullback. They played both ways, for in those days the rule was that once a player

left the game he could not return.  None of the four weighed more than 162 pounds.  Only Layden was “long” at 6′ tall.  The others were well short of that. But all four were “long” on speed, shiftiness, technique and guile.

The Fighting Irish roared through the first seven games unbeaten, before having a prescient 0-0 tie against Army at West Point. The Irish then beat Butler and Carnegie Mellon. The ’22 season ended with a tough 14-6 loss to Nebraska at Lincoln.

Steady Progress as Juniors

Stuhldreher, Miller, Layden and Crowley, now nicknamed “Sleepy Jim” because of his droopy eyes, were raring to go in ’23.

They ripped through the first 7 games including defeating Army 13-0 in Brooklyn, before suffering a defeat to Nebraska, 14-7 once again in Lincoln.

The ’23 Irish then ran the table to finish 9-1, only two losses to Nebraska marring the two year record of these four backs.

Rock Visits Manhattan

Rockne the promoter, was busy in the offseason.  He talked the Army brass into moving the ’24 game into the heart of NewYork City,  right on Coogan’s Bluff to the Polo Grounds, the habitat of John McGraw, Christy Mathewson and CarL Hubbell those stalwarts of the New York Giants.

That was Manhattan. After all, it was the roaring 20’s and they roared no more gloriously  than in New York City.

Everything in New York was over the top, baroque, almost rococo.   It was the season of the Great Gatsby. Clearly, had he been real, he would have had prime seats at the Notre Dame-Army game at the Polo Grounds.

Rock also was busy coaching his football team.  Rock liked to accumulate depth.  And Rock coached with audacity.

French General Danton, in the French Revolution, repeatedly quoted “de l’audace, encore di l’audace, et toujours de l’audace”  It meant “audacity, more audacity and ever more audacity.” Proponents of that quote included  ol’ Blood and Guts George Patton and Bo Schembechler.  Rock’s singular audacity in ’24 was to not start his starters. He sent his able second string out there first to throw and absorb the first punches, then substituting the first string when the celery was ripe.  The second string was aptly named “The Shock Troops.”  They set the table beautifully for the Seven Mules and Stuhldreher, Miller, Layden and Crowley.

The ’24 Irish disposed of Lombard and Wabash at home, and they traveled to New York City for the October 18th clash with Army.

The morning fog floated up from the banks of the Harlem River and lazily curled over Coogan’s bluff. But the late morning sun dispersed  the mist as the 55,000 fans, including New York’s gentry  as well as the advance guard of what would later be named the “Subway Alumni” trekked to Coogan’s Bluff and the revered Polo Grounds. It was neither purely cloudy nor purely sunny.=

The Birth of the Four Horsemen

It was October 18, 1924, and America communicated by Newspaper.  Journalism was prized in America and in sports.

Poised and ready in the press box was Grantland Rice, a native of Murfreesboro, Tn who had gone to Montgomery Bell Academy and Vanderbilt.AND vA (Alex Bars’s High school).

Rice was working for New York’s esteemed Herald Tribune.  Granny sensed the moment, the magic, and the poetry of Notre Dame football.

His story lead was:

New York Herald Tribune, 18 October 1924

“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.

“A cyclone can’t be snared. It may be surrounded, but somewhere it breaks through to keep on going. When the cyclone starts from South Bend, where the candle lights still gleam through the Indiana sycamores, those in the way must take to storm cellars at top speed.

“Yesterday the cyclone struck again as Notre Dame beat the Army, 13 to 7, with a set of backfield stars that ripped and crashed through a strong Army defense with more speed and power than the warring cadets could meet.

“Notre Dame won its ninth game in twelve Army starts through the driving power of one of the greatest backfields that ever churned  up the turf of any gridiron in any football age. Brilliant backfields may come and go, but in Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden,  covered by a fast and charging line, Notre Dame can take its place in front of the field.  Coach McEwan sent one of his finest teams into action, an aggressive organization that fought to the last play around the first rim of darkness, but when Rockne rushed his Four Horsemen to the track they rode down everything in sight.

“ It was in vain that 1,400 gray-clad cadets pleaded for the Army line to hold. The Army line was giving all it had,
but when a tank tears in with the speed of a motorcycle, what chance had flesh and blood to hold? The Army had its share of stars in Garbisch, Farwick, Wilson, Wood, Ellinger, and many others, but they were up against four whirlwind backs who picked up at  top speed from the first step as they swept through scant openings to slip on by the secondary defense.  The Army had great backs in Wilson and Wood, but the Army had no such quartet, who seemed to carry the  mixed blood of the tiger and the antelope.”

It was quite a day for college football, and that very day the Galloping Ghost of the Illini, Red Grange, scored five touchdowns against Mighty Michigan in Champaign-Urbana.

