Upset special: With Rockne gone, Irish took a Michigan-like tumble

Updated: September 5, 2007, 6:09 PM ET
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- Appalachian State's upset of Michigan was one of those where-were-you-when-it-happened moments, creating an outcome so unimaginable it is certain to be remembered -- and, in Ann Arbor, reviled -- for as long as college football is played.

Give this much to Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, who saw a potential national championship disappear with the first loss by an AP Top 25-ranked team to an opponent from the former Division I-AA: At least he attended the game.

Imagine the uproar, the cries of disbelief, if Carr had skipped the game, put an assistant in charge and attended the Tennessee-Cal game to write a syndicated newspaper column as a favor to his agent. No doubt he would have been fired before halftime.

Yet that is exactly the scenario fabled Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne followed on Nov. 27, 1926, when his Fighting Irish were beaten 19-0 by tiny Carnegie Tech in the Appalachian State-Michigan game of its time.

Notre Dame was a 5-to-1 favorite against Carnegie Tech, a Pittsburgh-based engineering school that started playing teams outside its region only a few years before. Tech had fewer than 30 players, did little recruiting and was coached part-time by a Chicago-based judge, Walter Steffen. Its football budget was about that of Notre Dame's travel budget.

Yet, during one of those star-crossed moments when a huge underdog finds a tactic or motivational edge that works so effectively it fells a giant, Carnegie Tech was the confident aggressor and Notre Dame was a fumbling, confused and leaderless loser.

Blame it on Rockne for making one of the greatest coaching blunders in history.

Notre Dame had beaten Tech so convincingly the previous four seasons -- by a combined score of 111-19 -- Rockne chose to watch the Army-Navy game played before a crowd of 100,000 in Chicago. Historians have long spun a tale that Rockne was scouting Navy for the following season, but that appears to cover up his true motives.

In his book "Shake Down The Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football," author Murray A. Sperber reprints letters written to and from Rockne and Christy Walsh, the first nationally recognized sports agent. Walsh also represented Babe Ruth and helped the publicity-conscious Rockne subsidize his $10,000-a-year salary by lining up outside work.

At Walsh's behest, Rockne, Stanford's Pop Warner, and Yale's Tad Jones were to watch Army-Navy and write newspaper articles about it, as well as select an All-America football team.

"It will certainly grab the spotlight for the `Big Three' (coaches) and get us a lot of timely publicity," Walsh responded.

Rockne agreed, writing, "The game in Pittsburgh will not be important enough ... I can (put) it in charge of someone else."

Remarkably, Rockne considered taking his starters with him to Chicago before the following week's game at Southern Cal. Amid rumblings he would do exactly that, Rockne was forced to send a telegram to Carnegie Tech athletic director Clarence "Buddy" Overend emphasizing his regulars were coming, even if he wasn't.

"We are pointing for your game Saturday and will give you all we have," Rockne said.

Turned out that wasn't much, even though Notre Dame was 8-0 and had allowed only one touchdown all season. Tech was 6-2, beating previously unbeaten Pitt 14-0 but losing to Washington & Jefferson 17-6 and New York University 6-0.

Before traveling to Chicago, Rockne put assistant Hunk Anderson in charge and gave him a game plan. The only problem: it didn't consider Notre Dame might trail or be pressured, so Anderson stubbornly stuck with the ill-conceived plan long after the Irish fell behind.

Rockne's absence and the rumors about the starters not playing gave Tech a big motivational lift. Indeed, Notre Dame played its backups during a scoreless first quarter, then trotted out the regulars for what was supposed to be a take-charge second quarter.

"Men, Knute Rockne thinks you so poor as football players that he's starting his second string against you and he's so sure he'll win, he's not even here," Steffen told his players. "He's in Chicago watching Army and Navy play some real football."

The fired-up Tartans opened a 13-0 lead at halftime on scoring runs by Bill Donohoe and C.J. Letzelter. In the third quarter, quarterback Howard Harpster drop kicked field goals of 32 and 45 yards. Tech preserved the shutout with a fourth-quarter goal-line stand led by tackle Lloyd "The Plaid Bull" Yoder.

Harpster, who coached the team from 1932-36, and Yoder were later inducted into the National Football Federation and Hall of Fame.

Carnegie Tech football took off after the upset and, a dozen years later, won the Lambert Trophy as the best team in the East, a major accomplishment given the competition. The Tartans also beat Notre Dame three more times, in 1928 (27-7), 1933 (7-0) and 1937 (9-7).

But the school, renamed Carnegie Mellon in 1967, quit playing major college teams during the World War II. After the war, the Tartans returned to playing non-scholarships teams with goals as modest as their own.

Carnegie Tech's brief glory days aren't forgotten. Today, Carnegie Mellon players walk from the locker room to the playing field through the Howard Harpster Hall of Fame, where the 1926 Notre Dame game ball is displayed.

Knute Rockne? That absentee loss probably cost him a national title, as the Irish beat Southern Cal 13-12 a week later in a game Rockne called "the greatest I ever saw," but it did not substantially tarnish his reputation as one of his sport's great coaches.

Lloyd Carr can only hope to be as lucky.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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