Archive for Wednesday, August 18, 1999


August 18, 1999


Given the number of times Kansas and Notre Dame have intertwined their athletics timelines, it doesn't seem fair the only tangible reminders of their long history consist of a memorial in the middle of a Flint Hills field and a plaque behind a Kansas Turnpike Hardee's.

Perhaps the best-known link between Kansas and the Irish is tragic: Famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne was killed when the commercial airliner he had boarded in Kansas City enroute to Los Angeles crashed in a thunderstorm near the small town of Bazaar on March 31, 1931.

One of the men who helped identify Rockne's remains was William L. White, son of famed Emporia Gazette publisher William Allen White, who lent his name to Kansas University's journalism school.

A memorial in the middle of a farmer's field stands tribute to one of the college football's winningest coaches, and a Rockne plaque is anchored behind the Hardee's at the Matfield Green rest area off the Kansas Turnpike.

But Kansas' ties to Notre Dame go well beyond Rockne's untimely death.

"There's so much history there," said Bernie Kish, a Kansas University alumnus who worked in the KU athletics department until 1995 before heading off to South Bend, Ind., to become the executive director of the College Football Hall of Fame. "It all started with Knute and Phog Allen. They had a very, very close relationship."

Before Phog

Actually, it predated Allen -- a legendary coach in his own right who still ranks as the winningest coach in Kansas' storied basketball history -- and Rockne.

KU and Notre Dame first bumped into each other in 1904, when the Fighting Irish came to Lawrence for their first-ever football game west of the Mississippi River. Kansas won, 24-5 -- its only victory in their five-game series.

Kansas and Notre Dame's inextricable march through history then took a decade-long hiatus.

Then in 1914, the Jayhawks were looking for a new head football coach. According to Murray Sperber, author of "Shake Down the Thunder," a history of Irish football as researched through Rockne's private correspondence, Notre Dame athletics director Jesse Harper -- who later would retire on a ranch in Sitka, Kan., near Wichita -- recommended to Kansas AD W.O. Hamilton a Notre Dame assistant by the name of " Knute Rockne.

"KU," Kish said, "ignored the recommendation."

Instead of Rockne, the most famous name in Notre Dame history -- if not all of college football -- Hamilton hired H.M Wheaton, who coached Kansas to a 5-2-1 record.

"They could have had Rock," Kish said, "and instead they got a guy who lasted a year."

Haskell-Irish ties

Also in 1914, Notre Dame was forging ties with another city school -- Haskell Institute. Haskell, once a national power in its own right, played five games against Notre Dame from 1914-1932, all in South Bend, Ind.

Though Haskell lost all five games by a combined score of 195-14, the Indians, too, had a long-standing bond with the Irish.

"Knute spoke at Haskell in 1930," Kish said. "He made a big impact on the student and faculty there. I happened to talk at Haskell in 1991 at a ceremony for the American Indian Sports Hall of Fame. I met a couple of women who were students at Haskell when Knute talked there, and he made a big impression on them.

"In fact, when Haskell played at Notre Dame in 1932, coming back from that game they went to Bazaar and laid a wreath on the site of the air crash. They had that much respect for Knute."

That respect, apparently, was mutual.

Back in 1924, the Irish qualified for their first appearance in the Rose Bowl. Bowl officials, Kish said, wanted to pair Notre Dame with Haskell.

"According to the correspondence I've seen, Rockne said it was a no-win situation for Notre Dame," Kish said. "He said the Indians were small and shifty, just like Notre Dame. He said Notre Dame would have a difficult time against them."

Instead, the Irish -- with the famed "Four Horsemen" making their final appearance together -- beat Stanford, 27-10, for the school's first national championship and the first of six for Rockne.

Back to Kansas

About the same time Haskell and Notre Dame were forming their friendship, Rockne was becoming fast friends with Forrest C. "Phog" Allen, the man whose name is on KU's storied basketball barn.