Illiniwek 39-Maize and Blue 14.

Strickler, Horses, and Optics

But the Notre Dame performance was more cherished, and then a Notre Dame student manager took a step to cement the legend of the Four Horsemen.

George Strickler got busy as soon  as the Irish returned to South Bend and got four horses from a local livery stable.

Strickler got a photographer and put a fully uniformed Sleepy Jim Death, Don Famine, Elmer Destruction and Harry Pestilence astride the horses.  It remains the most iconic sports photo of all time. Using Rice’s poetry as a fulcrum, the photo spread like wildfire across the wire to every corner of America.

Notre Dame football was no longer a secret.  A nation turned its longing eyes to Notre Dame, the Rock, and the Four Horsemen.

1924’S Strong Finish

The newly famous Irish and the Four Horsemen had more games to play.

They easily dispatched Princeton,  Georgia Tech and Wisconsin and prepared to welcome, at last, Nebraska, to South Bend for a mid-November clash.

Rock, the seven Mules and the Four Horsemen were not about to lose a third to the Cornhuskers and shellacked Nebraska 34-6.

They finished the season unbeaten by beating Northwestern and Carnegie-Mellon.  But, remarkably the Irish would play another game!

Rose Bowl: First National Championship

It was 1924 and the USC series had not yet begun.  But out west the Stanford “Indians” were unbeaten.  They had a marvelous back named Ernie Nevers.  They had a coach so brilliant that folks thought they would someday name football leagues after him.  He was Glenn  “Pop” Warner.

Well, the Irish couldn’t pass up the invitation to the Rose Bowl. Notre Dame had never played in one of these new-fangled bowl games and would not again for 45 more years.  The Irish “only” had three All America backs.  Don Miller was beaten out by the Wheaton Iceman “Red” Grange.

Rock loved his first taste of the West Coast and never looked back.  The Irish were superior to Warner’s Stanford, winning 27-10.  The Irish offense was diversified, Stanford’s concentrated in Nevers, the game MVP.   Davenport’s own Layden returned two interceptions of Nevers passes, 78 yards and 70 yards, for Notre Dame touchdowns.

Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish, that little Catholic School founded  on a wing, many prayers and Sorin’s dream on a nondescript prairie in northern Indiana was awarded with the national championship.

It was the Irish’s first. Deliciously, it would not be the last.

The Four Horsemen graduated.  All went on to coach, Layden eventually serving as head coach of his alma mater. But Rockne returned to even greater success.

Rock had lost his Horsemen but had a special request from George Gipp that he was saving.

And  the legend continues today, some 90 years later.

Go Irish!!

5Angelo BertelliQuarterback1940-1943
6Ross BrownerDefensive End1973, 1975-1977
7John LattnerRunning Back/Defensive Back1950-1953
8Tim BrownWide Receiver1984-1987
9Paul HornungQuarterback1953-1956
10George ConnorOffensive Line/Defensive Line1946-1947
11Luther BradlyCB1973, 1975-1977
12Jim LynchLinebacker1964-66
13Alan PageDefensive End1964-66
14Frank CarideoQuarterback1928-30
15Creighton MillerHalfback1941-43
16Jaylon SmithLinebacker2013-15
17Raghib "Rocket" IsmailWide Receiver/All-Purpose1988-90
18Tom ClementsQuarterback1972-74
19Chris ZorichNose Tackle1988-90
20Aaron TaylorGuard/Tackle1990-93
21Nick BuonicontiLinebacker/Guard1958-61
22Ken MacAfeeTight End1974-77
23Bill "Moose" FischerLeft Guard1945-48
24Todd LyghtCornerback1987-90
25Louis "Red" SalmonFullback1900-03

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  1. I agree that Angelo Bertelli belongs in the top 25, but I think #5 is a stretch. Maybe #25 and bye bye Red Salmon.

    The four horsemen at #4 is a copout when the list is titled “Notre Dame Football’s Top 25 Players.” I think none of the Four Horsemen would make it as an individual, and according to the 1997 Media Guide they played 1922-1924, not 1921-1924 (freshmen were ineligible in 1921) and Stuhldreher was backup QB to Frank Thomas in 1922, Layden and Crowley each played LH, Miller was RH, and Paul Castner was FB. If you’re going to count an entire backfield unit you should have had 1952-1953 with QB Ralph Guglielmi, LH Joe Heap, RH Johnny Lattner and FB Neil Worden (they all were on the 1951 team, but only Worden started).

    I guess #1 is the Gipper and #2 Johnny Lujack.

    Final point, the Four Horsemen are all in the College Football Hall of Fame, but were not elected as a foursome, but as individuals (Layden in 1951, Stuhldreher in 1958, Crowley in 1966, and Miller in 1970).

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