An argument could be made that a Sitka, Kansas, rancher named Jesse Harper, not Knute Rockne, brought big-time college football to Notre Dame.
As the undefeated Notre Dame Fighting Irish prepare for a Saturday kickoff with Clemson in Dallas, a semi-final game to determine who will play for the national championship, it’s a good time to study the legacy Harper left behind a century ago.
As the story goes, Harper was born in Paw Paw, Illinois, in 1883 and his high school exploits on the gridiron attracted the attention of Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg who recruited him to play football for the University of Chicago. A stellar college career resulted in a head coaching job at age 22 with Alma College in Michigan. Two seasons later after leading Alma to an 8-3-4 record, Harper achieved his first promotion to coach Wabash College in Indiana. In the four years to follow, Wabash rolled to a 15-9-2 record, which caught the attention of another Indiana school in South Bend named Notre Dame whose interest in fielding competitive athletic teams was growing. In 1913, Harper inked a contract to serve as the school’s football, baseball and basketball coach while serving as Notre Dame’s Athletic Director for a then-hefty annual salary of $5,000. A newspaper story published a century later accurately dubbed Harper “a man for all seasons.”
In the five years to follow, Notre Dame won 35 of 40 football games and was helped in no small part by a 25-year-old Chicago prep star named Knute Rockne. On a fall afternoon that season, Harper forever changed college football when he instructed quarterback Gus Dorais to throw football’s first forward pass to Rockne. As the old expression goes, the rest is history.
Along the way, Harper married a Campbell girl from Sitka, Kansas, the daughter of an affluent Western Kansas rancher whose operation comprised 20,000 acres in Clark County.
Harper’s five-year stint at Notre Dame exceeded all expectations as the football team went 34-5-1; 61-28 in baseball; and 44-20 in basketball. During his tenure, Harper insisted that players attend class and graduate while beefing up the school’s schedule signing agreements to play Texas, Nebraska, and Army, all of which generated badly needed revenue for the school’s athletic programs. To conserve resources, Harper convinced the Notre Dame food services department to pack meals for the players during their long train trips across the nation.
By 1917, World War I was depleting the number of young men available to play college football, and at age 35 Harper was preparing to leave the profession of coaching, which was prompted in part by his father-in-law’s invitation to relocate to Kansas and assume management of the family ranch. By this time, Rockne had graduated from Notre Dame and was serving as an assistant football coach and Chemistry professor.
Harper resigned but not before naming Rockne his successor, another move that would forever change the history of college football.
Harper was no ordinary Kansas rancher and was elected President of the Kansas Livestock Association, while his relationship with Notre Dame remained unbroken. From all accounts, Rockne revered Harper and continued to seek his advice and counsel. In 1925, Rockne contracted Harper as a consultant. A story is told that, while traveling on a cross-country trip to play Southern California in the 1920s, Rockne convinced the train conductor to make an unscheduled stop in Sitka, for a reunion with Harper.
On the day Rockne was killed in a Kansas plane crash near Bazaar, Kansas, in 1931, Harper drove to the crash site, and accompanied Rockne’s body on the return trip to South Bend. The following week, Notre Dame administrators asked Harper to return as the school’s athletic director, which he did for a three-year stretch before naming Elmer Layden, one of the fabled Four Horseman of Notre Dame, as the school’s head coach.
According to an article published by the Clark County Historical Society, in 1931, the ranch was auctioned in a foreclosure action and days later, Harper used a $12,000 paycheck from Notre Dame to buy it back at 50 cents on the dollar.
Harper died in 1961 and Notre Dame dispatched Moose Krause, the school’s famed Athletic Director to attend his burial at a rural cemetery in Clark County.
Journalist Lou Somogyi penned a 2013 story on Harper for “Blue and Gold,” Notre Dame’s official sports newspaper. Somogyi labeled Harper as the most overshadowed figure in Notre Dame football history. “Regretfully, the man who set the table or made a straight path for Rockne, and helped forge the program’s identity for at least 100 years, often is in the shadows,” Somogyi said.
In 1971, Harper was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, a long overdue honor for a true trailblazer of the game.
Richard Shank is a retired AT&T manager, is employed in the healthcare industry and has farming interests in Saline County. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.