Rockne, a former pole vaulter, landed his first head coaching job in 1916 as Notre Dame's track and field coach.

In 1923, KU played host to the first Kansas Relays, which Allen was instrumental in starting.

"Rock always brought his track team to the Kansas Relays," Kish said. "And in all the correspondence I've read, he was always very complimentary about how the Kansas Relays were run. He was even an official at the Kansas Relays one year.

"He'd bring his team in, and they'd perform in the Relays. They'd head back by train to South Bend and stop in Kansas City. The Notre Dame alumni in Kansas City always had a big dinner in their honor."

Rockne became Notre Dame's head football coach in 1918, and the Rockne-Allen friendship flourished. The two discussed ways to get Kansas on Notre Dame's football schedule, but everyone wanted to play the Irish, and Rockne struggled with the logistics.

In fact, Rockne wrote a letter to Allen on March 30, 1931 -- the day before he left on his ill-fated voyage -- to discuss the possibility of a KU-Notre Dame football game in 1932.

The letter read:

Dear Phog:

I am still working on the football game for 1932 -- I find our authorities will be delighted to entertain you in South Bend in '32, but the obstacle just now is a return engagement in Lawrence. I have had telegrams from several influential men, including Conrad Mann, which are helpful as he stands quite high here. However, the faculty is doing a lot of strenuous objecting to our traveling. " etc.

Am leaving for Los Angeles tonight and am going to stop to see the boys in Kansas City on the way back.

Warmest regards.

Yours cordially,

K.K. Rockne, Director of Athletics.

By studying such correspondence, Rockne's successor at AD -- Jesse Harper -- agreed to add KU to the Notre Dame schedule.

Notre Dame beat KU, 24-6, in Lawrence in 1932, and the teams tied, 0-0, in South Bend, Ind., the following year. The Irish won the last two meetings, too, 28-7 in 1935 and 52-0 in 1938. Both of those games were played in South Bend.

Hoops history, too.

Kansas and Notre Dame haven't played in football since '38.

They do have something of a basketball history. Curiously, the Irish, who just hired away former Kansas aide Matt Doherty to be their head coach, lead the series 9-3.

The first KU-Irish basketball games were in 1928 in Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium, the result of the Allen-Rockne friendship.

Notre Dame won both games, 32-21 and 29-17.

"There was correspondence between Knute and Dr. D.M. Nigro," Kish said, referring to the Kansas City-area Kansas alumnus and president of the Knute Rockne Club of America who watched over Rockne's children when they attended Kansas City's Pembroke Country Day School. "Rock asked Dr. Nigro to check into the attendance at those games. He didn't think Phog was being honest about the attendance when he sent him the check. Phog told Dr. Nigro that he had invited a bunch of high school coaches and they didn't count as paid attendance."

Perhaps as a result of that little spat, the schools' basketball teams didn't play again until 1947. They haven't played since 1988.

Next chapter

Kansas and Notre Dame will add to their long history next Saturday, when the Jayhawks meet the Fighting Irish in the Eddie Robinson Classic at Notre Dame Stadium.

Though Kish, who was KU's director of ticket operations until April, 1995, now works under the shadow of the Golden Dome, he doesn't expect any conflicting emotions next Saturday.

"I've been a Notre Dame fan for a long time," Kish said, "but I'm a Kansas Jayhawk. I just received my Ph.D. from there, and my wife graduated from there. I'll be pulling for the underdog."

Kish plans a Kansas connection party after the game, and he'll help show the KU football players through the College Football Hall of Fame on Friday afternoon.

"There isn't a lot of KU stuff here," Kish said. "We've got some John Hadl stuff, and some stuff on Gale Sayers. We had a Kansas cheerleader uniform up for about 3 1/2 years, but we rotate our displays. We finally had to take that down. But we always have a special display up for the visiting team. There should be plenty here they're familiar with."

If there's such a thing as a collective institutional memory, there should be plenty from which to choose.

-- Andrew Hartsock's phone number is 832-7216. His e-mail address is

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